Success in the NFL really does revolve around the quarterback. Not only do you want a good one, you need an offensive tackle both beefy and agile enough to protect him.
You also want a monster pass rusher to chase down the other guy’s quarterback. And that lockdown corner to cover his favorite target.
Generally, these are the positions where NFL general managers put their clubs’ money. Receivers? Running backs? They may get a lot of highlight time, but individually they’re as interchangeable as they come.
Eight of the the 10 highest-salaried NFL players in 2012 are defensive ends or quarterbacks. Leading the pack: Indianapolis Colts veteran pass rusher Dwight Freeney, who has amassed 102 sacks since joining the league in 2002. Freeney is scheduled to pull in $19 million in this, the last year of a lucrative extension he signed in 2007. Second in line: Denver defensive end Elvis Dumervil ($18.9 million), who shook off a pectoral injury that caused him to miss the entire 2010 season by starting 14 games and notching 9.5 sacks in 2011. A sleeper who the Broncos got in the fourth round out of Louisville in 2006, Dumervil’s 2009 Pro Bowl season got him a sweet six-year, $61 million extension.
The top quarterback on the list (and No. 3 overall) is Dumervil’s new teammate, Peyton Manning. The Broncos lured Manning, who cleared out of Indianapolis to make way for the Andrew Luck era, with a five-year, $96 million contract that pays him $18 million this season (the rest of the deal isn’t guaranteed, though Manning figures to see all or most of it if he stays healthy).
Other QBs and pass rushers in the top 10: St. Louis’ Sam Bradford ($15.6 million; he's the last top draft pick to sign prior to the NFL’s new rookie pay scale); San Diego’s rifle-armed Philip Rivers ($15.3 million); Minnesota’s Jared Allen ($15.2 million), who led the league with 22 sacks last season; and Kansas City’s Tamba Hali ($14.5 million), an ironman on the defensive line who has started 95 of a possible 96 games in his six seasons.
The one offensive lineman in the top 10: Washington tackle Trent Williams, who will pull in $13.4 million to protect Robert Griffin III’s blind side this year. Coming off a 2011 drug-related suspension, Williams is challenged with working his way back into the Redskins’ good graces.
Thanks to salary cap complexities, NFL contracts are quirkier than most. Long-term deals are often back loaded or middle loaded, with salaries peaking during certain years (hence no Tom Brady on the 2012 list despite his new big-money extension; he only gets $7.7 million in the first year). Only a portion of a typical contract is guaranteed, and bonus money is often spread out over a number of years. And so we base our highest-paid list on money the players’ are due this season, not annual averages.
The value that NFL general managers place on quarterbacks, pass rushers and pass protectors isn’t limited to the top 10. According to data from spotrac.com, 35 players will earn $10 million or more this season. Two-thirds of them (21 of 35) occupy one of those three positions. Only two -- Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson -- are running backs. Big-money offensive linemen include Carolina’s Jordan Gross ($11.5 million) and Cleveland’s Joe Thomas ($12.9 million), who has started every game of his five-year career. On the pass rushing front: Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and Carolina’s Charles Johnson ($11.5 million each), among others. Quarterbacks who fall short of the top 10 but still pull in eight figures include the Giants’ Eli Manning ($11.9 million) Houston’s Matt Schaub ($11 million) and New Orleans’ Drew Brees ($10.4 million - more later on as his new extension accelerates).
The other big spot: cornerback, where the most talented are counted on to lock down opposing teams’ top receivers. None break into the top 10 this year. But five of them, led by veterans Charles Woodson of Green Bay and Champ Bailey of Denver, top $10 million.