Every NFL Team's Most Underpaid Player
The game behind the game—the one fought in all 32 NFL front offices—revolves around dough. Good teams get the most out of their dollars, while bad ones often overspend on players who fail to live up to expectations.
It's not rocket science, but it's harder than it looks, which is why there's so much turnover in this league.
But every franchise has at least one player outperforming his contract. Most of them are on rookie deals, indicating draft triumph. Others were steals in free agency, indicating savvy on the open market.
How does one go about establishing every team's most underpaid player? We started by looking at several key indicators of player value: Pro Football Reference's approximate value metric (which is "an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year"), assessments from outlets such as Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus, raw statistics from PFR and NFL.com and the good old eyeball test. And then we juxtaposed those results with contract information provided by Spotrac.
The results? Please scroll.
Arizona Cardinals: S Markus Golden
Contract: Four years, $3.9 million
Arizona Cardinals linebacker Markus Golden was worth the total price of his rookie contract the moment the 2015 second-round pick hit double digits in sacks in the second-to-last game of his sophomore NFL season. Ultimately, he and Vic Beasley were the only players in the league with 12-plus sacks and four or more forced fumbles that year.
He's coming off a season that was derailed early by a torn ACL, but the 25-year-old told the media last month—per Arizona Sports' Craig Morgan—that he'll "be out there soon." And when that happens, the 26th-highest-paid player on the Cards roster will continue to be a bargain up front.
Atlanta Falcons: LB Deion Jones
Contract: Four years, $4.5 million
With all due respect to Grady Jarrett (on a four-year, $2.5 million rookie deal) and Tevin Coleman (four years, $3.2 million), the Atlanta Falcons are getting just a little bit more out of third-year linebacker Deion Jones.
The 2016 second-round pick followed up a three-interception, two-touchdown rookie season with another three-pick campaign in which he made the Pro Bowl while ranking sixth in the league with 91 solo tackles. Not bad for a dude who turned 23 in November.
All three air in for big paydays, but Jones has made a larger impact than the underpaid Jarrett and Coleman. In fact, 25 Falcons players are paid more than him, despite the fact that only three—quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and center Alex Mack—were more valuable last year when it came to PFR's approximate value.
Baltimore Ravens: RB Alex Collins
Contract: 1 year, $630,000
Per PFR, running back Alex Collins was the fourth-most-valuable member of the Baltimore Ravens in 2017. And it's easy to see why, because the 23-year-old broke out and gave the Ravens offense some much-needed balance with a 4.6 yards-per-attempt average and 1,160 scrimmage yards in his first season with the team.
But Collins was handcuffed by his circumstances this offseason and was forced to return on a one-year exclusive-rights free-agent deal worth just $630,000.
That makes him the ninth-lowest-paid non-rookie on the Baltimore roster, so this is a no-brainer.
Buffalo Bills: CB Tre'Davious White
Contract: 4 years, $10.1 million
The competition for this distinction on the Buffalo Bills roster was a neck-and-neck battle between starting defensive backs Tre'Davious White and Jordan Poyer, both of whom played major roles despite having average annual salaries in the range of $3 million.
Poyer had five interceptions, 95 tackles, 13 passes defensed and a touchdown in the first season of his four-year, $13 million deal with the team, but the 27-year-old has been around for half a decade, and it's possible his career year came a season too late.
White had four interceptions, 18 passes defensed and a touchdown while making nearly $750,000 less than Poyer on average. The 23-year-old 2017 first-round pick made a similar impact for less money and has a higher upside, so he gets the crown.
Carolina Panthers: OT Daryl Williams
Contract: 4 years, $2.8 million
As tempting as it was to give this to veteran pass-rusher Julius Peppers for the hometown discount he afforded the Cardinals in March—coming off an 11-sack season, he'll make just $5 million on a fresh one-year deal—it would have been hard to deny right tackle Daryl Williams after he exploded in his third NFL campaign.
The 2015 fourth-round pick was graded by Pro Football Focus as the top right tackle in the league and was deemed by Pro Football Reference to be the fourth-most-valuable player on Carolina's roster. And yet he's making just $709,280 per year.
That makes Williams the 43rd-highest-paid player on the team, although that'll undoubtedly change in a major way when the 25-year-old's rookie deal expires next offseason.
Chicago Bears: RB Jordan Howard
Contract: 4 years, $2.6 million
Since the start of the 2016 season, only two players—Ezekiel Elliott and Le'Veon Bell—have rushed for more yards than Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard, who is coming off a second consecutive 1,100-yard campaign.
The 23-year-old pick also increased his touchdown total from six to nine in 2017, despite the fact that Chicago's passing game ranked last in the NFL. And yet 98 running backs are making a higher average annual salary than Howard's $647,006.
Unfortunately for Howard, he might have to wait for a big payday. The 2016 fifth-round pick has crushed expectations, but his rookie contract is only half complete, and the Bears probably aren't feeling a lot of pressure to spend big at a position with a short shelf life.
Cincinnati Bengals: DE/LB Carl Lawson
Contract: 4 years, $3.1 million
Former Auburn star Carl Lawson might have dropped into the fourth round of the 2017 draft because he missed the 2014 season due to an ACL tear and was sidelined six games in 2015 as a result of a hip injury, but the Cincinnati Bengals immediately got a hell of a bang for their buck as a result.
Lawson was able to play in all 16 games as a rookie with the Bengals in 2017, and in the process he picked up more sacks (8.5) than any other first-year player in the league.
That alone is worth the entirety of his rookie contract, let alone the $763,154 he's making on average each season. Of the 29 players with more than eight sacks in 2017, none make less than Lawson.
Cleveland Browns: RB Duke Johnson
Contract: 4 years, $3.1 million
Pro Football Reference deemed only a handful of players to be more valuable to the Cleveland Browns than running back Duke Johnson was in 2017. That might not mean a whole lot considering that Cleveland didn't win a game, but the fact is Johnson went over 1,000 yards from scrimmage despite being on the field just 53 percent of the time.
The 24-year-old is one of the best pass-catching backs in the league—only Le'Veon Bell has more catches and receiving yards the last two years—but 66 running backs and 35 Browns players are paid more than him.
That'll likely change when his rookie contract expires next offseason.
Dallas Cowboys: QB Dak Prescott
Contract: 4 years, $2.7 million
Even though he's trying to recover from a sophomore slump, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is still just a year removed from an Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign in which he posted the highest qualified rookie passer rating (104.9) in NFL history. And he was still the most valuable offensive player on the team in 2017, according to PFR.
All that matters, though, is that Prescott is a bona fide starting quarterback in the NFL and he's making just $680,848 a year. An incredible 72 quarterbacks make more on an average annual basis than the 2016 fourth-round pick, and he's without a doubt the lowest-paid projected 2018 starting signal-caller in football.
Denver Broncos: CB Chris Harris
Contract: 5 years, $42.5 million
Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris is an interesting case here, because he's the first player on this list who has signed a second NFL contract.
But the three-time Pro Bowler inked his current deal back in 2015. The market has since skyrocketed, while Harris has gotten better and better. He was a first-team All-Pro in 2016, and despite struggling a tad while the Broncos went through football hell in 2017, he was still listed by Pro Football Focus as the top slot cornerback in the game.
The 28-year-old hasn't missed a game since he was a sophomore in 2012, and he's continually listed as one of the most valuable players on the Denver roster. It's a crime that 20 NFL corners make more than him on an average annual basis.
Detroit Lions: DE Anthony Zettel
Contract: 4 years, $2.5 million
Only six Detroit Lions players were deemed by PFR to be more valuable than defensive end Anthony Zettel last season. But because the 25-year-old is on a rookie contract he signed as a sixth-round pick in 2016, he's also one of the lowest-paid players on the roster.
Zettel is costing the Lions less than $650,000 a year but is coming off a 16-start season in which he racked up 6.5 sacks while excelling as a run defender.
Look for the Penn State product to continue to excel opposite Ziggy Ansah, which could make him a very rich man in two years' time.
Green Bay Packers: QB Aaron Rodgers
Contract: 5 years, $110 million
It's hard to be underpaid when you're the the 10th-highest-paid player in the NFL, but the quarterback market has gone haywire since the highest-rated passer last signed a new deal back in 2013. So yes, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is dramatically underpaid with an average annual salary of $22 million.
The two-time MVP makes less per year than zero-time Pro Bowlers Jimmy Garoppolo and Joe Flacco as well as Kirk Cousins, Matthew Stafford and Derek Carr (all of whom have been part of a playoff win). More than a third of the league's starting quarterbacks possess contracts with more guaranteed money than Rodgers' current deal with Green Bay.
There's a chance Rodgers' compensation changes soon, but until that happens he'll be the league's most underpaid highly paid player.
Houston Texans: QB Deshaun Watson
Contract: 4 years, $13.9 million
Mike Glennon, Matt Schaub, Chase Daniel, Nick Foles, Teddy Bridgewater. All five of those quarterbacks are projected to be backups (if not third-stringers) in 2018, but all make more than Houston Texans franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Yes, it's early to call Watson underpaid, but the 2017 No. 12 overall pick was lighting up the league and running away with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award before suffering a torn ACL midway through the season.
In just seven games, Watson generated a combined then-league-high 21 passing and rushing touchdowns while posting a 103.0 passer rating. And the Texans scored at least 33 points in each of the five games that preceded his injury. But 36 quarterbacks make more money than Watson on an average annual basis.
Indianapolis Colts: DT Al Woods
Contract: 2 years, $4 million
Not a lot has gone right of late for the Indianapolis Colts, making it difficult to find Colts players who have outperformed their contracts. That said, veteran defensive tackle Al Woods experienced a breakout season after signing with the Colts in 2017, so Woods has easily been worth every penny of his cheap two-year, $4 million contract.
The 31-year-old recorded a career-high 44 tackles as a 16-game starter last year, and he should play a similar role as part of a four-man front in 2018. If he can deliver in a similar fashion, the 2010 fourth-round pick will be worth a whole lot more on the open market next year.
Jacksonville Jaguars: DE Yannick Ngakoue
Contract: 4 years, $3.5 million
Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue—with 12 sacks and six forced fumbles—was the only player in the NFL with 12 or more sacks and five or more forced fumbles in 2017, which helped him earn the seventh-highest pass-rushing-productivity ranking in the league at Pro Football Focus.
That same outlet listed Ngakoue as the 17th-best NFL player below the age of 25, but he's only the 32nd-highest-paid player on his own team with an average annual salary of $870,147.
That's what happens when you destroy all expectations as a relatively unknown third-round pick.
Kansas City Chiefs: WR Tyreek Hill
Contract: 4 years, $2.6 million
This was the most difficult one of all, because the Kansas City Chiefs have four comically underpaid players who will all almost certainly become very rich when their rookie contracts expire. But right now, they're getting starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes II ($4.1 million per year), Pro Bowl running back Kareem Hunt ($821K per year), top cornerback Kendall Fuller ($781K per year) and star wide receiver Tyreek Hill ($647K per year) at incredible discounts.
Who is the most underpaid of the batch? Mahomes has started just one NFL game and is getting a lot more money than the other three, while Fuller has to prove in a new setting that his strong 2017 season wasn't an anomaly and that he can hold it down outside of the slot. Hunt was listed by PFR as the second-most-valuable player on the Kansas City roster last season, but Hill ranked fourth in that category while making the Pro Bowl for the second year in a row.
Hill has accomplished more than the other three, plays a more premium position than Hunt and is making less than all of them. The 24-year-old is grossly underpaid.
Los Angeles Chargers: DE Joey Bosa
Contract: 4 years, $25.9 million
Key players Trevor Williams, Desmond King, Austin Ekeler and Kyle Emanuel gave the Los Angeles Chargers tremendous bang for less than a million bucks each in 2017, but the much more handsomely paid Joey Bosa is still the team's most underpaid member.
A mere 28 games into his career, the 2016 Defensive Rookie of the Year has 23 sacks, four forced fumbles, 111 tackles and a Pro Bowl nod. Still only 22 years old, he looks as though he's on the verge of becoming one of the most dominant defensive players in the game.
And while he's not hurting for cash with an average annual salary of $6.5 million, 18 4-3 defensive ends make more than that.
Los Angeles Rams: DL Aaron Donald
Contract: 4 years, $10.1 million with a $6.9 million option that has been exercised for 2018
Unless the Los Angeles Rams sign defensive defensive lineman Aaron Donald to a blockbuster extension this summer, the league's reigning Defensive Player of the Year will make less money than 68 other defensive players in 2018.
And that's after Donald received a significant raise in the option year of his rookie deal. Last year, 174 defensive players were more highly compensated than Donald, who is a three-time first-team All-Pro at the age of 27.
So while Todd Gurley, Jared Goff, Cooper Kupp, John Johnson and Pharoh Cooper have all been outperforming their salaries in Los Angeles, there's little doubt that Donald is the most underpaid player on that roster.
No wonder he's staying away.
Miami Dolphins: RB Kenyan Drake
Contract: 4 years, $3.4 million
Among players still on the Miami Dolphins roster, only three were deemed by PFR to be more valuable last season than running back Kenyan Drake.
The 2016 third-round pick took the reins in the backfield soon after Jay Ajayi was traded midway through the season and never looked back. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry in the final nine weeks of the year, which ranked sixth among backs with at least 50 attempts during that stretch.
Considering that he also averaged 5.4 yards per rush within a smaller sample as a rookie in 2016, that might not have been a fluke. Regardless, the Dolphins' high-potential starting running back is just the 35th-highest-paid player on the roster.
Minnesota Vikings: WR Stefon Diggs
Contract: 4 years, $2.5 million
The Minnesota Vikings have two key players—one offensive, one defensive—entering the final year of rookie contracts that have already paid off entirely.
There's 2015 third-round pick Danielle Hunter, who has emerged as a strong starting defensive end and already has 25.5 career sacks under his belt. And there's 2015 fifth-rounder Stefon Diggs, who has caught 69 percent of the passes thrown his way for nearly 2,500 yards and 15 touchdowns through three seasons as a starting receiver.
The former is averaging $742,430 a year on his contract, while the latter is averaging $626,928.
So Diggs is even cheaper than Hunter, and he's coming off a big-play season (a career-high eight touchdowns before doing this) while Hunter saw his sack total drop nearly in half (from 12.5 to 7.0).
New England Patriots: QB Tom Brady
Contract: 2 years, $41 million
The New England Patriots owe high-quality starting guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason just $2.9 million altogether in 2018, but even those savings pale in comparison to the discount the Pats continue to get from quarterback Tom Brady.
Thuney and Mason don't play a premium position and have yet to make large impacts, while Brady is literally the league's most valuable player. Yet 15 quarterbacks are better compensated than the three-time MVP in average annual value.
In no world should Joe Flacco be earning more than Tom Brady.
New Orleans Saints: RB Alvin Kamara
Contract: 4 years, $3.9 million
As a rookie in 2017, New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara led all qualified NFL players with a yards-per-attempt average of 6.1 while accumulating 1,554 scrimmage yards despite being on the field for less than half of the Saints' offensive snaps.
That earned him a Pro Bowl nod and the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
PFR determined that the 22-year-old Tennessee product was the third-most-valuable player on the New Orleans roster, behind only Drew Brees and Cameron Jordan. But because Kamara was a mere third-round pick a year ago, he's making less than $1 million a season on average.
That makes him just the 36th-highest-paid player on his own team.
New York Giants: S Landon Collins
Contract: 4 years, $6.1 million
The natural first thought here is Odell Beckham Jr., who made just $10.4 million during his first four seasons in the league. But while Beckham's contract situation has become a lighting rod, he's coming off an injury-derailed season and will make a much more respectable $8.5 million in his option year this fall.
Meanwhile, safety Landon Collins is coming off a second consecutive Pro Bowl season and is scheduled to collect just $1.9 million in the final year of his rookie contract. In terms of average annual salary, 20 Giants players make more than Collins, even though PFR concluded that he was the most valuable defensive player on the roster last season.
New York Jets: WR Robby Anderson
Contract: 3 years, $1.6 million
You won't find an incumbent NFL starter making much less than New York Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson, who signed a three-year, $1.6 million deal with practically no guaranteed money as an undrafted free agent in 2016.
The Temple product flashed at times as an occasional starter as a rookie before making a run at 1,000 yards (he finished with 941) while scoring seven touchdowns in his second NFL season.
The 25-year-old has been arrested in back-to-back offseasons and could be facing a suspension as a result, but the Jets have little reason to cut bait on a high-potential receiver slated to cost them just $633,334 in the final year of his entry-level deal.
Oakland Raiders: CB Rashaan Melvin
Contract: 1 year, $5.5 million
It's hard to believe a newly signed free agent could be the most underpaid player on any roster, but that speaks to the type of bargain the Oakland Raiders got for cornerback Rashaan Melvin.
The 28-year-old is coming off a breakout season in which he intercepted three passes and recorded 13 passes defensed in just 10 games as the best corner in Indianapolis. He gave up an opposing passer rating of just 60.3, which, according to Pro Football Focus, was the 10th-lowest qualified mark in pro football in 2017.
But nine Raiders and 31 corners throughout the league possess contracts containing higher average annual salaries than Melvin's one-year deal.
Philadelphia Eagles: RB Jay Ajayi
Contract: 4 years, $2.5 million
The Philadelphia Eagles are getting away with paying Jalen Mills $604,214 a year and Jordan Hicks $748,183 per season, but running back Jay Ajayi's contract represents an even bigger bargain because the 2015 fifth-round pick was a bigger difference-maker than Mills or Hicks in 2017.
After being traded by the Dolphins to Philadelphia midway through the season, Ajayi averaged 5.8 yards per carry between Week 9 and the end of the season (only Kamara had a higher mark among backs with at least 50 attempts during that stretch). And he was Philly's lead back throughout the team's Super Bowl run.
All that at a cost of just $325,588.
That rate will increase to $1.9 million in 2018, but the Eagles will still only pay Ajayi about $2.2 million for more than a year-and-a-half top-notch work. There's no reason to believe the 24-year-old won't shine from the get-go this fall after his first offseason with the team.
Pittsburgh Steelers: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
Contract: 4 years, $4.2 million
As the youngest player in the NFL last season, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was one of two players in the league to average more than 15 yards per reception and catch more than 70 percent of the passes thrown his way (min. 15 catches). Throw in that he led all rookies with seven touchdown receptions, and it was practically a perfect maiden campaign for the 21-year-old USC product.
And because Smith-Schuster was a late second-round pick, he cost the Steelers only $735,516 in 2017.
He's already one of the most productive receivers in the league, but 102 fellow wideouts make more than Smith-Schuster does.
San Francisco 49ers: CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Contract: 4 years, $3.9 million
This one was basically a toss-up between 2015 third-round pick Eli Harold and 2017 third-rounder Ahkello Witherspoon, both of whom have become solid young defensive starters on cheap rookie contracts for the San Francisco 49ers.
Witherspoon didn't get onto the field during the first month of his rookie season but became a regular starter by November. Per PFF, he allowed a passer rating of just 66.4 between Week 13 and Week 16, and he didn't give up a touchdown in coverage after Week 12. That probably indicates he's on a better trajectory than Harold, who wasn't a liability but failed to take a leap forward in his third season.
Witherspoon's contract is a little more costly ($971,166 per year versus $764,093 for Harold), but his upside makes him the slightly better bargain.
Seattle Seahawks: DE Frank Clark
Contract: 4 years, $3.7 million
Seattle Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark has rather quietly racked up 19 sacks and four forced fumbles the last two years, and PFR deemed him to be one of the 13 most valuable players on the roster in 2017.
That makes the 2015 late second-round pick a superb bargain with an average annual salary of just $933,056.
The 24-year-old appears to be ascending, yet 30 of his teammates have higher average annual salaries. That's good news today, but a big contract year from Clark could make it hard for Seattle to keep him around on another team friendly deal in 2019 and beyond.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: LB Kwon Alexander
Contract: 4 years, $2.8 million
Linebacker Kwon Alexander has been a stellar starter throughout his three-year tenure with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he appears to be on the rise. The 23-year-old pick recorded a career-high three picks despite missing four games in 2017, which helped him land in his first Pro Bowl.
Per PFR, only hotshots Jameis Winston and Gerald McCoy were more valuable to the Bucs in 2017.
But because Alexander was a mere fourth-round pick in 2015, his rookie contract is costing the team only $689,581 a year. That'll change when said contract expires in 2019, but for now he's just the 45th-highest-paid player on the Tampa Bay roster.
Tennessee Titans: S Kevin Byard
Contract: 4 years, $3.6 million
Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard earned first-team All-Pro honors by leading the NFL with eight interceptions during a breakout sophomore season. PFF graded him as the 46th-best player in the league, while PFR determined that he was the most valuable player on Tennessee's roster.
So yeah, the 24-year-old had a nice year. And that nice year cost the team only $842,831.
The best part if you're a Titans fan? The team owes Byard just $2.1 million over the course of the next two seasons.
Washington Redskins: WR Jamison Crowder
Contract: 4 years, $2.8 million
Over the course of the last three years, Jamison Crowder of the Washington Redskins has become one of the top slot receivers in the NFL. The 24-year-old has caught at least 64 percent of the passes thrown his way for 600-plus yards every year while also playing a big role as a return man.
That despite the fact the 2015 fourth-round pick's rookie deal costs only $706,406 per season.
Crowder will command a payday next offseason, but for now, one of the team's most valuable players is only its 39th-highest-paid player in average annual salary.