This is likely not the first “NFL All-Value” team article you’ve read, but I think many of those articles exploit something fundamental about player’s earnings: rookie contracts are ridiculously good value. With the current contract system in place for rookies, their cap hits are negligible compared to their value on the field. So yes, of course Odell Beckham will populate many of those teams over Antonio Brown, because his value is off the charts compared to Brown’s. My challenge was to create an all-value team with no rookie contracts, and actually find among the veterans those who are objectively underpaid for their service on the field. Could I field a championship team, accounting for the potential for injuries, while actually staying under the $167 million cap? Take a look below:
Tom Brady ($14 million)
Matt Moore ($2.2 million)
It’s easy to anoint Brady the GOAT – his recent Super Bowl performance only adding to his legend – but it seems to go unnoticed how ridiculous Brady’s contract is. In an era where even a league average quarterback gets paid by the truckload, Brady earns less than the median pay at the position. Joe Flacco is the NFL’s highest paid player at nearly $25 million. Andrew Luck inked a 5 year, $123 million extension last offseason and experts claim he was underpaid. How ridiculous does that make Brady’s $14 million cap hit? Brady is the best quarterback in the NFL right now, and yet he is compensated as a bottom-10 starter. Brady’s placement on this all-value team is a no-brainer, and the Patriots have to continue to take advantage of his ridiculous bargain.
Terrance West ($1.8 million)
James White ($1.4 million)
Darren McFadden ($.69 million)
Juwan Thompson ($.61 million)
Running backs are not hard to find on the cheap in the NFL. While the league’s elite backs are compensated fairly, such as LeSean McCoy at $8 million a year, many more average veterans are left by the wayside at the hand of younger, cheaper options. Therefore, very few high level veteran running backs have contracts that short their value on the field. Terrance West is likely the best bruising, between-the-tackles back on the market for less than $2 million; he showed flashes of his 3rd round talent last year on Baltimore when forced into a starter’s role. A solidly built one-cut runner, West is a great first and second down back to have, especially with James White to complement him. White finally broke out during the Patriot’s playoff run, catching an insane 14 passes in the Super Bowl. He has proven himself to be one of the elite scatbacks in the game, but earns about half of what his peers do. Behind those two starters, Darren McFadden and Juwan Thompson are competent backups. McFadden can do a little bit of everything in the backfield, and behind this offensive line, should still have some juice. Thompson is a plodding runner, but can serve as a pounder on the goal line and even as a fullback.
Michael Crabtree ($7 million)
Brandon Marshall ($4.5 million)
Jeremy Maclin ($3.5 million)
Jaron Brown ($1.3 million)
Michael Floyd ($1.1 million)
Wide receiver is one of the most overpaid positions in the NFL. For players that only get between 5-10 targets a game, they make exponentially more money than their running back counterparts. Allen Hurns will make $10 million this year, more than double the payroll of all the running backs listed above. Finding players like Crabtree that are underpaid relative to their success is difficult, but Crabtree is an exception. A former first round pick, his tenure in San Francisco ended inharmoniously, earning him a cheap deal with Oakland. Crabtree has vaulted everyone on the depth chart, even Amari Cooper, receiving the most targets on the Raiders over the last two years. To pair with Crabtree as a one, Brandon Marshall is an excellent second option. When in Chicago, Marshall’s presence helped Alshon Jeffrey reach star status, while Marshall still put up an enormous stat line. This duo would be equally as effective, especially with Brady throwing them the ball. Jeremy Maclin and Michael Floyd would be good third and fourth wide receivers for this team alongside Crabtree and Marshall. Maclin, like Crabtree, is an incredibly versatile player and can play either X or Z in the offense. Floyd has always had the talent of a starting wide receiver, and even though he has run into legal issues, his cheap contract makes him a great fourth receiver for boom plays. Lastly, Jaron Brown is an underrated slot receiver, and can start for this team in the slot almost as well as a player like Jarvis Landry or Jamison Crowder.
Rob Gronkowski ($6.7 million)
Cameron Brate (.$69 million)
When compiling this roster, I didn’t want to splurge on any one position, but it is nearly impossible to pass up the value Rob Grownkowski provides. Gronkowski is far and away the best tight end in the NFL right now, and there isn’t even a debate. He runs seam routes like a wide receiver and bowls over tacklers like a lineman, making him impossible to cover. Moreover, Gronkowski is arguably the best blocking tight end in the NFL, a skill not found among some of the other elite tight ends in the league. Gronkowski’s well rounded skill set makes him invaluable, and yet he is the eighth highest paid at his position. That disparity is impossible to overlook. Cameron Brate could easily play in two tight end sets with Gronkowski, too; his skill set actually resembles Gronkowski’s, and for the minimum, Brate would be a dynamic weapon to pair with Gronkowski.
Donald Penn ($7.1 million)
David Bakhtiari ($6.7 million)
Marcus Cannon ($3.3 million)
Like wide receivers, the market for offensive linemen has picked up considerably in the last five years, and now the top earners make more than just about any other position. To find value at the position while not putting out a ragtag O-line, I need to spend a little bit more on the position. Lining up Donald Penn and David Bakhtiari, though, as my two tackles is a massive advantage. Both Penn and Bakhtiari have graded out as top five run blockers according to PFF, with Penn being the best last year. These two linemen have been the anchors for their O-lines over the last few years, so having both at such great value is a massive boon. Marcus Cannon makes sense as a backup; he’s a top 20 linemen earning less than over 35 of his peers.
Richie Incognito ($4.1 million)
John Greco ($3.1 million)
Andrew Norwell ($2.2 million)
Guards are less expensive than tackles, as a general rule, but to land top-end talent, I still have to pay up just a little bit. Nevertheless, starting Richie Incognito and John Greco gives the all-value team two top ten PFF guards. Incognito has rebounded very nicely in Buffalo after an ugly exit from Miami (which may have hurt his market value), and Greco has been one of the centerpieces for Cleveland’s rebuilding of their offensive line. Andrew Norwell is also solid as a rotation piece after having a breakout 2016 campaign. He placed in the top 15 of PFF’s guard rankings as well, which makes his $2.2 million salary look very reasonable.
JC Tretter ($3.6 million)
Matt Paradis ($.61 million)
Centers as a whole seem shockingly underpaid compares to tackles and guards, and that only contributes to the value this team has at center. JC Tretter is regarded as one of the best centers in the league -and PFF backs that up – though only yielded $3.6 million from Cleveland this offseason. While he will shine in Cleveland’s offense, his value doesn’t quite match Matt Paradis’. Though Denver slogged through a rough season last year, partially attributable to their O-line, Paradis was a bright spot, ranking statistically as the second best center in the league. On just a $.61 million salary, Paradis represents one of the best values in the league right now, and he certainly finds his way onto this roster.
Defensive End (4-3):
Jason Pierre-Paul ($7.2 million)
Robert Ayers ($6.2 million)
Dion Jordan ($.61 million)
Linval Joseph ($7.1 million)
Brandon Williams ($6 million)
David Irving ($.49 million)
Getting an elite front four was essential to constructing this all value defense, and the two positions above work really well in tandem. At DE, former teammates Jason Pierre-Paul and Robert Ayers make a formidable pass rush. Both are top ten pass rushers from the 4-3 DE position, but they’re paid like rotation players. Especially for Pierre-Paul, once the rising star among defensive ends, his contract value has significantly diminished since his catastrophic hand injury, yet his performance hasn’t declined. On the inside, Linval Joseph has evolved into one of the best run disrupters in the league. Joseph constantly takes on two blockers and still plugs the gap for the offense, making him invaluable on first and second downs. Similarly, Brandon Williams has been one of the best run-stopping interior linemen – not on the level of Joseph, but close. For $13.1 million, these two guys will make life miserable for any running back between the hash marks. As a backup, Dion Jordan is a useful piece on a minimum deal; his talent as the 3rd overall pick is still there, and in short spurts he can be disruptive. Similarly, David Irving showed flashes of interior brilliance last year, and his pass rushing prowess would mix excellently with the two run-stopping starters.
Dont’a Hightower ($5.3 million)
Vontaze Burfict ($4.7 million)
Junior Gallette ($.80 million)
Zach Brown ($2.5 million)
Karlos Dansby ($2.2 million)
In a 4-3 system, it’s imperative to have well-rounded linebackers who can stop the run, drop back in coverage, and spy on the quarterback. Dont’a Hightower and Vontaze Burfict are two of the best 4-3 linebackers in the AFC, and their versatility fits perfectly in this system. Hightower, besides being instinctually gifted stopping both the run and pass, is a natural leader on defense, and can call out formations and audible coverages if need be. That personality meshes well with Burfict, who, if kept under control, is absolutely dynamic on the outside. Burfict doesn’t get enough credit for his instincts, which are almost as good as Hightower’s. Zach Brown and Karlos Dansby would also help man the middle of the field as tackling machines. Both Brown and Dansby have led the NFL in tackles before, and are versatile enough to protect the pass, making a dynamic linebacker pairing with Hightower and Burfict. Junior Gallette is a pass rushing specialist who would play third downs and pressure the quarterback; injuries have cut his last few seasons short, but he was statistically a top ten pass rusher before that, and snagging him for under $1 million is crazy good value.
Casey Heyward ($5 million)
Desmond Trufant ($4.3 million)
Malcolm Butler ($3.9 million)
Captain Munnerlyn ($2.5 million)
Eric Weddle ($5 million)
Reshad Jones ($3.9 million)
Jeff Heath ($1.9 million)
Mike Adams ($1.7 million)
This secondary is my pride and joy of this team. While there are certainly plenty of cornerbacks and safeties earning their market value, several elite NFL veterans are being severely underpaid for their contributions on the field. At corner, each of the four players listed above are lockdown, island-coverage corners. Casey Heyward is the highest paid of the four, but that should not detract from his value on the market; after last season, Heyward has worked his way into the echelon of Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson, even if he isn’t mentioned in the same breath by media. Similarly, Desmond Trufant has quietly become one of the most feared corners in the league, singlehandedly shutting down elite threats like Dez Bryant and Brandin Cooks. Malcolm Butler, much like Heyward as well, has emerged as a star in the last few years, though his crazy value stems from the Patriots exploitation of the CBA more so than Butler’s explosion. Butler, regardless, has finally honed his athleticism to head the Patriots’ elite secondary, and would be even more devastating as a third corner on this team. Captain Munnerlyn, lastly, has been steady and excellent over the last few years, though his contributions for Carolina have gone largely unnoticed. As good as these corners are, the safeties are even stronger. Outside of maybe Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, Eric Weddle and Reshad Jones are the two best safeties in the NFL. Full stop. Weddle and Jones have been nothing short of dominant on the field in the last half decade, and yet their work has not been recognized to the level of the legion of boom. Weddle accepted a team friendly contract from Baltimore to help his family have an easy transition, and multiple injuries have scared Miami and other teams from giving Jones his true value. Either way, I will happily take these two for the measly price of $8.9 million.
Chris Boswell ($.61 million)
Brad Wing ($1.8 million)
Marcus Sherels ($2 million)
There’s not much to say about special teams, but it is not hard to find cheap kickers and punters. Chris Boswell was one of the league’s most accurate kickers last season, even over 40 yards, and yet he is also one of the lowest paid. Brad Wing is slightly more expensive, but his ability to down the ball inside of the 10 yard line with ease makes him a valuable asset on fourth downs. Kick return specialists, unsurprisingly, tend to be younger, less valuable players like late round or undrafted rookies because of the hard impacts they sustain. Nevertheless, Marcus Sherels showed last year that he is a bolt of lightning returning kicks and punts, and I would argue that he is the best returner in the league right now. Sherels is worth $2 million for the fear he strikes in opponents.
Total Offensive Expenditure: $76.38 million (22 players)
Total Defensive Expenditure: $72.11 million (19 players)
Total Expenditure*: $158.52 million
As a whole, I think this team is incredibly talented, and would probably be projected to win the Super Bowl, all without rookies or going over the cap. Granted, I got to handpick elite players, but I think it proves a larger point about the NFL. All of these guys make a lot of money, but their value to the team is often higher, and in these case, incredibly higher than their contract says it is. Save for the cases of team friendly deals, like Tom Brady and Eric Weddle, many of these players are simply not respected by front offices or the media. Sometimes it’s due to injury, in the case of Reshad Jones for instance, but other times it’s simply marketability. Richard Sherman makes more money than Desmond Trufant partially because he’s a little more talented, but also because Sherman is very well covered and has a definitive brand. Trufant doesn’t, and that hurts his earning potential. Contract value is not a full meritocracy in football, which is not entirely unfair, but it does hurt plenty of player’s earning potential.
*filled remaining 9 spots on roster with players with the veteran’s minimum, $.61 million