Jimmy Garoppolo is set to receive the biggest salary cap hit in NFL history when he counts $37 million against the San Francisco 49ers’ cap in 2018.
That number could prove smart for the 49ers — a team that had cap space to spare — but it’s more than 50 times what the Dallas Cowboys are on the hook for with Dak Prescott. The 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year is due to count just over $700K against the Cowboys’ cap.
Bargain deals for star players make roster building a whole lot easier. The Seattle Seahawks’ trips to Super Bowls 48 and 49 came while Russell Wilson was still on his rookie contract. The defending Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles also have a starting quarterback on a rookie deal. Carson Wentz will cost $7.3 million against the team’s salary cap this year.
While Garoppolo alone will account for a $37 million hit in 2018, we built a roster of 24 players — 12 on offense, 12 on defense — who will collectively count for less than $28 million in salary cap space. Sorry, no special teamers because they all make close to the same and even the most expensive ones are already discounts.
Here are the best bargain players at those positions, with all numbers courtesy of Spotrac.
Quarterback: Dak Prescott, Cowboys, $725,848
This is an extraordinarily easy choice. Prescott is the only projected starting quarterback in the NFL set to count less than $3 million against the salary cap in 2018. The 2016 fourth-round pick has already made a Pro Bowl and will likely receive a huge extension during the 2019 offseason. While his sophomore season was a little underwhelming — his passer rating dropped from 104.9 in 2016 to 86.6 in year two — he still probably the best bargain in the league.
Other good values at the position include Deshaun Watson ($3,148,700 hit) and Carson Wentz ($7,275,365 hit). The moral of the story: drafting a good quarterback is nice.
Kamara was Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2017, topping Hunt for the award by seven votes. Hunt was the NFL’s rushing champion with 1,327 yards and eight touchdowns. Kamara beat him out for the award after he totaled 728 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground, along with 826 receiving yards and five touchdown catches.
A year after they were Day 2 selections, Hunt and Kamara are two of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL and come at a price tag under $1 million. David Johnson ($2,066,844 hit), Derrick Henry ($1,474,889), and Jordan Howard ($692,005) are also discounts at running back.
Wide receiver: Josh Gordon, Browns, $790,000
Wide receiver: Michael Thomas, Saints, $1,396,083
Wide receiver: Tyreek Hill, Chiefs, $704,996
Gordon is the only player on this list who wasn’t drafted in the last few years, but his off-field troubles and suspensions have kept him from cashing in on his big talent. But now he’s entering an offseason without any problems, and the Browns kept him with a cheap deal he couldn’t avoid as an exclusive rights free agent.
Thomas set the record for receptions in the first two seasons of an NFL career with 196. Hill has the record for most consecutive games (five) with a touchdown of 60 yards or more. Both have already earned spots in the Pro Bowl and will undoubtedly receive lucrative extensions soon.
Tight end: Austin Hooper, Falcons, $823,357
There aren’t many productive tight ends in the NFL, and the few that are in the upper echelon of receiving stats are all well compensated.
Hooper has a history of untimely drops, but his numbers in 2017 — 49 receptions, 526 receiving yards, and three touchdowns — were solid for starting tight end. And they come at a reasonable price.
Williams is the only player on the list due to count more than $2 million against the salary cap in 2018, but it’s not easy to find offensive tackles who aren’t making much. Williams was a second-team All-Pro in 2017 and has established himself as one of the best right tackles in the NFL.
Dawkins stepped in at left tackle as a rookie while Cordy Glenn was dealing with foot and ankle problems. He did well enough in the role to convince Buffalo that it was worth trading Glenn to the Bengals.
Like offensive tackles, starting guards don’t come cheap. Thuney and Glasgow were third-round picks in 2016 and both wasted no time finding a spot in their starting lineups. Thuney has stuck at left guard in New England, while Glasgow has done a little bit of everything on the interior of the Detroit offensive line.
Center: Cody Whitehair, Bears, $1,152,154
Whitehair has spent the early part of his career playing center for the Bears, despite never playing the position before getting drafted. With James Daniels added to the mix, there’s a chance he could eventually go to guard, but for now, he’ll likely stay in the middle of the offensive line. That’s not a bad thing, as Whitehair has proven up to the task so far in his career.
Offensive total: $11,914,097
Just 16 players have at least 19 sacks over the last two seasons, and most are on blockbuster deals that count for more than $10 million against the cap in 2018. Ngakoue and Clark are among the few top-tier pass rushers still on rookie contracts, though.
Ngakoue has 20 sacks and 10 forced fumbles in his two seasons with the Jaguars, while Clark has put up 19 sacks in the last two years. Just missing this list is Danielle Hunter, who is set to count just over $2 million against the Vikings’ cap in 2018.
Defensive tackle: D.J. Reader, Texans, $683,845
Defensive tackle: Grady Jarrett, Falcons, $1,968,964
Reader didn’t take long to go from raw fifth-round pick in 2016 to an above-average NFL starter. On a defense with Jadeveon Clowney, J.J. Watt, and Whitney Mercilus, it’s easy to overlook the nose tackle, yet Reader has developed into a stout nose tackle.
Jarrett — another Clemson product — is the opposite kind of defensive tackle. While Reader stuffs up the middle of the Texans’ defense, Jarrett has proven adept at darting into opposing backfields. It likely won’t be long before Jarrett gets the kind of contract that pulls him from this list.
Linebacker: Deion Jones, Falcons, $1,239,719
Linebacker: Myles Jack, Jaguars, $1,727,574
Linebacker: Zach Cunningham, Texans, $1,016,305
All three linebackers on this list were second-round picks. Jones and Jack were taken in 2016, and have emerged as two of the speediest and most athletic linebackers in the NFL. Jones already has a Pro Bowl under his belt for Atlanta. In Jacksonville, Jack has gradually improved to become a capable replacement for Paul Posluszny.
Cunningham was asked to start as a rookie in 2017 while Brian Cushing served a 10-game suspension. He thrived in the role and is likely the reason Cushing is no longer on the Texans’ roster.
Curiously, the three cornerbacks on this list were all traded in the last calendar year. Part of the reason Peters was traded from the Chiefs to the Rams was because the two-time Pro Bowler is set to receive a huge contract soon, and Kansas City didn’t want to front the bill. Fuller was traded by Washington as part of the Alex Smith deal, and Darby was traded partly due to concerns about his fit in the Buffalo defense under new coach Sean McDermott.
When the dust settled, the Rams, Eagles, and Chiefs got three capable starters at an affordable price. At least, for now.
An argument could be made that Byard was the best free safety in the NFL in 2017 and Collins was the best strong safety. Byard was a first-team All-Pro after leading the NFL with eight interceptions. Collins was a Pro Bowler for a second consecutive season.
While Eric Berry is due to count $13 million against the Chiefs’ cap and Harrison Smith at $10 million for the Vikings, both Byard and Collins still have cap hits under $2 million.
Defensive total: $15,176,929