Stars and Scrubs: NFL teams with the most unbalanced payrolls

Six teams have committed at least half of their 2015 salary cap to their 10 highest-paid players. Will Laws dives into the details of three of those teams.
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In Peter King’s MMQB column from a couple weeks ago, the Stat of the Week pointed out that 10 of Seattle’s core players are set to take up an average of $97.4 million over the next several years. Given the newfound success the franchise has enjoyed with those stars, it makes sense that the Seahawks front office wants to stick with what has worked.

Still, that’s a whole lot of cash to commit to less than 20% of your active roster. Given that statistic, it seems that Seattle would fall under the label of a 'stars and scrubs' team for 2015. However, most of that money won’t kick in until future seasons, so the Seahawks don’t even rank in the top half of NFL teams in terms of proportion of their 2015 payroll earmarked for their 10 highest-paid players.


As it stands, Seattle’s 10 highest-paid players are set to take up $74.5 million on the team’s salary cap in 2015, or 45.5% of their total payroll. That proportion ranks 18th in the NFL.

Note: You can see which dot corresponds to which team by hovering over each data point.

There are six teams who have set aside at least half of their 2015 salary cap to their 10 highest-paid players—the Packers, Bears, Panthers, Cardinals, Texans and Broncos. Let’s dive into the details behind a few of those top-heavy outliers, with the help of some PointAfter visualizations.

Note: All salary figures are courtesy of Spotrac.

Arizona Cardinals

This one might come as a bit of a surprise—the Cardinals are committing the second-highest amount of raw cash ($82.7 million) to its 10 highest-paid players. After all, Carson Palmer ($7.5 million) isn’t exactly paid like a premier quarterback, which is a common factor among teams abiding by the stars and scrubs method.

However, the record-breaking five-year, $70 million extension Arizona handed to Patrick Peterson last summer more than makes up for that anomaly.

The Cardinals defense miraculously withstood a nightmarish season from Peterson last season, when the former Heisman Trophy finalist was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the 47th best cornerback out of 70 qualified players. But following the departure of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to the Jets, as well as veterans Antonio Cromartie and Darnell Dockett, the Cardinals need Peterson to return to his dynamic form in 2015. A turn-back-the-clock season from Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona’s highest-paid player on offense at $10.9 million) wouldn’t hurt, either.

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Chicago Bears

Chicago is paying 11 players at least $5 million in base salary this year. But you’d be hard-pressed to call most of those guys stars.

Cutler seems like he’s one more turnover-laden season away from being run out of the Windy City, onerous contract aside. His former favorite target, Brandon Marshall, is $5.6 million of dead money on Chicago’s payroll in 2015. Jared Allen, Jermon Bushrod and Eddie Royal are past their primes. Lamarr Houston is a question mark after tearing his ACL while celebrating a sack last year. And for how much longer can Matt Forte (3.9 yards per carry in 2014) remain a three-down back?

The massive contracts straining financial flexibility are partially to blame for the firing of former GM Phil Emery following last season. There are a few cheap bright spots (Alshon Jeffery, Kyle Fuller, Jeremiah Ratliff), but the Bears’ expensive pieces will have to perform up to their contracts if Chicago is to compete for the NFC North crown this year.

With Chicago’s 10 highest-paid players taking up approximately 53.1% of its salary cap, only one other team has a payroll that’s so top heavy. And it’s a franchise with which the Bears are quite familiar...

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Green Bay Packers

The Packers are the team paying its stars the most money in 2015, by both raw cash ($83.5 million) and proportion of the overall team payroll (54.7%). You’d think that with Green Bay’s prolific offense, the Packers are paying Aaron Rodgers and Co. the bulk of the team’s bucks. But you’d be wrong.

In fact, the Packers are one of a handful of teams slotted to pay its defense more than its offense. Spotrac projects the team will pay the unit approximately $70.9 million, among the top 10 total defensive salaries in the league, while the offense is set to earn about $68.5 million.

With Julius Peppers ($12 million), Clay Matthews ($12.7 million) and Sam Shields ($9.1 million) anchoring each level of Green Bay’s 3–4 scheme, three of the Packers’ four highest-paid players in 2015 make their hay on defense.

Don’t think that Aaron Rodgers’ arsenal of weapons is being underpaid, though—Randall Cobb ($5.4 million) and Jordy Nelson ($4.6 million) also rank amongst Green Bay’s top 10 payouts for 2015, and both are set to see their yearly income skyrocket following this season.

The charmingly small town of Green Bay might not be a big market, but it sure does pay its stars like one.

More from Will Laws:

The Most Overpaid NFL Players at Each Position
Projecting the 2015-16 NBA Standings via Win Shares
Heisman Watch: Preseason Top 25

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