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NFL “premier positions” debate

Why Budda Baker should be considered a premier player regardless of his position

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New England Patriots v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

One of the common arguments that I have been hearing from fans with regard to the question as to whether Arizona Cardinals should offer All-Pro safety Budda Baker the well-earned contract extension he is seeking —- is the question of whether teams should pay premium dollars to star players at so-called “non-premium” positions.

Here is an updated list of the NFL’s highest paid players at each position, courtesy of Jeremy Cluff of the Arizona Republic via Yahoo Sports:

According to this list, the three positions (excluding special teams and fullback) that most likely warrant the designation of “non-premier” positions are:

  • Safety
  • Tight end
  • Running back

However, when one considers how NFL offenses have been evolving in recent years, particularly vis-a-vis the strategy of attacking the middle of the field (which Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes have brilliantly mastered), safeties, tight ends and dual-threat running backs have become all the more important.

The Epitome of Today’s NFL Safety (per CBS Sports)

  • LAC —- Derwin James

Derwin James reigns as the NFL’s top safety because he can do anything and everything a coach could ask out of a player at the position. He allowed the fewest yards per reception (7.0) among all safeties who played a minimum of 500 snaps on defense, according to Pro Football Focus. James also performed as one of the best pass-rushers among safeties with four sacks (tied for the second-most in the NFL among safeties) and nine quarterback pressures (tied for the sixth-most among safeties). Naturally, his 90.5 PFF pass-rush grade ranked as the second-best among safeties with a minimum of 500 snaps, trailing only Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (91.6). He’s also a tackle magnet as his 115 in 2022 ranked as the fifth-most among safeties.

2022 PFF Grades:

  • Overall: 77.6
  • RDEF: 75.3
  • TACK: 72.9
  • PRUSH: 90.2
  • COVERAGE: 74.5
  • Team Record: 10-7
  • Playoffs: 0-1
  • Accolades: 2nd Team All-Pro; Pro Bowl

The Epitome of Today’s Tight End (per

  • KC —- Travis Kelce

The future Hall of Famer is still dominating at the age of 33, serving as the alpha dog of a top-five aerial attack in the league. Kelce operates as the safety blanket for Patrick Mahomes, as the gunslinger looks Kelce’s way any time the defense sends a blitz. For good reason: The tight end has hauled in 14 of 16 targets for 106 yards and a league-high four touchdowns in 2022 when defenses send extra pass rushers.

While Kelce aligns in-line enough to earn his official roster designation as a tight end, the seven-time Pro Bowler can operate as the “X” receiver in the Chiefs’ offense when they need him to. When aligned wide, Kelce has gained 3.3 yards per route this season, trailing only former teammate Tyreek Hill (4.7) and A.J. Brown (3.6) among players with 40 routes aligned wide in 2022. Kelce stands head and shoulders above his positional peers in this respect, gaining twice as many yards (1,685) aligned wide as any other TE since 2018.

2022 PFF Grades:

  • Overall: 91.3
  • Passing Game: 91.6
  • PBLK: 73.1
  • RBLK” 61.2
  • Team Record: 14-3
  • Playoffs: 3-0 Super Bow; Champions
  • Accolades: 1st team All-Pro; Pro Bowl, NFL 2010s All-Decade Team

The Epitome of Today’s Dual-Threat Running Back (per Pro Football Network)

  • SF —- Christian McCaffrey

Inside Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, McCaffrey became the platonic ideal of a pass-catching running back who’s just as capable of burying defenders as a rusher as he is lining up as a No. 1 receiver in the passing game.

It’s fair to question McCaffrey’s durability, as injuries limited him to just 10 total games from 2020-2021. Yet, he’s a dynamic threat any time he’s available, and his peak is higher than any running back in the league.

Sacrificing draft capital for a veteran back is typically a questionable decision, and the 49ers may ultimately miss those picks they traded away. But McCaffrey opened up San Francisco’s offense and gave the club the most versatile set of weapons in the NFL, which was especially critical when the 49ers were forced to turn to rookie seventh-round quarterback Brock Purdy.

2022 PFF Grades:

  • Overall: 91.3
  • Passing Game: 92.4
  • PBLK: 51.8
  • Running Game: 82.1
  • RBLK: 55.6
  • Team Record: 13-4
  • Note: 49ers were 3-3 when they traded for CMC, they lost their first game with him to KC and then rattled off 12 wins in a row, the majority of which were with a rookie 7th Round QB.
  • Playoffs: 2-1
  • Accolades; Pro Bowl

Premium Players

I would argue that Derwin James is the most versatile defensive player in the NFL. Travis Kelce is the most versatile, unstoppable TE (can win from slot or wide) who is arguably the most dynamic go-to receiver, red zone threat and chains-mover on planet earth. Christian McCaffrey is the most versatile and outstanding offensive RB/WR in the NFL.

What is the price for versatility? What is the price for leadership? In today’s NFL?

This is why I believe that an asterisk should be placed beside any NFL player who offers the kind of versatility, bell cow leadership and production that Derwin James, Travis Kelce and Christian McCaffrey bring to their teams.

Assessing Budda Baker’s Value

Budda Baker is as good as gets among strong safeties in the NFL. He totaled the fourth-highest run-stop rate (6.1%) and ranked third in tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage (eight) among safeties in 2022. The five-time Pro Bowler and two-time First-Team All-Pro plays like he’s on fire at all times, sprinting from sideline to sideline to snuff plays out before they can even get started. Ranked #4 best safety in NFL. (CBS Sports)

2023 PFF Grades:

  • Overall: 73.7
  • RDEF: 80.2
  • TACK: 66.5
  • PRUSH: 59.0
  • COVERAGE: 69.1


  • Budda Baker is the most dynamic player and leader on the Cardinals’ team
  • Top NFL Tacklers (last 5 years):
  1. Roquan Smith (BAL) —-451
  2. Bobby Wagner (SEA) —- 425
  3. Fred Warner (SF) —- 411
  4. Budda Baker (ARI) —- 410 —- next highest safety is Jordan Poyer (BUF) with 335.

  • Only Arizona Cardinal draft pick to make 3 NFL All-Pro teams and 5 Pro Bowls in his first 6 seasons. .
  • Has done everything the correct way.
  • Only Arizona Cardinal to play harder and stronger after he got his 2nd contract.
  • Versatile safeties are now vogue in the NFL. Per strong safeties today average higher salaries than all positions other than left tackles. That includes QBs.
  • Average salaries: LTs: $8.9M; SS: $5.3M; QBs: 4.6M.
  • Budda’s intimidation factor. Just ask George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiuk, Christian McCaffrey and Justin Juszczyk.

NFL’s highest paid safeties in 2023 (average salary per year):

courtesy of Jeremy Cluff, Arizona Republic:

  • 1. Chargers safety Derwin James: $19 million
  • 2. Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick: $18.2 million
  • 3. Seahawks safety Jamal Adams: $17.5 million
  • 4. Falcons safety Jessie Bates III: $16.01 million
  • 5. Vikings safety Harrison Smith: $16 million
  • 6. Broncos safety Justin Simmons: $15.25 million
  • 7. Cardinals safety Budda Baker: $14.75 million
  • 8. Bears safety Eddie Jackson: $14.6 million
  • 9. Titans safety Kevin Byard: $14.1 million
  • 10. Ravens safety Marcus Williams: $14 million

Contract Proposal:

4 years $67M ($16.8M a year) with $36M guaranteed.Plus performance and team playoffs incentives. This contract would make Budda the #4 highest paid safety in the NFL.

ROTB Poll:


Is 4 years/$67M/$36M g-ted a fair deal for Budda Baker?

This poll is closed

  • 60%
    Yes, I throughly endorse it
    (99 votes)
  • 14%
    Yes, but I think Cardinals should trade Budda
    (24 votes)
  • 4%
    No, he deserves more
    (7 votes)
  • 21%
    No, that’s too high
    (35 votes)
165 votes total Vote Now

How did you vote and why?