Under The Cap
FO's Salary Cap Analyst looks at the economics of the NFL

Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by J.I. Halsell

This week we wrap up our look at the highest paid starting defenders in the league by analyzing the safety position. The two players who stand out to me as I look at the table below are Indianapolis' Bob Sanders and Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu.

When the average person thinks of the Indianapolis Colts, the first thing that comes to mind is quarterback Peyton Manning. When a cap guy thinks of the Indianapolis Colts, many of them associate the club with overpaying core players and filling the rest of the roster out with draft picks and undrafted rookie free agents. Consider that Peyton Manning's 2004 contract paid him $34.5 million guaranteed, and five years later, in a more lucrative salary cap environment, his brother Eli Manning got $35 million guaranteed. This shows how astronomical Peyton's contract was at the time. In 2004, wide receiver Marvin Harrison received a contract that guaranteed him $23 million, well above the guarantee market for wide receivers at that time.

When one looks at the contract signed by tight end Dallas Clark in 2008 for $20 million guaranteed and $27 million over the first three years, they'll see that no other tight end in the game approached these numbers. As a matter of fact, over the first three years of their deals, Clark was going to make as much as New England's Randy Moss. The collateral beneficiary of Clark's contract was Tampa's Kellen Winslow, who signed a contract in 2009 also worth $20 million guaranteed, but with a three-year total that is nowhere near Clark's.

At defensive end, Minnesota's Jared Allen can thank the Colts and Dwight Freeney for setting the market for elite pass rushers at $30 million guaranteed, when no other defensive ends were making this type of guaranteed money. Freeney signed his contract in the summer of 2007. The following offseason, Allen was traded to Minnesota and signed a contract for just shy of $32 million guaranteed.

This trend of overpaying core players also applies to safety Bob Sanders, whose inability to stay healthy really makes one question whether the Colts are getting their money's worth. That aside, the Sanders contract, signed in late 2007, took the elite safety market to another level from both a guaranteed and three-year total perspective. Sanders' contract guaranteed him $20 million and paid him $24 million over the first three years when, at the time, elite safeties were getting paid in the neighborhood of $10 to $15 million guaranteed, with roughly $15 million over three years. Three months after the Sanders contract was executed, we then saw the Jets' Kerry Rhodes get a $20 million guarantee at safety.

As much as Sanders set the guarantee market for elite safeties, one cannot overlook the impact of the $17.5 million guarantee paid to Washington's LaRon Landry as the sixth overall pick in 2007. Surely, the Landry guarantee influenced the increase in the safety market.

The Polamalu contract is interesting in that the three-year total was a market-setting $24 million, as this deal was completed five months before the Sanders deal and his $24 million three-year total. The Polamalu contract, however, only guarantees $11 million. A contract with $11 million over four new years means a guarantee per year of $2.7 million. This was in line, at the time, with the $2.5 million for Baltimore's Ed Reed and $3 million for Oakland's Michael Huff. With the guarantee market for safeties jumping to $20-plus million just a few months later, however, it appears that one of the premier safeties in the game was slighted in his guarantee. As is so much in life, it's all about timing.

Currently, from an average per year perspective, Arizona's Adrian Wilson leads safeties at $7.9 million per year. The Wilson contract is a good deal for the player as it's a good combination of the positives of both the Polamalu and Sanders contracts. Wilson's $4 million guarantee per year is on par with Rhodes and Sanders, and, while Sanders is earning $24 million over three years on a five-year deal, Wilson is earning $24 million over three years on a four-year contract, which is equal to Polamalu's three-year total on his four-year deal.

Here are the top ten starting safety contracts in the league:

Top Ten Starting Safety Contracts (in millions of dollars)
Rank Player Club Age at
Guarantee Guar./
New Money
1 Wilson, Adrian ARI 29 6/5/2009 4 $15.5m $3.9m 48.8% $31.8m $7.9m $24.0m
2 Polamalu, Troy PIT 26 7/23/2007 4 $11.0m $2.7m 36.4% $30.1m $7.5m $23.7m
3 Sanders, Bob IND 26 12/28/2007 5 $20.1m $4.0m 53.6% $37.5m $7.5m $24.0m
4 Rhodes, Kerry NYJ 25 4/10/2008 5 $20.0m $4.0m 59.7% $33.5m $6.7m $22.5m
5 Hamlin, Ken DAL 27 7/15/2008 6 $15.0m $2.5m 38.5% $39.0m $6.5m $19.5m
6 Reed, Ed BAL 27 7/7/2006 6 $15.0m $2.5m 39.4% $38.1m $6.4m $18.4m
7 Atogwe, O.J. STL 28 7/16/2009 1 $6.3m $6.3m 100.0% $6.3m $6.3m --
8 Wilson, Gibril MIA 27 2/26/2009 5 $7.0m $1.4m 25.5% $27.5m $5.5m $16.5m
9 Williams, Madieu MIN 26 3/1/2008 6 $12.0m $2.0m 36.4% $33.0m $5.5m $16.5m
10 Grant, Deon SEA 27 3/13/2007 6 $11.5m $1.9m 36.1% $31.8m $5.3m $14.8m

Next week, as we prepare to unwrap our presents, we'll wrap up our position-by-position analysis with the highest paid kickers and punters in the league.

Follow J.I. Halsell on Twitter: @SalaryCap101


41 comments, Last at 21 Dec 2009, 1:51pm

1 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

I never realized that safeties were this underpaid, comparatively.

In any case, great analysis as usual!

6 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

But wouldn't you rather have Polamalu, Sanders and Wilson (just as back-up) playing for your team than only Nmandi Asomugha or only Dunta Robinson for the same per-year price? There's under-valued and there's hilariously under-valued. Having watched the eagles for years, I can say that a safety like Brian Dawkins can almost single-handedly make up for an entire weak LB corp... Or Ravens defense is all-world, up until the moment Ed Reed has a bad year and suddenly the defense looks vulnerable...

3 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

The analysis of Indy "overpaying" core players strikes me as odd. Overpaying seems to be used as a qualitative judgment (i.e., an error in strategy) by Mr. Halsell. Yet what if this is just their personnel strategy? For comparison, the Eagles are noted for a tough FO that doesn't give out big contracts often. Do the Eagles "underpay" their core players or "lock them in for a good price"? The judgment call lies in the product on the field.

Which brings us back to Indy. Why say that they "overpay" for core players when the strategy seems to be working?

This isn't trying to be a definitive critique. I just find the normative language that slips in to be odd.

11 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

When I say "overpay" I did not mean that in a negative sense, and I apologize for not being clear. Their record and success speak for themselves; I was more so highlighting how different their approach is (that approach being paying tons for core players & supplementing them with draft picks/undrafted free agents). This formula has most certainly worked for them in building a team in the salary cap era.

J.I. Halsell
Salary Cap Analyst | "Under the Cap"
Twitter | @SalaryCap101

18 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

The PC phrase might be "aggressively retain core players."

It's important to highlight the difference between that and Washington, for instance. Washington is also basically paying tons for a few players, and then filling out the roster with the remaining buck and a quarter down at the 7-11. The difference is that the Colts are paying that money to players they drafted - in that case, the risk that the player doesn't pan out is significantly lower, so they can afford to take on big contracts.

23 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

Actually the Redskins are very different from Indy. True the Skins pay a lot for veterans, particularly thru free agency, however, unlike the Colts whose reserves consist of young players, the Redskins' reserves consist of expensive veterans such as the Will Montgomery's of the world or Jason Fabini's and Randall Godfrey's of the world when I was there. This is a by-product of not having draft picks. In short the Colts have had picks and those picks have at least made the 53-man roster as reserves; in Washington, this simply has not been the case. So the Skins are far from penny penching on the back-end of their roster.

J.I. Halsell
Salary Cap Analyst | "Under the Cap"
Twitter | @SalaryCap101

12 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

I was taken aback by the same comment on the Colts "overpaying". Here in New England we heard for years that Peyton Manning's contract (vis-a-vis Tom Brady's) and a couple other contracts would eventually cause the Colts to backslide on the field. Didn't happen. Whatever Polian and company have been doing with their salary cap value assessments, it's working.

4 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

Hey J.I.,

Great insight as always...thanks!

One question...is the Sanders contract structured in a way that makes cutting him after this year a nightmare for the Colts?

You have to believe Polian is dying with the amount of money he is paying him when he can't stay healthy...especially given the out-of-blue unexpected play from Bullitt, Beathea, Lacey, etc.

27 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

I don't think so, but what I've read (from coltacap.com?) keeping him is pretty cheap--$2M per year going fwd? Maybe $2.5M. Yes, at this point he's not contributing much, but if they get 8 games out of him for that money, it's not too bad a deal. His "backup" is playing very well. Polian has discussed this issue and has said flat-out that Sanders isn't going anywhere. It's not like it's the same injury over and over (implying he'll never walk again or something catastrophic), so he is expected to recover (before the "next injury" hits) and the cost to keep him is reasonable, so I assume they hold on and hope for 8+ games a year. If they get 12 or 16 or 19, so much the better--it's like getting a half year FREE! Weird.

But in light of the above discussion, it makes me creepily aware of how Jim Irsay could be compared to George Steinbrenner, at least in terms of his affect on salary structure. I am a Yankee fan but detest Steinie for many, many things. At least Irsay has the brains to let professionals run the team and keep things stable for the long-term. And clearly what they're doing appears to be not only successful but sustainable as well. For a small market team that does not own its own cable TV company, brewery, amusement park, etc.

5 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

Almost everyone on that list isn't worth the money - Rhodes (having a terrible, terrible season), Hamlin (Dallas secondary, lol), Wilson (never been remotely good, overpaid him out of desperation), Williams (average, Viking's secondary still a big weakness), Grant (not sure how he's doing this year, actually).

15 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

"This trend of overpaying core players also applies to safety Bob Sanders, whose inability to stay healthy really makes one question whether the Colts are getting their money's worth."

That's a very polite way to put it. I would have said he's a huge waste of money.

17 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

Here's a question that might highlight some ignorance on my part --

Isn't Otogwe on a franchise deal? If so, why is he 7th on this list? Shouldn't his one-year franchise deal be for the average of what the top 5 are getting?

25 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

I'm not sure that's correct. For instance, Matt Cassel's franchise tag value was $14M, but as you can see on the USAToday salary data base (http://content.usatoday.com/sports/football/nfl/salaries/playersbyposition.aspx?pos=132), the average of the top 5 QB P5 salaries in 2008 was way lower than that.

It's probably the top 5 by cap value. (P5 plus pro-rated bonus)

I think the reason Atogwe's contract appears lower on this list is because it's sorted by Average per year, which includes increased salary in later years of contracts-- salary that is not used to compute 2009 franchise tag value.

19 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

Sanders' contract will almost certainly be renegotiated this summer. One of the benefits to the Colts' system is that when the team finds itself in uncomfortable straits, they can go to guys like Manning, Sanders, Wayne, etc. and ask them to renegotiate. Because they frequently set the market for contracts at their positions, and continue to win football games as part of a great organization, I think they probably get a better deal than someone like the Raiders or Redskins might.

Top-flight safeties are always a mixed bag; when Sanders is on the field, he's energizing. The same is for Polamalu. But because of the way those guys play, then end up spending more time rehabbing than they do playing. The moral of the story is you've gotta have at least 3 good safeties.

41 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

Those restructures that the Colts do routinely are cap maneuvers; they just turn other money into signing bonus and prorate it out over future years. They're not making any changes to how much the guy is being paid, or even in what years. The issue with Sanders is not his cap number next year (especially since as of right now, there won't be a cap next year), but that they're paying him premium money at his position and not getting any return on it.

And there's really no comparison between Polamalu and Sanders. Polamalu has missed 17 games out of 110 in seven seasons, most of them this year; Sanders has missed 47 out of 94 in six seasons. And Sanders isn't nearly as good when he's on the field, either.

21 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

JI: Any idea of the overall bonus layout of Hamlin's contract? Needless to say, he hasn't been a top 5 safety. Could we see him cut in the upcoming uncapped year?

22 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

Of course you'd rather have a Polamalu or A Wilson at safety than a Dunta Robinson. Who wouldn't rather have an elite player at one position than a mediocre player at another?

24 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

The strange thing is that players are not worth some abstract amount in all circumstances. Each of the best-paid players probably ended up where they are because a team had (or would make) a scheme where that player could make full use of his exceptional talents.

There is no way that Nnamdi Asomugha is worth his salary unless you are going to game plan for him to live on an island on defense. Would that the Raiders had gotten Darrelle Revis to play the other side. Now your big play is the tight end on a seam route.

I think the problem that safeties have at the top end is that much of what a safety does can be done by a lesser safety. That, of course, look over one thing. The safety is most valuable on the 5% of plays where the rest of the team fails badly. But only if he can contain the damage. But cutting off a TD for merely a first down doesn't go in the books as a "TD-save." It goes down as "allowed a first down."

30 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

I am risking putting words into the mouth of ChicagoRaider, but I think he means that Asomugha's value is maximized in an aggressive man-cover scheme. If you play a lot of cover-2, then you are wasting Asomugha's unique lock-up talents. It would be like paying Peyton Manning for his unique skill set, then handing off from the pro-set on 85% of the plays.

From the bigger-picture perspective, why he felt the need to make this point is completely beyond me.

32 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

I'm not entirely sure what point you're trying to make, but I get the impression you have never seen Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu play much. They have demonstrated an ability to impact the game in ways few others can. Certainly far more than "5% of plays where the rest of the team fails badly." That is what *makes* them so much better than a "lesser safety".

28 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

I think I read something about him changing his name to Robinson Crusoe a few years back... either that, or he'd be wasted and way overpriced on a cover-2 team that plays lots of zone and gives CBs tons of safety backup over the top.

Playing/living on an island = isolated and alone vs the WRs, so he better be damn good and worth the money. Also should like coconuts and having Gilligan F-up his escape plans on a weekly basis. Ooooh, that Mary Ann.....

31 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

I can't even begin to describe how terrible Gibril Wilson is. Im sure other Dolphins fans here can attest to this.

33 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

With the decreased usage of man-to-man, it seems to me that the safety position's real value has increased while cornerbacks have decreased. A smart, fast, and to a lesser extent hard-hitting, safety minimizes/erases mistakes which has more value in today's game than the almost non-existent "shut down corner". Therefore, I surmise what we are seeing is that safety money is, and will continue to, creep closer to corner money.

37 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

JI when you present the 3 year totals is this the first three years of the total contract or just the extension? For example is the Rhodes deal 3 year total 2008, 2009, and 2010 or 2009, 2010, and 2011 which are the first three years of the extension?

38 Re: Under the Cap: Top Ten Safeties

Great question, on a renegotiated contract, the 3-year total represents the 3 new years, so in the case of Rhodes his "old" year was 2008 (the final yr of his rookie contract) & his 3 "new" years are 2009-2011.

J.I. Halsell
Salary Cap Analyst | "Under the Cap"
Twitter | @SalaryCap101