Vikings WR Justin Jefferson Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Projected Contracts for Players Who Should Be the Highest Paid at Every NFL Position

Maurice Moton

In the NFL, the best players aren't always the highest paid at their respective positions. At any given time, the last big-name player to sign a new deal could reset the market.

Let's set the top of the salary market at every position with a projected multiyear deal for the player who should be the highest paid at each spot.

The criteria below will determine who deserves the top contracts.

The projected contracts for each player will reset the market in total value.

For example, the highest-paid running back would earn a deal that exceeds Alvin Kamara's four-year, $75 million pact. If the determined highest-paid player matches the current top earner, the contract remains the same.

In some cases, the best player at a position is 30 or older, but it may be more cost-effective to sign a younger player who's just as productive or healthier to get more out of a long-term investment.

As a final note regarding these projections, everyone, including players on a rookie deal with fewer than three completed seasons, is eligible for a new contract.

Now, let's introduce the top moneymakers.

Quarterback: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs

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As the best player at the most important position, Patrick Mahomes can demand what he wants on a new deal, and every team should line up to pay him.

The 28-year-old has helped lead the Kansas City Chiefs to back-to-back titles and three in the last five years, earning the MVP award in all of his team's Super Bowl wins.

Mahomes has also earned a Pro Bowl nod in all six of his seasons as a starter and won regular-season MVP honors in 2018 and 2022.

Now that Tom Brady has retired and is preparing to become a Fox Sports' lead NFL analyst, the Texas Tech product is the league's most accomplished player, and his salary does and should reflect his achievements.

In terms of total value, Mahomes has the biggest contract among quarterbacks, though he should also receive the most guaranteed money.

Contract: 10 years, $450 million ($250 million guaranteed)

Running Back: Christian McCaffrey, San Francisco 49ers

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Between 2020 and 2021, Christian McCaffrey missed 23 games because of injuries, but he's only missed one outing on a week of rest over the last two years.

In 2019, he became the third player in NFL history to rack up 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.

Though McCaffrey accomplished that feat five years ago, he's still arguably the league's most reliable pass-catching running back.

Last season, the three-time Pro Bowler finished second on the San Francisco 49ers in receptions (67) and tied wideouts Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel for a team-leading seven touchdown receptions.

While some teams may hesitate to sign a running back who's entering his age-28 term to a market-setting deal, McCaffrey's pass-catching ability would allow clubs to use him as a receiver to lessen the physical demand on his body and potentially extend his career.

As he ages past 30, he may take fewer carries but still lead a team in scrimmage yards as an elite catch-and-run receiver in the short passing game.

Coming off an All-Pro campaign as 2023 Offensive Player of the Year with the third-most MVP votes, McCaffrey deserves the biggest moneybag among the running backs.

Contract: Four years, $76 million ($36.3 million guaranteed)

Wide Receiver: Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings

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Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill are more accomplished wide receivers than Justin Jefferson, but they're both 30 years old or older.

As Hill ages, he may lose some of the speed that makes him a unique playmaker.

Adams will be 32 in December—signing him to a lucrative five-year deal at this stage of his career comes with great risk because of the potential for a sharp decline in the near future.

In June, Jefferson will turn 25. He's a four-year veteran who's earned three Pro Bowl nods, made first-team All-Pro and won Offensive Player of the Year in 2022.

Even though the LSU product missed seven outings last season, he still finished second in receiving yards per game (107.4).

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, he has skipped the Minnesota Vikings' organized team activities while in talks with the club about an extension.

When Jefferson signs a new deal, he should be atop the wide receiver pay scale.

Contract: Four years, $144 million ($87 million guaranteed)

Tight End: Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens

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At 34 years old, Travis Kelce is still the league's best pass-catching tight end, and he has the all-time record in postseason receptions to prove it.

That said, teams would likely rather pay Kelce year to year than lock him into a long-term contract at this stage of his career.

Three-time Pro Bowler and 2021 All-Pro Mark Andrews gets the top salary at tight end because he's several years younger than Kelce, and he's had a profound impact on the Baltimore Ravens' aerial attack over the last six seasons.

While the Ravens have struggled to find consistency at wide receiver during Lamar Jackson's tenure, Andrews immediately became the quarterback's top target in the passing game.

Baltimore drafted Jackson and Andrews in the same year (2018), and they've grown together as one of the league's best quarterback-tight end tandems, likely behind only Patrick Mahomes and Kelce.

In Jackson's first MVP season in 2019, Andrews led the Ravens in catches (64), receiving yards (852) and touchdowns receptions (10).

Last year, during the signal-caller's second MVP campaign, Andrews missed seven outings because of an ankle injury, but he was on pace to eclipse 900 receiving yards and still hauled in 45 catches for 544 yards and six touchdowns with a career-high 73.8 percent catch rate.

Three years younger than George Kittle and slightly more accomplished than T.J. Hockenson in terms of Pro Bowl and All-Pro accolades, Andrews gets the biggest payday among tight ends.

Contract: Four years, $76 million ($45 million guaranteed)

Offensive Tackle: Tristan Wirfs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, Tristan Wirfs didn't report to Tampa Bay Buccaneers OTAs as he "seeks a long-term contract."

Fowler noted that the Buccaneers haven't made any progress with the offensive tackle on an extension, but Tampa Bay will likely back up the Brinks truck for him at some point in the coming months.

At 25, Wirfs has a distinguishable accomplishment that separates him from his peers: He's an All-Pro and Pro Bowler at right and left tackle.

The Iowa product started his career on the right side of the Buccaneers offensive line and earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl praise in that spot. Last year, he moved to the left side and made the NFC's Pro Bowl roster.

Because of Wirfs' high-level performances at both tackle spots, he should be in line to top Trent Williams—who's entering his age-36 term—on the position pay ladder.

Contract: Five years, $140 million ($70 million guaranteed)

Interior Offensive Lineman: Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts

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Zack Martin has an edge over Quenton Nelson in recent All-Pro performances, but the latter has youth on his side.

Martin will enter his age-34 campaign this season, and Nelson turned 28 in March.

Assuming Nelson has several more optimal years left in his career, he gets the lucrative multiyear deal over Martin, who may only be around for the short-term future.

In all six of his seasons, Nelson has been a Pro Bowl-caliber player. Though Joel Bitonio and Joe Thuney have beaten him out for the AFC's All-Pro spot at left guard over the last three years, he's helped transform the Indianapolis Colts offense under multiple coaching staffs.

Nelson's physical presence has opened up lanes for Jonathan Taylor, who won the 2021 rushing title.

Moreover, the six-time Pro Bowler only allowed one sack while on the field for 1,141 offensive snaps in 2023, according to Pro Football Focus.

In September 2022, the Colts signed Nelson to a four-year, $80 million extension, which made him the highest-paid guard at the time. He still deserves that spot atop the market over Chris Lindstrom, who's a less accomplished guard with two Pro Bowl seasons.

Contract: Five years, $105 million ($65 million guaranteed)

Edge-Rusher: T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers

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Myles Garrett, Nick Bosa and T.J. Watt should be in the conversation for the highest-paid edge-rusher. They have all won Defensive Player of the Year in the last three terms.

That said, Watt has unmatched consistency as an elite pass-rusher.

The six-time Pro Bowler has led the league in sacks for three of the previous four years, and he's registered at least 50 pressures in four of the last five seasons. Bosa and Garrett have only recorded 50-plus pressures once in the same time span.

Based on age, Bosa may be the most appealing option because he's in the middle of his prime at 27, but Watt has only missed more than two games in a season once in his seven-year career.

Bosa missed all but two games in 2020, and his production dropped off significantly after he won 2022 Defensive Player of the Year.

Even at 29, Watt's availability and productivity are enough to believe in him as a long-term asset at a premium position.

Contract: Five years, $175 million ($124 million guaranteed)

Interior Defensive Lineman: Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs

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Aaron Donald has retired, which takes away the easy answer at defensive tackle.

Even when the former Los Angeles Rams man played, though, Chris Jones' name still came up as one of the NFL's top interior defenders.

The Chiefs star hasn't won Defensive Player of the Year, but he's put together five consecutive Pro Bowl campaigns and back-to-back All-Pro seasons with double-digit sacks.

In eight years, Jones hasn't missed more than three games in a single season, and he can also slide out to play defensive end if needed.

The Mississippi State product will turn 30 in July, but he's aged well, having two of his most productive seasons in the last couple of years.

This offseason, the Kansas City Chiefs signed Jones to a five-year, $158.8 million extension, making him the highest-paid defensive tackle, which is a justifiable investment.

Contract: Five years, $158.8 million ($95 million guaranteed)

Off-Ball Linebacker: Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers

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Off-ball linebackers who can handle coverage assignments earn much bigger paydays than two-down second-level defenders who aren't equipped to match up with pass-catchers in short-to-intermediate zones.

Fred Warner can handle those assignments and even stay with pass-catchers in deep coverage, which makes him an invaluable asset to the San Francisco 49ers' stingy defense.

Yes, the Niners have an All-Pro player on all three levels of their defensive unit, but Warner can make plays at the line of scrimmage, in the middle of the field and eight to 10 yards down the field.

In all six of his seasons, the 27-year-old has recorded at least 118 tackles, totaling 31 for loss. He also has nine career sacks.

Most impressive about Warner's back-to-back All-Pro campaigns is that he has logged double-digit pass breakups while allowing a passer rating of 76.6 or below in both seasons with a total of five interceptions.

As offenses evolve with the influx of athletic and pass-catching tight ends coming into the league, the BYU product seems irreplaceable.

Roquan Smith gets a mention, but his coverage slipped last season. He gave up a 103.5 passer rating in coverage.

Warner's skill set stands out even among high-level off-ball linebackers.

Contract: Five years, $105 million ($65 million guaranteed)

Cornerback: Sauce Gardner, New York Jets

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Sauce Gardner has only played two seasons, so he's not up for an extension until next offseason.

However, since all players are eligible for this discussion, we'll highlight the 23-year-old with the anticipation that he will become the highest-paid cornerback sometime next year.

Gardner is the first CB since the AFL/NFL merger to earn All-Pro honors in his first two seasons.

The 2022 No. 4 overall pick has only two career interceptions, and he didn't record one last season. Retired cornerback Asante Samuel Sr. used the latter stat for his argument against recognizing the Jets defender as an All-Pro or Pro Bowl cornerback in 2023.

However, Gardner led the NFL in pass breakups in his rookie year, and he's allowed a passer rating of 80.3 or below and a completion rate of 56.4 percent or less in both of his seasons.

While skeptics can nitpick his lack of takeaways, no other NFL cornerback has been more accomplished than him in a short period. He seems well on his way to a decorated career.

If Gardner continues to play at this level in the upcoming campaign, he's going to get a massive salary raise.

Contract: Five years, $110 million ($75 million guaranteed)

Safety: Antoine Winfield Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Safeties have fallen to the bottom of the premium scale in terms of salary. As a result, the top players at the position must do it all for a lucrative payday.

This offseason, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Antoine Winfield Jr. to a four-year, $84.1 million extension, which made him the league's highest-paid safety.

The 25-year-old may be atop the safety salary market for some time. He's a Pro Bowl, All-Pro defender who can play three different roles at a high level.

Winfield has logged most of his snaps at free safety, which has allowed him to utilize his ball-tracking skills. Last year, he logged career highs in interceptions (three) and pass breakups (12).

Though the Buccaneers list the Minnesota product at 5'9", 203 pounds, don't underestimate his tackling and pursuit of the ball.

In 2023, Winfield recorded a career-high 122 tackles and tied edge-rusher Bradley Chubb for a league-leading six forced fumbles while missing just 5.4 percent of his tackling attempts.

Because of his ability to make plays going downhill, he's effective in the box for run support, and the Buccaneers can trust him in the versatile slot position.

Looking at Winfield's skill set, production and recent accolades, he is and should be the NFL's highest-paid safety.

Contract: Four years, $84.1 million ($45 million guaranteed)

NFL player contract details are courtesy of Over the Cap.

Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.

   

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