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NFL’s cheapest stars: Which Pro Bowlers earned the least per snap?

Most elite NFL players are well compensated for their abilities, but not so for all stars, especially those on the younger side of the age curve. To that end, PointAfter set out to find the 10 most cost-efficient Pro Bowlers in terms of cost per snap.

After reviewing the NFL’s most expensive players on a per-snap basis, it’s time to consider the other side of the coin. However, instead of simply identifying the cheapest labor in the league, PointAfter calculated the 10 most cost-efficient Pro Bowlers. Every player highlighted was invited to Hawaii in January—a well-deserved reward for guys who earned less than $1,000 per play in 2015.

All players in this group should be applauded for the immense value they provided their teams on minimal salaries while risking their long-term physical well-being. Ask yourself: would you accept a three-digit per-play paycheck for regularly absorbing crushing contact from hulking NFL players? Well, these guys did last year, and their teams were better off for it. Some have since netted extensions to guarantee a merited raise in the fall, but many will still be grossly underpaid next season.

Note: Snap counts obtained from Football Outsiders. All salary data obtained from Spotrac.

10. Tyrod Taylor, Bills QB

2015 Cost per Snap: $957

2015 Cap Hit: $883,333

Tyrod Taylor was one of the biggest surprises of 2015, emerging from a crowded preseason quarterback battle to become the Bills’ first Pro Bowl QB since Drew Bledsoe in ’02. He was the only quarterback to play at least eight games and earn less than $1,000 per play. For context, fellow Pro Bowler Eli Manning cost the Giants $18,000 whenever he took a snap.

The 26-year-old provided the steady hand Buffalo needed under center. His passer rating (99.4) ranked fifth in the league and second in team history among players with eight starts, behind only Jim Kelly in 1990. 

Tyrod Taylor Weekly Passer Rating in 2015 | PointAfter

Though Buffalo’s defense ultimately let the team down after a dominant showing in 2014, coach Rex Ryan recently insisted the team is in a better place now than it was a year ago. Why? “We found our quarterback,” Ryan said. A cost-friendly quarterback, at that—a rarity in the NFL. Even with an extension reportedly on the table, that shouldn’t change in 2016.

9. Justin Bethel, Cardinals CB/ST

2015 Cost per Snap: $869

2015 Cap Hit: $688,556

Justin Bethel is a spectacular athlete who isn’t quite good enough to start full-time at cornerback (playing in 42% of Arizona’s defensive snaps), but he has become one of the league’s premier special teams contributors.

Pro Football Focus ranked him as the best special teams player in the league in 2013, when he made the first of three consecutive Pro Bowls. The 25-year-old led all players with 18 special teams tackles in 2014, then ranked second this year with 14.

He’s indispensable for the Cardinals, participating in over 75% of special teams plays as a gunner on kickoffs and punts and the gunner’s counterpart on punt returns. Arizona recognized this in December, handing him a three-year, $15 million extension that’ll give Bethel a well-deserved raise.

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8. Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals CB/FS

2015 Cost per Snap: $857

2015 Cap Hit: $855,937

Even with Patrick Peterson’s five-year, $70.5 million contract on the books, Arizona’s secondary was probably one of the most underpaid units in the league last season. And that’s largely because of Bethel and Tyrann Mathieu, who was perhaps the league’s best bargain.

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Pro Football Focus ranked Mathieu as the best cornerback in the NFL by a wide margin. The difference in its grades for Mathieu and Darius Slay, the No. 2-ranked corner, was equal to the gap between Slay and the No. 39 corner.

Of course, Mathieu is more than just a cornerback. He’s a super-charged hybrid rover who led the Cardinals’ defense with five interceptions, enforced his will on run defense and often pressured opposing quarterbacks. The former Heisman Trophy finalist also took part in 24% of Arizona’s special teams plays, though he no longer returns punts as he did in college to electrifying success.

The Cardinals better enjoy Mathieu in the final year of his rookie contract, because he won’t be underpaid for much longer.

7. Travis Kelce, Chiefs TE

2015 Cost per Snap: $852

2015 Cap Hit: $853,826

A first-time Pro Bowler in 2015, Travis Kelce teamed up with Jeremy Maclin to gobble up over half of Alex Smith’s targets, reviving Kansas City’s once-barren passing offense. 

Kansas City Chiefs 2015 Target Distribution | PointAfter

It was certainly nice for Kelce to get some help after carrying the team’s aerial attack in 2014. Even last season, he played 92% of Kansas City’s offensive snaps, 10% more than Maclin.

Kelce was rewarded for his production with a five-year, $46 million extension in January, but he’ll still count less than $3 million against Kansas City’s cap next season. At that price, it’s well worth retaining one of the sport’s most reliable pass-catchers at his position.

6. Devonta Freeman, Falcons RB

2015 Cost per Snap: $822

2015 Cap Hit: $631,106

Devonta Freeman was expected to compete with rookie Tevin Coleman for carries throughout the season. However, once Coleman injured his rib in Atlanta’s second game, Freeman took the starting job and ran with it (pun intended).

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The second-year back out of Florida State ended up tying for the league lead in rushing touchdowns (11) and tallying his first 1,000-yard campaign while appearing in 67% of Atlanta’s snaps.

It must be said that Freeman’s play noticeably suffered after he sustained a concussion in Week 11 against the Colts. After averaging at least 4.0 yards per carry in six of his first nine games, he never did so in the five games he played after getting injured.

Devonta Freeman Rushing Attempts and Average in 2015 | PointAfter

It doesn’t appear the Falcons will extend Freeman this off-season with two years remaining on his paltry rookie deal, so he’ll once again likely have something to prove come fall camp.

5. Allen Robinson, Jaguars WR

2015 Cost per Snap: $808

2015 Cap Hit: $797,925

Jacksonville brought in a bevy of young receivers before the 2014 season, hoping one could grow into a top wideout alongside Blake Bortles. Allen Robinson has proven to be the perfect match for Bortles, a physical receiver who can deliver game-breaking plays, both in the red zone and on deep balls.

Robinson ranked in the top 10 in red zone targets (21) and receiving yards per game (87.5), becoming the first Jaguar in a decade to surpass 1,000 receiving yards. He also tied Odell Beckham Jr. atop the leaderboard for most receptions of 30+ yards. 

Allen Robinson -- The Best Big Play WR in the NFL? | PointAfter

Robinson also displayed remarkable durability, playing in 93% of Jacksonville’s snaps. If he can stay healthy, the Jaguars will undoubtedly try to lock up the favorite target of their franchise quarterback in the near future.

4. Jarvis Landry, Dolphins WR

2015 Cost per Snap: $807

2015 Cap Hit: $789,753

Miami’s offense wasn’t expected to feature a clear-cut No. 1 option in what was perceived as a deep receiving corps, but Jarvis Landry dispelled that notion. No other Dolphin received half as many throws from QB Ryan Tannehill as the second-year LSU product, who ranked eighth in the league with 10.4 targets per game.

Miami Dolphins 2015 Target Distribution | PointAfter

With his stellar catch rate of 71% (80th percentile of receivers), the sure-handed Landry converted all those looks into 110 receptions, the fourth-most in the NFL. He also ranked second in all-purpose yards (1,947), behind only Antonio Brown.

Jarvis Landry Ranked Fourth in Receptions | PointAfter

And that’s not all. Landry was also graded as the best non-kicker/punter special teams player in the league by Pro Football Focus. Landry is basically the offensive version of Mathieu: a young, undersized bulldog with a giant motor who’s clearly the most talented man on his unit and who will be making a lot of money soon enough.

3. Tyler Lockett, Seahawks WR/KR

2015 Cost per Snap: $750

2015 Cap Hit: $631,687

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​Tyler Lockett’s biggest contributions in 2015 were supposed to come on special teams. The rookie certainly didn’t disappoint there, finishing just behind Landry for second place in Pro Football Focus’s special teams player rankings and in third place in all-purpose yardage (1,915). But Lockett also surprisingly outranked Landry and everyone else in the league with a staggering 14.8 yards per touch, proving his exhilarating exploits translate to Seattle’s offense, too.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll couldn’t help but use his new supercharged toy, deploying Lockett on more than 60% of offensive snaps. All in all, not a bad return on a 5' 10" third-round pick.

2. Trai Turner, Panthers G

2015 Cost per Snap: $554

2015 Cap Hit: $644,950

Trai Turner progressed immensely in his second professional season, blossoming into a first-time Pro Bowler behind excellent work in both the run game and pass game.

A third-round pick in the 2014 draft, Turner played in nearly 98% of Carolina’s offensive snaps. All signs point toward Turner again being one of the NFL’s most underpaid players in ’16, since he’s still two years away from free agency.

1. Malcolm Butler, Patriots CB

2015 Cost per Snap: $425

2015 Cap Hit: $510,000

Patriots coach Bill Belichick is considered a football genius for a reason. Butler, hero of Super Bowl XLIX, was called on to replace the departed tandem of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in 2016; not only did he prove up to the task, but he also saved New England a ton of money in the process.

While Revis ended up as the highest-paid cornerback on a per-snap basis in 2015, Butler was the second-cheapest. Amazingly, the former undrafted free agent was the fourth-lowest-paid NFL player per snap, taking part in nearly 99% of New England’s defensive plays.

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What’s more, Butler actually outperformed Revis, according to Pro Football Focus. It ranked Butler as the 16th-best cornerback, while Revis tumbled down 27 spots from 2014 into a tie for 30th.

Belichick has a knack for letting go of veterans at the perfect moment—he squeezes all the value he can from them, then usually lets other teams overpay for their declining years. And in Butler, Belichick found 2015’s most useful diamond in the rough.

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