NFL Analysis


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How NFL Positional Value Has Changed in The Past 25 Years

Jan 7, 2024; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) catches a pass for a touchdown against the Detroit Lions in the third quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL was a completely different league 25 years ago. How the game was played and what was valued for playing it have changed. Just take a look at the 2000 NFL Draft, which featured a first-round with five running backs, two linebackers in the top 10 and two others later in the round, two tight ends, a kicker, and the only quarterback in the round going 18th overall.

That would be a wild round today, but it fit the time. Those two top-10 linebackers were LaVar Arrington and Brian Urlacher. The running backs included Jamal Williams, Thomas Jones, and Shawn Alexander.

As the game has changed, so has what we've valued around it. Let's review the positions to see how they've changed during the past 25 years.

How NFL Positional Value Has Changed


This has always been the most important position in the league, and when possible, it's been paid like it, too. In 1999, Troy Aikman signed a six-year, $64.5 million contract that was 18.8 percent of the cap. That would be the modern-day equivalent of a $287 million contract that averages $47.9 million per year, per Over The Cap.

Brett Favre and Drew Bledsoe signed contracts in 2001 that would be $43.6 and $40 million per year in the modern day. A big difference was the length of those deals — seven years for Favre and nine for Bledsoe.

Quarterbacks now sign shorter deals (outside of Patrick Mahomes, who will have his redone soon) to get more shots at the cap inflation.

The biggest shift in quarterback value has come from the rookie wage scale. In 1998, Peyton Manning signed his first NFL contract for $46 million over six years. His $7.7 AAV was 14.7 percent of the cap and the equivalent of a $37.6 million average salary today.

Caleb Williams, the 2024 first-overall pick, will average just less than $10 million for the first four years of his rookie contract. 

Running Back

In the late '90s, running back salaries were as high as ever. Barry Sanders was making 15.8 percent of the cap on his 1997 contract — five years for $32.7 million. Terell Davis was right behind at 14.9 percent, as were Emmitt Smith (14.2 percent signed in 1996) and Marshall Faulk (14.1 percent in 1999). Those rates would all top over $35 million on the 2024 cap.

As passing became more prevalent and the success of running the ball was found to be tied more to offensive line quality (plus the rookie wage scale), we've seen backs get devalued more than any other position.

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) celebrates his first down against the Los Angeles Chargers in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports.

Wide Receiver

As the passing boom has increased, so has the number of receivers on the field. Just in the past decade, teams have gone from 50.2 percent in 11 personnel during 2013 to 62.4 percent in 2023, per TruMedia.

We also have receivers playing more and getting more reps as they work up to the NFL. Because of that, the quality and quantity have risen. The 2024 draft tied the record for most receivers taken in the first round.

That's been the biggest shift. Star receivers were worth it. Randy Moss was making the equivalent of $34 million per year in 2001, though that was a significant outlier for the position. Marvin Harrison made a modern-day $25 million on his contract from 2000.

There are now more Moss/Harrison types and the full collection of top receivers is getting paid like it. Wide receiver is now the second-most important offensive position behind quarterback, and one could argue that the "offensive" qualifier is unnecessary. 

>> READ: Predicting the Next WR Mega Deal

Tight End

There might not be a position where the responsibility on the field has changed more in the past 25 years than tight end. That's what's shifted the value. A Shannon Sharpe-type, who could be a legitimate receiving threat at the position, was a star. Now, it's a prerequisite.

The overall value of a tight end is still being debated, especially in the draft, but the top players at the position are paid more now than they were back then because they are a much bigger part of the offense.

>> READ: The Tight End Revolution Is Here

Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Robert Hunt (68) is seen leaving the field after the end of the second half between the Miami Dolphins and the Houston Texans.

Offensive Line

The shift in the offensive line is that all positions are closer to being viewed as equal. There is less of a gap between left and right tackles, and we just saw a boom in the guard market this offseason. 

There's also a value in not having a weak link, so the average players are doing better. The most hardened football guys have always believed in building and playing through the trenches, but now all of the trenches are valued. 

Interior DL

In 1998, Warren Sapp signed a five-year deal worth $35.4 million. His $7 million average would translate to $34.5 million per year today, which has only been topped by Aaron Donald, who made $31.7 in 2022 — a $38.8 million equivalent if signed today.

Getting pressure up the middle has always been coveted, but like wide receiver, there are more players who can do that. We have 12 players on current contracts that averaged at least nine percent of the cap when signed. There were two in 1998 (Sapp and John Randle), which didn't happen again until Richard Seymour in 2006. 

EDGE Rusher

Pass rusher is another position where the biggest shift is the number of players who can do the job at a high level and are paid for it.

In 1999, Michael Strahan signed a three-year, $29.3 million contract that averaged $9.7 million annually and 17 percent of the cap. That figure has yet to be topped. T.J. Watt and Nick Bosa both accounted for around 15 percent of the cap for their most recent deals.

No one in Strahan's era came close to his deal. Julius Peppers was the next closest (13.6 percent) in 2006, and Dwight Freeney was at 11 percent in 2007. Brian Burns just signed a deal averaging 11 percent of the cap, and there are five higher active contracts.

Edge is widely regarded as the most important defensive position because of how pressure impacts the quarterback and how one player can be the cause of it.


Even in the height of linebackers in the mid-2000s, the pay scale didn't match other positions on defense. Ray Lewis was an outlier at 12.4 percent of the cap with a deal in 1998, but Brian Urlacher's 2003 contract averaged 8.4 percent of the cap.

As memorable as many linebackers are, it hasn't been one routinely paid like it. 

Only eight linebacker contracts (one active) have topped an average of 10 percent of the cap when signed. Just nine linebackers currently average more than $10 million per year, compared to 12 safeties and 17 cornerbacks.

Denver Broncos cornerback Pat Surtain II (2) stretches before the game against the Cleveland Browns at Empower Field at Mile High. Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports.


A shutdown cornerback has always been valuable. Deion Sanders has three of the four most expensive contracts by percentage of the cap at signing. Darrelle Revis has two of the top seven.

Corner has not seen the same increase in top-end value as receivers, even though more corners are needed to defend all of those receivers. However, it is easier for one receiver to impact a game than it is for one corner.

No market has slowed more than the corner in modern times, which hasn't had a new player at the top since 2022. However, that could change with players like Patrick Surtain II and Sauce Gardner up for new deals.

The value at corner is not having a bad one, so the volume of corners being drafted and getting chances on the field has risen, leading the top of the market to stall slightly. 

>> READ: Predicting Next CB Mega Deal


We can talk about the current depressed safety market, but until recently, safeties were not paid like some of the other positions on defense.

John Lynch's five-year, $24.1 million contract in 2000 averaged 7.8 percent of the cap at signing. That was a massive contract for a safety at the time. Steve Atwater set the previous high at 6.7 percent in 1995.

Jessie Bates signed a deal last offseason that was 7.1 percent of the cap. Meanwhile, we have Derwin James (9.1 percent) and Minkah Fitzpatrick (8.8 percent), who signed in 2022, and Antoine Winfield Jr. hit 8.2 percent with his contract extension this offseason.

The top safeties who can do everything are starting to get paid, which could eventually raise the tide for others. While that might be a slow process, it's much improved upon how the position was valued not too long ago.