The best National Football League players in the game are international superstars. They perform at elite levels on the field, and they are used in television commercials and in print advertisements. Those great athletes are financial assets for their teams and for the NFL.
It should not be forgotten that pro football is a dangerous sport. Players are one hit or one misstep away from their careers ending in an instant. Effects of injuries such as concussions and ACL tears linger for years and for decades.
Add all of that together, and it is easy to understand why NFL stars are paid so handsomely.
NFL quarterbacks are literally front and center during games. They attract the most attention, and they also earn the most cash. Eight of the ten players featured in this piece are QBs, and quarterbacks take up the top-four spots in the list.
Here are the 10 highest career earnings of active NFL players for 2014
Values courtesy of Spotrac
10 QB Matt Stafford -- Detroit Lions: $99.67 million
After injuries kept him off the field for all but 13 games in his first two seasons in the NFL, Stafford won the Comeback Player of the Year Award for 2011. He hasn't missed a single regular season contest in the past three years. Stafford tossed 52 touchdown passes from 2011 through 2013.
He is also a reason the Lions have so little cap space this September.
Stafford has a cap hit of over $17 million next season. Dynamic Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson, 11th on this list ($96,309,162 career earnings), will carry a cap hit of over $20 million in 2015. The Lions are (maybe) the second-best team in the NFC North, and they cannot afford to pay Ndamukong Suh. Suh is the best defensive tackle in the NFL, and he can void his contract in February.
Is Stafford really worth the money?
9 QB Michael Vick -- New York Jets: $103.741 million
Michael Vick's career has been both fascinating and disturbing to follow. He was the most electrifying player in the NFL while with the Atlanta Falcons. Then came an ugly dog fighting scandal that landed Vick out of the league and in jail. Following his prison sentence, Vick returned to the NFL via the Philadelphia Eagles, where he was a Most Valuable Player candidate before injuries and the stellar play of Nick Foles relegated Vick to backup duties.
Vick is again No. 2 on a depth chart, this time behind Geno Smith. Vick is on a one-year deal worth $4 million. The 34-year-old who is banged up may only have one more NFL contract in his future before he has to call time on his playing days.
8 WR Larry Fitzgerald -- Arizona Cardinals: $105.2825 million
Larry Fitzgerald will, whenever he retires, go down as one of the best wide receivers of his era. The 31-year-old has 11,367 career receiving yards. He is well on his way to accumulating over 1,000 catches and over 100 touchdowns. That he has played for some lackluster teams in his 11 years in the NFL makes all that he has achieved that much more impressive.
Fitzgerald could also be nearing the end of his Arizona career.
The Cardinals would save cash were they to move Fitzgerald after 2014, as the veteran's cap hit rises to $23 million next year. Several would-be contenders will be shopping for a play-maker such as Fitzgerald next offseason. Fitzgerald could get one more chance to obtain a championship ring in 2015.
7 QB Philip Rivers -- San Diego Chargers: $106.11 million
His resume would suggest that Rivers has been an overpaid player over the past decade. Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, who isn't in the top-ten of this list, has two Super Bowl rings. Rivers, on the other hand, has never even played on pro football's biggest stage. Four active quarterbacks ahead of Rivers in career earnings have won the Super Bowl, and two are multi-time champs.
Numbers sometimes lie, though, and don't be fooled into assuming that Rivers hasn't earned every penny of his NFL contracts.
Rivers has been named to five Pro Bowl squads. He was the Comeback Player of the Year in 2013 in a season during which Rivers completed 69.5 percent of his pass attempts. Rivers will be regarded as the best quarterback in Chargers history whenever he retires.
Not too shabby.
6 QB Carson Palmer -- Arizona Cardinals: $107,627,242
We will never know how good Carson Palmer could have been had it not been for an incident that occurred early on in his career. The former Cincinnati Bengals starter appeared to be one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL in January 2006 when an accidental blow to his leg resulted in Palmer suffering a serious knee injury.
Palmer eventually recovered, and he has had a fine career. It is, however, highly unlikely that he will match the feats achieved by the quarterbacks above him in this list. The 34-year-old has two years left on his current Arizona contract, but the Cardinals could save money in parting ways with Palmer next year.
5 DE/LB Julius Peppers -- Green Bay Packers: $110.228 million
Julius Peppers was a force on the defensive side of the football right out of the gates after he was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in 2002. He won PFWA and AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in his debut season in the league. Peppers has since been named to eight Pro Bowl squads, he is a three-time first-team All-Pro, and Peppers is a member of the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team.
Peppers put pen to paper on what could be his final player contract when he signed with the Packers this past March. $7.5 million of the $26 million spread throughout the three-year deal is guaranteed. Peppers will be 37 years old the next time he is eligible to become a free agent.
4 QB Drew Brees -- New Orleans Saints: $120.455 million
Despite being 35 years old, there are few reasons to believe that Brees has entered the closing stages of his NFL career. He tossed for 5,476 in 2011, and Brees threw for over 5,100 yards in each of the past two seasons. He has found the end zone with his arm 128 times in regular season play since 2011.
Assume, for argument's sake, that Brees does gradually diminish over the next several years. He will still retire with over 60,000 passing yards and close to, if not more than, 450 passing touchdowns. Brees is a two-time Offensive Player of the Year, and he has a Super Bowl MVP award in his trophy case.
His invite to Canton is already in the mail.
3 QB Eli Manning -- New York Giants: $135.12 million
There is no denying that Eli Manning had his worst NFL season in 2013. He threw a career-high 27 interceptions last year, he and his receivers had zero chemistry during the first half of the campaign, and Manning was responsible for only 18 touchdowns. That was his lowest touchdown tally since his rookie season (6 touchdowns in 2004).
That said, the good has outweighed the ball throughout Manning's career. One quarterback has won two Super Bowl MVP trophies since February 2008. It's not Eli's older brother. It's not Tom Brady. It's not Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers.
It's the younger Manning, and that justifies his being so high on this list.
2 QB Tom Brady -- New England Patriots: $150.7795 million
A sixth-round pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, Brady is one of the most successful pro football players in history. He is a nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback. He is a three-time Super Bowl champion who has two Super Bowl MVP awards to his name. Brady was but a few unfortunate bad breaks away from completing a perfect 19-0 season.
It would be difficult to argue against those individuals.
1 QB Peyton Manning -- Denver Broncos: $242.732 million
The scoreboard tells you that Manning trails Brady in “Greatest Quarterback of His Generation” debates. Brady has three rings. Manning has won the Super Bowl only once. Brady is 3-2 in Super Bowl games, and each of the two defeats were nail-biters that were determined by one drive. Manning and the Broncos were dominated by the Seattle Seahawks last February, to the point that pockets of fans and analysts believed that the veteran quarterback should call it a career.
Future football fans may see Manning as a great regular season quarterback who consistently failed to finish missions in postseasons. His career stats don't lie, and Manning is, at worst, a top-ten all-time NFL QB.
You can be sure that neither the Indianapolis Colts nor the Broncos regret paying Manning any of the money that he has earned.
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