Where the NFL’s highest-paid player at each position played college football

Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. recently signed a new deal that makes him the highest-paid defensive back in the NFL. It’s the latest mega-contract in what has become an expensive arms race at the professional level, with monetary figures climbing for teams that want to keep their best players locked down.

Winfield’s payday is also a win for Minnesota, which developed him into the player he is today after recruiting him out of high school and working with him for four years of his amateur career. A college program can certainly tout its former stars signing big-money deals when it hits the recruiting trail.

Winfield, obviously, is just the highest-paid player at one position. When you zoom out and consider the entire football field, the NFL’s most richly rewarded players come from all over the nation.

It may come as no surprise given the conference’s historic success, but the SEC leads its fellow leagues when it comes to the highest-paid players per position in the NFL. But other leagues like the ACC and Pac-12, and even the now-defunct Big East, have produced some of the most notable players at the professional level.

Here’s a look at where the highest-paid player at each position in the NFL went to college.

Quarterback: Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals

Contract: $275 million over five years

College: LSU

Burrow isn’t just the highest-paid player in the NFL today; he’s the highest-paid NFL player of all time. The Bengals paid him handsomely following a 2022 season in which he threw for 4,475 yards and 35 touchdowns while leading Cincinnati to a second consecutive AFC Championship Game appearance. Before he was carving up NFL defenses and earning Pro Bowl honors, Burrow was shattering NCAA records during a brief but prolific career at LSU. He engineered one of the greatest offenses we’ve ever and was the focal point for LSU’s 15-0, national championship-winning 2019 season. Burrow set single-season FBS records for passing touchdowns (60), total touchdowns (65) and passer rating (202). His 76.3% completion rate and 5,671 yards passing both led the NCAA. Unsurprisingly, Burrow took home the Heisman Trophy and was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Running back: Christian McCaffrey, San Francisco 49ers

Contract: $64 million over four years

College: Stanford

McCaffrey’s contract is a testament to his talent, given how undervalued running backs have become in recent years. He actually signed his current deal while he was a member of the Carolina Panthers, making him the highest-paid running back in NFL history, but he was traded to the 49ers midway through the 2022 season. Since then, he’s tallied 3,233 yards and 31 total touchdowns as both a running back and receiver. McCaffrey’s versatility is no surprise, given what he was able to accomplish at Stanford. He’s often regarded as one of the best college players to never win a Heisman, particularly after a 2015 season in which he rushed for 2,019 yards and eight touchdowns and caught 45 passes for 635 yards and five touchdowns. He did win the 2015 Paul Hornung Award as the sport’s most versatile player and took home consensus All-American honors.

Wide receiver: A.J. Brown, Philadelphia Eagles

Contract: $96 million over three years

College: Be Miss

Brown’s $32 million per-year average is the largest for a wide receiver in NFL history. Noticing a trend here? General managers aren’t afraid to throw a bag at their best players, and Brown has certainly earned it. He’s had at least 1,000 yards receiving in four out of five professional seasons and is a three-time Pro Bowl and second team All-Pro selection. During his Ole Miss career, Brown set himself apart with his build and freakish athletic ability. He twice led the SEC in receiving and in 2018 set an Ole Miss single-season record with 1,320 yards through the air.

Tight end: Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs

Contract: $34.25 million over two years

College: Cincinnati

Kelce’s partnership with quarterback Patrick Mahomes has ushered in a Golden Era for the Chiefs. Kelce’s streak of seven consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons, including a 2020 campaign in which he set the NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end (1,416 in just 15 games), was broken last year — and he still managed a whopping 984 yards and five touchdowns. Unlike other players on this list, Kelce was actually a relative unknown for most of his collegiate career. He redshirted in his first year at Cincinnati, had one catch in his second and was suspended for the entire 2010 season. It wasn’t until 2012 — his final year of eligibility — that he truly broke out with 45 catches for 722 yards and eight touchdowns. It was enough for the Chiefs to take him in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Offensive tackle: Penei Sewell, Detroit Lions

Contract: $112 million over four years

College: Oregon

Sewell has been a key figure in Detroit’s revival under coach Dan Campbell. He’s occupied a starting spot since he entered the NFL as the seventh overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and is coming off a 2023 season in which he earned first-team All-Pro honors. Early impacts are nothing new for Sewell. The former blue-chip prospect was an immediate starter for Oregon in 2018 but missed six games due to a high ankle sprain. He returned in 2019 and won the Outland Trophy as the best interior lineman in college football. That would be the end of Sewell’s time with the Ducks, as he was one of several prolific players to sit out the 2020 season due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.

Guard: Chris Lindstrom, Atlanta Falcons

Contract: $102.5 million over five years

College: Boston College

Lindstrom started 49 consecutive games at Boston College from 2015-18 and emerged as a star for the Eagles at various spots. He began his career at right guard before switching to right tackle and earning second-team All-ACC honors in 2017. He slid back inside in 2018 and was named an All-ACC First Team member while paving the way for Boston College’s 7-5 season. The Falcons selected Lindstrom with the 14th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft — a rare first-round interior offensive lineman — and he’s since landed on two All-Pro second teams.

Center: Frank Ragnow, Detroit Lions

Contract: $54 million over four yeras

College: Arkansas

Clearly, Detroit isn’t afraid to invest in its offensive line. Ragnow signed his new deal after a 2020 season in which he claimed the first Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors of his career. A a first-round selection in the 2018 NFL Draft, Ragnow was a starter in each of his four seasons at Arkansas. A majority of his snaps came at center, though he spent time at right guard in 2015 and 2016. Ragnow never gave up a sack in 42 games with the Razorbacks and he twice graded out as the top center in the nation, according to Pro Football Focus.

Cornerback: Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers

Contract: $84 million over four years

College: Louisville

Alexander battled through various injury issues in his time at Louisville and only played one full season, though it was an accomplished season. He was a starter in all 13 games in 2016 and earned second-team All-ACC honors after registering 39 total tackles, five interceptions and nine pass deflections. Alexander was limited to six games in 2017 and decided to forgo his final year of eligibility to enter the 2018 NFL Draft, where he was selected 18th overall by the Packers. He’s been a mainstay in Green Bay’s secondary and has 63 pass breakups and 10 interceptions over the past six years.

Safety: Antoine Winfield Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Contract: $84.1 million over four years

College: Minnesota

The son and namesake of former NFL cornerback Antoine Winfield Sr., Winfield Jr.’s new contract is impressive for a player who just finished his four-year rookie contract. Not shocking, though, given that he was named a unanimous All-American and Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year in 2019 after leading his conference with seven interceptions. He also tallied 83 total tackles, three sacks and a pass breakup for the Golden Gophers.

Edge rusher: Nick Bosa, San Francisco 49ers

Contract: $170 million over five years

College: Ohio State

A former NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, Bosa has 44.5 sacks over the past three years. He had two during San Francisco’s postseason run to the Super Bowl last season. That level of production far eclipses anything he managed during three years at Ohio State, even though he was still a superstar with the Buckeyes. He had 8.5 sacks in 2017, earning consensus All-American honors in the process. What could have been a huge 2018 season was cut short after three games, though he had four sacks in that brief span. Despite such a major setback, he was still drafted second overall in 2019.

Defensive tackle: Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs

Contract: $187.5 million over five years

College: Mississippi State

Jones has been a mainstay on Kansas City’s defensive line for almost a decade now and, with a new contract in-hand, will be around the Chiefs for a good while longer. He has 25.5 sacks over the past two years, marking the first time in his career that he’s managed back-to-back double-digit sack campaigns. Jones wasn’t a prolific pass rusher at Mississippi State, though his 18 tackles for loss in a three-year span was evidence of some upside as an interior disruptor.

Linebacker: Roquan Smith, Baltimore Ravens

Contract: $100 million over five years

College: Georgia

Georgia has a knack for turning out elite linebackers. Smith had a prolific 95 tackles with the Bulldogs in 2016 before adding an extra dimension to his game in 2017, logging 14 tackles for loss and the first 6.5 sacks of his career. He became the first Georgia player to ever win the Butkus Award, given to the best linebacker in college football, and was selected by the Chicago Bears with the 8th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. The Bears traded Smith to Baltimore in 2022 and he’s made two straight All-Pro teams with the Ravens.

Kicker: Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens

Contract: $24 million over four years

College: Texas

Tucker is about as automatic as a kicker can be. His career 90.2% field goal percentage is an NFL record and he hasn’t missed more than six kicks in a single season since 2015. He made 83.3% of his field goals at Texas, which is the third-best mark in program history.

Punter: Michael Dickson, Seattle Seahawks

Contract: $14.7 million over four years

College: Texas

A native of Australia, Dickson was a two-time All-Big 12 selection and Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year at Texas. He also won the 2017 Ray Guy Award and was a unanimous All-American after averaging 47.4 yards per punt. Dickson has landed an impressive 181 of his 428 career punts with the Seahawks inside the 20-yard line.

Conference Breakdown

It may come as no surprise given the conference’s historic success, but the SEC leads its fellow leagues when it comes to the highest-paid players per position in the NFL. But other leagues like the ACC and Pac-12, and even the now-defunct Big East, have produced some of the most notable players at the professional level.

Here’s a breakdown of which conferences have produced the highest-paid players, per position, in the NFL.

Conference No. of players

SEC

5

ACC

2

Big Ten

2

Big 12

2

Pac-12

2

Big East

1

Note: The numbers are broken down by the last conference each player participated in before entering the NFL

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