In Monday’s piece on the most overpaid players in the NFL, I singled out former stars from each position group who have failed to live up to their bloated contracts. Now, it’s time to put the spotlight on players who are making the case for pay raises in the very near future.
The NFL cracked down on costly rookie contracts in the most recent collective bargaining agreement in 2011, largely to prevent draft busts from financially handicapping a team for years to come. A natural consequence of that has been an influx of vastly underpaid youngsters into the league. Rookie deals only last four seasons, so it's no coincidence that most players considered are in their early- or mid-20s.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the biggest bargains in the NFL with the help of some interactive visualizations from PointAfter.
Note: All salary figures are according to Spotrac.
Quarterback: Russell Wilson
The title of most underpaid quarterback has two clear-cut candidates. Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson have both adapted to the professional level with remarkable poise, often performing like seasoned veterans in the face of adversity.
If you ask all 32 NFL general managers which quarterback they’d rather build around, the majority of them would take the prototypical Luck. Luck has been asked to carry the Colts from Day 1, and he certainly has the better statistical case as a true passer.
But for now, Wilson gets the nod in this exercise. The fact that the game’s premier dual-threat quarterback—a two-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion—will only make $1.5 million in salary next year (41st among QBs) is absurd. Luck is still a bargain at $7 million this season, but Wilson’s status as the quarterback with the most regular season wins in NFL history through his first three seasons (36) speaks for itself.
Running back: Le'Veon Bell
Le’Veon Bell garnered national attention last season as Pittsburgh’s do-it-all wrecking ball. He played the second-most snaps of any tailback and used them to gain 2,215 yards from scrimmage (1,356 rushing, 854 receiving), only 46 fewer than league leader DeMarco Murray.
But while Murray was rewarded with a five-year, $42 million contract in free agency this summer, Bell is slated to earn around $1 million in 2015. With Bell injured for Pittsburgh’s divisional playoff matchup against Baltimore, the Steelers’ running game struggled immensely in a mistake-riddled 30–17 defeat.
Considering how much Pittsburgh relies on Bell to move the ball, the former Michigan State star had better hope his legs don’t give out before he hits free agency following the 2017 season, when he’ll get the raise he deserves.
Wide receivers: T.Y. Hilton
Ask any NFL fan who they think the key has been to Indianapolis’s quick turnaround in the post-Peyton era, and they’ll direct you to a certain former top overall pick. But finding a fellow cheap, young offensive weapon in T.Y. Hilton to complement Andy Luck has also been integral to the Colts's success.
Last year, Hilton ranked 15th in targets (132) and sixth in receiving yards (1,345), signaling his arrival as the new No. 1 wideout in Indy. Following in the footsteps of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, the 5'9" Hilton has some big shoes to fill. But he has the skills to establish the kind of relationship with Luck that Manning forged with his longtime targets.
Hilton has the rare combination of skills that let him both consistently catch homerun balls while also shouldering a large load of targets. Among wideouts with at least 60 receptions, Hilton ranked first in yards per reception (16.4) last season.
Indianapolis is lucky that Hilton will only cost $1.6 million against their salary cap this season, but the former third-round pick’s rookie deal expires in the spring. Signing Luck to an extension tops Colts GM Ryan Grigson’s to-do list for the next year, but re-upping with Hilton should also be a huge priority.
Tight end: Travis Kelce
You’ve probably heard by now that the Chiefs receiving corps went all of last year without scoring a single touchdown. Travis Kelce is the reason why that baffling statistic didn’t completely derail Kansas City’s offense last season.
Not only was Kelce the team’s leading receiver (67 receptions, 862 yards, five touchdowns) in 2014, but he was also the best run-blocking tight end in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Chiefs reaped all that production on a rookie contract, and Kelce will account for less than $1 million against Kansas City’s payroll once again this year. With Jeremy Maclin giving the team a legitimate threat outside, Kelce could be poised to take advantage of more space down the middle and record his first 1,000-yard campaign in 2015.
Offensive line: Corey Linsley
There are several interior linemen who could be singled out in this space, with young guards such as Kelechi Osemele, Brandon Brooks and Brandon Linder providing valuable run blocking early in their careers. But 2014 fifth-round pick Corey Linsley leads the pack because of his smooth transition into the starting center spot for the Packers.
Linsley was a top-five center last year according to Pro Football Focus, but he will count just over half a million bucks on Green Bay’s salary cap in 2015. That means he’s not even in the top 50 highest-paid centers for this season.
Having two seasoned pros in Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang on either side likely helped Linsley ease the transition into starting center. But the former Ohio State Buckeye is a remarkable story and even better deal for the Packers nonetheless.
Defensive line: Sheldon Richardson
Many words have been said in praise of Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson—including some from his own mouth. But it’s difficult to overstate his importance to the Jets. His production has been what we expected of Jadaveon Clowney through his first two years in the NFL.
Pro Football Focus graded him as the second-best 3–4 defensive end in the league last year, ahead of teammate Muhammad Wilkerson and behind only J.J. Watt. And he’s only counting $2.7 million against New York’s cap this year, a fraction of the mammoth salaries Watt and Ndamukong Suh earn.
The scary thing is, Richardson could be even better. He led all 3–4 defensive ends with eight penalties in 2014, so the 2013 first-round pick still has to learn how to reel in his aggressiveness on borderline QB hits. But if that’s the biggest weakness in his game, it’s a good one to have.
Linebacker: Brandon Marshall
This was probably the toughest group to choose a single underpaid player from. There are just so many young stalwarts like Jamie Collins, Bobby Wagner and Mychal Kendricks providing stellar play and leadership on cost-controlled rookie contracts.
But none of those guys will be paid as little as Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall in 2015. A former Jaguars fifth-round selection, Marshall was released by the Jaguars after just one year in Jacksonville. It turned out to be another misstep by the beleaguered franchise.
The Broncos scooped him up just weeks before the 2013 season opener. Since then, he’s morphed from a practice squad player to Denver’s leading tackler last season, even though he only played in 14 games.
Due to his limited service time, Marshall will only earn $585,000 on a one-year deal for Denver this season.
Cornerback: William Gay
You’ve probably noticed by now that all the players in this article so far are underpaid because they’re still tied to the first professional contract of their careers. It makes sense—if a player performs well, he’s going to be paid well by some team during his first foray into free agency.
But for cornerbacks, we’re going to go in a different direction and praise the revival of Steelers cornerback William Gay. The former Super Bowl champ left Pittsburgh in 2012 to sign with the Cardinals, but was released after just one nightmarish season. He returned to Steel City on a three-year, $4.5 million contract that’s proven to be quite the bargain.
Pro Football Focus ranked Gay as a top-10 corner in 2013, and the 30-year-old did see a slight dip in overall performance last year. But he more than earned his keep with three interceptions returned for touchdowns, a franchise record that helped Pittsburgh win three hotly contested regular season contests.
Safety: Tashaun Gipson
A four-year starter at Wyoming, Tashaun Gipson went undrafted in 2012. In the three seasons since, he’s shown just how big of a mistake each team made by passing him over.
Despite missing the last five games of last season with a torn MCL, Gipson finished second in the league with six interceptions and was named to his first Pro Bowl. Opposing QBs combined for just a 41.9 passer rating when throwing against him, the fourth-best mark among safeties with at least 500 snaps.
However, Gipson is only guaranteed one more year in Cleveland after signing a tender on Friday that will pay him $2.4 million in 2014. If Browns beat writer Mary Kay Cabot’s hunch is correct, Gipson could come to terms with Cleveland on a long-term contract in the coming weeks.
Given Gipson’s status as the unlikely leader of one of the league’s best secondaries, it’d be a raise that’s entirely deserved.
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