There is no single position in all of professional sports that is as important and as scrutinized as is a NFL quarterback. Quarterbacks touch the football more than any other offensive play-makers – sorry, centers – and QB play often makes and/or breaks teams.
The New England Patriots have had a top-tier quarterback on the roster for over a decade, and Tom Brady routinely leads the Pats to postseason appearances. At the other end of the spectrum are the Cleveland Browns, a club that hasn't had a franchise quarterback since it returned to the NFL in 1999.
Of the ten quarterbacks in the following list, only half have won championships at the pro level. Several of the signal callers featured in this piece could be facing a career-defining season in 2014. The list begins with a QB who has to start limiting his mistakes sooner than later if he is to begin earning his massive paycheck.
Here are the 10 NFL quarterbacks with the highest cap hits in 2014.
10 Matthew Stafford -- Detroit Lions: $15.82 million cap hit
The 26-year-old is not, at this stage of his career, a top-ten quarterback. In the four seasons in which Stafford appeared in at least ten regular season games, he tossed a total of 72 interceptions. That is an average of over an interception per contest.
Calvin Johnson is maybe the best wide receiver in all of football. Tight end Eric Ebron is a promising prospect who could be the next Jimmy Graham. Stafford has the necessary weapons to win on a weekly basis.
The time has come for Stafford to take that next step toward greatness.
9 Philip Rivers -- San Diego Chargers: $16,666,666 cap hit
2013 was a year to remember for Rivers. His rating of 105.5 matched his career high as a starter in the NFL. He coupled 32 touchdowns with only 11 interceptions. Rivers was fifth in the league in total passing yards last season.
There's more. Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post recently stated that Rivers was the “most clutch” quarterback of 2013.
Rivers has been somewhat unlucky during his career. He has had to compete with the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees since joining the NFL. The Chargers have never had an elite defense while Rivers has been on the roster. Rivers could, if he retires without a ring, be the best quarterback of his generation to never win a Super Bowl.
8 Matt Ryan -- Atlanta Falcons: $17.5 million cap hit
Matt Ryan is similar to the previously mentioned Stafford. Both are top-15 quarterbacks who are paid top-10 money.
The stats are there as it pertains to Ryan. He was fourth in the league in passing yards and in completion percentage last season. That said, Ryan's 89.6 rating doesn't leap off of the chart when compared with quarterbacks in the top-seven of that list.
Ryan should have plenty of time inside of the pocket with which to work in 2014. The Falcons bolstered the team's offensive line during the offseason, and rookie Jake Matthews was one of the top-two tackles taken in the draft last May.
7 Peyton Manning -- Denver Broncos: $17.5 million cap hit
Manning and the Denver offense essentially wrote a new record book last season. He threw 55 touchdowns and limited his interceptions to just 10. Manning tossed for 5,477 passing yards. Only Nick Foles had a better rating than did Manning during the regular season.
Manning would go on to outplay Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game before he and the Broncos were slapped around by the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
Probably the best regular season quarterback to ever play the sport, Manning has earned every penny of his NFL salary. Enjoy watching the 38-year-old while you still can, football fans, because the league won't be the same when he calls time on his playing days.
6 Aaron Rodgers -- Green Bay Packers: $17.55 million cap hit
Peter King pointed out the following when writing about Rodgers earlier in August: “(Rodgers' career) rating, accuracy, yards-per-attempt, touchdown percentage and interception percentage all are better than Peyton Manning’s.”
Both Rodgers and Manning have hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy in celebration. Manning, as was pointed out earlier, is 38 years old.
Rodgers turned 30 years old last December.
Assuming that Rodgers avoids serious injuries and also that his career mirrors Manning's, the Packers will be legitimate title contenders every season for at least the next 5-8 years. It's possible that Rodgers could, a decade from now, be viewed as the greatest quarterback in the history of the Packers.
Yes, even greater than this guy.
5 Sam Bradford -- St. Louis Rams: $17.61 million cap hit
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher endorsed Bradford as the St. Louis starting quarterback this past offseason. Bradford then got some extra protection up front when the Rams drafted highly-rated offensive tackle/offensive guard Greg Robinson with the second overall pick. St. Louis is all-in on the 26-year-old QB. For now.
Bradford's contract changes and in a big way after this season, to the point that St. Louis cutting ties with the QB if he doesn't perform in 2014 is not a crazy notion. Having netted a guaranteed $50 million upon putting pen to paper on his rookie deal, Bradford is already financially set for life.
That could prove to be the only big NFL contract he ever signs.
4 Drew Brees -- New Orleans Saints: $18.4 million cap hit
Drew Brees was never supposed to be all that he has been as an NFL quarterback. He doesn't possess the size coveted by head coaches and offensive coordinators. He was, coming out of college, too reckless and too willing to take on pass-rushers. The San Diego Chargers gave up on Brees in favor of Philip Rivers following the completion of the 2005 regular season.
What could have been, Super Chargers. What could have been.
Brees has thrown for over 51,000 career passing yards. He was second in the league in passing yards and passing touchdowns in 2013. The 35-year-old will be enshrined in Canton not long after he steps away from the game as an active player.
Brees could have one more title run in him before all is said and done.
3 Jay Cutler -- Chicago Bears: $18.5 million cap hit
The Bears were at a crossroads last December, facing a scenario where they could either give the offense over to Cutler for the foreseeable future, or look toward the start of a new era and a new quarterback.
In the end, Cutler was awarded the contract that he desired. He will earn no less than $54 million via his current deal with the Bears. That said, the club could revisit this issue when Cutler's dead money value free-falls after the 2015 campaign.
Cutler is now being paid to be a championship quarterback, something that the 31-year-old has yet to be while in the NFL.
2 Ben Roethlisberger -- Pittsburgh Steelers: $18.895 million cap hit
The Steelers need to find out which is the real Big Ben moving forward. Is is the Roethlisberger who was lackluster in four consecutive losses last September, or is it the quarterback who played well enough to help Pittsburgh win eight of the team's last twelve games?
Roethlisberger was, if reports from last October are accurate, motivated by the fact that the Steelers were supposedly shopping his services to any bidders at that time. A similar scenario could play out this fall if the Steelers again stumble at the start of the campaign.
The 32-year-old will want to cash in on one final contract next offseason. He is a two-time Super Bowl champion and a Steelers legend, but the franchise may feel that it has to move on from this era if Roethlisberger has an average or below-average season.
1 Eli Manning -- New York Giants: $20.4 million cap hit
Ignore Manning's horrendous 2013 season when looking at his cap hit. He is atop this list for two reasons:
That championship-winning drive versus the New England Patriots, and the other championship-winning drive versus the Patriots.
Manning is like Roethlisberger in that both need to have bounce-back seasons if they are to remain with their current teams through the ends of their careers. Both are set to become free agents in 2016.
The NFL is a “what have you done for me lately?” business. Manning is not immune to that facet of the league. 27 interceptions and another losing season will not cut it for those running the Giants.
Manning has quieted his doubters on multiple occasions over the past decade. Can he do so again in 2014?