There's more than one way to skin a cat. The old idiom can apply to NFL roster construction under the salary cap.
The Broncos' lopsided loss to the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII led to aggressiveness in free agency to strengthen the defense before a championship window with Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning closed. The moves paid dividends. Denver won the Super Bowl two years later.
Tom Brady's willingness to consistently undercut the quarterback market allowed the Patriots to assemble a more talented roster than they would have otherwise, which resulted in his final three Super Bowl rings with New England before leaving for the Buccaneers in 2020 free agency. The Chiefs took advantage of having quarterback Patrick Mahomes on a cost-contained rookie contract to win Super Bowl LIV.
The NFL's five most top-heavy teams have been identified. Three methods were used to determine the teams: (1) the most players in the top 10 by average yearly salary at various positions, (2) the most players with top 10 2021 salary cap numbers at each position, and (3) the top 5 2021 salary cap hits on each team. More weight was given for being among the top 5 in average per year and with the positional cap numbers.
Average yearly salary strictly measures multi-year contracts. Players on one-year franchise tenders like the Washington Football Team's Brandon Scherff were excluded. Otherwise, he would be the league's highest-paid offensive guard.
The average yearly salary has also been modified with traded players to reflect the cost to the acquiring team. For example, Odell Beckham, Jr. signed a five-year, $90 million contract extension with the Giants in 2018 averaging $18 million per year to make him the NFL's highest-paid wide receiver. The deal still puts in him a tie for the league's fifth highest-paid wide receiver. He is not in the top 10 for these purposes because he had five years for $76.5 million ($15.3 million per year) left on his contract when he was traded to the Browns the following offseason.
Similarly, wide receiver Julio Jones, who is the NFL's second-highest-paid receiver at $22 million per year, falls outside of the top 10. The Titans are only responsible for the three remaining years on his contract worth $38.326 million after acquiring him in June. The same holds true for quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz with the top 10 average yearly salary calculations after their respective offseason trades to the Lions and Colts.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
- Top 10 By Average Salary (seven players): Patrick Mahomes (No. 1 QB); Tyreek Hill (No. 6 WR); Travis Kelce (No. 2 TE); Joe Thuney (No. 1 OG); Frank Clark (No. 6 Edge); Chris Jones (No. 4 DT); Tyrann Mathieu (tied-No. 7 S)
- Top 10 By Salary Cap Number (five players): Tyreek Hill (No. 5 WR); Travis Kelce (No. 3 TE); Frank Clark (No. 1 Edge); Anthony Hitchens (No. 5 LB); Tyrann Mathieu (No. 1 S)
- Top 5 Cap Hits (No. 2 in NFL): $80,561,015
- Frank Clark (Edge): $25.8 million
- Tyrann Mathieu (S): $19,733,334
- Tyreek Hill (WR): $15,850,500
- Anthony Hitchens (LB): $10,635,515
- Chris Jones (DT) $8,541,666
Seven players in the top 10 by average salary are tied for the most in the NFL with the Browns. Kansas City is one of two teams where the top 5 cap hits are collectively over $80 million.
The Chiefs maintained roster flexibility because of the way the richest contract in American team sports history is structured. The 10-year, $450 million extension worth up to $475 million with incentives Mahomes signed is backloaded. By design, the first time Mahomes' cap number will be above $30 million is in 2022. His 2021 cap number is under $7.5 million because the Chiefs converted Mahomes' $21,716,905 third-day-of-the-league-year roster bonus to a signing bonus, which created just under $17.375 million of cap room, in March.
The Chiefs are the NFL's only team with two $20 million-per-year pass rushers. There are just 10 pass rushers in the league with contracts averaging at least $20 million per year.
Frank Clark signed a five-year, $104 million contract with $62.305 million in guarantees ($43.805 million fully guaranteed at signing) when he was acquired from the Seahawks for a 2019 first-round pick and a 2020 second-round pick shortly before the 2019 NFL Draft. His $25.8 million cap number is the league's largest for a non-quarterback. The Chiefs gave Chris Jones a four-year, $80 million contract containing $60 million in guarantees (worth up to $85 million with incentives) last offseason after he was designated as a franchise player.
Joe Thuney was made the league's highest-paid guard in free agency by giving him a five-year, $80 million contract with $46.89 million of guarantees. Tyrann Mathieu, who is in the final year of a three-year, $42 million contract, easily has the league's largest cap hit for a safety at $19,733,334.
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- Top 10 By Average Salary (six players): Dak Prescott (No. 3 QB); Ezekiel Elliott (tied-No. 2 RB); Amari Cooper (No. 3 WR); Zack Martin (No. 3 OG); DeMarcus Lawrence (No. 5 Edge); Jaylon Smith (No. 9 LB)
- Top 10 By Salary Cap Number (six players): Dak Prescott (No. 10 QB); Ezekiel Elliott (No. 6 RB); Amari Cooper (No. 1 WR); Zack Martin (No. 7 OG); DeMarcus Lawrence (No. 2 Edge); Jaylon Smith (No. 6 LB)
- Top 5 Cap Hits (No. 1 in NFL): $83.95 million
- DeMarcus Lawrence (Edge): $25 million
- Amari Cooper (WR): $22 million
- Dak Prescott (QB): $17.2 million
- Zack Martin (OG): $9.95 million
- Jaylon Smith (LB) $9.8 million
The Cowboys lead the NFL in cap resources devoted to the top 5. Dallas has the third most players with top 10 cap numbers at the different positions. Additionally, only two teams have more players in the top 10 for average salary than the Cowboys.
Dallas is one of two teams with a $20 million-per-year non-quarterback on each side of the ball. DeMarcus Lawrence signed a five-year, $105 million contract, which averages $21 million per year in 2019 when he was designated as a franchise player for a second straight time. Amari Cooper got a five-year, $100 million contract to remain with the Cowboys in free agency last year. His league leading cap hit for a wide receiver is nearly 22.5% more than the next figure, which is Allen Robinson (Bears) at $17.98 million.
There's also a high-priced quarterback in Dallas. Dak Prescott received a four-year, $160 million contract averaging $40 million per year with an NFL record $66 million signing bonus. He is the third highest-paid player in the NFL.
The six-year, $84 million extension Zack Martin signed in 2018 is holding up. His $14 million per year average is still third among offensive guards. The same can be said for Ezekiel Elliott. He became the league's highest-paid running back in 2019 with a six-year, $90 million averaging $15 million per year. Seven running backs have signed contracts averaging at least $12 million per year after Elliott. Only Christian McCaffrey's (Panthers) four-year extension averaging just over $16 million per year has topped Elliott.
The Cowboys haven't gotten a good return on investment with Jaylon Smith since he signed an extension in 2019 where he gave up five unrestricted free agent years valued at $12.8 million per year. He's a potential salary cap casualty in 2022.
3. Cleveland Browns
- Top 10 By Average Salary (six players): Nick Chubb (No. 6 RB); Austin Hooper (No. 6 TE); Joel Bitonio (No. 9 OG); JC Tretter (No. 5 C); Myles Garrett (No. 3 Edge); John Johnson (No. 10 S)
- Top 10 By Salary Cap Number (eight players): Nick Chubb (No. 10 RB); Odell Beckham, Jr. (No. 6 WR); Jarvis Landry (No. 9 WR); Austin Hooper (No. 2 TE); David Njoku (No. 9 TE); Jack Conklin (No. 5 OT); Joel Bitonio (No. 6 OG); JC Tretter (No. 10 C)
- Top 5 Cap Hits (Not in top 5): $65,041,189
- Odell Beckham, Jr. (WR): $15.7 million
- Jarvis Landry (WR): $14,711,765
- Jack Conklin(OT): $13 million
- J.C Tretter (C): $11,060,294
- Baker Mayfield (QB) $10,569,130
The Browns are tied for the league lead with eight players having top 10 cap hits at their positions. Interestingly, all of Cleveland's biggest 2021 cap hits are on the offensive side of the ball.
The Browns are making the most of having 2018 first-overall pick Baker Mayfield at the cheapest he'll ever be while he is on his rookie contract. Over the last three years, the team utilized free agency to acquire to Jack Conklin, Austin Hooper and John Johnson. Hooper became the NFL's first tight end to sign for more than $10 million per year last year when he received a four-year, $42 million contract with $23 million in guarantees during free agency. Beckham was acquired via trade after Mayfield's rookie year.
The Browns are also taking care of their own players. 2017 first-overall pick Myles Garrett became the NFL's first $25 million non-quarterback last offseason. He signed a five-year, $125 million extension with $100 million of guarantees where $50 million was fully guaranteed at signing. 2018 second-round pick Nick Chubb received a three-year, $36.6 million extension during training camp.
- Top 10 By Average Salary (three players): Keenan Allen (No. 2 WR); Corey Linsley (No. 2 C); Joey Bosa (No. 2 Edge)
- Top 10 By Salary Cap Number (eight players): Austin Ekeler (No. 7 RB); Keenan Allen (No. 7 WR); Mike Williams (No. 8 WR); Bryan Bulaga (No. 8 OT); Corey Linsley (No. 7 C); Joey Bosa (No. 5 Edge); Linval Joseph (No. 9 DT); Chris Harris (No. 8 CB)
- Top 5 Cap Hits (No. 5 in NFL): $75.28 million
- Joey Bosa (Edge): $20.75 million
- Keenan Allen (WR): $15.7 million
- Mike Williams (WR): $15.68 million
- Linval Joseph (DT): $11.9 million
- Chris Harris (CB) $11.25 million
The Chargers are tied with the Browns for the most top 10 cap numbers at the various positions. There's also a league leading six players with 2021 cap numbers of at least $10 million.
The Chargers are in the middle of a three-to-four-year window to amass talent before having to make 2020 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert one of the league's highest-paid quarterbacks. Improving the offensive line for Herbert was a top offseason priority. Corey Linsley was briefly made the NFL's highest-paid center during free agency with a five-year, $62.5 million contract.
The Chargers are the other team with a $20 million-per-year non-quarterback on each side of the ball. Joey Bosa was the NFL's highest-paid defensive player until Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt surpassed him with a four-year extension averaging just over $28 million per year days before the regular season began. The 2016 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year signed a five-year, $135 million extension averaging $27 million per year with $102 million in overall guarantees during training camp last year. Keenan Allen received a four-year extension last preseason averaging $20.25 million per year with $50 million of guarantees.
Nobody has more of the salary cap allocated to a wide receiver duo than the Chargers. Allen and Mike Williams' combined 2021 cap hit is $31.38 million. Williams, 2017's seventh-overall pick, is playing under his fifth-year option.
- Top 10 By Average Salary (six players): Alvin Kamara (tied-No. 2 RB); Michael Thomas (No. 4 WR); Ryan Ramczyk (No. 5 OT); Andrus Peat (No. 5 OG); Cameron Jordan (No. 9 Edge); Marshon Lattimore (No. 2 CB)
- Top 10 By Salary Cap Number (two players): Alvin Kamara (No. 9 RB); Marcus Williams (tied No. 5 S)
- Top 5 Cap Hits (not in top 5): $45,626,625
- Marcus Williams (S): $10.612 million
- Michael Thomas (WR): $10.1 million
- Cameron Jordan (Edge): $9,365,250
- Terron Armstead (OT): $8,299,375
- Taysom Hill (QB) $7.259 million
The Saints are the NFL's most aggressive team in managing the salary cap with annual contract restructures to free up cap space by continually pushing cap obligations into the future. The Saints had to shed approximately $110 million in cap commitments to be compliant when the 2021 league year started on March 17. Because of this philosophy, the Saints don't have a lot of big cap numbers this year.
It's a different story when it comes to the actual contracts. A home run was hit with the 2017 draft class. The Saints reset the right tackle market at the end of June with first-round pick Ryan Ramczyk. He signed a five-year, $96 million extension averaging $19.2 million per year with $60,214,824 of guarantees where $43,014,824 was fully guaranteed. The deal is worth as much as $102 million through salary escalators and incentives.
First-round pick Marshon Lattimore became the league's second-highest-paid cornerback right before the start of the regular season. He signed a five-year extension averaging just over $19.5 million per year.
Third-round pick Alvin Kamara received a five-year, $75 million extension with $34,333,333 in guarantees as the start of the 2020 regular season was approaching. The $15 million per year average is misleading because he has no chance of seeing the $25 million in his 2025 contract year. The deal averages $12.5 million per year through 2024, the first four new years.
Second-round pick Marcus Williams was denied a potential big payday in free agency this year. He was given a $10.612 million franchise tag.