Agent's Take: Cap-adjusted salaries reveal the NFL's real highest-paid players

When I was a sports agent, it was my responsibility to conduct practically all of the contract research and negotiation preparation for clients with the sports management firm I worked for, regardless of whether I was the primary negotiator. As I began determining an asking price for perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle John Randle when he was a transition player in 1998, it occurred to me that the top defensive player contracts didn't reflect the growth in the salary cap from $41.454 million in 1997 to $52.388 million, which was a direct result of new TV contracts. This prompted me to create a way to value contracts where the increase was taken into consideration.

Bruce Smith was the NFL's highest-paid defensive player at the time following the five-year extension averaging $5.2 million per year that he signed with the Bills in 1997. I adjusted his contract to reflect the 26.4 percent salary cap growth from 1997 to 1998. His adjusted deal of almost $6.575 million became the guide for setting Randle's target price. Randle replaced Smith as the league's monetary benchmark for defensive players on a five-year, $32.5 million contract containing $20 million in guarantees to remain with the Vikings as salaries exploded thanks to the new TV money.

It's become a common practice for agents to adjust contracts into the existing salary cap climate when preparing for negotiations on behalf of clients. How persuasive this approach is with NFL teams varies. I've applied the methodology to assess existing NFL contracts at the different positions. The defensive front seven was broken into edge rushers, interior defensive linemen and linebackers. Edge rushers were limited to 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers.

Randle's contract illustrates the methodology. A deal equivalent to the $6.5 million per year with $20 million of guarantees Randle received under a $52.388 million salary cap in 1998 is $20.72 million per year with $63.755 million of guarantees in today's $167 million salary cap environment. Rounding is to the third decimal like with franchise and transition tags.

Offense

Quarterback

NameClubYear SignedSalary CapGTD MoneyAvg. SalaryAdjusted GTD MoneyAdjusted average salaryContract length
Aaron RodgersPackers2013$123M$54M$22M$73.317M$29.87M5 Yr Extension
Matt RyanFalcons2013$123M$59M$20.75M$80.106M$28.173M5 Yr Extension
Andrew LuckColts2016$155.27M$87M$24.564M$93.735M$26.42M5 Yr Extension

Derek Carr, who recently became the NFL's first $25 million per year player with the five-year, $125.025 million contract extension he received from the Raiders, isn't on the list. He's seventh among quarterbacks. Drew Brees ($26.082 million per year), Russell Wilson ($25.525 million per year) and Ben Roethlisberger ($25.467 million per year) are fourth, fifth and sixth respectively. 

Running back

NameClubYear SignedSalary CapGTD MoneyAvg. SalaryAdjusted GTD MoneyAdjusted average salaryContract length
LeSean McCoyBills2015$143.28M$26.55M$8.01M$30.945M$9.336M5 Years
Doug MartinBuccaneers2016$155.27M$15M$7.15M$16.133M$7.69M5 Years
Lamar MillerTexans2016$155.27M$14M$6.5M$15.058M$6.991M4 Years

Le'Veon Bell would easily top a declining running back market if he had accepted the five-year deal the Steelers offered. Instead, he will play the 2017 season on a one-year deal, presumably for his $12.12 million franchise tag. According to NFL Media's Tom Pelissero, Bell rejected a five-year deal averaging more than $12 million per year where $30 million was in the first two years and $42 million was over three years.

Wide Receiver

NameClubYear SignedSalary CapGTD MoneyAvg. SalaryAdjusted GTD MoneyAdjusted average salaryContract length
A.J. GreenBengals2015$143.28M$15M$15M$17.483M$17.483M4 Yr Extension
Antonio BrownSteelers2017$167M$19M$17MN/AN/A4 Yr Extension
Julio JonesFalcons2015$143.28M$47M$14.25M$54.781M$16.609M5 Yr Extension

Brown's four-year extension that he signed in February and averages $17 million per year is considered a reset of the wide receiver market. Odell Beckham, Jr., the Giants' 2014 first round pick who is eligible to sign a contract extension, could fundamentally change the market when he gets a new deal. It will most likely happen next year.

Tight end

NameClubYear SignedSalary CapGTD MoneyAvg. SalaryAdjusted GTD MoneyAdjusted average salaryContract length
Jimmy GrahamSeahawks2014$133M$20.9M$10M$26.243M$12.556M4 Years
Rob GronkowskiPatriots2012$120.6M$18.7M$9M$25.161M$12.463M6 Yr Extension
Jordan ReedRedskins2016$155.27M$10M$9.35M$23.662M$10.056M5 Yr Extension

The tight end market has been stagnant. Jimmy Graham hit the $10 million per year mark in 2014. Nobody has raised the bar over the last three years. 

Offensive tackle

NameClubYear SignedSalary CapGTD MoneyAvg. SalaryAdjusted GTD MoneyAdjusted average salaryContract length
Joe ThomasBrowns2011$120.375M37M$11.5M$51.331M$15.954M7 Yr Extension
Trent WilliamsRedskins2015$143.28M$41.25M$13.2M$48.079M$15.385M5 Yr Extension
Tyron SmithCowboys2014$133M$40M$12.2M$50.226M$15.319M8 Yr Extension

The offensive tackle list helps put the surprising deal Russell Okung received from the Chargers during free agency in perspective. Okung's four-year, $53 million contract containing $25 million fully guaranteed at signing currently makes him the NFL's highest-paid offensive lineman with a $13.25 million average yearly salary -- but he's not even in the top three when it comes to adjusted average salary.

Offensive guard

NameClubYear SignedSalary CapGTD MoneyAvg. SalaryAdjusted GTD MoneyAdjusted average salaryContract length
Kelechi OsemeleRaiders2016$155.27M$25.7M$11.7M$27.642M$12.584M5 Years
Kevin ZeitlerBrowns2017$167M$31.5M$12MN/AN/A5 Years
Trai TurnerPanthers2017$167M$20.5M$11.25MN/AN/A4 Yr Extension

The offensive guard market should change in the coming weeks. Zack Martin will likely replace Zeitler as the NFL's highest-paid guard with the Cowboys are expected to extend his contract before the regular season starts. It remains to be seen whether Martin will top Osemele's adjusted average yearly salary.

Center

NameClubYear SignedSalary CapGTD MoneyAvg. SalaryAdjusted GTD MoneyAdjusted average salaryContract length
Maurkice PounceySteelers2014$133M13M$8.827M$16.323M$10.619M5 Yr Extension
Mike PounceyDolphins2015$143.28M$22M$8.95M$25.642M$10.432M5 Yr Extension
Rodney HudsonRaiders2015$143.28M$20M$8.9M$23.311M$10.373M5 Years

The actual highest-paid center Travis Frederick is fourth using this approach. He received a six-year, $54.6 million extension with slightly more than $28 million of guarantees from the Cowboys last preseason.

Defense

Edge Rusher

NameClubYear SignedSalary CapGTD MoneyAvg. SalaryAdjusted GTD MoneyAdjusted average salaryContract length
Von MillerBroncos2016$155.27M$70M$19,083,333 $75.288M$20.525M6 Years
Justin HoustonChiefs2015$143.28M$52.5M$16,833,333 $61.191M$19.62M6 Years
Olivier VernonGiants2016$155.27M$52.5M$17M$56.466M$18.284M5 Years

Miller is currently the league's highest paid non-quarterback. Khalil Mack, the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year, will likely become the NFL's first $20 million per year non-quarterback next offseason provided he signs a contract extension with the Raiders. That is, if Rams interior defensive lineman Aaron Donald doesn't beat him to it. 

Interior defensive lineman

NameClubYear SignedSalary CapGTD MoneyAvg. SalaryAdjusted GTD MoneyAdjusted average salaryContract length
Ndamukong SuhDolphins2015$143.28M$59.955M$19,062,500 $69.881M$22.218M6 Years
J.J. WattTexans2014$133M$51,876,385 $16,666,667 $65.138M$20.927M6 Yr Extension
Muhammad WilkersonJets2016$155.27M$53.5M$17.2M$57.542M$18.499M5 years

Suh was able to easily eclipse existing salary standards for non-quarterbacks when he signed with the Dolphins in 2015 as an unrestricted free agent. Negotiations between Aaron Donald and the Rams for a contract extension have been ongoing. Any deal Donald signs should establish a new salary benchmark for non-quarterbacks.

Linebacker

NameClubYear SignedSalary CapGTD MoneyAvg. SalaryAdjusted GTD MoneyAdjusted average salaryContract length
Luke KuechlyPanthers2015$143.28M$34,363,324 $12,359,059 $40.052M$14.405M5 Yr Extension
Bobby WagnerSeahawks2015$143.28M$21,977,427 $10.75M$25.616M$12.53M4 Yr Extension
Jamie CollinsBrowns2017$167M$26.4M$12.5MN/AN/A4 Year

Collins is the actual salary leader for linebackers where rushing the passer isn't a major responsibility. This isn't a surprise considering it would have been $14.55 million for the Browns to place a franchise tag on Collins this year. 

Safety

NameClubYear SignedSalary CapGTD MoneyAvg. SalaryAdjusted GTD MoneyAdjusted average salaryContract length
Tyrann MathieuCardinals2016$155.27M$21.25M$12.5M$22.855M$13.444M5 Yr Extension
Eric BerryChiefs2017$167M$40M$13MN/AN/A6 Years
Earl ThomasSeahawks2014$133M$25.725M$10M$32.301M$12.556M4 Yr Extension

Mathieu's ability to cover slot wide receivers allowed him to take safety salaries to a different level. Although his contract became the benchmark for Berry's, it was really a hybrid defensive back deal in between the top of the cornerback and safety markets.

Cornerback

NameClubYear SignedSalary CapGTD MoneyAvg. SalaryAdjusted GTD MoneyAdjusted average salaryContract length
Patrick PetersonCardinals2014$133M$48M$14.01M$60.271M$17.592M5 Yr Extension
Richard ShermanSeahawks2014$133M$40M$14M$50.226M$17.579M4 Yr Extension
Joe HadenBrowns2014$133M$45M$13.5M$56.602M$16.951M5 Yr Extension

A.J. Bouye, Stephon Gilmore, and Desmond Trufant signed lucrative cornerback deals this offseason. Bouye and Gilmore's were in free agency. The trio fell short of Peterson and Sherman's actual 2014 extensions. Josh Norman, who is the NFL's highest-paid cornerback on his five-year, $75 million contract with the Redskins containing $50 million in guarantees, comes in fourth under this methodology.

Former Sports Agent

Joel Corry is a former sports agent who helped found Premier Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches. Before his tenure at Premier, Joel worked... Full Bio

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