The Best-Value Contract on Every NFL Roster Entering 2021 Season
There's almost no such thing as a bargain on the NFL open market, which means true financial value can generally only be found with good drafting.
And so it's no surprise that the vast majority of the best-value contracts in professional football belong to players still on entry-level deals.
Eventually, most or all of these players will cash in. But for now, they have exceeded expectations enough to represent tremendous bargains heading into the 2021 NFL campaign.
Based on recent production as well as career trajectory, here's every team's best bang-for-buck contract right now.
Arizona Cardinals: QB Kyler Murray
There isn't much of a debate here.
Quarterback Kyler Murray was the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2019, a Pro Bowler in 2020, and he should be expected to take another step forward as a 24-year-old in 2021. His athleticism is nearly unmatched at the quarterback position, and the sky is the limit for him with the Arizona Cardinals.
That's the beauty of the rookie contract these days, especially at quarterback. Nobody else on the Arizona roster is even within Murray's range when it comes to value.
Atlanta Falcons: WR Calvin Ridley
Per Pro Football Reference, wide receiver Calvin Ridley was the most valuable non-quarterback on the Atlanta Falcons roster in 2020. Period. As in, before even considering the fact that he's just the 15th-highest-paid player on the roster.
The 26-year-old 2018 first-round pick ranked fifth among all NFL wideouts with 1,374 receiving yards in his third consecutive seven-plus-touchdown campaign since entering the league. But he'll make only $3.5 million in 2021.
He easily beats out guard Chris Lindstrom, who had a strong sophomore season in 2020 as a first-round pick but earns a little more money than Ridley and hasn't become as much of a consistently strong presence in Atlanta.
Baltimore Ravens: QB Lamar Jackson
This could change the moment 2019 NFL MVP Lamar Jackson signs a new long-term contract with the Baltimore Ravens, but for now, the quarterback is entering the final year of his rookie deal with a cap hit of just $3 million.
In fact, it'll change regardless in 2022 because his fifth-year option—which Baltimore has picked up—is worth more than $23 million.
Even that would be a discount for a 24-year-old game-changer at the most important position.
For now, he's just the 43rd-highest-paid quarterback in the league. Marquise Brown and Patrick Queen present huge discounts on rookie deals as well, but both of them even make more than Jackson.
Buffalo Bills: QB Josh Allen
Josh Allen is from the same draft class as Lamar Jackson and is coming off an MVP runner-up campaign, so he's in a similar situation between now and the moment he either signs a new long-term deal or when his fifth-year option kicks in with the Buffalo Bills in 2022.
For now, the 25-year-old star quarterback is just the 31st-highest-paid player at his position in average annual value. He's slated to make a mere $6.9 million in 2021.
He beats out two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who was also a first-round pick in 2018. He will earn just $4 million in the final year of his rookie deal (excluding fifth-year option) but doesn't make close to the same impact as the team's breakout quarterback.
Carolina Panthers: S Jeremy Chinn
The Carolina Panthers are a rebuilding team with a lot of young players who have flashed but have yet to earn long-term extensions.
Two-time 1,000-yard receiver DJ Moore will make just $3.6 million in the fourth year of his rookie deal, promising cornerback Donte Jackson will collect just $2.8 million under the same circumstances and 2020 first-round pick Derrick Brown will earn a reasonable $5.9 million per year.
But all of the above are easily trumped by surprise sensation Jeremy Chinn, who crushed it as a 22-year-old rookie safety/linebacker in 2020 but was only the 64th overall selection in last year's draft.
Per Pro Football Focus, only three rookie defenders registered more stops than the Southern Illinois product (30) during a campaign in which he was runner-up for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. And he did all that for less than $1 million.
In terms of average annual salary, Chinn is the 885th-highest-paid player in the league.
Chicago Bears: LB Roquan Smith
Based on Pro Football Reference's AV formula, linebacker Roquan Smith was the most valuable member of the Chicago Bears regardless of salary in 2020. Considering that he makes less than a quarter of what Khalil Mack brings in, he's hooking the Bears up with a hell of a deal for now.
The 2018 first-round pick will soon become quite expensive if he can keep rolling after a campaign that featured 139 tackles, four sacks, seven passes defensed and two interceptions, but the fourth year of his rookie contract will cost the Bears just $6.0 million before a $9.7 million fifth-year option kicks in unless Chicago extends him before that.
Nobody else on the roster is in Smith's range when it comes to bang for the team's buck, although the next name to watch is cornerback Jaylon Johnson. The 2020 second-round pick exceeded expectations during a promising rookie season at a rate of just $1.2 million.
Cincinnati Bengals: S Jessie Bates III
Safety Jessie Bates III led all Cincinnati Bengals in AV by a massive margin. In fact, per PFR, only two other players on the roster were within three points in that metric.
The 24-year-old 2018 second-round pick recorded 100-plus tackles for a third consecutive season while picking off three passes for a third year in a row and recording a career-high 15 passes defensed. And he did all of that for just $1.3 million.
That rate will jump to nearly $2.9 million in 2021 as a result of performance incentives, but we're still talking about a second-team All-Pro who is just the 69th-highest-paid player in the league at his position.
It likely won't be long before quarterback Joe Burrow's $9 million average annual salary moves him into this spot for the Bengals. But Burrow has just 10 starts under his belt for now, and Bates is becoming a star.
Cleveland Browns: RG Wyatt Teller
Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield is a strong candidate to join fellow 2018 first-round picks Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen on this list. But he hasn't been an MVP candidate like those guys, and as a No. 1 overall pick, he's making a little bit more dough than them.
So instead let's look at second-team All-Pro right guard Wyatt Teller, who earned just $750,000 as a third-year fifth-round pick in 2020.
That rate will shoot up to $2.2 million in the final year of the 26-year-old's rookie contract, but 155 guards still possess contracts with higher average salaries than a dude who earned the highest PFF grade at his position last season.
He easily beats out Mayfield and fellow high-impact offensive players on rookie deals like running back Nick Chubb and tackle Jedrick Wills Jr.
Dallas Cowboys: WR CeeDee Lamb
We almost went with a veteran on a non-rookie contract with new Dallas Cowboys linebacker Keanu Neal, who joined the back seven at a rate of just $4 million for one season, but the 2017 Pro Bowler hasn't been durable or reliable in recent years in Atlanta and may play a limited role if Micah Parsons, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch remain healthy.
Plus, Dallas has two superb receivers on board well below market rate. Michael Gallup is a year removed from a 1,000-yard sophomore campaign and has yet to make $1 million in a single season, while 2020 first-round pick CeeDee Lamb is coming off a 935-yard, five-touchdown rookie showing.
Lamb, 22, is younger and more talented, and he put up better numbers than Gallup last season. His average annual salary ($3.5 million) is a lot higher than the 25-year-old Gallup's ($881K), but the difference in 2021 is pretty small ($3.2 million for Lamb compared to $2.7 million for Gallup after performance incentives).
So, Lamb's the guy.
Denver Broncos: Edge Malik Reed
This is a tad complicated with Von Miller rejoining Bradley Chubb on the edge for the Denver Broncos, but Mike Klis of 9News reported after the draft that Denver targeted pass-rusher Jaelan Phillips—who went to Miami—in the first round. So it's safe to assume the Broncos plan to get more than two edges involved in 2021.
Expect Malik Reed to be a key part of that rotation after the undrafted 24-year-old put up eight sacks, eight tackles for loss and 17 quarterback hits as a sophomore in 2020.
Reed might not have quite as many opportunities if Miller and Chubb remain healthy. But he put up those numbers for just $680,000, and he's due just $855,000 in 2021.
He edges out starting linebacker Josey Jewell, who racked up 113 tackles in a breakout 2020 season for less than $1 million but will carry a $2.4 million cap hit in the final season of his rookie contract.
Detroit Lions: LG Jonah Jackson
For the Detroit Lions, this obviously went to interior offensive lineman Frank Ragnow before the Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro center signed a lucrative extension last month. PFF's second-ranked center during his third NFL campaign was only the 24th-highest-paid center in the sport with a $2.9 million average annual salary.
But now, we'll give the title to another O-lineman who has so far exceeded expectations in Detroit: left guard Jonah Jackson.
The 2020 third-round pick out of Ohio State had some standout performances and excelled as a pass-blocker down the stretch during a promising rookie season, and he did so for just $872,140.
That rate will barely increase in 2021 and 2022 for a player with a high ceiling and an average annual salary of $1.2 million.
Green Bay Packers: CB Jaire Alexander
PFF's highest-graded qualified cornerback from the 2020 season surrendered an incredibly low 4.7 yards per target in a breakout campaign, but second-team All-Pro cover man Jaire Alexander remains merely the 58th-highest-paid player at that critical position.
The Green Bay Packers will soon owe the 2018 first-round pick a lot more green via a new deal or a fifth-year option for 2022 valued at $13.3 million, but for now, Alexander is due just $3.8 million for the 2021 campaign.
That's sweet considering his talent and career trajectory, and it easily secures the 24-year-old this spot over wideout Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who put up 690 yards and six touchdowns for just $804,388 last year but will make $2.2 million in 2021 and isn't a difference-maker on Alexander's level.
Houston Texans: S Justin Reid
The sorry state of the Houston Texans makes it dishearteningly difficult to find great value on the roster, but safety Justin Reid is a strong young starter with playmaking ability and quality numbers under his belt as he enters the final year of a rookie deal that has paid him around $1 million per season on average.
That cap hit will grow to $2.7 million in said walk year, but 38 safeties are slated to count more than that against the cap in 2021.
The 24-year-old 2018 third-round pick recorded two sacks, six tackles for loss and four quarterback hits in a surprisingly strong season as a pass-rusher in 2020, and he intercepted five passes over his first two NFL campaigns.
He gets the nod over offensive tackle Tytus Howard, who has yet to become consistently reliable midway through a four-year, $12.2 million rookie deal.
Indianapolis Colts: LB Darius Leonard
The Indianapolis Colts are fortunate that they're still paying bargains for offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith as well as linebacker Darius Leonard, all of whom have become critical players out of the 2018 draft.
But Nelson was a top-10 pick who will make close to $8 million in 2021, while Smith and Leonard remain below the $5 million mark even after receiving nice boosts from performance incentives.
Smith is steady, but he's not a star like Leonard, who has been a Pro Bowler all three of his seasons (alternate in rookie campaign), is a two-time first-team All-Pro and is coming off a third consecutive 120-plus-tackle campaign. Despite that, the 25-year-old has made less than $2 million in each of those first three seasons, and he's due just $4.3 million in 2021.
A total of 46 linebackers have that mark beat for the upcoming campaign.
Jacksonville Jaguars: WR DJ Chark Jr.
This came down to two wide receivers for the Jacksonville Jaguars, both of whom have performed quite well as second-round picks on rookie deals. And while DJ Chark Jr. will make more money than Laviska Shenault in 2021, the difference isn't substantial enough for the fourth-year veteran to give up this spot to the sophomore.
Shenault put up 600 yards and five touchdowns in Year 1 of a rookie deal with a $1.9 million average annual value, but Chark is a year removed from a 1,000-yard sophomore campaign and has scored 13 touchdowns over the last two seasons despite possessing a contract worth just $1.1 million per year.
The difference will be $2.5 million for Chark compared to $1.7 million for Shenault in 2021, but the latter still has a lot to prove next to the team's clear-cut No. 1 receiver.
Both, however, are steals at their current prices.
Kansas City Chiefs: WR Mecole Hardman
The departure of Sammy Watkins likely means 2019 second-round wide receiver Mecole Hardman will be expected to play an even larger role in the Kansas City Chiefs offense in 2021. And there's little reason to believe he won't deliver after he averaged 16.4 yards per catch over his first two NFL campaigns.
But Hardman will cost the Chiefs less than $1.4 million, and for now, that rate is only expected to rise to $1.6 million in 2022. Altogether, 98 NFL wide receivers have higher average annual salaries than him.
That makes the 23-year-old a no-brainer for this spot, although honorable mentions go to 2020 rookie sensation L'Jarius Sneed—who surrendered a passer rating of just 54.2 into his coverage for just $682K in 2020—and new arrival Orlando Brown Jr., who's made less than $1 million in each of his first three seasons but will fetch $3.4 million in 2021 because of performance incentives.
Las Vegas Raiders: TE Darren Waller
We've finally got a player on a veteran contract for you, but it took some serious self-convincing because tight end Darren Waller is the seventh-highest-paid player on the Las Vegas Raiders roster, and that team is also getting tremendous discounts from overachieving 2019 Day 3 draft picks Maxx Crosby and Hunter Renfrow.
Crosby has generated 17 sacks and 27 quarterback hits over his first two seasons, while Renfrow has recorded over 600 yards as a receiver in each of his first two NFL campaigns. Both command average annual salaries well below $1 million.
Waller isn't close to as cheap, with an average annual value of $7.5 million, but his impact is significantly larger.
The 28-year-old late bloomer has put up 1,100-plus yards in back-to-back seasons since becoming the No. 1 tight end in Oakland/Las Vegas, and he scored nine touchdowns in a Pro Bowl 2020 campaign. The Raiders actually paid him before he truly took off in 2019. At the time, it seemed like an overpay, but now it's comical that he's merely the ninth-highest-paid tight end in the league.
Los Angeles Chargers: QB Justin Herbert
How can it not be the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year for the Los Angeles Chargers?
Quarterback Justin Herbert put up 31 touchdown passes to just 10 interceptions during an astonishing debut campaign, and he did so as just the 34th-highest-paid signal-caller in the league. That'll hardly change with just $6 million coming his way in 2021, as guys like Nick Foles, Taysom Hill, Case Keenum and Ryan Fitzpatrick will carry larger cap hits at that position.
Fellow high-impact Chargers youngsters Kenneth Murray (age 22) and Nasir Adderley (24) represent solid discounts on the defensive side of the ball, but neither is even close to Herbert in terms of their impact thus far. And they don't play premium positions.
So there's little competition here, especially now that big-play wide receiver Mike Williams has hit a fifth-year option worth $15.7 million.
Los Angeles Rams: DT Sebastian Joseph-Day
Defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day had the third-highest defensive PFF grade on the Los Angeles Rams' roster in 2020. But because the 26-year-old breakout defender was a sixth-round draft pick in 2018, he was one of the lowest-paid players on the Rams roster.
That's going to change to an extent as performance incentives boost his walk-year salary to $2.2 million, but Joseph-Day will still make just $4.4 million over the course of that rookie contract and will be just the 57th-highest-paid defensive tackle by cap hit next season.
Playing with Donald likely helps. But the Rams defensive line is relatively thin beyond those two, and there's little doubt Joseph-Day is one of the most promising nose tackles in the league regardless of that dynamic.
Grizzled veteran Andrew Whitworth remains one of the best O-linemen in the NFL and is a bargain as the 30th-highest-paid offensive tackle with a 2021 cap hit of just $5.7 million, but the 39-year-old is running out of time and his $10 million average annual salary still isn't cheap.
Miami Dolphins: Edge Andrew Van Ginkel
The Miami Dolphins exploded in 2020, and one of the faces of that coming-out party for an opportunistic and often dominant defense was 2019 fifth-round edge defender Andrew Van Ginkel.
The 25-year-old under-the-radar playmaker recorded 5.5 sacks and forced three fumbles while earning the 13th-highest grade at that position from PFF. And he did all that in exchange for just $752,695.
No wonder the Dolphins were willing to move on from veterans Shaq Lawson and Kyle Van Noy just one year after handing both lucrative long-term deals.
The Dolphins defense also got a breakout season out of sack-happy 2018 third-round pick Jerome Baker in that front seven. But his salary will shoot above $2 million in 2021, while Van Ginkel will still make less than $1 million.
Minnesota Vikings: WR Justin Jefferson
You don't have to scan the Minnesota Vikings' Spotrac page long in order to conclude that 2020 rookie sensation Justin Jefferson is the best bang-for-your-buck player on the roster.
The 22-year-old is coming off a ridiculous maiden campaign in which he put up 1,400 receiving yards and seven touchdowns to earn a Pro Bowl nod right off the bat. He caught more than 70 percent of the passes thrown his way and ranked fourth in the NFL with a yards-per-target average of 11.2.
But because he wasn't an especially high first-round pick (22nd overall), Jefferson did all that for just $2.4 million. He'll keep getting raises moving forward, but his $3.3 million average annual rate still ranks 57th among players at his position.
Offensive tackle Brian O'Neill continues to improve and could turn into a star at that critical spot, so he'll remain a bargain with a $2.8 million cap hit in the final year of his rookie deal. But he hasn't arrived like Jefferson, and the difference in the pay isn't substantial.
New England Patriots: RT Mike Onwenu
As per usual, there were a lot of players to choose from on the New England Patriots' bargain-dominated roster. Let's run through them.
Wide receiver Jakobi Meyers posted 729 yards for just $678,333 (less than $1,000 a yard!) but scored zero touchdowns.
Defensive lineman Byron Cowart became a strong starter for $720,449, but the deep rotation got better this offseason with Matt Judon, Davon Godchaux and Christian Barmore joining the fray.
And those same dynamics could impact linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley and lineman Chase Winovich, both of whom flashed for less than $1 million but will have to deal with the return of Kyle Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower.
But nobody's messing with versatile offensive lineman Mike Onwenu, who started all 16 games for New England, took just one penalty, earned the highest PFF run-blocking grade among rookies and allowed multiple quarterback pressures just three times.
And because he was a sixth-round pick, all for $660,619.
New Orleans Saints: QB Jameis Winston
Now that 2017 first-round picks Marshon Lattimore and Ryan Ramczyk have become expensive for the New Orleans Saints, we have to go outside the box.
Young offensive linemen Erik McCoy and Cesar Ruiz represent discounts with sub-$3 million cap hits for 2021, and 2019 fourth-round safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson has outperformed his four-year, $3.3 million rookie deal, but the guy I expect to win the starting quarterback job is under contract for just $5.5 million next year.
The jury might remain out on Jameis Winston, but he is a 27-year-old No. 1 overall pick who led the NFL in passing yards in 2019 and could flourish as the starter in such a strong environment.
It's pretty strange that 32 quarterbacks—including Ryan Fitzpatrick, Andy Dalton, Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, Jordan Love, Nick Foles and teammate Taysom Hill—possess contracts with more guaranteed money than Winston's.
New York Giants: WR Darius Slayton
It's fair to wonder if surprise sensation Darius Slayton will have trouble remaining a key piece of the New York Giants receiving corps now that he's joined by Kenny Golladay, John Ross and rookie first-round pick Kadarius Toney.
That said, the 2019 fifth-round pick doesn't have the same look or feel as any of those guys, two of whom might not be capable of making the same impact as Slayton on the boundary. That's why after consecutive 700-yard seasons to start his career, Slayton remains the top bargain with an average annual salary below $700,000.
The 24-year-old beat out a pair of strong trench players in defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence and center Nick Gates. The former is becoming a star up front, while the latter has flashed as a 2018 undrafted free agent. But both still make almost five times what Slayton pulls in.
New York Jets: LT Mekhi Becton
There weren't a lot of obvious options for the New York Jets—especially now that safety Marcus Maye is getting paid.
So we're rolling with the team's promising young left tackle, Mekhi Becton, by default.
The 2020 No. 11 pick is 6'7", 363 pounds, and he took zero holding penalties while earning a solid PFF grade of 74.4 as a 21-year-old rookie. It shouldn't be long before the Louisville product is one of the best offensive tackles in the sport, but his $4.6 million average annual salary ranks 41st among tackles.
He easily defeated safety Ashtyn Davis, who flashed as a rookie third-round pick in 2020 for less than $900,000.
Philadelphia Eagles: LB Alex Singleton
On the other hand, there were plenty of quality candidates for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Jalen Hurts could turn into the team's franchise quarterback and earns just $1.5 million a year, wide receiver Travis Fulgham was a surprise sensation in 2020 at a cost of just $555,882, and linebacker Alex Singleton also came out of nowhere to make a tremendous impact for $675,000.
He takes the cake.
The CFL alumnus racked up 120 tackles despite starting just 11 games and playing 68 percent of defensive snaps. He also added seven quarterback hits, two sacks and a pick returned for a touchdown in his age-27 season.
His cap hit in 2021? A cool $850 grand.
Pittsburgh Steelers: S Minkah Fitzpatrick
The Pittsburgh Steelers have benefited from bargain rates for two of the best defensive players in the game. Edge defender T.J. Watt and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick were All-Pros in 2019 and 2020 despite making less than $2 million apiece in each of those campaigns.
But Watt is no longer cheap. He's arrived at his $10.1 million fifth-year option and is likely to earn a long-term deal that could break records. Fitzpatrick is a year behind, and while his fifth-year bump is on the horizon, the 24-year-old playmaker will cost just $2.7 million in 2021.
He easily landed this spot ahead of Watt (who still represents a hell of a bargain) and inexpensive receivers Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington, who make less than $2 million per year on their rookie deals as Day 2 draft picks.
San Francisco 49ers: LB Fred Warner
San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner will receive a hefty pay bump from $844,000 to $3.4 million in 2021, but that's still a comically low rate for a third-round pick who has blown away expectations.
No other member of the 49ers posted an approximate value even half as high as Warner's mark of 19 in 2020, and only two players in the league eclipsed that total as Warner recorded more than 115 tackles for the third time in three seasons.
The 24-year-old added seven quarterback hits, a pair of interceptions and six passes defensed to earn All-Pro honors for a cap hit of just $1.1 million.
He beat out fellow off-ball linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who has become a strong presence as a fifth-round pick who makes just $710,429 per year.
Seattle Seahawks: WR DK Metcalf
What happens when there's a rookie wage scale and an incredible player falls out of Round 1 and then quickly plays to his potential? You get a case such as DK Metcalf and the Seattle Seahawks.
The 23-year-old is coming off a dominant sophomore season in which he made the Pro Bowl for compiling 1,303 yards and 10 touchdowns. His combination of production and trajectory makes him one of the most valuable young players in the league, but he's earning just $1.1 million per season and is only halfway through that rookie contract.
More than 100 wide receivers earn more than the Mississippi product.
Runner-up Damien Lewis, who put together a strong rookie season as the starting right guard for just a $891,298 cap hit, didn't stand a chance.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: RT Tristan Wirfs
To win a Super Bowl, you need to get good value. And the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers were loaded with high-value players in 2020.
Key defensive backs Carlton Davis, Jordan Whitehead and Antoine Winfield Jr. all had cap hits of about $1 million last season for the Bucs, though Davis and Whitehead will receive considerable boosts in their walk years in 2021.
Regardless, all three take a back seat to standout right tackle Tristan Wirfs, who was consistently awesome in protecting Tom Brady as a rookie.
And yet the 22-year-old is the 47th-highest-paid offensive tackle in the NFL.
Tennessee Titans: WR A.J. Brown
A.J. Brown's case is similar to DK Metcalf's, and the two just happened to be teammates in college. The Tennessee Titans' 23-year-old Pro Bowl receiver was selected 13 spots ahead of Metcalf in the second round of the 2019 draft, and he's been awesome.
Brown already has two 1,000-yard seasons and 20 touchdowns, but his cap hit was just $1.3 million last year and it will be $1.5 million in 2021. His average annual salary of $1.4 million puts him 95th at the position.
The physical and reliable wideout was the obvious choice over right guard Nate Davis, who became a steady starter in 2020 at an annual rate of just $925,045 but isn't as much of an impact player as Brown.
Washington Football Team: WR Terry McLaurin
For the Washington Football Team, it was a toss-up between third-rounder Terry McLaurin and seventh-rounder Kamren Curl.
Both the receiver and safety produced in significant and impressive fashion for much less than $1 million in 2020. And while Curl cost even less than McLaurin ($638,332 cap hit versus $932,256), there's less evidence that wasn't an aberration.
The rookie intercepted three passes, recorded two sacks and five quarterbacks hits and racked up 88 tackles despite starting just 11 games, and he could be special. But McLaurin backed up a 919-yard, seven-touchdown rookie campaign with 1,118 yards and just three drops.
With an average annual salary of $961,918 to Curl's $852,082, he holds this spot for now.
All contract information courtesy of Spotrac.