Identifying the top contracts in the NFL is a convoluted process that can be approached in myriad ways. Value can change in the blink of an eye, and position markets can (and often will) be reset every offseason at each position. The next elite player at his position has every right to demand top billing — even if there is healthy debate as to whether he truly is the best or even one of the top five or 10.
Beyond on-field considerations, there are also different leverage components between players and clubs that lead to different valuations. For example, when a player is traded for substantial compensation, his contract demands correspondingly will increase. Look no further than the current leaders in per-year average salary at their respective positions who were acquired via trade:
Wide receiver: No. 1 (DeAndre Hopkins), No. 4 (Amari Cooper)
Left tackle: No. 1 (Trent Williams), No. 3 (Laremy Tunsil)
Interior defender: No. 2 (Leonard Williams), No. 3 (DeForest Buckner)
Edge defender: No. 3 (Khalil Mack), No. 5 (Frank Clark)
Cornerback: No. 1 (Jalen Ramsey), No. 4 (Darius Slay)
On the other hand, if a team approaches a later-round draft pick about an early extension before the expiration of his rookie contract, the team can often get a “discount” compared to the true market value of that player’s services.
The thing about the “best” contracts from the team perspective is this: As soon as they’re identified as such, especially in today’s NFL, the clock starts ticking on when that player will be looking to return to the negotiating table to re-up. Nevertheless, in the interim they are providing the team with flexibility to further improve the roster with the savings over production value garnered from the contract.
Our focus for this exercise is to examine the best player contracts in two ways: the value they’ve provided since signing the contract, and the value at signing compared to our expectation based on past performance.
|Percent of Top 5 APY at Pos.||Year
|Per Year Avg.
|John Johnson III||S||$11,250,000||77%||2021||–||$10,328,390**||-$921,610|
*Danielle Hunter missed the entire 2020 season
**John Johnson III missed 10 games in 2019
***Antonio Brown played in 9 games from 2019-20
Many of these deals have already been broken down in our top contracts for each AFC and NFC team.
1. WR Stefon Diggs, Buffalo Bills: Five years, $72 million ($11 million in remaining guarantees)
Diggs has been a top-10 wide receiver in cumulative wins above replacement (WAR) over the last three seasons and still has three years remaining on his extension signed with Minnesota. DeAndre Hopkins was able to secure the top deal at the position from the Arizona Cardinals with three years still remaining on his deal originally signed with the Houston Texans, so recent precedent is working strongly in Diggs’ favor. Nevertheless, until that extension comes, this is the best value contract in the NFL currently.
2. TE Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders: Four years, $29,800,004 ($6.02 million in remaining guarantees)
Waller’s unique circumstances — struggling with a drug and alcohol addiction in the early years of his career — lend context to this contract signed just four games into the 2019 season. Waller’s incredible turnaround both off the field and on are extremely commendable, and his contract — less than half the per-year amount of position leader TE George Kittle with three years still remaining — is easily one of the best values across the league.
3. EDGE Danielle Hunter, Minnesota Vikings: Five years, $72 million ($8.9 million in remaining guarantees)
Prior to missing the entire 2020 season with injury, Hunter had the most quarterback pressures among all edge rushers over the 2018-19 seasons with 154. Not only is this deal phenomenal value in hindsight, but at the time of signing, Hunter was just 23 years old coming off of 2016 and 2017 seasons in which he ranked top 20 in WAR among all edge rushers.
This contract was revised earlier in June, with the Vikings effectively converting it into a one-year deal with an ultimatum to extend or release after the 2021 season. Even so, when considering what Minnesota has been able to do the last several years in terms of spending, Hunter’s contract remains a top value league-wide.
4. WR Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers: Four years, $58 million ($0 in remaining guarantees)
Adams’ contract certainly has an argument to be at the top of this entire list, but the distinction between his and Diggs’ is that Adams is entering a contract year in 2021. The Green Bay Packers have been engaging in salary cap gymnastics all offseason long, but they’ve managed to save the two most important items of business for last — whether by their choice or not in the case of Aaron Rodgers.
5. S John Johnson III, Cleveland Browns: Three years, $33.75 million ($24 million total guaranteed)
6. S Anthony Harris, Philadelphia Eagles: One year, $4 million (fully guaranteed)
7. S Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings: Five years, $51.25 million ($0 in remaining guarantees)
8. S Adrian Amos, Green Bay Packers: Four years, $36 million ($5.41 million in remaining guarantees)
9. LT Tyron Smith, Dallas Cowboys: Eight years, $97.6 million ($8.9 million in remaining guarantees)
10. QB Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs: 10 years, $450 million ($141 million total guaranteed at signing, rolling guarantee structure)
11. QB Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Two years, $50 million (fully guaranteed)
12. QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers: Four years, $134 million ($0 in remaining guarantees)
The person most aware of the incredible value of this contract is likely Rodgers himself, as he continues to stay away from Green Bay this offseason. People close to the situation have said that this contract — under which Rodgers has only played one year — is not a big reason why he’s upset with the team. Don’t be fooled: It may not be the only reason, or the primary reason, but it’s certainly a reason.
Instead of the value, however, the $0 in remaining guarantees is probably the major issue. Rodgers wants assurances and stability in his professional life, and under the current construct of the deal, he has very little of either. The reigning MVP may be entering his age-38 season in 2021, but he showed last year he still has a few elite years left in the tank. For now, this contract does not reflect that reality.
13. S Kareem Jackson, Denver Broncos: One year, $5 million ($4.75 million in total guarantees)
14. WR Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Five years, $82.5 million ($55 million total guaranteed)
Evans’ name can somehow get lost from time to time in discussions of the top wide receivers in the NFL after the emergence of teammate Chris Godwin and the addition of Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski, among others, in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers passing game. But make no mistake, Evans remains one of the top pass-catchers in the league.
He ranks fourth in wins above replacement since being drafted in 2014, and his deal represented a great bargain when signed, even though it made him the second-highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL at the time. Evans had every right to ask for more, or to attempt to re-up in recent years, but he has done the opposite, looking to give the Bucs more money to work with in their quest to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
15. WR Will Fuller V, Miami Dolphins: One year, $10 million (fully guaranteed)
16. WR John Brown, Las Vegas Raiders: One year, $3.75 million ($3.24 million total guaranteed)
17. WR Antonio Brown, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: One year, $3.1 million (fully guaranteed)
There are of course several reasons as to why Brown’s deal is such a bargain, with both the Raiders and Patriots signing him to deals worth five times this amount not so long ago. Despite all that, Brown has still produced the most wins above replacement among all wide receivers since 2014, and that’s with just nine total games played the last two seasons.
New Tennessee Titans wide receiver Julio Jones is is second behind Brown in WAR, having played in 15 more games since then — essentially a full season. That’s how good Brown has been.
18. LT Terron Armstead, New Orleans Saints: Five years, $65 million ($10.567 million in remaining guarantees)
19. LT Duane Brown, Seattle Seahawks: Three years, $34.5 million ($0 in remaining guarantees)
Brown has reported for the Seattle Seahawks offseason activities even though he is reportedly seeking a new contract heading into the final year of his current deal, an extension signed with Seattle in 2018 after they acquired him via trade from the Houston Texans. While Brown is entering his age 36 season, he’s shown very few signs of slowing down and has been at times the only bright spot on an offensive line that otherwise has given quarterback Russell Wilson headaches. Los Angeles Rams‘ left tackle Andrew Whitworth is still signing deals for around this amount at 40 years old, so Brown has every reason to demand a nice little bump in pay.
The Seahawks have another player they traded a substantial package to acquire in safety Jamal Adams, and they’re continuing to work through an extension with him as well. Extensions for both players could clear up a nice chunk of 2021 cap space for Seattle.
20. LT D.J. Humphries, Arizona Cardinals: Three years, $44.25 million ($15.1 million in remaining guarantees)
The benefit of a rookie-contract quarterback like Kyler Murray was clearly demonstrated this offseason as the Arizona Cardinals loaded up on veteran talent including edge defender J.J. Watt, wide receiver A.J. Green, center Rodney Hudson and cornerback Malcolm Butler. But signing the tackle that finished second in wins above replacement in 2020 to a mid-market deal certainly provides tremendous benefits as well.
Teammate Chandler Jones probably believes he belongs on this list over Humphries and fellow edge defender Markus Golden, and he has an argument. He ranks 20th in WAR among all edge defenders since signing his extension in 2017 even after missing 12 games in 2020, but that’s why he’s a reported camp holdout until he gets some new money.
21. LT Taylor Decker, Detroit Lions: Four years, $59.65 million ($11.15 million in remaining guarantees)
22. CB James Bradberry, New York Giants: Three years, $43.5 million ($5.9 million in remaining guarantees)
The New York Giants front office had to hit a home run in free agency in 2020, especially in addressing a porous secondary that had plagued them for a few years. The Giants’ wide cornerbacks ranked 30th in coverage grade in 2019, and 2019 first-round pick CB DeAndre Baker was released shortly before the 2020 campaign.
That ranking improved to 15th in 2020, largely due to the addition of Bradberry, who matched up on the outside with opposing teams’ top wideouts. Bradberry is a true lockdown No. 1 cornerback and is now the cornerstone of what could be one of the league’s best secondaries in 2021.
23. CB Stephon Gilmore, New England Patriots: Five years, $65 million ($0 in remaining guarantees)
The Buffalo Bills front office had to have felt a pit in their stomach after letting Stephon Gilmore — their top-10 draft pick in 2012 — walk in free agency in 2017 only to see him sign a big-time deal with the division foe New England Patriots. In their defense, even we at PFF didn’t see Gilmore earning this contract in free agency, and the Patriots proved their rare foray into the top of the market in free agency was because they knew something others didn’t.
Gilmore has gone on to be arguably the best cornerback in the NFL since signing the dotted line, ranking third in WAR at cornerback since 2017 even while missing five games in 2020. The good news for Buffalo: They drafted cornerback Tre’Davious White that same offseason in 2017, and White ranks exactly one spot behind Gilmore in wins above replacement since 2017.
24. RT Rob Havenstein, Los Angeles Rams: Four years, $32.5 million ($0 in remaining guarantees)
The Rams offensive line has had its struggles in recent years but primarily on the interior, as Havenstein and 40-year-old ironman left tackle Andrew Whitworth have manned the bookends admirably. Havenstein has been a top-10 right tackle per WAR since signing this deal, but the more impressive aspect here was the timing on the front end.
The Rams smartly inked Havenstein — their second-round selection in 2015 — to an early extension following his third season, and his $8.125 million per year average was the highest among all right tackle signings that offseason. The following offseason in 2019, five right tackles signed for $10 million or more per year, including Trent Brown and Lane Johnson signing for more than double Havenstein’s figure in terms of per-year average.
25. QB Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints: One year, $5.5 million (fully guaranteed)
Winston famously had his 30-30 season in 2019 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — the last season he started for the team that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2015 — but he also threw for the most passing yards in the NFL that season with 5,109.
Yes, volume does not paint a good picture of the quality of a performance, especially if you’re chucking the ball in an effort to make a late comeback from a hole you dug yourself with interceptions, but it’s still insane that a player with this much upside was available at this price in a league where there are always teams desperate for a franchise quarterback. Chicago Bears QB Andy Dalton and Washington Football Team QB Ryan Fitzpatrick — who are seven and 12 years older than Winston, respectively — signed for nearly double this amount this offseason.
Don’t forget, we still have yet to see post-Lasik Jameis Winston start in the NFL. There’s probably a good chance a handful of teams will be kicking themselves for letting Saints head coach Sean Payton work his offensive magic with a big-armed quarterback like Winston.
26. DI Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers: Five years, $60 million ($0 in remaining guarantees)
The Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line over the last few years has been the closest thing we’ve seen to an NFL-version of the Avengers, and Tuitt’s name has unfortunately received far less attention than it deserves. The scary thing is that interior defender Tyson Alualu could also have made this list, as a late-career resurgence has made his two-year, $5.5 million deal signed this offseason after a near-departure to the Jacksonville Jaguars look like a crazy bargain, even at 34 years of age.
Tuitt and Alualu rank 10th and 11th in WAR among interior defenders since 2019, respectively. Oh, and Cameron Heyward ranks second.
27. DI Sheldon Richardson, Minnesota Vikings: One year, $3.6 million ($3 million total guaranteed)
Richardson was set to earn an $11.5 million 2021 base salary from the Cleveland Browns, and his release was probably a very difficult decision for a smart front office. There’s a reason, after all, that he wasn’t released until mid-April, a month into free agency, and not coincidentally two days after the signing of Jadeveon Clowney.
Minnesota will now have four defensive linemen that did not log a snap for them in 2020 — Danielle Hunter, Dalvin Tomlinson, Michael Pierce and Richardson — up front for 2021. Richardson ranked top-30 in WAR among interior defenders for the 2020 season, and per his recent comments, he won’t even technically be a “starter” on this new-look defense. So the Vikings landed a top-30 player from the prior season on a contract that ranks 56th in per-year average at the position, and they can keep him fresh all season long.
28. CB Kenny Moore II, Indianapolis Colts: Four years, $33.3 million ($3.5 million in remaining guarantees)
Moore’s inclusion on this list requires discussion of “sub-positions” in the NFL and how we analyze their contracts compared to their positional peers. The slot cornerback market is extremely top-heavy, with only a select few true slot specialists earning significant multi-year contracts, while much of the league continues to be comfortable playing its “third cornerback” on the inside.
As the “nickel” package on defense — five defensive backs with one linebacker from “base” personnel replaced — becomes more and more prevalent, the value of the slot cornerback will continue to increase. This is especially true as top wide receivers are moved around the formation more, with many now logging a quarter or more of their snaps in the slot.
29. LB Demario Davis, New Orleans Saints: Three years, $27 million ($1.1 million in remaining guarantees)
The Saints smartly got out ahead of their division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers in extending Davis during the 2020 season with Bucs LB Lavonte David in a contract year. Davis is one year older and may not be held in quite the same esteem as David, but New Orleans created necessary cap relief and locked up one of their leaders likely for the remainder of his career at just the right time.
30. LB Eric Kendricks, Minnesota Vikings: Five years, $50 million ($0 in remaining guarantees)
Kendricks’ deal marks the third on this list that was signed by the Minnesota Vikings front office during the 2018 offseason. Their 2018 draft class, which also included CB Trae Waynes, is one of the best of the decade. They recognized this pretty much immediately and signed Diggs, Hunter and Kendricks to early extensions following the conclusion of their third seasons. Kendricks has continued to play at a top-10 level at off-ball linebacker, and his 91.2 coverage grade over the last two seasons — which ranks second — makes him the perfect player for the modern game at the position.
31. EDGE Haason Reddick, Carolina Panthers: One year, $6 million (fully guaranteed)
Although Reddick just converted back to a full-time edge rushing position at the tail end of the 2020 season, he’s a former top-15 draft pick who will still be just 26 years old come Week 1. We routinely see players like this get substantially more value on account of their draft status and athletic potential. Look no further than ED Jadeveon Clowney, who just signed a one-year, $8 million contract with the Cleveland Browns after playing in 2020 on a one-year, $13 million flier.
Reddick had the same amount of sacks in Week 14 of 2020 than Clowney has since Week 15 of 2018.
32. EDGE Markus Golden, Arizona Cardinals: Two years, $5 million ($2.5 million total guaranteed)
We’ve lauded this contract in various articles at this point, because it’s simply rare to get a player that can effectively rush the passer at such a low price. Something that hasn’t yet been mentioned is the fact it’s also a multi-year contract. There were, of course, discounted deals across the NFL this offseason as a result of the reduced salary cap, including several on this list, but the overwhelming majority were one-year fliers so the player could get right back to the negotiating table the following offseason.
Golden could have a big 2021 playing alongside Chandler Jones and J.J. Watt, and the Cardinals still have him under contract for an additional year.