Breaking Down the NFL's Most Underpaid and Overpaid Players
In a salary-capped league like the NFL, the usual pressure on teams to maximize dollars is amplified many times over. A big contract given to a player who doesn't earn it can hold the franchise back for years to come, and a player on a cheap deal who blossoms into a major contributor gives a team crucial flexibility elsewhere.
This has never been more crucial than in 2016, as quickly changing positional pay scales are leading to huge disparities between the bargains and the busts.
Now that nearly all the cash has been handed out for this fall, Bleacher Report can take a look at NFL rosters and see where those dollars have been wisely, or foolishly, spent.
We won't be including rookies in this list; the slotted salary scale all but sets draft picks' earnings in stone before the picks even come off the board.
Game-breaking superstars like Odell Beckham Jr. aren't the product of savvy buying any more than disappointments like 2013 No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher's deal are the fault of bad negotiating. In fact, rookie deals are so cheap compared to veteran free agents that Fisher's deal is downright reasonable.
But among the veterans who've had their chance to test the market or draft picks who teams have spent big bucks on to keep in-house, teams have had opportunities to strike it rich with below-market deals—or go broke paying players who won't help them win much this fall.
Overpaid: Matt Ryan
When it comes to draft hits and busts, the Atlanta Falcons' 2008 first-round pick, Matt Ryan, is an unquestionable hit. He had surprising success right out of the gate, led the Falcons into the postseason four times and made three Pro Bowls.
But there's been a noticeable tailing off over the past few seasons, and in 2015, Ryan hit a new low. The clashes between his tool set and what new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan tried to implement caused a season-long media circus in Atlanta. Ryan finished 2015 as the league's 20th-rated passer.
The eight-season vet is on the fourth year of a six-year extension and set to cost the Falcons $23.8 million in cap space. That's the fourth-highest 2016 cap charge of any quarterback, per Spotrac.
Given that kind of money and the offensive talent in Atlanta, Ryan needs to be blowing the doors off the Brian Hoyers and Josh McCowns of the world—and right now, he's barely keeping pace with them.
Underpaid: Tyrod Taylor
Yes, there are a million caveats to this: Free-agent Buffalo Bills signee Tyrod Taylor was the unlikely winner of an unlikely quarterback competition, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman spent 2015 leaning heavily on the run game and fanatically limiting Taylor's opportunity to make mistakes.
Yet while Taylor's low diet of 380 pass attempts held him to just over 3,000 yards, he was 2015's seventh-rated passer, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. He had top-five rankings in interception rate, yards per attempt and yards per completion.
There's been little organizational commitment to him going forward, with no offered extension and the drafting of fourth-round rookie Cardale Jones. But if Taylor plays in 2016 like he did in 2015, the Bills are getting top-10 quarterback play from a guy taking up less cap space than any of the Los Angeles Rams' top three quarterbacks.
Overpaid: DeMarco Murray
This one is almost unfair.
2014's AP Offensive Player of the Year is on his third team in three seasons. He joined a motley crew of underperforming young running backs like Bishop Sankey and Antonio Andrews back in March, when the Titans acquired his rights for the difference in value of two fourth-round picks 13 slots apart.
Murray came so cheaply not just because he failed to chair the Philadelphia Eagles' own running back committee, but because he signed an absolutely massive contract to do it.
The Titans had to assume a huge $6 million cap hit for 2016—fifth-highest among all backs—to secure the services of a power runner who averaged just 3.6 yards per carry last year.
And then they drafted Derrick Henry in the second round.
Underpaid: Golden Tate
Just two years ago, the Detroit Lions splashed a five-year, $31 million contract on free-agent wideout Golden Tate; the receiver/returner told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press at the time the Lions were the only team offering that hefty a deal.
Even if the Lions overspent on Tate two years ago, there's no question they're getting their money's worth now.
Tate posted back-to-back 90-plus catch seasons, generating 2,144 yards and 10 touchdowns during his two years dressed in Honolulu Blue. His $7.1 million 2016 cap hit doesn't sound like peanuts, but it's ranked just 22nd among NFL receivers—and half a million more than his new wingman, free-agent signee Marvin Jones.
Jones, like Tate, may blossom given a clear role and plenty of targets. But Jones is not likely to produce at 93 percent of Tate's level in 2016—especially if Tate keeps producing like the retired No. 1 who would have cost the Lions a ridiculous $24 million against the cap in 2016, per Tim Twentyman of the Lions' official website.
Overpaid: Lawrence Timmons
Let's be clear: Lawrence Timmons has had a great career so far, is a great Pittsburgh Steeler and has plenty of football left in him.
But Timmons is set to cost the Steelers a breathtaking $15.1 million this year, second only to Justin Houston among all NFL linebackers. That's an enormous amount for a player who spent much of 2015 dropping into coverage and getting roasted, as Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson explained.
Though general manager Kevin Colbert recently called Timmons a "valuable contributor," per ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, Timmons will have to contribute a whole lot more than most inside linebackers ever do for his next contract to contain anywhere near as much dough.
Underpaid: Tyron Smith
Just two years ago, the talk of the NFL world was the Dallas Cowboys' enormous contract extension of left tackle Tyron Smith. With a lot of stars on the roster, they inked Smith to an eight-year, $110 million deal that seemed to be the new benchmark for left tackles.
Fast forward less than 23 months, and Smith's cap charge for this season is an eminently reasonable $6.8 million. In fact, that's just the 14th-biggest amount any team has had to carve out of their cap for a left tackle; Smith's number is actually below the median for an established starter.
Oh, and he was Pro Football Focus' No. 1 overall-rated offensive tackle in 2015.
Overpaid: Jimmy Graham
Jimmy Graham is a physical freak, a walking mismatch who's been a short-yardage safety blanket for Drew Brees and terrifying downfield weapon against any defense. If he were completely healthy and still in New Orleans, he could well be worth his league-high cap charge of $9 million.
But he's not in New Orleans, and he's not healthy.
Graham struggled to make an impact in 2015, after a trade to the Seattle Seahawks saw him being used more like a traditional tight end. Then a torn patellar tendon ended his season after just 11 games; the Seattle Times' Bob Condotta recently reported that "hope still remains" Graham will be ready to play when the season opens.
Even if he gets healthy enough fast enough to start on opening day, it's hard to see Graham jumping back onto the field and producing anywhere near enough to justify being the league's highest-paid tight end.
Underpaid: Willie Young
In today's NFL, there's no higher premium placed on defensive players than pass-rushers. Outside linebackers who get sacks off the edge command huge salaries; the only way to get a starting-caliber sack artist in the free-agent market is to pay huge dollars.
Or, you know, sign a rotational defensive end on the cheap and convert him when you switch to a 3-4.
Young came out of North Carolina State as a lanky 'tweener who added bulk and power to work as a 4-3 end. Playing out of position in 2015, Young nevertheless had 6.5 sacks for the Chicago Bears in just eight starts, building off a 10-sack breakout year in 2014.
Overpaid: Jairus Byrd
He was a shocking free-agency coup pulled off by an allegedly cap-strapped New Orleans Saints team. He was the lynchpin of lauded coordinator Rob Ryan's plans for the league's most unpredictable, impenetrable defense.
He was a total bust.
Jairus Byrd has struggled to stay healthy, struggled to produce and even struggled to find a role in the Saints defense, which similarly struggled to find an identity under Ryan. Now Ryan's pointing at Byrd as an example of the kind of problems foisted on him by Saints leadership, per The MMQB's Jenny Vrentas, and Byrd is set to count more against the cap than any other safety in the NFL.
Underpaid: Delvin Breaux
But if the Saints secondary is committed to the worst salary-cap sin in football, it's also home to the league's best bargain: cornerback Delvin Breaux.
Breaux, one of the NFL's best stories of 2015, saw his college career end by a terrifying neck injury. After recovering, he quickly worked his way up from semi-pro ball to the Arena League to the CFL All-Star roster.
The Saints signed him to a minimal three-year deal last spring; his $529,000 cap hit is 192nd among all cornerbacks this season. The hometown kid more than made good on that deal, finishing No. 11 overall in Pro Football Focus' cornerback grades.
Now, Breaux looks set to solidify the Saints' wobbly secondary for years to come. The only question is, when will the Saints pay him anywhere close to what he's worth?
Salary cap information courtesy of Spotrac.