Earlier this week, I spotlighted players with bloated contracts, many of whom wouldn't be back with their current teams once the NFL lockout is over. Now, let's examine the yin to that yang (or is it the yang to that yin?) and check out some of the league's truly underpaid players.
I'm looking at gross 2011 projected compensation for these players and also eliminating situations where players received a massive signing bonus at the front end of the contract and are only now reaching the team-friendly years on the contract. So this list won't be filled with top-10 picks who were bonus babies or guys a few years into top-end free-agent contracts that just happen to include low-base salaries.
And you'll find that the bulk of these players are on their first contracts. For as much as we hear about the need to restructure the way rookies are paid in the NFL -- and for top-10 picks, I agree completely -- the reality is that if you draft decently from picks Nos. 15 to 64, you generally will find steals at vital positions such as quarterback, offensive tackle and defensive end. It's why so many players taken in that range, like a Darrelle Revis last year, quickly find themselves grossly out-producing their contracts.
So here's a look at some of the biggest steals for the 2011 season, though remember that a new contract likely is on the horizon for several of these players.
Josh Freeman, QB, Buccaneers: $4.1 million
Getting him 17th overall in the 2009 draft was a boon for Tampa Bay. He emerged as a potential star in 2010 and is quite cost-efficient, having come in the back half of the draft's first round.
Even with some of his 2011 escalators kicking in, Freeman's base salary on his five-year contract is just $940,000, with the rest of this figure coming in the form of a roster bonus. Most elite quarterbacks are earning more than $15 million per season, and, sure, Freeman has only done it once so far, but there is every reason to believe he has just begun to blossom. He posted a stellar 95.9 passer rating in his first full season as an NFL starter, and only Tom Brady threw fewer than Freeman's six interceptions in 2010.
To compare, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco enters his fourth season set to make a base salary of $4.5 million after escalators (there's also a $2.1 million roster bonus). He has talked publicly about his desire for a new deal, and the Ravens surely will have to address that topic within the next six to nine months.
Chris Johnson, RB, Titans: $800,000
CJ2K has become the posterboy for underpaid players, and his contract situation definitely will come to a head after the lockout. The fact he was taken 24th overall in the 2008 draft really is the only culprit because there is no more explosive running back in the game. Johnson is seeking a deal that would reward him with guaranteed money in the $30 million range and average more than $10 million per year, in line with the greatest playmakers outside of the quarterback position.
DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles: $956,000
In the final year of his deal, Jackson is in line for a hefty extension. He is a prime deep threat, a weapon that can be moved all over the field and a demon in the return game. He and Michael Vick were a potent tandem in 2010, and Jackson's pure speed sets him apart from many others.
The Eagles are proactive in securing their best young talent long-term, and Jackson is next up for them. A new deal in the range of what Miles Austin received from the Dallas Cowboys a year ago might make a decent comparable in negotiations.
Like Jackson, running back Matt Forte ($555,000) is in the final year of his deal with the Chicago Bears. Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Lloyd ($1.4 million) is a worthy candidate here as well, though his past off-the-field troubles, wild inconsistency and the fact he has only put it all together for one year give me pause. If he clicks again like he did in 2010, then a payday will be down the road.
Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints: $405,000
I know Graham only has been in the league for one year, but I'm expecting his breakout to continue in 2011, and he, too, could be headed for a contract renegotiation in a year or two if his production soars.
As a third-round pick, Graham received just $665,000 to sign in 2010, and his arrival made Jeremy Shockey expendable. At 6-foot-8, Graham is almost unstoppable in tight quarters and excels in the red zone and working the back of the end zone.
Ryan Clady, OT, Broncos: $2.7 million
I know Clady received about $11 million guaranteed back in 2008, when Denver took him 12th overall in the draft. And I know he had a rough start in 2010, racing back from a serious offseason injury.
But this guy is a pillar, and even with his roster bonus thrown in, he'll make less than $3 million in 2011. That's a steal, so Clady will be the next Bronco in line for a big extension. He's costing the Broncos roughly $3.5 million per year in this rookie deal despite becoming a standout from the get-go.
Andrew Whitworth, OT, Bengals: $4.1 million
The left tackle gave up only one sack in 2009, and he helped Cincinnati rank second in the AFC last season in sacks allowed per pass play despite being part of a struggling offense that lacked a mobile passer. Also, despite the fact that he plays a quarter of his games against the quarterback-hunting Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Whitworth is developing into a franchise player, a true protector of the blind side, and even with his escalators comes in at a bargain at a time when the best tackles are topping $10 million per season.
Robert Mathis, DE, Colts: $3.3 million
Since 2005, only DeMarcus Ware and Jared Allen have more sacks than Mathis. He has six more sacks than teammate Dwight Freeney in that span; Freeney is scheduled to earn $25 million over the next two seasons, while Mathis is set to make less than $8 million. Oh, and no one has more forced fumbles than Mathis over the past six years.
Something has to give here. I'm not saying Mathis is Freeney or has his skill set, but surely he's worth more than one quarter of what his higher-paid teammate earns.
Clay Matthews, LB, Packers: $660,000
All Matthews has done is dominate during his two seasons in the league, emerging as an MVP candidate. He makes huge plays and has become the face of Green Bay's defense, a perfect fit for coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme.
Matthews' rookie deal from 2009 is worth a base maximum of roughly $10 million, with $7 million guaranteed, with an annual average of about $2.1 million over the length of the contract. In another year, expect to see that number massively jump.
Lawrence Timmons, LB, Steelers: $1.4 million
Timmons and fellow linebacker LaMarr Woodley are becoming the new faces of Pittsburgh's potent defense. Woodley received the franchise tag this year and, barring a long-term deal, I figure Timmons will be franchised next year as a worst-case scenario for him.
Leon Hall, CB, Bengals: $3 million
Hall has been part of the best young cornerback tandem in football, but Jonathan Joseph very likely will depart to a big free-agent payday after the lockout. The Bengals would be wise not to let Hall do the same next year.
Even with his substantial escalators, Hall is a total steal at a time when high-end corners are topping more than $15 million per season. Whatever contract Joseph receives this summer should serve as a primer for Hall's next deal.
Malcolm Jenkins, S, Saints: $3.9 million
Whether you want to call him a cornerback at this point is up to you -- he has become more of a safety -- Jenkins is a playmaker and a weapon that coordinator Gregg Williams can move around and deploy at will. Jenkins has a rare combination of skills and owns natural ball instincts.
As the 14th overall pick in the 2009 draft, Jenkins also is more than affordable for New Orleans. And he's only going to keep getting better.
Chris Harris, S, Bears: $1.6 million
Harris made an immediate impact in Chicago in his first season back after a trade from Carolina. He re-emerged as a team leader and a playmaker. Harris received All-Pro consideration for his 2010 performance and is in line for a hefty new extension once the lockout ends.
Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.