10 most expensive starting defenses in the NFL

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

A saying as old as the NFL itself is that defense wins championships. The question is, does spending money on defense win those championships?

The New England Patriots have won a lot over the last two decades. They also have one of the NFL’s most expensive starting defenses. On the other hand, teams like the Arizona Cardinals, New York Jets, and Denver Broncos were among the worst in the league a season ago. They, too, are highly expensive.

Good, bad, or somewhere in the middle, these teams field the most expensive starting defenses in the NFL.

All salary figures courtesy of Spotrac.

10. New England Patriots: $64,533,034

Thanks largely to Tom Brady being willing to take discounts, the Patriots have managed to be fairly conservative with their offensive spending. Defense is slightly different. While Devin McCourty ($13.435 million) and Dont’a Hightower are the only defensive starters with eight-figure cap hits, five guys come in at more than $6 million while three others count for more than $4 million against the cap. The Pats are definitely paying a lot. Fortunately, with eight straight AFC Championship Games, three consecutive conference championships, and two of the last three Super Bowl victories, they’re paying for success. As we’ll see, not every team can say that.

9. Cleveland Browns: $67,135,564

We can only imagine where Cleveland will be when Myles Garrett is off of his rookie deal. Still, this is a pricey defense. There is a good drop between the top-paid starter (Olivier Vernon, $15.5 million) and No. 2 (Sheldon Richardson, just under $10 million). After Richardson, though, Damarious Randall is more than a $9 million cap hit, Garrett and Christian Kirksey are over $8 million, and Denzel Ward is over $6.5 million. So, while only one man is in eight figures, several are collecting big checks. Much like they’re doing on offense, the Browns are paying big money to get back to relevance.

8. Arizona Cardinals: $67,220,001

Brooks Reed ($1.625 million) is the least expensive starter. He and Budda Baker are the only starters under $2 million. In fact, Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson, Jordan Hicks, Robert Alford, and Terrell Suggs will all represent a cap hit of at least $5 million. Naturally, the two biggest names that jump out are Jones ($19.5 million) and Peterson (nearly $12 million). That’s natural. The two of them combined add up to just under half of that $67,220,001 figure. Even overlooking them, this is an expensive starting unit. The Cardinals’ starting defense offers next to nothing in the bargain department.

7. New York Jets: $68,847,344

An important note here is that, while Quinnen Williams is listed as a starter, he’s yet to sign. In other words, the $68,847,344 comes from only 10 players. So, how do the Jets still check in so high? Leonard Williams ($14.2 million), C.J. Mosley ($13 million), and Trumaine Johnson ($12 million) represent a good portion. After that, Avery Williamson is at $8 million, Henry Anderson is just under that, while Jamal Adams (still on a rookie deal) makes more than $6 million. Like the Browns, the Jets are looking to get out of obscurity and are paying a pretty penny to do so.

6. Pittsburgh Steelers: $69,453,242

After Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers offense features its share of good deals. The defense is another story. The four highest-paid starters (Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden, and Bud Dupree) collectively make up for just under one quarter of Pittsburgh’s total salary cap. All four of those players are over $9 million, and all but Dupree are over $11 million. While there’s a pretty steep drop after those four, every starter makes at least $1.3 million and everyone but Sean Davis is north of $2 million. This is a veteran group, and it shows.

5. Denver Broncos: $70,362,587

Von Miller is easily the biggest cap hit ($25.125 million) among the Broncos starters. His cap number is more than Denver’s second- and third-highest paid defensive starters (Chris Harris and Derek Wolfe) combined. That’s not easy to do, as Harris and Wolfe aren’t exactly cheap — Harris is just a shade under $12 million while Wolfe is just under $11 million. Following that, Bradley Chubb and Kareem Jackson are both at $6 million or more while Todd Davis is at $5 million. It’s safe to say that the Broncos weren’t searching the bargain bins when putting this lineup together.

4. Los Angeles Rams: $71,624,428

Los Angeles checks in so high despite the fact that three starters (John Johnson, Samson Ebukam, and Tanzel Smart) count for less than $1 million under the cap. So, how does that happen? For starters, there’s a dramatic jump between that group and anyone else. The fourth-lowest paid starter (Cory Littleton) makes more than $3 million. Additionally, the highest-paid starter (Aaron Donald), Dante Fowler Jr. and Michael Brockers are $10 million men, and both Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib are north of $8 million. The rest of this group easily makes up for the three relatively inexpensive starters.

3. Chicago Bears: $71,877,494

After the 2019 season, Khalil Mack’s cap figure will jump from $11.9 million to $26.6 million. So, if we look at this list in a year, Chicago could be the NFL’s most expensive starting defense. As it is, the Bears aren’t exactly cheap. Mack’s $11.9 figure is actually second on the defense to Kyle Fuller. Akiem Hicks ($10.1 million) is also in eight figures. Eddie Jackson and Bilal Nichols are the only starters under $1 million while HaHa Clinton-Dix is the only other starter under $5 million. Boasting the league’s best defense isn’t cheap.

2. Houston Texans: $72,471,754

While J.J. Watt is the biggest name on the Houston defense, he’s not the highest-paid player. That honor goes to Jadeveon Clowney ($15,967,200), assuming he signs his franchise tag. While Watt isn’t atop the list, we don’t exactly need to start a telethon for him, as he makes $15 million. After that, Aaron Colvin is north of $8.5 million, and Benardrick McKinney, Tashaun Gipson, and Whitney Mercilus are all above $7.3 million. Justin Reid is making under $1 million. The rest of this group, however, makes some pretty serious cash.

1. Minnesota Vikings: $83,656,869

The Vikings do have a starter making less than $1 million in Ben Gedeon. After him, the price tags get big. Shamar Stephen is the next cheapest, and he has a cap hit of more than $2 million, Anthony Harris is just over $3 million, Eric Kendricks is a shade under $5 million, and everyone else tops that. Additionally, Danielle Hunter and Xavier Rhodes make more than $13 million while Harrison Smith and Linval Joseph are both over $10 million. It’s no wonder that Minnesota has the NFL’s most expensive starting defense with plenty of room to spare.