Defense wins championships.
It’s an adage that is repeated by analysts every National Football League season – a saying that happens to be accurate. The Seattle Seahawks demonstrated that last February when they manhandled the offense of the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots twice learned that lesson the hard way when facing off with the New York Giants on football’s biggest stage.
They may not make as much money as do elite quarterbacks or top wide receivers, but the best defensive players in the league are worth every penny that they earn. Here are the 10 highest-paid D-men in the NFL for 2014.
All values courtesy of Spotrac
10. Eric Berry — S — Kansas City Chiefs: $11,619,700 cap hit
Berry is perhaps the best young safety in all of the NFL. He has been named to the Pro Bowl in each of the three seasons in which he has remained healthy. Following tearing his ACL in September 2011, Berry has accumulated 160 combined tackles, 139 solo tackles and four interceptions. He had a career high 3.5 sacks in 2013.
A worry for the Chiefs is that Berry has missed the team’s 2014 preseason games due to tendonitis in his heel. Berry has made appearances in practice sessions, but it is possible that the Chiefs may sit him until September. The 25-year-old who is signed with Kansas City through the end of the 2015 campaign is eyeing a big payday at some point over the next year.
Whether or not the Chiefs will be the team to deliver such a deal to Berry has yet to be determined.
9. Joe Haden — CB — Cleveland Browns: $12,127,895 cap hit
The Browns have largely been a punchline during Haden’s career, but one cannot place blame on the 25-year-old. Haden is one of the top young cornerbacks in the NFL, a defensive back who has a history of shutting down some of the game’s best wide receivers.
Haden will be tasked with more than just being a shutdown cornerback in 2014. He will also serve as a mentor and a tutor. The Browns drafted highly-rated cornerback Justin Gilbert back on May 8. Gilbert is expected to line up alongside Haden in the Browns starting defense beginning in Week 1 of the upcoming season.
8. Brandon Carr — CB — Dallas Cowboys: $12.217 million cap hit
Carr doesn’t get honored by having an imaginary island named after him. The phrase “shutdown” isn’t associated with his name. He doesn’t go on rants after making a game-winning play that is featured on national television.
Carr does his talking on the field.
Carr has notched at least one interception in each of his six seasons in the NFL. He has recorded six picks – three apiece over the past two years – since joining the Cowboys from the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012.
Carr will be playing with a heavy heart over the next several months. His mother lost her battle with cancer this past July.
7. Greg Hardy — DE — Carolina Panthers: $13.116 million (franchise tag)
The talent is clearly there in Hardy. He notched 26 total sacks over the past two seasons, and Hardy was third in the NFL in sacks last season with 15. Placed under the franchise tag last winter, Hardy was set to have a chance to land a massive contract after the upcoming season.
He could instead be fighting to save more than just his NFL career.
Hardy was arrested this past May following an ugly domestic violence incident. The player was convicted in July, and his appeal of that decision is expected to get underway sometime next year. It’s possible that the NFL could hit Hardy with a significant suspension regardless of the result of that appeal.
6. Chris Long — DE — St. Louis Rams: $14.9 million cap hit
Chris Long has been as reliable a player as the Rams have had since St. Louis drafted the University of Virginia product with the second overall pick back in 2008. He has never missed a regular season game. Long consistently leads the Rams in quarterback pressures.
Long also gets to the quarterback often. 33 of his career 50.5 sacks have come in the past three seasons. Long has also forced seven fumbles as a pro. While his dead money value does drop from $17.9 million to only $3 million next year, the Rams have no reason to consider parting ways with the 29-year-old at this point.
5. Gerald McCoy — DT — Tampa Bay Buccaneers: $15,627,253 cap hit
McCoy could be the next great defensive tackle in the NFL if he isn’t already at that level. The two-time Pro Bowl selection was an All-Pro in 2013 after he accumulated 50 tackles and 9.5 sacks. Both of those were career highs for the 26-year-old.
McCoy, so long as he continues to improve, will only rise in lists such as this one over the next couple of years. His current contract with the Buccaneers runs out after next season. Tampa Bay would be wise to make a long-term commitment to the play-making tackle.
That could happen even before the 2014 season ends.
4. Haloti Ngata — DT/NT — Baltimore Ravens: $16 million cap hit
Haloti Ngata missed two games during the 2012 regular season, and he appeared in all but one contest last year. He recently explained to the Baltimore Ravens official team website that he is “feeling better than ever.”
That is a scary thought for offensive players around the league.
Ngata has, when apparently not feeling as well as he is as summer 2014 concludes, been a Pro Bowl mainstay over the past five years. He had 52 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 2013.
Ngata is signed with the Ravens through the end of the 2015 campaign.
3. Charles Johnson — DE — Carolina Panthers: $16.42 million cap hit
Johnson has been sidelined for weeks because of a hamstring issue. While Carolina head coach Ron Rivera would obviously like to see the 28-year-old healthy and out on the field, he is being smart in keeping the defensive end as a spectator for now.
Rivera and his staff will need Johnson come September.
Johnson has developed into one of the most consistent pass rushers in the NFL. 44 of his 54 pro sacks have come in the past four seasons. He notched 11 of those during the 2013 campaign.
2. Mario Williams — DE — Buffalo Bills: $18. million cap hit
The Bills acquired Williams in 2012 with the hopes that the former Houston Texans player would be the cornerstone of the team’s defense. He has thus far not disappointed. After accumulating 10.5 sacks in his first season in Buffalo, Williams notched 13 sacks last season. That was his highest tally since 2007 (14 sacks).
Williams and other members of the Buffalo defense could use some help on the other side of the football. Second-year quarterback E.J. Manuel, who is reportedly struggling through the preseason process, needs to develop into a player capable of leading an NFL offense. Buffalo will also be hoping that rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins is the dynamic play-maker he has been advertised to be since even before this past February’s NFL Combine.
1. Ndamukong Suh — DT — Detroit Lions: $22.4125 million cap hit
Ndamukong Suh‘s status remains up in the air as August reaches its end. The Lions are just about out of cap space, and Suh wants to land a mammoth contract before the conclusion of the upcoming NFL regular season.
Suh has all of the control regarding the matter. He has the ability to opt out of his current deal in February 2015 after the Super Bowl. Suh is, barring injuries or other setbacks, expected to do just that.
Losing Suh would be a blow to any team, let alone for a Detroit side that is not the best in its division. The Lions may nevertheless have no other choice but to trade away their top defensive asset, especially if Detroit loses several games in the opening month of the season.
The Lions would do well to realize that Suh’s value on the trading block drops a little more with each day that February approaches.