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The Highest Paid Player in the NFL is a Kicker

Earlier this year, when MLB slugger Miguel Cabrera signed an eight year contract worth $248 million, much was made of one astounding aspect of that deal: on average, over the course of the coming decade, Mr. Cabrera will earn nearly $50,000 every time he steps to the plate. That’s an absurd number, and it got us thinking. How does Miggy’s 50-grand per at-bat compare to the equivalent number for the highest paid football players?

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While the NFL doesn’t have at-bats (obviously), it does have offensive, defensive and special teams plays—snaps, in football parlance. With the midway point of the 2014 NFL season approaching, we took a look at which NFL players get paid the most on a per snap basis. You may just get a kick out of what we found.

Data & Methodology

We looked at data on salary, bonuses and total snaps per player for the 2013 season. We included all forms of pay in our calculation: base pay, prorated signing bonuses, roster bonuses and workout bonuses, as well as any other applicable bonuses. Since we were not interested in finding the highest paid back-ups, we only considered players who started at least 4 games. We also excluded from our calculation any pay that applied to games missed due to injury. To make our final calculation, we took 2013 pay, excluding games missed due to injury, and divided it by the total number of 2013 snaps that the player participated in.1

Key Findings

  • It pays to kick. Even though kickers generally have among the lowest overall salaries in the league, they are only required to ply their trade a few times a game. Of the ten players with the highest per-snap pay in the NFL last year, eight were place-kickers or punters. Of the top 50 highest paid players, nearly half (21) were kickers. On average, the top kickers got paid over $19,000 every time they put a foot to the ball.
  • Defensive lineman get the green. Of the top 100 highest paid players in the NFL last year, 22 were defensive lineman, more than any other non-kicker position. Why? One reason is that top defensive lineman often get to take plays or even entire drives off to catch their breath, which boosts their per-snap pay.
  • Are quarterbacks underpaid? While QBs typically have the highest total pay, they also participate in the most snaps. There were just 14 quarterbacks in the top 100 highest per-snap earners last year, among them household names such as Eli Manning (6th highest) and Drew Brees (14th highest).

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The Highest Paid Player in the NFL is a Kicker

1. Adam Vinatieri – Kicker, Indianapolis

One of the all-time clutch kickers in the history of the NFL, Vinatieri holds NFL career records including for postseason field goals (he has 51), postseason points (213) and field goals made in Super Bowls (7). He is a four-time Super Bowl champion who has kicked game winners in the regular season, the playoffs, the Super Bowl and even in a blizzard (in the infamous “tuck rule” game). That’s the kind of clutch that money can’t buy—although if it could, the cost would be something around $46,000 a kick. In the 2013 regular season, Vinatieri played a mere 74 snaps and made $45,946 for each and every one of them.

To put that in context: the  median annual income in Indianapolis was $41,154 in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So Mr. Vinatieri made more money each time he kicked a field goal (or extra point) than the average Indianapolitan made during the entire year.

2. Matt Bryant – Kicker, Atlanta

If you aren’t from Atlanta you probably haven’t heard of Matt Bryant. (In fact, even if you are from Atlanta you may not have heard of him.) But he’s the second highest paid player in the NFL, on a per-snap basis. Like Vinatieri, Bryant is a pure field goal kicker, which means that unlike a typical place kicker, he doesn’t handle kick-offs. That allows him to participate in far fewer plays than almost any other starting NFL player. In 2013, Mr. Bryant was only on the field for 66 plays. (In contrast, Matt Ryan, the Falcons’ quarterback, participated in 1065.)

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3. Sebastian Janikowski – Kicker, Oakland

Known for his incredible leg strength, Sebastian Janikowski (a.k.a. the Polish Cannon) was just the fourth place kicker in NFL history to be taken in the first round of the NFL draft when he was selected 17th overall by the Raiders in the year 2000. Since then, he has been among the most dominant place kickers in the NFL, routinely leading the league in touchbacks. In 2013, he was a flawless 37 for 37 on extra points. He was paid $34,930 for every one of them.

4. Mike Scifres – Punter, San Diego Chargers

In recent years, some analysts have argued that NFL coaches generally place too high a value on punting while underestimating the value of 4th down conversion attempts. Consider this more ammo for the anti-punting crowd’s cannons. Mr. Scifres, a punter, participated in 139 snaps in 2013 and earned an average of $27,230 every time he kicked the ball.

5. Andy Lee – Punter, San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers earn the distinction as the only team to have two separate kickers among the highest per snap earners in the NFL. In addition to Mr. Lee, who earned $25,154 per snap in 2013, the 49ers place-kicker, Phil Dawson, was 27th highest overall, making $13,584 for each of his kicks.

6. Eli Manning – Quarterback, New York Giants

The less heralded of the Mannings has once again bested his big brother. Not only did Eli receive higher total pay for 2013 ($20.85 million vs. Peyton’s $18.5 million); he earned that money while running fewer plays. The Giants averaged a lean 61.8 offensive plays per game last year, while Denver’s offense required a league-high 72.1 to reach their (admittedly higher) point totals.

7. Robbie Gould – Kicker, Chicago Bears

As the third most accurate kicker in NFL history, Mr. Gould has already played his way into the record books. He has made over 85% of his career field goal attempts, including a career long of 58.

8. Rob Bironas – Kicker, Tennessee Titans

During his nine year career with the Tennessee Titans, Rob Bironas made 239 of his 279 field goal attempts, good for an average of 85.7%, among the best in NFL history. His career long 60 yard field goal was 8th longest in league history at the time he made it.

9. Stephen Gostkowski – Kicker, New England Patriots

As the replacement for Adam Vinatieri (who kicked in New England before heading to Indianapolis in 2006), Stephen Gostkowski had big shoes to fill. He has done so admirably, converting 86.3% of his field goal tries, while scoring 1,000 points in each of his first 8 NFL seasons, a first in league history. In 2013, he earned $18,478 per snap.

10. Adrian Peterson – Running Back, Minnesota Vikings

Widely considered the best running back in the league until several very serious off-the-field issues derailed his career earlier this season, Mr. Peterson participated in 674 snaps in 2013. Excluding the two games he missed due to injury, he was paid a total of $12.2 million.

Hourly Pay

We were also curious about the hourly rate earned for actual playing time. To calculate that number, we assumed an average NFL game has 11 minutes of live action and features 145 plays—about 65 offensive plays per team, 10 kickoffs, and 5 extra points (which, confusingly, occur while the clock is stopped).

Under those assumptions, every snap should last about 4.55 seconds, which adds up to 13.18 snaps per minute (if each was played consecutively, without the wait-time of an actual football game), and 790 snaps per hour. That means that even if players only earned one dollar per snap, they’d still be making $790 an hour. (Note: we recognize that NFL players get paid for a lot more than the minutes of live action they see each game. This calculation is not intended for literal interpretation.) Below is the hourly wage earned by the highest paid player at each position.

The Highest Paid Player in the NFL is a Kicker

At least by this measure, not only is Adam Vinatieri the highest paid football player in the country, he’s also the highest paid athlete in the world. In fact, (if you exclude practice, warm-ups, film review and everything else football players do to prepare for those few seconds of live play that occur once the ball is snapped) Mr. Vinatieri may be the highest paid person of any profession – ever.

Photo credit: flickr


1. Data on player salary and bonuses came from overthecap.com. Data on 2013 snaps-played came from footballoutsiders.com.

Nick Wallace Nick Wallace studied Economics at the University of Washington. He enjoys getting people thinking about finances by looking at the numbers. Nick is a freelance journalist and data analyst living in Michigan. He still lends his economic and analytic expertise for SmartAsset's studies.
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