Breaking down the NFL’s most expensive contracts

Every year there are always some big names who are holding out for new or adjusted contracts during NFL training camps, so now is as good a time as any to dig into some of the league’s most expensive deals.

Superstars such as Los Angeles Rams reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and Oakland Raiders edge-rusher Khalil Mack have yet to report to camp. They’re hoping to ink massive paydays, likely on the level of some of the top quarterbacks.

Signal-callers dominate when it comes to the league’s priciest contracts. Read on for some insight into the players getting paid the highest total of dollars at the moment, and what their deals mean for their respective teams and their own futures.

Note: Contract information courtesy of Spotrac.

1. Matt Ryan, quarterback Atlanta Falcons / Contract: 5 years, $150 million
The first year of Ryan’s contract extension is 2019. “Matty Ice” agreed to the terms in May and already has $94.5 million guaranteed, plus an additional $5.5 million of his 2021 salary guaranteed on the third league day of 2019, but for right now it’s injury-guaranteed.

In short, Ryan already has two-thirds of his contract guaranteed, so that’s nice. The 2016 NFL MVP followed up his career-best year by guiding the Falcons to the playoffs and is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

That adds up to a sound investment by Atlanta in its face of the franchise. The Falcons also adjusted the contract of Ryan’s top weapon, Julio Jones, to prevent a training camp holdout, so it’s been a fine few months for the front office.

2. Jimmy Garoppolo, quarterback, San Francisco 49ers / Contract: 5 years, $137.5 million
While Ryan holds the record for most passing yards through 10 NFL seasons, Garoppolo is of the far less proven variety. However, “Jimmy GQ” is 7-0 as a starter, including a stretch of five straight wins to end the 49ers’ 2017 campaign.

San Francisco’s regime had seen enough to reward Garoppolo like its quarterback of the future. The good news is the former Patriots backup is willing to prove himself, as there’s an out in his contract before 2021, where the Niners can cut him and eat only $2.8 million in dead cap money.

Garoppolo is hauling in a $28.8 million roster bonus this season, and it was smart for both sides to do it that way. The signal-caller gets a ton of upfront cash, while the team still has about $33 million in cap room right now with Garoppolo’s $37 million figure on the books.

3. Matthew Stafford, quarterback, Detroit Lions / Contract: 5 years, $135 million
You can’t pay this man enough. This stat also can’t be stated enough: Detroit hasn’t had an individual 100-yard rusher in a game since Reggie Bush in Week 13 of the 2013 season. That’s what Stafford has been working with.

I’d say that’s worth a fat check or several. How about this: Tom Brady has had 42 game-winning drives in 196 career victories. He ices the game for his team with a score about 21 percent of the time the Patriots win.

Stafford? Thirty-two of his 60 wins as a starter have come on the strength of game-winning drives. Eight of his nine victories in 2016 were fourth-quarter comebacks. The 2018 campaign is Stafford’s first year in the huge contract he earned every penny of. Let’s see if the Lions actually give him a competent rushing attack for the rest of his prime.

4. Derek Carr, quarterback, Oakland Raiders / Contract: 5 years, $125 million
The ballooning quarterback market forced the Raiders’ hand to pay Carr a handsome fee last summer. He was coming off his best season, cut short by a brutally-timed broken leg in Week 16 to dash Oakland’s potential Super Bowl aspirations.

But the Raiders’ roster needs plenty of work in other areas. New coach Jon Gruden has inherited a suspect defense and a franchise passer in Carr coming off a down 2017. Carr also averages 6.54 yards per attempt for his career, which is hardly spectacular.

The young gunslinger did have only $40 million guaranteed at signing, and could even be cut at only $7.5 million in dead cap before next season, with dead cap numbers of $5 million in 2020 and only $2.5 million the following year. As mentioned before, though, Khalil Mack is holding out, so he’ll be due a new deal soon too.

5. Andrew Luck, quarterback, Indianapolis Colts / Contract: 5 years, $122.97 million
A right shoulder injury kept Luck out for all of 2017, and the Colts had no hope without him. No amount of signings would’ve been enough to keep them competitive sans the 2012 No. 1 overall pick, so it didn’t matter that Luck got paid all he was owed last year.

The only guarantees owed to Luck beyond this season are signing bonuses totaling $12.8 million. He has a lot to prove, but whenever he has been healthy, Indianapolis has been competitive. In four full seasons as a starter, Luck guided the Colts to the playoffs three times.

Luck has a lot of wear and tear for someone who’ll turn 29 in September. The hope is a fortified offensive line and more awareness to get rid of the ball quicker will reduce the punishment Luck takes in the pocket. Otherwise Indianapolis may be forced to look at quarterback alternatives sooner than expected if its star can’t stay healthy.

6. Von Miller, outside linebacker, Denver Broncos / Contract: 5 years, $114.1 million
Lackluster offense has kept Denver out of the playoffs the two years since winning Super Bowl 50, a contest in which Miller garnered MVP honors and ultimately earned an extension that runs through the 2021 season. He’s even restructured to be a mere $10.1 million cap hit in 2018.

The conversation for the NFL’s best edge player is between Miller, Mack and really no one else. Having not missed a game over the past four seasons, the Broncos star continues to live up to an extremely high standard. Even though this year marks Miller’s age-29 season, there’s plenty of reason to believe be worth his contract through its end.

Blockers will direct attention to rookie first-round pick Bradley Chubb, who’ll be on the edge opposite Miller after racking up 44 tackles for loss and 20 sacks the past two years at NC State. Plus, former first-rounder Shane Ray is also in the pass-rushing rotation, so all three players should remain fresh in the coming years.

7. Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay Packers / Contract: 5 years, $110 million
Unlike the prior players on this list, Rodgers is well along in his contract and is due for an even bigger financial reward very soon. It would be quite something to see Rodgers hit the open market in the 2020 offseason, but Green Bay probably won’t let that happen.

Rodgers is widely considered the best, if not the most accomplished, quarterback in the game today. His blend of athleticism, arm talent and pinpoint accuracy are really second to none. It’s rather hard to believe he’ll be 35 in December, but that also accounts for three seasons he sat behind Brett Favre before taking the reins full-time.

When he’s right, there’s no one more dominant than Rodgers, even with modest weapons at his disposal. As long as he stays healthy, expect Rodgers to be the richest man in the NFL soon enough.

8. Cam Newton, quarterback, Carolina Panthers / Contract: 5 years, $103.8 million
Entering the third year of his contract this season, Newton bounced back from a 6-10 record in 2016 to lead Carolina back to the playoffs, where it lost by only five to New Orleans in the Wild Card round.

The Panthers appear fully committed to Newton and won’t likely let his current deal expire — he’d be a free agent in 2021 — without signing him to an even more lucrative extension. In order to maximize his earnings, though, Newton could stand to improve certain aspects of his game.

Newton won’t be able to run as much as he has to date as the years go on, so he’ll need to become a more accurate passer from the pocket. He has the pure arm strength to throw off-platform, but that often leads to bad mechanics. To lift his game to the next level, Newton needs to far exceed his 58.5 career completion percentage.

9. Fletcher Cox, defensive tackle, Philadelphia Eagles / Contract: 6 years, $102.6 million
The defending Super Bowl champions made Cox the highest-paid non-quarterback ever in June 2016 with a deal that included over $63 million in guarantees. This year only marks the second of Cox’s contract, but he’s well worth the dough.

Cox will only be 31 years old during the last year of his deal, so the Eagles are set in the defensive trenches for quite some time. Taking some pressure off Cox this year will be veteran Michael Bennett, a former standout in Seattle who adds valuable depth to the rotation.

With 34 sacks in six seasons, Cox has proven he can get after the quarterback despite being an interior player. That’s how nimble and athletic he is; he’ll continue to be a nightmare for opponents to block as the anchor of a defense that ranked No. 1 against the run in 2017, yielding just 79.2 yards per contest.

10. Justin Houston, outside linebacker, Kansas City Chiefs / Contract: 6 years, $101 million
When he signed the contract in July 2015, it was the richest deal for a linebacker in NFL history, with $52.5 million guaranteed. Only $20 million of that guaranteed money was due after signing, though, so Kansas City has flexibility in the coming years with Houston’s deal.

After undergoing surgery in March 2016 for a torn ACL, Houston still came back that year to log four sacks in five games. He registered 9.5 sacks in 15 contests last season, so he’s obviously showing no ill effects despite the major knee injury.

The Chiefs’ secondary took a hit this offseason by losing star cornerback Marcus Peters. That will make Houston all the more valuable and indispensable as Kansas City tries to return to the playoffs for the fifth time in six years under the guidance of a new starting quarterback in Patrick Mahomes.

11. J.J. Watt, defensive end, Houston Texans / Contract: 6 years, $100 million
A first-team All-Pro for four consecutive seasons from 2012 to 2015, Watt was the most dominant defender in the league. Unfortunately, he’s appeared in only eight games across the past two seasons, jeopardizing his career.

But given that prior stretch of incredible play, there’s no way Houston will give up on Watt. If he can stay healthy in 2018, he should more than justify his $15 million cap hit if he’s even half the player he used to be — and it stands to reason he’ll be far more.

The Texans finally have a franchise quarterback in Deshaun Watson who’s only going into his second year, meaning his inevitable payday is far off. They can therefore afford to allow Watt to play out his deal through the 2021 campaign and reevaluate from there.

12. Tyron Smith, left tackle, Dallas Cowboys / Contract: 8 years, $97.6 million
You’re doing something right if you’re a left tackle and you’re a well-known name among NFL fans. It helps to play for America’s Team, but Smith is the rare big man in the trenches who garners such status — and deservedly so. With Cleveland Browns legend Joe Thomas retired, Smith is the undisputed best player at his position in the NFL.

The Cowboys are paying him accordingly, and Smith even restructured his contract each of the previous three years to free up cap room for Dallas. But even with a more backloaded deal, Smith’s average salary is $12.2 million for the rest of his contract through 2023. Quite the bargain for a surefire franchise left tackle.

Smith is indeed all class and backs it up with his play on the gridiron. A tenacious run-blocker who easily gets to the second level, he also has incredible lateral quickness and agility for his size to kick out in pass protection and thwart even the most dangerous pass-rushers.

13. Marcell Dareus, defensive tackle, Jacksonville Jaguars / Contract: 6 years, $96.6 million
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a deeper defensive line in all of football outside of Jacksonville, whose defense continues to be downright scary on paper. The Jaguars are overpaying a little for Dareus, but could get rid of him at any time.

Dareus didn’t work out in Buffalo to say the least, as the Bills shipped him to Jacksonville for a fifth-round pick last October. That’s quite the value in terms of talent, but of course Dareus comes with off-field baggage and has been suspended multiple times.

The question is whether he can keep his head on straight enough to justify an average salary of about $10.75 million over the remaining four years of his contract. It’d only cost the Jags $2.35 million in dead cap to cut him prior to 2019, and there’s no cap penalty to release Dareus the next two years, so he’s in constant prove-it mode.

14. Andy Dalton, quarterback, Cincinnati Bengals / Contract: 6 years, $96 million
So the Bengals aren’t exactly paying Dalton like a franchise quarterback despite the big contract number. He was only guaranteed $17 million at signing, and it costs Cincinnati nothing to release him before the next two league years commence.

It may not be long before the “Red Rifle” sees his time with the Bengals come to an abrupt end. Head coach Marvin Lewis hasn’t produced a playoff win since taking over the job in 2003, so if he’s axed at season’s end, Dalton could be going along with him if a new power structure wants to look to the draft for a quarterback of the future.

Dalton has had a decent career but has flopped in the playoffs, going 0-4 with one touchdown, six interceptions and a horrid 57.8 passer rating. Unless he shines and wins at least one game this coming postseason, the rest of his contract may be null and void.

15. Gerald McCoy, defensive tackle, Tampa Bay Buccaneers / Contract: 6 years, $95.2 million
The 2018 season marks the halfway point for McCoy in his contract. At age 30, he’s still proving to be a force as an interior pass-rusher and a lane-clogging force in the running game who commands a double team regardless of down and distance.

Tampa Bay still has quarterback Jameis Winston on his rookie contract, and has another defensive stud in linebacker Lavonte David on a team-friendly deal of five years and just over $50 million. There’s no reason the Bucs should get rid of McCoy anytime soon.

McCoy may only leave the franchise if he requests a release for a fresh start, because Tampa Bay hasn’t made the postseason since his arrival in 2010. It won’t cost the Bucs any dead money to part ways with McCoy prior to any of the next three league years, which could make him an intriguing trade chip for a contender down the road.