Commentary

2011's best NFL players per dollar

Building an entire roster out of great, cheap players? Start with the tight ends

Originally Published: January 4, 2012
By Chris Sprow | ESPN Insider
Andy DaltonMark Zerof/US PresswireMaking a little more than $1 million, Andy Dalton has been invaluable for the Bengals.

The NFL will always be filled with guys producing way beyond their paychecks. It's a league in which survival is among the biggest factors in performance, so if you want to maximize value if you're not an early draft pick with a hefty cash guarantee, you'd better stay healthy.

And while the salary cap hasn't been a big talking point, headaches exist. It can be health -- Peyton Manning's zero snaps and $16 million cap hit for 2011 come to mind -- or other reasons, like a cap hit of $8.5 million for 2012 the New York Jets must swallow for grumpy Santonio Holmes. It can be complicated stuff, which is why "Ask Andrew" is so popular.

But while value is always expected, we can at least point it out. So here are the cap stars of 2011, the guys who created the most value on the field while causing the fewest payroll headaches off it. Note that these are very close cap estimates.

Offense

QB: Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Try this math: Cincy pays Dalton a little more than $1 million per year on his deal (four years, $5.2 million), gets 16 starts, 3,400 yards passing and a playoff berth. And that's just the start. The real value came when the Bengals dealt Carson Palmer and his $16.25 million 2011 salary-cap number to the Oakland Raiders for two No. 1 picks. In terms of value added plus sunk cost dumped, Dalton was a rainmaker.