The NFL is a numbers game. There’s an old saying that football is a business for both players and owners. It’s a little cliché but it definitely has some truth to it. We’ve seen it multiple times over the years. How many big name players have left their teams for higher payouts? How many old veterans have been discarded due to large cap hits? A large cap number might be good for a player’s wallet but it sometimes puts them in the crosshairs of their respective teams once cap issues come to surface. Depending on how much dead money they’d still owe the player, teams might either cut or trade away larger cap numbers who might not be performing up to par in favor of acquiring new pieces for the team.
But when you look at the guys on this list it’s hard to imagine them watching the 2015 season at home or wearing another jersey sometime this year. Most of the players on this list are seasoned veterans who’ve proven they can win games for their team. These contracts also reflect the two highest valued positions in the game today - quarterback and pass rusher. You’ll find that there are a large amount of signal callers as well as a handful of defensive ends on this list. Why? Because QB has always been the money position in football while pass rushers are being valued higher than they’ve ever been in recent years. It obviously takes more than a good QB or DE to make a good team, but most of the players on this list have performed over the last few years and they’re getting paid because of it.
15 Alex Smith – 2015 Cap Hit: $15.6 Million
It might be strange to consider that Alex Smith is among some of the highest paid players in the league but the Chiefs quarterback signed a four-year extension with KC prior to starting training camp last year. While his name might not be as well-known as guys like Peyton Manning, Smith has been a decent starter in the league for several years and is known as a field general who rarely puts the ball in danger. While he might be the highest paid player on his team this year, Kansas City rely heavily on their strong pass rush and elite running game to win games. This season will be no different.
14 Darrelle Revis – 2015 Cap Hit: $16 Million
13 Jay Cutler – 2015 Cap Hit: $16.5 Million
The highly criticized Bears signal caller is entering his sixth year with the franchise amongst a sea of criticism after being benched late last season in favor of Jimmy Clausen. Cutler is learning yet another offense in what will be his first year under former Broncos coordinator Adam Gase. This might be a make or break year for the veteran QB as his performance continues to decline. He’s obviously overpaid, raking in $18 million this year alone but perhaps a turnaround under Gase and a playoff berth will change people’s sentiments by the end of the year.
12 Robert Quinn – 2015 Cap Hit: $16.74 Million
11 Ben Roethlisberger – 2015 Cap Hit: $17.24 Million
Last season Ben Roethlisberger broke records and showed the league that his age wouldn’t be effecting his play anytime soon. If the Steelers want to get back to another championship they’re going to need to rely heavily on their offense seeing as there are multiple question marks surrounding their defense. But Pittsburgh fans can rest easy. The Steelers have Antonio Brown out wide and athletic bruiser Le'Veon Bell running the ball. Actually the Steelers look like they’ll have one of the most talented offenses in the year in 2015. So look forward to seeing a lot of terrible towels flying around if you’re a Steelers fan.
10 Peyton Manning – 2015 Cap Hit: $17.75 Million
When everything’s said and done, Peyton Manning will be remembered as one of the greatest to ever play the game. The only question that lingers on is whether or not he’ll win another championship before he finally decides to call it quits. Everyone remembers that painful loss to the Seahawks in Super Bowl 48 a couple years back. That could very well have been Manning’s last shot at another ring. But he’s still in Denver for another year and though the Broncos lost Julius Thomas to free agency Manning is the kind of signal caller who makes the talent around him better no matter who’s penciled in as the starter.
9 Matthew Stafford – 2015 Cap Hit: $17.72 Million
The Lions franchise QB has yet to bring a playoff win to Detroit but there’s reason to be optimistic if you’re a Lions fan. Detroit lost a close one to the Cowboys last season on a somewhat controversial call. Ironically Dallas lost the week after on another controversial call by the refs. But last season is behind us. This year the Lions have a lot of the same faces returning on offense though the defense took some big losses in free agency. If anyone’s going to get the Lions to the playoffs again it’s Stafford, he’s proven that he can. Now all he has to do is prove he can win.
8 Aaron Rodgers – 2015 Cap Hit: $18.2 Million
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the league right now. The Packers star spent his fair share of time on the bench behind legendary Brett Favre before making it into the spotlight as a starter. Most people will remember Rodgers’ painful slide in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft as multiple teams passed on the now pro bowl signal caller. As soon as he got his shot to start he showed that he had what it takes to lead a team and be mentioned among the league’s elite. He might be starting to get along in age a little but don’t think that’s going to stop this future hall of famer.
7 Mario Williams – 2015 Cap Hit: $$19.4 Million
While Lesean McCoy might be the Bills’ most high profile player on that team, you can’t under-appreciate what Mario Williams has done for the team since signing with them as a free agent a few years ago. Despite not being drafted by the team Williams has proved to be one of the most productive pass rushers in Bills history since Bruce Smith. He consistently gets after the passer and has done so 38 times in the last three years. That’s top tier stuff. Yet he’s sometimes overshadowed by some of the young blood guys in the league who’ve been making splashes of their own. Nonetheless Williams should continue this dominant patter in 2015 under the tutelage of defensive guru Rex Ryan.
6 Matt Ryan – 2015 Cap Hit: $19.5 Million
After the Michael Vick scandal that left the team grasping at straws without a franchise signal caller the Atlanta Falcons put their future in the hands of a young QB from Boston College. Matt Ryan has gradually helped take that franchise from the worst in the league to a respectable playoff contender. Never short on weapons, Ryan has thrown to guys like Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. But the veteran has yet to bring home a Lombardi despite getting close a few years ago. As we enter 2015 “Matty Ice” is set to have another great year paired with one of the league’s best receivers in Jones. Only time will tell if that duo can bring Atlanta their first ever Super Bowl win.
5 Eli Manning – 2015 Cap Hit: $19.7 Million
4 Charles Johnson – 2015 Cap Hit: $20.02 Million
While Cam Newton might be the best known player on the offensive side of the ball in Carolina, defensive end Charles Johnson is regarded as one of the most disruptive on his end of things. A defense that only several years ago boasted the talents of Julius Peppers and more recently Greg Hardy, Carolina is one of the stronger pass rushing units in the NFL. One doesn’t have to look further than number 95 on the right side of the line to know why. Johnson is an absolute beast and makes it his job to consistently get in the faces of some of the best runners and passers the league has to offer. He’s one of the key players apart from Luke Keuchly and should have himself a great season if that leg injury that he sustained in practice a week ago doesn’t hinder him too long.
3 Calvin Johnson – 2015 Cap Hit: $20.55 Million
2 Philip Rivers – 2015 Cap Hit: $21.66 Million
The man who just signed a brand new four-year, $83.25 million deal with the San Diego Chargers is most likely to end his career with the team. Now that they’ve got their franchise QB locked up for the foreseeable future the Chargers are ready to make another playoff push. They’ve got some good pieces on both sides of the ball but Rivers is the glue that holds the team together. He’s a leader in the locker room, tough as hell and can be counted on to lead his team down the field when the game is on the line.
1 Drew Brees – 2015 Cap Hit: $26.4 Million
The Saints veteran is looking to bring a second Lombardi Trophy to the big easy. That’s going to be a tough thing to do after losing Jimmy Graham to a trade with the Seahawks. But much like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, Drew Brees is one of those special players that makes those around him better. Known for his accuracy, the undersized Brees still has a plethora of weapons to work with including second year man Brandin Cooks and free agent runner CJ Spiller. The Saints should have some competition in the NFC South this season from Carolina and Atlanta but can make a strong run with Brees at the helm.