Top 10 Most Valuable Positions in the NFL

In the mega billion-dollar machine that is today’s NFL, there is certainly enough cheddar to go around. However, some players are getting a much bigger bite of the cheese, while others are left with mere crumbs. It’s no surprise the established stars of the NFL like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are living large with top-tier contracts. But you might be surprised at what other star players are earning simply based on the position they play, and subsequently, their perceived value.

Do you ever find yourself wondering what the most important positions are in football? Clearly quarterbacks are the lifeblood of nearly every football team in the NFL, but what about the guys that are brought in to protect the QB? How about the workhorse running back that carries the ball 25 times a game? And you can’t forget about the stud defensive end; what the heck is he worth comparatively? Well, judging by today’s average NFL salaries, we can give you a list of the most valuable positions in the NFL.

(Information based on figures from 2013 from Sports Illustrated’s report, “NFL’s Average Salaries By Position.”)

10 Running Backs: $1,550,624

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When you think of the NFL greats, it’s hard not to think of Barry Sanders, O.J. Simpson, Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, and Jim Brown. All these players have something in common: they carried the ball and pounded through tackles en route to some of the most memorable careers in NFL history. Even today’s game features some of the league’s most incredible talents at running back like Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, and LeSean McCoy. But while such players might steal the spotlight and provide much needed fantasy points on Sundays, they all star at a position that is becoming less and less valuable by the season. The running back position is spiraling faster than Miley Cyrus these days, and that’s saying something. The truth of the matter is, teams just don’t invest in the position anymore. Most of that can be attributed to a very short career arch due to the physical nature of the position, and also to the replaceable nature of the position.  In any case, running backs rank behind nearly every other position in average salary at just over $1.5 million a season.

9 Kickers/Punters: $1,662,786

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One of the biggest surprises on this list is the fact that kickers and punters are even on it in the first place. While still important, kickers have taken a backseat to nearly every other position on the football field, and are typically viewed as an afterthought by fans. It should be noted, however, that kickers are among the highest scoring players in the league, and are called upon to kick clutch field goals in critical moments. But even still, kickers and punters are on the field for just a fraction of the time that other players are. Currently 10 kickers are earning more than $3 million per season in the NFL, while 22 are earning more than $1 million a season. Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski is the top-earning kicker in the league, raking in nearly $4 million a season; not bad for someone who doesn’t have to tackle or be tackled.

8 Cornerbacks: $1,690,105

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While cornerbacks may rank low on this list today, that’s bound to change significantly if the current trend continues. Cornerbacks have certainly been getting paid as of late, especially after the Seattle Seahawks laid out the blueprint for dominating with tall, lengthy cornerbacks. Speaking of the Seahawks, they also own the league’s top earning (per year) cornerback in Richard Sherman, who signed a four-year, $56 million extension this offseason. Just days later, the Cleveland Browns inked Joe Haden to a five-year, $68 million extension, making Haden the highest grossing cornerback in the league, but leaving him just shy of Sherman’s $14 million per year average.

7 Safeties: $1,752,582

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If you want to stop a potent passing attack, nothing is more important than a solid safety in the backfield. Safeties do it all, acting as the last line of defense against passes and runs. While they don’t get paid quite as much as the guys up front, they are still integral to the success of a defense. In 2014, Seahawks safety Earl Thomas became the league’s highest-paid safety as well as the first at his position to earn eight figures with his new $40 million contract over four years ($10 million per year). The Saints own the second highest paid safety in Jairus Byrd ($9 million), while the Chiefs’ Eric Berry ranks third among safeties ($8.34 million).

6 Offensive Linemen: $1,760,164

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Some analysts say the most important position in football is not quarterback, but instead the left tackle – the most critical position in protecting the quarterback. Offensive tackles may also be the most underappreciated and unrecognized players on the field. If a tackle is doing his job, you likely won’t even notice. The only time you notice is when something goes awry. In any case, a good offensive line is typically the most crucial part of an efficient offense. As such, offensive linemen are certainly recognized by general managers and coaches, receiving the sixth-highest average salaries in the NFL. The highest paid linemen include Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas ($11.5 million), Denver Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady ($10.5 million), and Philadelphia Eagles left tackle Jason Peters ($10.3 million).

5 Linebackers: $1,803,388

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As the Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore Ravens have proven over the last two seasons, defense truly is key to winning championships. And while defense starts up front at the line of scrimmage and ends in the backfield, it is the linebacker who anchors the entire unit. From blitzing to pass coverage to run stopping, linebackers do it all. That’s why linebackers rank as the fifth most valuable position in the league. Clay Matthews currently owns the highest contract for a linebacker, earning $13.2 million a year with Green Bay. Both the Steelers and 49ers have invested serious coin into the position, as both teams have multiple players among the top-10 highest paid linebackers in the league. The Steelers shell out just under $20 a year between linebackers Jason Worilds and Lawrence Timmons, while the 49ers invest $19 million on the fearsome duo of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.

4 Wide Receivers: $1,806,999

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While it seems general managers value defensive front sevens above any position outside of quarterback, the fourth-highest paid position puts the focus back on offense. A quarterback is worthless if he doesn’t have guys with good hands catching the ball. That’s why wide receiver ranks among the most valuable positions in the NFL, with an average salary of more than $1.8 million a year. On a typical NFL roster, there are about 6 wide receivers – making the position one of the deepest in the NFL. There are many receivers on league minimum contracts. But with stars like Calvin Johnson reeling in average of $16.2 million a year – the fifth-highest contract in the NFL – those numbers have certainly spiked. In fact, the discrepancy between Calvin Johnson’s mega contract and the average for his position is higher than any other player at his respective position. It just goes to show that teams will shell out for guys that can catch the ball.

3 Defensive Tackles: $1,807,581

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Defensive tackles come in as the third most valuable position in the NFL, which is somewhat of a surprise considering how little attention they garner on the field. They may not have the exposure of a quarterback or a wide receiver, but rest assured, the big boys up front are doing just fine. Averaging more than $1.8 million a year, the run-clogging men in the middle earn much more than most other skill positions. The Detroit Lions’ controversial run-stuffer Ndamukong Suh currently holds the league’s highest defensive tackle contract, earning $12.7 million a year. Not far behind Suh is the Ravens’ stud tackle Haloti Ngata, who earns just over $12.1 million each season.

2 Defensive Ends: $2,599,874

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While quarterbacks are the unquestioned stars of the NFL, the guys that chase quarterbacks are not far behind. Based on 2013 salary figures, defensive ends ranked just behind quarterbacks in average yearly income. While the average salary of a defensive end is just less than $2.6 million, the top-tier quarterback sackers in the league garner a much prettier penny. Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams currently claims the highest contract for the position and eighth highest in the NFL at $16 million a year.

1 Quarterbacks: $3,840,017

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The fact that quarterback is No. 1 on this list probably comes as less of a shock than when the weather turns warm in summer. It’s a forgone conclusion that the quarterback is king of an increasingly offensive-driven NFL. As of last season, 13 of the NFL's biggest contracts were at the quarterback position, with the top four going to Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Drew Brees, respectively. What might be shocking, instead, is how little top-end quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady actually make relative to superstars in MLB and the NBA. For example, the top-earning player in the NFL earns just over $20 million. By contrast, 17 MLB players and five NBA players earn higher annual salaries. Regardless, $20 million is certainly nothing to sneeze at. And when it comes to football, no one does better than the guys calling the shots and heaving the pigskin.

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