The NFL regular season is over and the Pro Bowl rosters have been set. While there are the usual suspects in the NFL’s all-star game, such as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson, there are also many players making their appearance for the first time. Still others are players who were coming off 2012 injuries and were underpaid going into the 2013 season. You can also factor in players playing on their rookie contracts who have outperformed their deals. In no particular order, here are the top 10 players going to Honolulu that haven’t quite been paid what they’re worth to their franchise.
10. Earl Thomas – FS – Seattle Seahawks – $2 million
Earl Thomas was drafted in the first round by the Seahawks in 2010. He’s another player on a rookie contract playing out-of-his-mind football. He is now arguably the best free safety in the NFL, but was making a mere $2 million in 2013. Thomas had 78 tackles, five interceptions and two forced fumbles.
His value goes beyond statistics, as he is the leader of the Seahawks’ ferocious defence. The Hawks are thinking ‘Super Bowl’ this year and if they do win, it will be because of the defence; they’ll definitely have to than the guy that leads the other 10 players.
9. J.J. Watt – DE – Houston Texans – $1.4 million
How do you leave out arguably the league’s best defensive player? Well, the Houston Texans have benefitted from early production from J.J. Watt. Drafted in the first round in 2011, Watt hit the ground running in the NFL. He recorded 20.5 sacks in his second year in 2012, adding 69 tackles and four forced fumbles. He also batted down 16 passes. His numbers dipped slightly in 2013, primarily due to poor overall play from the Texans, who finished last in the NFL at 2-14.
Watt’s numbers in 2013 include 65 tackles, 10.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and seven passes defended. His $1.4 million base salary isn’t typical of a player who was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2012. Watt’s a blue chipper for Houston and with just one year left on his rookie deal, they have to lock him up as soon as possible. Their ability to rebound in 2014 hinges on it.
8. Greg Hardy – DE – Carolina Panthers – $1.35 million
Greg Hardy had a breakout season in 2012 with 11 sacks. He proved that was no fluke in 2013, besting the previous year with 15 sacks. Pass-rushers are more valued than ever in the NFL today and Hardy’s production propelled the Panthers to a top-five defense this season. Hardy is in the final year of a four-year, $2,775,786 rookie contract. The better the Panthers do in the postseason, and the better Hardy’s performance is, the more pressure he’ll put on Carolina to pay him like an elite pass-rusher.
Hardy could be looking for a contract similar to that of teammate Charles Johnson, who signed a six-year, $76 million deal in 2011. The Panthers are likely to use the franchise tag on Hardy, which would at least give him a base salary of $11 million in 2014.
7. Alterraun Verner – CB – Tennessee Titans – $1.3 million
Alterraun Verner had a breakout season this year for Tennessee. He was a bright spot on a mediocre team, but his salary wouldn’t suggest that. He played out his contract year, and led the league with 22 pass breakups along with five interceptions. According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks had a 54.7 passer rating while throwing at Verner. That’s second only to Seattle’s Richard Sherman.
The 25-year-old was playing on a modest rookie deal worth $3.1 million over four years. He was drafted 104th overall in 2010 and has been a constant contributor in Tennessee over the past four years. Verner’s teammate Jason McCourty signed a five-year extension with the Titans in 2012 worth over $40 million. Verner could make the argument he deserves more. He might receive the franchise tag, but that would give him $10.8 million in 2014.
6. Robert Quinn – DE – St. Louis Rams – $1.2 million
Robert Quinn emerged in 2013 as a premium young pass-rusher. Making just $1.2 million, Quinn recorded a whopping 19 sacks, seven forced fumbles and 50 tackles. The Rams are one of the emerging teams of the NFL and their young stars on defence are the reason why.
Quinn was drafted in the first round of the 2011 draft and has improved every year he’s been in the league. Young pass rushers don’t stay cheap for long though, and the Rams will have to reward Quinn for his dominant play in the near future.
5. Jimmy Graham – TE – New Orleans Saints – $824,535
How can the best player at his position not be paid a seven-figure salary? That is the mystery with Jimmy Graham. Graham’s in the last year of his rookie contract. The 2010 third-round pick’s four-year deal averages $824,535 per year. After four seasons, Graham has 301 receptions for 3,863 yards and 41 touchdowns. Those are colossal numbers for a tight end and by this time next year, Graham should be the highest-paid player at his position. New Orleans will have to make cap space for that to happen. If they can’t, another team will find a way to do so.
4. Justin Houston – OLB – Kansas City Chiefs – $555,000
Justin Houston proved to play a huge role in Kansas City’s miraculous turnaround season this year. The Chiefs improved from 2-14 to 11-5 on the backbone of a vicious defence. Houston led the way in the pass-rush, recording 11 sacks in just 11 games. Kansas City was 9-2 with Houston in the lineup and 2-3 without him. His presence is worth a lot more than his $555,000 base salary in 2013. He has one year remaining on his rookie contract, but may decide to hold out in next year’s training camp for a new deal if the Chiefs don’t offer him a new contract in the offseason.
A strong playoff showing would really help his cause, as Houston is set to return after missing five games.
3. Richard Sherman – CB – Seattle Seahawks – $555,000
Richard Sherman leads the ‘Legion of Boom’ in Seattle, as he’s arguably the best cornerback in the NFL. His long frame makes him a matchup nightmare for opposing offences and he consistantly makes big plays. He had eight interceptions this year, matching his 2012 production and the Seahawks are the top seed in the NFC. They did it with their top-ranked defence, allowing just 172 passing yards a game, and 273.6 total yards per game.
Sherman earned a base salary of $555,000. He has one year remaining on his rookie contract. Sherman was drafted in the fifth round in 2011 and is another Seahawk who far exceeded expectations. Part of the reason why Seattle is so strong with so much depth is the production they’ve gotten out of late round draft picks. There will come a time when they’ll have to pay their players based on their production, hence why their SuperBowl window is now. They’ll want to lock up Sherman sooner rather than later.
2. Russell Wilson – QB – Seattle Seahawks – $526,000
Russell Wilson has built up quite a pedigree in his short time in the NFL. He has only lost one home game in his two NFL seasons, has a playoff win and nearly led his team to the NFC Championship last year. The Seattle Seahawks may have the best deal for any player in the league. Wilson’s 2013 base salary was just $526,000. He was drafted in the third round in 2012, which is why his rookie deal was so low. Suffice to say, he has far exceeded expectations. He made huge strides this year, and helped lead the Seahawks to a 13-3 record and homefield advantage throughout the NFC. The Seahawks will have to give Wilson a significant raise very soon, because any competent agent would demand substantially more than $526,000 for one of the league’s best young quarterbacks.
The fact that the Seahawks have three players on this top 10 list speaks volumes as to why they have been so successful the past couple of years.
1. Vontaze Burfict – LB – Cincinnati Bengals – $480,000
The Cincinnati Bengals found themselves a huge steal when they signed an undrafted Vontaze Burfict out of Arizona State in 2012. Burfict was a contributor from day one and is now a bonafide star. Character concerns coming out of college now appear to be overblown. Burfict’s base salary for 2013 is $480,000 and he’s been a huge reason why the Bengals’ defence has been so dominant. He recorded 113 tackles this year, as well as three sacks, a forced fumble and an interception.
He constantly makes plays for Cincinnati and he’ll now have a Pro Bowl appearance under his belt. He has every right to demand more from the Bengals.
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