Here is the question we began the series with: Is it more surprising that the vast majority of players in the NFL are appropriately valued and paid or that a select few are are neither?
On the defensive side of the ball, there are some serious surprises. Of course, the new rookie pay scale distorts players' market values. It is a reflection of a prediction regarding how well they'd play that was made when they were signed. It's filtered through the constraints of the CBA-established pay restrictions; you'll see this with the NFL's leading tackler, who is included in this list.
As announcers never tire of saying, the NFL is a parity-rich league where the utility of each payroll dollar must be maximized. On the other hand, there seem to be few major sports where a player's stock can rise/fall so fast as professional football, and where the risks of catastrophic injury are so high.
Should NFL players earn more (relative to baseball and basketball, for example, which pay more) because of the unique toll the game takes on their bodies?
It seems odd that the most-watched sport in the United States doesn't feature the highest-paid players. However, there are more than 50 men on an NFL roster. The 2014 NFL Salary Cap will get a bump to about $140 million. Compare that to the "soft" ~$60 million cap in the NBA for 2013-2014. That money only has to be split 15 or 16 ways. Thus, NBA players get a bigger slice of pie.
The average salary for an NFL player is around $1.9 million per year, obviously those numbers trend higher for skill positions. Predictably, the majority of the players on this list are skill players...not that there aren't under/overpaid defensive tackles out there.
Let's take a look at some surprising salaries among defensive players in the NFL.
6 Charles Johnson - Carolina Panthers - Defensive End: 6 years, $76 million
The case of Charles Johnson is a cautionary tale about what can happen when an average player has a breakout season the year his contract expires. The Panthers were backed into a corner by Johnson's 62 tackle/11.5 sack 2010 season, and to prevent him from going elsewhere, the team made him the third-highest-paid defensive end in the league. They overpaid, hoping for similar production down the road.
Johnson hasn't been bad during the tenure of his contract. He hasn't been the third-best end in the league either. Consider last year when he was 8th in sacks among defensive ends but an unimpressive 89th in tackles. Terrible stuff? No. Third-best defensive end stuff? Certainly not.
5 Red Bryant - Seattle Seahawks - Defensive End: 5 years, $35 million
Who is Red Bryant and why is he the 11th-highest-paid defensive end in the NFL? These are questions you are surely asking yourself.
A bit of context: Bryant had a severe foot injury in 2012 that he played through en route to a measly 24 tackles and no sacks. 2013 was supposed be a significantly better year for the end. Unfortunately, it wasn't: He recorded 30 tackles and 1.5 sacks, playing just 488 snaps.
Bryant had a reputation as a quality run-stopper. However, his talents never seemed to merit the five-year, $35 million deal he inked in 2012. He's never recorded more than 32 tackles or 1.5 sacks in a season. Why he's paid nearly as much as Cliff Avril, another defensive end on his team, and one who recorded 8.5 sacks last year, is unclear.
With a roster bonus due this year, Bryant has to be on the chopping block.
4 Carlos Rogers - San Francisco 49ers - Cornerback: 4 years, $29.3 million
Carlos Rogers made the 49ers pay after his 2011 Pro Bowl season, and the Bay Area team inked him to a four-year, $29.3 million deal. Rogers, now 32, is owed $6.25 million in base pay in 2014, which virtually assures the 'Niners will cut the cornerback rather than pay him that amount.
Last season, Rogers recorded just two picks and 39 tackles. That's a lot to pay for a guy who is not a starting cornerback at this stage in his career. Sources indicate that Rogers' real value is about half of the $6.25 million in base pay he's due in 2014. If he's cut and resigned elsewhere, expect him to earn closer to $3 million per year next season.
3 Patrick Peterson - Arizona Cardinals - Cornerback: 4 years, $18.4 million
Patrick Peterson has emerged as a shutdown corner. He was one of the top-five least thrown at corners in the league in 2013. Indeed, Peterson spent the entire season covering the opponent's best receiver.
As he's in the fourth year of a rookie contract, he's only due to earn $5.8 million in 2014 (barring any negotiations/extensions), which will make him just the 17th-highest-paid corner in the league. Rumor has it that the Cardinals are reluctant to offer Peterson a contract extension this offseason.
Thus, one of the top-five cover guys in the league will be paid less than half of what the five highest-paid corners in the league earn.
2 Earl Thomas - Seattle Seahawks - Safety: 5 years, $18.3 million
Seattle Seahawks star free safety Earl Thomas, at age 24, is emerging as a star in the NFL. He was in on 105 tackles last season and also recorded five picks.
The 14th overall selection in the 2010 draft, Thomas was signed before the adoption of the new rookie pay scale. Thus, the Seahawks did a heck of a job locking him up for five years at just $18.3 million. When Thomas is inevitably resigned, he'll make more than half that amount in a single season.
It's unbelievable that Thomas and Kam Chancellor, his partner at safety for the Seahawks, made less together in 2013 ($11.2 million) than the highest-paid safety in the league, Eric Berry ($11.6 million)
1 Vontaze Burfict - Cincinnati Bengals - Linebacker: 3 years, $1.4 million
Do you know who the league's leading tackler in 2013 was? Vontaze Burfict of the Cincinnati Bengals, with a combined 171 of them.
Burfict, who was originally expected to go in the top 10 in 2012 saw his draft stock plummet for a variety of reasons. Ultimately, the Arizona State standout went undrafted and the Bengals signed him for a bargain three-year, $1.4 million contract. As per the new CBA, Burfict won't be able to renegotiate his contract until the end of the 2014 season.
Thus, the Pro Bowler and league-leading tackler is slated to earn $570,333 in 2014, making him the 148th-highest-paid inside linebacker, the 42nd-highest-paid Bengal, and No. 1,043 among all players in 2014 team salary cap hits.
A truly unbelievable combination of factors and contributing events.