The National Football League differs from Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association in that the NFL has a strict hard salary cap that no club can exceed when building its roster. That fact makes every contract, from league minimum deals to those worth millions of dollars, significant for all 32 teams in professional football. Unlike MLB and NBA contracts, however, only so much money of any NFL deal is guaranteed to a player, giving general managers and owners ways to cut under-performing players without suffering major salary cap hits. That fact, along with the way that rookie deals are now structured under the NFL collective bargaining agreement, saves teams millions of dollars in cap space each season.
Not all expensive contracts are, of course, bad deals for clubs. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is arguably the best in the business at the position, a player well worth his salary so long as he avoids costly suspensions. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl champion who will have the club in the playoff chase up through the final week of the regular season. Does anybody believe that quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning are not bargains despite the fact that they hold top-ten cap hits? Of course not, as both will be Most Valuable Player candidates for the 2014 campaign.
There is no single position in the world of pro sports that means more to the successes and failures of a team than NFL quarterback in a league that is built to be pass-oriented. Thus, it is no coincidence that the players who top this list are quarterbacks who have let their teams down in 2014. One is a young man who hasn’t been able to remain healthy throughout his pro career, a QB who may not be long for the NFL depending on how he recovers from his latest injury. The other is a veteran who could be on the outs with his club a year after that team guaranteed him millions upon millions of dollars.
All values courtesy of Spotrac.
20. QB Drew Brees – New Orleans Saints: $18.4 million cap hit
Brees and the Saints have been one of the biggest disappointments of the 2014 NFL regular season. Picked by many in August to be Super Bowl contenders, the Saints will not have a winning record this year, and part of the blame goes to a veteran QB who has, at times, looked like a man past his prime. It’s not all bad news for Brees and the Saints, however, as New Orleans could realistically host a playoff game in January due to the fact that the NFC South is horrendous. The Saints are, heading into the third weekend of December, the only team in the division capable of finishing the campaign at 8-8.
19. QB Eli Manning – New York Giants: $20.4 million cap hit
This is admittedly a touch unfair to the two-time Super Bowl MVP. Manning‘s offensive line hung him out to dry far too often for the second consecutive season, and he lost stellar wide receiver Victor Cruz to a horrific knee injury early into the fall. To his credit, Manning has helped first-year pro Odell Beckham, Jr. blossom into a Rookie of the Year candidate. Beckham is one of the best young wide receivers in the NFL, an absolute joy to watch since returning in October from lingering hamstring injuries. Manning has one year left on his current deal, and all indications are that the Giants will offer the best quarterback in franchise history one final contract.
18. LT Joe Thomas – Cleveland Browns: $12.3 million cap hit
Thomas has been an All-Pro since his first season in the NFL, but he has not been his consistent self since at least early November. It is possible that Thomas and the rest of the Cleveland offensive front is missing center Alex Mack, who went down with a broken leg in October. That is understandable, but Thomas is paid to be the cornerstone of what was supposed to be an improved offensive line, one that has let quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel down. Thomas will receive Pro Bowl votes because of his name, but he didn’t earn a spot on the AFC squad with his play this season.
17. QB Tony Romo – Dallas Cowboys: $11.773 million cap hit
It wasn’t long ago that Romo would have been atop such a list. Romo has never even played in a Super Bowl let alone won anything of merit during his NFL career, and yet owner Jerry Jones has made his hand-picked quarterback a wealthy man over the years. The Cowboys did well to build what is the best offensive line in football to play in front of Romo. That unit has exceeded expectations, and Romo and running back DeMarco Murray have benefited from it. Many casual football fans are waiting for Romo to have a December/January meltdown. Keep on waiting.
16. WR Mike Wallace – Miami Dolphins: $17.25 million cap hit
Wallace is unquestionably a talented wide receiver who has the ability to take the ball to the house in the blink of an eye. He has put up good numbers during his second year with the Dolphins, and Wallace could finish with his highest touchdown output in a single season if he goes for more than 10 scores. Wallace carries the highest cap hit for NFL wide receivers in 2014, higher than that belonging to Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions. Megatron dealt with an ankle problem during the fall, but there isn’t a general manager in the league who would take Wallace over Johnson this holiday season.
15. QB Philip Rivers – San Diego Chargers: $16,666,666 cap hit
Rivers would not have even been a candidate to make this list after the first month of the season. His MVP resume was growing with every game, and there were some wondering if Rivers could lead the Chargers to overtake the Denver Broncos in the AFC West standings. His production slowed in the second half of the campaign minus one impressive road outing when San Diego defeated the Baltimore Ravens, and there are reports that Rivers is banged up as the end of December nears. It looks like it will be another Super Bowl that includes Rivers as a spectator only.
14. QB Josh McCown – Tampa Bay Buccaneers: $4.75 million cap hit
Brian Hoyer and Mark Sanchez can tip their caps to McCown and to another veteran quarterback featured later on in this piece when they don’t get big offers from clubs during free agency. The Bucs took a chance on McCown after he impressed while filling in for Jay Cutler with the Chicago Bears in 2013. It wasn’t long before McCown was benched this fall. A journeyman and career backup proved himself to be nothing more than a journeyman and career backup when given the keys to an NFL offense. His cap hit rises to above $5.2 million in 2015, and the Bucs would be silly to keep him on that deal.
13. QB Michael Vick – New York Jets: $4 million
Well done for Vick and for his agent that the veteran could find a team to send him through a revolving door of quarterbacks in 2014. Vick was never going to be the answer for the Jets at the position, nor was he going to somehow fix Geno Smith during training camp and practice sessions. Teams are desperate for quarterback depth every fall, and thus Vick will likely put pen to paper on one final NFL contract before he rides off into the sunset. Nobody can blame him. Who wouldn’t want to make a few million dollars for (hopefully) doing nothing more than watching football from the sidelines?
12. WR Larry Fitzgerald – Arizona Cardinals: $8.6 million
Fitzgerald is one of the classiest players in all of the NFL, a man respected by teammates and opponents. He is also one of the best wide receivers of his generation. Admiration for the man aside, Fitzgerald is on the verge of having a forgettable season regarding his personal stats. He will finish the year with his lowest reception total since at least 2006. This will be the third year in a row that Fitzgerald won’t have a total of 1,000 receiving yards. Fitz and the Cards will have to address his contract if he is to remain with the club, as his cap hit rises to $23.6 million next year.
11. Robert Griffin III – Washington Redskins: $5,759,754
RG3 is the only player on a rookie contract (per the terms of the current CBA) to be showcased in this piece. Injuries happen in pro football, avoidable or not, but Griffin suffering what was a freak dislocated ankle is not why he lands at No. 11. Griffin has fallen out of favor with the Washington coaching staff and with some teammates, and it is widely believed that RG3 and the Redskins parting ways could be what is best for both parties. His cap hit will be under $6.8 million for 2015, making it a guarantee that some team will take a chance on the former top draft pick.
10. WR Dwayne Bowe – Kansas City Chiefs: $11,485,294
The offense of the Chiefs is not meant to feed wide receivers in red zone situations. That’s what running back Jamaal Charles is for. Bowe has never finished an NFL season without finding the end zone a single time, but he is two scoreless games from doing just that. There were multiple reports heading into the regular season that Kansas City was shopping Bowe, perhaps for as low an asking price as a third-round pick. No bidders came calling, however, and no team who passed on him has to be regretting that decision considering that Bowe has been average, at best.
9. S Antrel Rolle – New York Giants: $9.25 million
Rolle has mirrored the overall play of the Giants during what has been a lackluster year for the club. He has performed admirably when facing lesser opposition, but Rolle and the rest of the New York secondary has shrunk when playing against sides with winning records. The 32-year-old will be a free agent in March 2015, and his future status with the Giants is a touchy subject among those within the club’s fan base. Some would love to see Rolle retire in Big Blue, while others would be just fine if he headed elsewhere so that New York could begin to rebuild a broken secondary.
8. QB Andy Dalton – Cincinnati Bengals: $9,059,063
The good news for the Bengals is that Dalton has a relatively low cap hit for a starting quarterback until the end of the 2015 season. Dalton did nothing to cement himself as a true franchise QB this year, though, and his cap hit rises to above $13.1 million two years down the road. Those running the Bengals had to be hoping that Dalton would run away with the starting job after getting paid $17 million guaranteed. That did not happen. Unless Dalton can lead the Bengals on a deep playoff run in January, the front office will be asking the same questions about the QB that it was at this time last year.
7. WR Vincent Jackson – Tampa Bay Buccaneers: $12.432 million cap hit
Only Mike Wallace and Calvin Johnson hold higher cap hits than that belonging to Jackson for the 2014 NFL season. Jackson’s days of being the top red zone target in Tampa Bay came to an immediate halt during the preseason when rookie Mike Evans showed what he could do right out of college. Evans emerged as a star for the now and for the future, and he will be a Rookie of the Year candidate and possibly the winner of that award. Jackson is not the best wide receiver on his own team anymore, and it is that fact and not his performances that land him on this list.
6. QB Matt Schaub – Oakland Raiders: $8 million cap hit
Oakland took a big swing and a miss by acquiring Schaub before the NFL Draft. Shockingly to absolutely nobody who follows pro football, the risk did not generate any rewards. A quarterback who has been known more for throwing pick-six after pick-six than for winning games didn’t win the starting job out of the preseason, instead falling behind rookie Derek Carr on the Oakland depth chart. It is believed that Schaub has been a good mentor for Carr, which would be a nice story if the Raiders hadn’t guaranteed the 33-year-old $8 million to play football and not to motivate a first-year pro.
5. QB Matt Ryan – Atlanta Falcons: $17. 5 million cap hit
The common excuse that apologists make for Ryan is that his offensive line does not do enough to protect him. That is fair, but Ryan is paid to be a top-tier quarterback. He has not yet produced the results required to justify his massive contract. As is the case with several other clubs around the NFL, the Falcons are on the verge of pressing the reset button. A new coaching staff will be evaluating all players, Ryan included. The Falcons are married to Matty Ice regarding dead money values for the next several years. That could change, however, if a bidder were to come calling.
4. DE Greg Hardy – Carolina Panthers: $13.116 million cap hit
The talented defensive end was supposed to be a rent-a-player for the Panthers this season. An ugly domestic abuse story landed Hardy on the commissioner’s exempt list (that most of us did not know existed) though, and all expectations are that Hardy won’t return to the club for 2015 regardless of how his case plays out. The Panthers, like the Saints, are in the playoff hunt with two weeks left in the season despite Carolina winning just 5 of 13 games, and you can be sure that those running the organization are wishing that $13 million would have been spent on other players.
3. RB Adrian Peterson – Minnesota Vikings: $14.4 million cap hit
The saga involving the Minnesota running back who has taken to court to resurrect his NFL career generated discussions on how parents should and should not discipline their children. As it pertains to football only, Peterson has been an invisible figure, a man unable to take the field due to suspension. Peterson had his appeal denied, and he and the NFL Players Association are now suing to get that decision overturned. Whether or not Peterson will ever again take the field as a member of the Vikings is unknown, although there are whispers around the league that Minnesota will shop the 29-year-old whenever the legal process concludes.
2. QB Sam Bradford – St. Louis Rams: $17.61 million cap hit
Bradford is the unluckiest lucky player in the NFL. He has dealt with injuries throughout his career, including multiple ACL tears in less than a year. Don’t feel too bad for the St. Louis quarterback, though, as he was the final rookie to cash in on being the first overall pick of an NFL Draft. He has already earned a guaranteed $50 million. Head coach Jeff Fisher is reportedly still backing Bradford, who has played like the real deal when healthy. That could change, however, if a veteran, perhaps the man who sits atop this list, becomes available to the club during the offseason.
1. QB Jay Cutler – Chicago Bears: $18.5 million
Chicago went all-in on Cutler last winter, guaranteeing the 31-year-old quarterback $54 million in a contract that could have been worth much more had Cutler not performed so poorly and had he not alienated coaches (and possibly players) in 2014. Word out of Chicago is that the team’s coaching staff is preparing to leave town on Monday, December 29, and those in the front office of the Bears may also want to update their resumes. It is hard to believe that a new regime would want to be saddled with a humongous contract for a quarterback that was benched heading into Week 16 of this season.