The NFL runs on underpaid players. Each March, the big names get the big contracts—though those are somewhat disingenuous—and therefore grab the biggest headlines. But the bulk of each team’s roster is constructed in the smaller bits of news: rookies playing on cheap contracts, restricted free agents tendered below their market value, and veterans on their second, third, fourth, or fifth deals. The guys in the last camp tend to fit a certain mold: unflashy, solid contributors who play key roles but don’t put up huge numbers—and are often on the wrong side of 30. But sometimes, as we’ll see when we look at New England, a team gets lucky and stumbles into an all-time talent who happens to be independently wealthy and doesn’t need top-of-the-market money. And that makes room for even more veteran contributors throughout the roster.
On Tuesday, we looked at the underpaid veterans in the NFC. Today, we’re running down the AFC. Some teams, like the Jaguars, have paid most of their veterans handsomely. Others had several guys making below market value. And when we examined one team’s roster, we didn’t find many underpaid vets—just one recent sign of optimism for the players hoping to graduate off this list.
New England Patriots: Tom Brady, Quarterback
Contract: Two years at $30 million (signed 2018)
The fine print: $15 million in 2018, with a team option in 2019
Total guaranteed at signing: $10 million (31st among quarterbacks)
Average annual value: $15 million (19th among quarterbacks)
2019 salary and bonuses: $15 million (tied for 20th among quarterbacks)
Of the quarterbacks on veteran contracts who are in line to start Week 1, the GOAT is paid more than only Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum. Brady earns an average of $15 million per year, tied for the 52nd-highest price among all players in the league—nestled between Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard and Jets cornerback Trumaine Johnson. (Even in his paycheck, Brady threads the needle between AFC East cornerbacks.) That reduced payday is possible in large part because his wife, Gisele Bündchen, also earns a crap-ton of money.
New York Jets: Robby Anderson, Receiver
Contract: One year for $3.1 million (signed 2019)
The fine print: One year for $3.1 million
Total guaranteed at signing: $0
Average annual value: $3.1 million (tied for 56th among receivers)
2019 salary and bonuses: $3.1 million (tied for 54th among receivers)
Anderson has been New York’s leading receiver for two years, and new head coach Adam Gase sounds intent on making him a better pass catcher and an even bigger part of the offense. But while Anderson is New York’s no. 1 receiver, he’ll earn a third of what fellow Jets receivers Quincy Enunwa and Jamison Crowder get this year after the Jets tendered Anderson in restricted free agency. Anderson could be in line for a big season in real and fantasy football, and if he gets on the national radar, he could be in line to earn some of the money that Anthony Barr turned down.
Buffalo Bills: Lorenzo Alexander, Edge
Contract: One year for $3.8 million (signed 2019)
The fine print: One year for $3.8 million
Total guaranteed at signing: $1.6 million (tied for 106th among edge defenders)
Average annual value: $3.8 million (tied for 73rd among edge defenders)
2019 salary and bonuses: $3.8 million (tied for 68th among edge defenders)
Alexander has been Buffalo’s best bargain. He was the fourth-highest-graded linebacker by Pro Football Focus in 2018, behind only Seattle’s Bobby Wagner, Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, and Washington’s Zach Brown. Alexander is a versatile defender who can drop into coverage and rush the passer. Last year, he pressured the quarterback at the fourth-highest rate in the league, one spot ahead of Khalil Mack. Alexander turned 36 in May, but as long as he keeps producing, Buffalo will gladly keep him around.
Miami Dolphins: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Quarterback
Contract: Two years for $11 million (signed 2019)
The fine print: One year for $5.5 million with a team option in 2020
Total guaranteed at signing: $7 million (tied for 34th among quarterbacks)
Average annual value: $5.5 million (tied for 28th among quarterbacks)
2019 salary and bonuses: $5.5 million (27th among quarterbacks)
The Dolphins have the worst roster in the league, and Fitzpatrick is their only veteran who could seriously be described as underpaid. Fitzpatrick’s play in Jameis Winston’s absence last year in Tampa Bay was outstanding at times in the first half of the season, and he led the league in yards per attempt and net yards per attempt (which accounts for sacks). Fitzpatrick went 2-5 as a starter and tossed 12 picks to go with his 17 touchdowns, but even by backup quarterback standards, $5.5 million isn’t much—Josh McCown got $10 million last year to be Sam Darnold’s quarterback quaffed-hair mentor. Fitzpatrick has the inside track to be Miami’s starter, and he’ll be among the cheaper quarterbacks in the NFL.
Baltimore Ravens: Pernell McPhee, Linebacker
Contract: One year for $1 million (signed 2019)
The fine print: One year for $1 million
Total guaranteed at signing: $100,000 (tied for 203rd among edge defenders)
Average annual value: $1 million (tied for 134th among edge defenders)
2019 salary and bonuses: $1 million (140th among edge defenders)
McPhee’s career encapsulates Baltimore’s personnel strategy. They drafted him in the fifth round with a compensatory pick in 2011, and he served as an unheralded but effective outside linebacker for four years, putting up a 7.5-sack campaign in 2014. Rather than re-sign him, Baltimore let him go to Chicago on a five-year deal for an average of $7.8 million annually. But the Bears cut McPhee three years into that deal, and after a one-year, injury-riddled stint in Washington, McPhee has returned to Baltimore for one year and just $1 million. Baltimore just let three homegrown linebackers leave in free agency: C.J. Mosley (New York Jets), Za’Darius Smith (Green Bay), and all-time franchise sack leader Terrell Suggs (Arizona). So there will be plenty of snaps for McPhee to prove he’s still got it. If he stays on the field and contributes anywhere near what he did during his first stint in Baltimore, he’ll be worth far more than a million bucks.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Hilton, Cornerback
Contract: One year for $645,000 (signed 2019)
The fine print: One year for $645,000
Total guaranteed at signing: $0
Average annual value: $645,000 (tied for 185th among cornerbacks)
2019 salary and bonuses: $645,000 (tied for 165th among cornerbacks)
Hilton has been Pittsburgh’s primary slot cornerback for the past two years, and while his 2018 wasn’t as strong as his stellar 2017, he’s still far more valuable than the $645,000 tender Pittsburgh slapped on him this offseason. Hilton said he is not considering a holdout (after witnessing the Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown situations from the inside, it’s hard to blame him). But slot cornerbacks are getting paid more closely to what outside corners earn. Chris Harris Jr. earned a raise to $12 million to avoid a holdout, and Indianapolis made Kenny Moore the highest-paid slot corner in the NFL last month. If Hilton produces for a pittance, it could help keep Pittsburgh in playoff position.
Cleveland Browns: Joel Bitonio, Guard
Contract: Six years for $51.2 million (signed 2017)
The fine print: $24.6 million over the first three years followed by three team options in 2020, 2021, and 2022
Total guaranteed at signing: $17.2 million (11th among guards)
Average annual value: $8.5 million (15th among guards)
2019 salary and bonuses: $7 million (tied for 19th among guards)
The Browns have so many young players on rookie contracts that they’ve been able to easily take care of most of their veterans, but Bitonio’s the one vested player who stands out. Last year Bitonio played all 1,091 offensive snaps for Cleveland and allowed just 13 pass pressures on 638 dropbacks, the third-best pass protection ratio in football for guards who had 200 or more pass snaps, according to PFF. In the run game, he was the second-highest-rated guard, behind only Kevin Zeitler, who has since been traded to the New York Giants. Bitonio made his first Pro Bowl in 2018, and he’s in line for many more at 27 years old.
Cincinnati Bengals: Darqueze Dennard, Cornerback
Contract: One year for $4.5 million (signed 2019)
The fine print: One year for $4.5 million
Total guaranteed at signing: $2.5 million (tied for 72nd among cornerbacks)
Average annual value: $4.5 million (45th among cornerbacks)
2019 salary and bonuses: $4.5 million (45th among cornerbacks)
The Bengals’ first-round pick in 2014 nearly left in free agency this offseason, but stuck around on a one-year prove-it deal. His 2018 was solid, but not stellar: Of the 22 cornerbacks who played more than 250 snaps out of the slot in 2018, Dennard had the 10th-lowest opposing passer rating when targeted, according to PFF. He allowed zero touchdowns, but he intercepted zero passes—one of just three of those 22 with double zeros in those categories. Dennard, who missed three games with a shoulder injury, is one of the better tackling cornerbacks in the league, which makes him strong in the run game. If he improves his pass coverage in 2019, the Bengals will have to shell out far more to keep him around in 2020.
Houston Texans: Johnathan Joseph, Cornerback
Contract: Two years for $10 million (signed 2018)
The fine print: One year for $5.5 million with a team option in 2019
Total guaranteed at signing: $3.9 million (61st among cornerbacks)
Average annual value: $5 million (tied for 41st among cornerbacks)
2019 salary and bonuses: $4.3 million (47th among cornerbacks)
Joseph is the Texans’ best free-agent signing. Houston brought in the former Bengal in 2011 on a five-year deal, extended him in 2015 for another two years, and then signed him to a third contract in 2018. Joseph turned 35 in April, which is ancient by cornerback standards, but the no. 24 overall pick in the 2006 draft is still producing. He was the 10th-highest graded corner by Pro Football Focus among corners with at least 500 snaps in 2018. Joseph could get a raise if he went elsewhere, but he stayed in Houston to avoid forcing his children to switch schools, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Indianapolis Colts: Eric Ebron, Tight End
Contract: Two years for $13 million (signed 2018)
The fine print: One year for $6.75 million with a team option in 2019
Total guaranteed at signing: $6.5 million (23rd among tight ends)
Average annual value: $6.5 million (12th among tight ends)
2019 salary and bonuses: $7 million (tied for 12th among tight ends)
Ebron was released by the Lions a year ago, but he rejuvenated his career in Indy. Ebron’s 13 touchdowns last year were tied for second in the NFL and more than he had in his entire four-year career in Detroit. It’s tempting to dismiss his season as a fluke, especially with touchdowns often being random from year to year, but Ebron’s talent was never in question. Ebron was also in the top seven in PFF’s yards per route run along with George Kittle, Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, Jared Cook, Evan Engram, and Rob Gronkowski (minimum 50 targets), though his drop rate (7.0 percent of targets) is still fairly high. Ebron’s value is closer to Ertz and Kittle than Tyler Kroft and Cameron Brate.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Abry Jones, Defensive Tackle
Contract: Four years for $15.5 million (signed 2017)
The fine print: Two years for $7.5 million followed by two team options in 2019 and 2020
Total guaranteed at signing: $6.5 million (tied for 30th among defensive tackles)
Average annual value: $3.9 million (33rd among defensive tackles)
2019 salary and bonuses: $4 million (tied for 34th among defensive tackles)
Time to come clean—Jones is a placeholder. The Jaguars may be the most difficult team in this whole exercise. Like Minnesota, the Jaguars have kept their veterans around by paying them handsomely. Their defensive line was the most expensive in league history, and they’ve given large contracts to a quarterback (Nick Foles), cornerback (A.J. Bouye), and guard (Andrew Norwell). While most of their players on rookie deals are deeply underpaid, including Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, and Yannick Ngakoue, their veterans are either properly compensated or paid above market value.
Tennessee Titans: Wesley Woodyard, Linebacker
Contract: Three years for $10.5 million (signed 2017)
The fine print: One year for $3.5 million, then team options in 2018 and 2019
Total guaranteed at signing: $2 million (31st among inside linebackers)
Average annual value: $3.5 million (22nd among inside linebackers)
2019 salary and bonuses: $4.1 million (20th among inside linebackers)
Woodyard, a stalwart in the middle for the Titans, was one of the most underrated defenders in the league the past few years. He turns 33 next week, and he may cede more time to linebackers Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans this year, but Woodyard is a key piece to the Titans defense, and led the unit in both solo tackles and total tackles.
Kansas City Chiefs: Mitchell Schwartz, Tackle
Contract: Three years for $24.5 million (signed 2019)
The fine print: Two years for $18.2 million followed by a team option in 2021
Total guaranteed at signing: $17.5 million (tied for 18th among offensive tackles)
Average annual value: $8.2 million (22nd among offensive tackles)
2019 salary and bonuses: $12.5 million (ninth among offensive tackles)
The Chiefs protect Patrick Mahomes II at an elite level, and Schwartz is the biggest reason. He’s blossomed into perhaps the second-best tackle in the league after David Bakhtiari. PFF named Schwartz its offensive lineman of the year in 2018, and he was also named a first-team All-Pro. At $6.6 million annually, Schwartz was being paid roughly a third of what he’d earn on the open market, so last month the Chiefs gave him an extension that bumped him above $8 million annually. It’s better than no raise at all, but still not close to proper value.
Los Angeles Chargers: Adrian Phillips, Safety
Contract: One year for $2 million (signed 2019)
The fine print: One year for $2 million
Total guaranteed at signing: $1.3 million (tied for 61st among safeties)
Average annual value: $2 million (tied for 53rd among safeties)
2019 salary and bonuses: $2 million (tied for 52nd among safeties)
Signing Phillips to a one-year, $2 million deal was a steal for the Chargers in a year when other safeties like Tyrann Mathieu and Landon Collins went for seven times as much money. Phillips is just 27 years old and was named to his first first-team All-Pro squad this past year as a special teamer for the AFC (he was also named a Pro Bowler, for whatever that’s worth these days). He was third on the team in tackles (94) and defended passes (nine). In a secondary that boasts Casey Hayward, Derwin James, Desmond King, Trevor Williams, and rookie Nasir Adderley, Phillips is the glue guy.
Oakland Raiders: Daryl Worley, Cornerback
Contract: One year for $3.1 million (signed 2019)
The fine print: One year for $3.1 million
Total guaranteed at signing: $0
Average annual value: $3.1 million (tied for 56th among cornerbacks)
2019 salary and bonuses: $3.1 million (tied for 58th among cornerbacks)
The Raiders have many veteran players, but most of them are on their way out of the league or were handsomely paid to come to Oakland. One of the few bargain players with some experience is Worley, who has started 34 games and has four interceptions in his first three NFL seasons. The Raiders tendered Worley for $3.1 million this offseason after he played on the outside corner spot across from no. 1 cornerback Gareon Conley. Oakland drafted Clemson cornerback Trayvon Mullen in the second round (no. 40 overall), but Worley is the prohibitive favorite to start at outside cornerback. He could be the main beneficiary of a much improved secondary with Lamarcus Joyner coming in free agency and safety Johnathan Abram in the first round.
Denver Broncos: Chris Harris Jr., Cornerback
Contract: One year for $12.1 million (signed 2019)
The fine print: One year for $12.1 million
Total guaranteed at signing: $1.625 million
Average annual value: $12.1 million (12th among cornerbacks)
2019 salary and bonuses: $12.1 million (fourth among cornerbacks)
Harris Jr. is unlike everyone else on this list—his team recognized he was underpaid and already gave him his raise. Harris was set to earn $7.9 million in 2019 from the final year of the five-year pact he signed in 2014. That was a bargain for the best slot cornerback in the sport. Broncos legendary cornerback and 2019 Hall of Fame inductee Champ Bailey laid the situation out plainly back in April.
A few weeks after Bailey’s comments, Harris requested either a trade or a new contract, and by the end of May, the Broncos had agreed to up his 2019 pay by more than $4 million to $12.1 million. Perhaps that can be a glimmer of hope for the rest of the players on this list—if you want to get paid, demand a trade.