NFL's Richest: Ranking the Active $100 Million Contracts

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IJune 7, 2015

NFL's Richest: Ranking the Active $100 Million Contracts

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    On Tuesday, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton became the 11th active player in the NFL to sign a contract worth at least $100 million.

    His five-year extension is worth $103.8 million, with $31 million paid over the first year—including a $22.5 million signing bonus—and $60 million guaranteed. The Panthers now control the former No. 1 overall pick through the 2020 season. 

    Newton joins an exclusive group now featuring eight quarterbacks, two defensive players and one receiver among its 11 $100 million men

    In the following slides, we will rank the richest of the rich in the NFL, using both past production and projected future outputs over the course of each deal to determine the best and worst of the $100 million contracts. 

11. Chicago Bears QB Jay Cutler

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Total contract value: $126.7 million

    NFL rank: 1

    No $100 million player was easier to rank than Jay Cutler, who simultaneously possesses the NFL's richest and worst contract. During just the first 12 months of his seven-year deal, Cutler found himself thrown under the bus by his offensive coordinator and benched in favor of Jimmy Clausen. He also led the NFL in turnovers for the league's most disappointing five-win team.

    The Bears fired their staff this winter and then spent most of the offseason entertaining ways of ridding themselves of Cutler's contract, to no avail. It now appears likely that Chicago will absorb a sizable cap hit to eliminate the deal after next season.

    Contract mistakes don't get much bigger than this. 

10. Detroit Lions WR Calvin Johnson

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Total contract value: $113.5 million

    NFL rank: 5

    Calvin Johnson's placement on this list has nothing to do with production. During the first three years of his seven-year deal (2012 to 2014), he has averaged 92 catches for 1,511 yards and eight touchdowns per season. He'll turn 30 in September, and various lower-body injuries have begun slowing him down, but there's no reason to think his production will take a serious dip in coming seasons.

    One of the true athletic freaks in the history of the game deserves the benefit of the doubt. 

    You just wonder if it's worth paying a receiver over $100 million. No other wideout comes close to a nine-digit contract. In fact, Mike Wallace's $60 million deal is No. 2 at the position. Megatron is truly unique, and his numbers speak for themselves, but there's a reason why only one receiver made this list. 

9. Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Total contract value: $103.8 million

    NFL rank: 9

    Matt Ryan is a difficult quarterback to assess. You can certainly win big with him—the Falcons won 56 games and made four trips to the postseason during Ryan's first five seasons—and his career passing numbers place him squarely in the upper tier at the position. But Atlanta also has won just 10 games over the last two years despite Ryan's 9,000-plus yards and 54 touchdowns through the air.

    Injuries and a decimated defense contributed to the fall. But can Ryan truly elevate those around him? And is he maxed out as a quarterback?

    The greats at the position are contenders every season, regardless of circumstance. The Falcons didn't make a mistake—Ryan is far from Jay Cutler—but $100 million expectations come with $100 million contracts. 

8. San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Total contract value: $114 million

    NFL rank: 4

    Colin Kaepernick is in this spot for two key reasons: contract structure and unrealized potential. 

    In no way is he currently deserving of the fourth-richest contract in the NFL, but the 49ers were clever in its design. The six-year deal is structured to be a pay-as-you-go system in which San Francisco can decide every offseason whether or not to continue on. 

    This unique layout is smart for the team, as Kaepernick is a physically gifted but fundamentally underdeveloped quarterback. If his gifts ever come together in one refined package, the 49ers will have a potentially elite player. If not, they can wash their hands of the deal without significant penalty. It's a win-win situation for the club. 

7. Miami Dolphins DT Ndamukong Suh

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Total contract value: $114.4 million

    NFL rank: 3

    Ndamukong Suh's megacontract in Miami was the final product of one of the game's most disruptive defensive players entering the open market in his prime as an unrestricted free agent. The resulting feeding frenzy helped create a six-year deal worth over $19 million annually for the 28-year-old All-Pro defensive tackle.

    Now, the onus falls on Suh to make good on the deal. It might be difficult for a defensive tackle to justify a $100 million payday, especially one without gaudy individual sack numbers. But Suh's impact often spans much more than just sacking the quarterback. A better barometer for his contract's worth will be the overall effectiveness of the Miami defense, which could be elite with Suh anchoring the middle. 

6. Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco

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    Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

    Total contract value: $120.6 million

    NFL rank: 2

    How do you rank a Super Bowl-winning quarterback who used a historic playoff run to leverage himself into the league's second-richest contract? 

    Joe Flacco was by far the most difficult player on this list to place. While his regular-season numbers pale in comparison to even Matt Ryan's, Flacco has been a world-beater over his last four trips to the postseason. His four-game run to the Lombardi Trophy in 2012 has few rivals. The Ravens paid him handsomely soon after. 

    Essentially, Baltimore has a quarterback who is just good enough in the regular season to consistently make the playoffs and just great enough in the postseason for the team to be an annual Super Bowl contender. That's probably worth $120 million.

5. Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    Total contract value: $108.0 million

    NFL rank: 7

    Tony Romo's 2014 season—and the potential of his repeating it in coming years—give legitimacy to the six-year deal the Cowboys handed the quarterback back in 2013. 

    Dallas won 12 games last season, in large part due to an improved defense and dominating run game, but also because of Romo. He led the NFL in passer rating, yards per attempt and completion percentage.

    Playing in a balanced offense and behind the league's best offensive line, he thrived—throwing 34 touchdowns against just nine picks. And while rushing champ DeMarco Murray is now in Philadelphia, the line remains intact (and possibly more talented with the addition of La'el Collins), which should give Romo a chance to continue playing at an elite level. 

    Romo is 35, and his deal runs through 2019. He should have at least three more productive years in him. 

4. Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton

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    Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

    Total contract value: $103.8 million

    NFL rank: 8

    Some might find this too high for a quarterback with a career passer rating of 85.4 and just one season leading a team with a winning record. But how can you fault the Panthers for paying big dollars to an ascending 26-year-old who also happens to be the most physically imposing quarterback in NFL history?

    We can't compare Cam Newton historically to any one quarterback. His size (6'6", 260 lbs), strength and speed make him one of the truly unique players in the game. And while his passing numbers aren't Aaron Rodgers-esque, Newton is able to impact the game with his legs on a level not seen since Michael Vick's heyday. 

    Banking on progression—especially in terms of throwing the football—is generally risky business, but Newton has already made strides. More development could thrust him into the top tier at the position, where $100 million is the going rate. Remember, you pay not for what you've already received, but what you think you're going to get. 

3. New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    Total contract value: $100 million

    NFL rank: 11

    The Saints gave Drew Brees $100 million spread out over just five years. 

    The first three seasons of the contract (2012-2014) saw him throw 115 touchdowns against just 48 interceptions and post a passer rating of 99.3. He led the league in passing yards twice and touchdowns once while never finishing a season under 96.0 in passer rating. 

    Brees will be 38 years old by the time his contract expires, but the Saints have already made plans to protect their aging investment. New Orleans restructured on offense to be more centered on the run, while the team poured other resources into a rebuilding defense. Brees will still be Brees, but the next two seasons might require far less from the 6'0" quarterback. 

2. Houston Texans DL J.J. Watt

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Total contract value: $100 million

    NFL rank: 10

    The most impactful non-quarterback in the NFL earned every penny of his $100 million deal. 

    Still only 26, J.J. Watt is already a three-time first-team All-Pro, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and MVP runner-up. He has 51.5 sacks, 12 forced fumbles and 33 pass breakups over just the last three seasons, and he also caught three touchdowns as a goal-line receiver in 2014. 

    His dominance is unmatched. Watt has been the No. 1 overall player at Pro Football Focus for three straight seasons, a testament to the every-down nightmare he has developed into. 

    The Texans hit the jackpot by drafting Watt at No. 11 back in 2011. A tag of $100 million should be the price for the most dominant defensive player since Reggie White. 

1. Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Total contract value: $110 million

    NFL rank: 6

    The top spot on this list belongs to Aaron Rodgers, a two-time MVP and the top quarterback in the NFL entering 2015. His five-year, $110 million extension signed back in 2013 still holds up against the onslaught of new quarterback contracts. 

    Rodgers' $22 million-per-year average is still the highest in the NFL, but his cap hit won't exceed $20 million in a season until 2017 and never goes above $21.1 million during the duration of the contract. By 2017, the Packers and Rodgers may be in a position to restructure the deal to clear up cap space and guarantee more money. 

    Since signing the contract, he has thrown 55 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions. 

    Eventually, Andrew Luck's next pact will eclipse Rodgers' in averages. But you likely won't hear complaining from either Rodgers or the Packers. This was a strong deal for the game's most valuable player.