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Leistikow: Here are the top 20 NFL earners of the Kirk Ferentz era

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

As we wait for sports to return, the NFL offseason keeps churning along. In the past week, former Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa signed his first professional contract. The second-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills put his signature to an agreement that will pay him $5,877,299 over four years, including a $1.8 million signing bonus and with nearly half of the total contract guaranteed ($2.7 million).

Those kind of news bits keep the mind of avid Hawkeye fan Sam Zurcher focused on football. As he and some friends were watching old Iowa football reruns Sunday, they wondered: “I wonder how much he made in the NFL.”

So, Zurcher scrapped his initial plans for afternoon golf and embarked on a different project.

“I’m a numbers guy,” the 29-year-old, Coralville-based financial adviser said.

From left, Chad Greenway, Bryan Bulaga, Marshal Yanda and Dallas Clark all cracked the top 10 in Kirk Ferentz-era NFL earnings.

Zurcher, a big Kirk Ferentz fan as well, researched what every NFL Draft pick of the 21-year Ferentz era has earned at the next level. And after compiling some initial data and putting it into an Excel spreadsheet, he reached out to the Register to share the findings. With a few extra cross-checking measures between us and logical estimations in a few cases, the data showed that through the 2019 season, Ferentz-era draft picks have combined to earn more than $840 million playing in the NFL.

It won’t be long before Ferentz-trained Hawkeyes will topple $1 billion in NFL salaries.

Hawkeyes + Numbers + No Sports = Pretty Cool Stuff.

UNDRAFTED SUCCESS STORIES:The biggest Iowa free-agent financial earners

Exact numbers can be difficult to come by, but the website Spotrac.com was instrumental for at least 90% of the data. An impressive 16 Ferentz-era Hawkeyes have exceeded $20 million in estimated NFL earnings, and more are on the way.

Here is the top 20 (again, through 2019 — these totals do not include future earnings), listed from 20 to 1 for, ahem, mild dramatic effect. Active players are denoted with an asterisk. (And thanks for sparking this story, Sam!)

No. 20: T.J. Hockenson, tight end*

Career earnings: $12,930,436

Drafted: 2019, first round (Detroit Lions)

Hockenson is one of three Ferentz-era Hawkeyes to be a top-10 NFL Draft pick, which fetched him a $12.4 million signing bonus and instantly put him among the top 20 earners. Hockenson caught 32 passes for 367 yards as a rookie. His four-year, $19.8 million contract is fully guaranteed, so he will continue to move up the ranks. (Fellow first-round tight end Noah Fant is guaranteed at least $9.88 million on his rookie deal with the Denver Broncos.)

No. 19: Nate Kaeding, kicker

Career earnings: $13,773,000

Drafted: 2004, third round (San Diego Chargers)

The Iowa City West product and 2002 Lou Groza Award winner is the 11th-most accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history, with a success rate of 86.19%. A six-year, $12.2 million extension signed with the Chargers in 2006 provided the bulk of his earnings. Kaeding was a first-team all-pro in 2009 and retired in 2013 with 895 points — far and away the most of any Ferentz-era NFL player (Dallas Clark is next, at 318).

Scott Chandler, who began his Iowa career as a wide receiver, had 205 catches and 21 touchdowns during the course of his NFL career as a tight end.

No. 18: Scott Chandler, tight end

Career earnings: $13,848,500

Drafted: 2007, fourth round (San Diego Chargers)

Perhaps an unheralded member of Iowa’s “Tight End U.” tradition, Chandler took extra time to find his NFL footing but became a fixture with the Buffalo Bills (with 182 catches for 2,120 yards and 17 touchdowns over five seasons) before finishing his career with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in his most lucrative financial year of 2015 ($3.25 million).

No. 17: Charles Godfrey, safety

Career earnings: $18,928,358

Drafted: 2008, third round (Carolina Panthers)

Godfrey went from second-team all-Big Ten safety to a fruitful NFL career. He parlayed a five-interception, 85-tackle season with the Panthers in 2010 into a long-term deal. Godfrey made more than $16 million in his seven seasons with Carolina before finishing his career with the Atlanta Falcons.

This was a familiar scene during Bob Sanders' NFL career. Sanders (21) was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2007.

No. 16: Bob Sanders, safety

Career earnings: $23,444,000

Drafted: 2004, second round (Indianapolis Colts)

Perhaps the quintessential developmental story at Iowa, "The Hit Man" evolved from a two-star Pennsylvania recruit to a Super Bowl champion and 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Sanders’ penchant for hard tackling in a bowling-ball frame took a physical toll. He was limited to 50 regular-season games but managed to get paid in eight NFL seasons, with a personal-high $8.7 million in earnings in 2007.

No. 15: Christian Kirksey, linebacker*

Career earnings: $24,158,907

Drafted: 2014, third round (Cleveland Browns)

Kirksey’s 148-tackle season in 2016 landed him a long-term deal (and role of team captain) with the Browns that paid him nearly $10 million in 2017. Kirksey’s high salary ultimately led to his release, but he has since signed a two-year, $13 million deal with the Green Bay Packers ($4 million of it guaranteed). At 27, he should be entering his NFL prime.

No. 14: Micah Hyde, defensive back*

Career earnings: $24,833,645

Drafted: 2013, fifth round (Green Bay Packers)

Hyde was Iowa’s only draft pick in the 2013 class but has gone from late-round selection to Pro Bowler and then some. After four seasons with the Packers, Hyde’s free-agency payday came with the Buffalo Bills (who gave him a five-year, $30.5 million deal). He is set to make $5.1 million this season.

Anthony Hitchens (53) was a starting linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs' Super Bowl-winning team in 2019.

No. 13: Anthony Hitchens, linebacker*

Career earnings: $25,428,561

Drafted: 2014, fourth round (Dallas Cowboys)

Hitchens is another example of an under-drafted Hawkeye grinding through his rookie contract to hit a big payday. After four years in Dallas, he signed a five-year, $45 million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs — where you know by now he won a Super Bowl last season. Hitchens is set to add nearly $8.5 million to his tally in 2020.

No. 12: Adrian Clayborn, defensive end*

Career earnings: $27,515,403

Drafted: 2011, first round (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

Clayborn’s dominance for the Hawkeyes’ 2009 magical season was legendary (his blocked-punt return at Penn State remains an all-time Ferentz-era moment). Although Clayborn, 31, has not been an overpowering NFL force, he’s been a lasting one — 36½ sacks in nine seasons and a situational pass-rusher as a veteran. He is set to make another $2.75 million with the Cleveland Browns, his fourth NFL team, in 2020.

Brandon Scherff won the Outland Trophy in 2014, then became the No. 5 overall pick of the 2015 draft. The right guard has started 65 games in five seasons with the Redskins.

No. 11: Brandon Scherff, offensive lineman*

Career earnings: $33,777,708

Drafted: 2015, first round (Washington Redskins)

After being designated with the franchise tag, the former No. 5 overall pick is guaranteed $15,030,000 this season with Washington, a total that'll boost his career earnings past $48.8 million. The 2014 Outland Trophy winner has been a mainstay right guard with the Redskins. With good health, the three-time Pro Bowler will be well-positioned to cash in further as a free agent in 2021.

No. 10: Jonathan Babineaux, defensive lineman

Career earnings: $36,030,660

Drafted: 2005, second round (Atlanta Falcons)

A one-time Iowa fullback became a 12-year NFL defensive end/tackle, logging 185 games (including 133 starts) and 27 sacks — all with the Falcons before retiring after the 2016 season. Babineaux was a model of consistency, earning at least $2 million in each of his final eight seasons, with a high of $8.5 million in 2009.

Aaron Kampman's 58 career NFL sacks is the highest total for any Kirk Ferentz-era Hawkeye.

No. 9: Aaron Kampman, defensive end

Career earnings: $36,915,200

Drafted: 2002, fifth round (Green Bay Packers)

Ferentz often cites Kampman as an example of a player who continued to ascend at the next level, and that played out with an NFC-best 15½ sacks in 2006. The Aplington-Parkersburg product wound up with two giant salary years — making $12 million with the Packers in 2006, then another $11 million with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2010. Multiple torn ACLs led to the end of his 58-sack career after the 2011 season.  

No. 8: Eric Steinbach, offensive lineman

Career earnings: $39,583,333

Drafted: 2003, second round (Cincinnati Bengals)

Steinbach’s NFL pay was the biggest challenge to estimate in the top 20. But we do know the former consensus all-American at Iowa signed what was in 2007 the most lucrative contract ever for an offensive guard (seven years, $49.5 million with the Cleveland Browns). He never collected the full amount, though, as back surgery forced him to miss the entire 2011 season and ultimately ended his career.

Most of Dallas Clark's 505 career NFL receptions came with the Indianapolis Colts.

No. 7: Dallas Clark, tight end

Career earnings: $42,630,000

Drafted: 2003, first round (Indianapolis Colts)

Arguably the most well-known NFL player of the Ferentz era, Clark was the Colts’ primary tight end during Peyton Manning’s illustrious career. Clark was a first-team all-pro in 2009, when he caught 100 passes for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns. Clark was the NFL’s highest-paid tight end during the prime of his career, as he collected more than $11.5 million in each of the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Once a walk-on linebacker at Iowa, Clark's remarkable 11-year NFL career produced 505 catches, 5,665 receiving yards and 53 TDs.

No. 6: Bryan Bulaga, offensive lineman*

Career earnings: $43,979,388

Drafted: 2010, first round (Green Bay Packers)

Bulaga was the first three-and-done Hawkeye to take his talents to the NFL, long before it was prevalent (James Daniels, T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant, Amani Hooker, Tristan Wirfs, A.J. Epenesa and Geno Stone have followed in the past three drafts). And it paid off quickly, with a Super Bowl title in Bulaga's rookie season. Bulaga logged 115 regular-season games in 10 seasons with the Packers as a right tackle. In March, he signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Los Angeles Chargers — with $19.25 million of that guaranteed.

Mike Daniels became one of the NFL's most dominant 3-4 defensive ends during his prime with the Green Bay Packers.

No. 5: Mike Daniels, defensive lineman*

Career earnings: $44,102,496

Drafted: 2012, fourth round (Green Bay Packers)

Daniels wasn't a star at Iowa, but he emerged with a dominant season in the third and final year of his rookie deal in Green Bay, which launched him into elite NFL company. He signed a four-year, $42 million extension then that made him the third-highest-paid 3-4 defensive end in the league. After 2018 foot surgery and an underwhelming 2019 with the Detroit Lions (where he made $7.8 million), Daniels remains an unsigned free agent for 2020.

No. 4: Robert Gallery, offensive lineman

Career earnings: $46,300,016

Drafted: 2004, first round (Oakland Raiders)

Gallery’s NFL career didn’t live up to the expectations that come with being an Outland Trophy winner and the No. 2 overall draft pick. But by being chosen in an era of inflated rookie salaries, he collected more than $40 million from the Raiders off his seven-year, $52.25 million “entry-level” deal. Gallery logged 104 games over eight NFL seasons.

Chad Greenway (52) was an 11-year fixture for the Minnesota Vikings, where he played his entire career.

No. 3: Chad Greenway, linebacker

Career earnings: $51,797,665

Drafted: 2006, first round (Minnesota Vikings)

Greenway went from South Dakota 9-man football to developed Hawkeye force to longtime fixture in Minnesota, where he spent all 11 years of his NFL career. He amassed 1,103 tackles as a Viking, with a salary haul of $14 million in 2011. Greenway enjoyed immense popularity with the Vikings, in part because of his charitable and philanthropic off-field endeavors. Greenway tearfully retired in March 2017.

After five years on a rookie deal with Detroit (pictured), Riley Reiff moved within the NFC North to the Minnesota Vikings.

No. 2: Riley Reiff, offensive lineman*

Career earnings: $52,119,222

Drafted: 2012, first round (Detroit Lions)

The need for capable left-tackle play has bolstered Reiff’s NFL value, and he turned a rookie deal with the Lions (five years, $16.1 million) into a windfall with the Vikings. Reiff has collected $36 million in his first three seasons in Minnesota, although his future there is on thinning ice after lackluster performance reviews. Reiff, 31, is set to make $11 million this season; if he can show decent production, he could eventually assume the No. 1 spot in NFL earnings for Ferentz-era players.

Marshal Yanda spent two years in community college before arriving at Iowa, where he became a third-round NFL Draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2007. The rest, as they say, is history. He spent 13 NFL seasons with the Ravens and is considered a potential future Hall of Famer.

No. 1: Marshal Yanda, offensive lineman

Career earnings: $70,241,120

Drafted: 2007, third round (Baltimore Ravens)

The Anamosa product was a second-team all-Big Ten player at Iowa, but he became arguably the best offensive guard in the NFL during a long stretch of his 13-year career that ended with his retirement in March. Yanda won a Super Bowl and went to eight Pro Bowls and was known for a tireless work ethic. Yanda is a fitting No. 1 in the Ferentz era, considering he trained in Iowa City during the offseason — and would leave the same pair of shoes (from his first Pro Bowl, in 2011) in his locker at the Hansen Football Performance Center. Yanda spent his entire career as a Raven, earning multiple long-term contracts. He made $3.3 million in his first four seasons; he was paid $66.9 million in his final nine.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

Who’s next to crack the top 20? Plus, other Ferentz-era millionaires

The top 20 will evolve as each NFL year passes. Perhaps the hardest charge will come from George Kittle, a fifth-round draft pick in 2017 who has become arguably the best tight end in the NFL. He has earned a total of $1,963,287 over his first three seasons, but is expected to sign a long-term deal that could reset the tight-end market at roughly $14 million a year.

Newly minted first-round pick Tristan Wirfs (whose four-year rookie deal will be worth an estimated $16.3 million) will climb the ladder quickly, assuming his play with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers merits a long-term extension.

Here is the list of drafted former Hawkeyes who didn’t make the top 20 but earned at least $1 million, according to estimates by Spotrac.com and other sources. (Notes: Ferentz's first season at Iowa was 1999; data was not complete for his first three draft classes, 2000 through 2002; undrafted players are not listed; *—active)

No. 21: DB Bradley Fletcher (2009, third round) — $10,599,500

No. 22: TE C.J. Fiedorowicz (2014, third round) — $10,171,854

No. 23: RB Ladell Betts (2002, second round) — $9,630,000

No. 24: TE Brandon Myers (2009, sixth round) — $9,523,082

No. 25: RB Shonn Greene (2009, third round) — $9,379,360

No. 26: DL Matt Roth (2005, second round) — $8,809,000

No. 27: DT Karl Klug (2011, fifth round) — $8,515,615

No. 28: TE Noah Fant* (2019, first round) — $7,727,923

No. 29: S Sean Considine (2005, fourth round) — $5,276,000

No. 30: OL James Daniels* (2018, second round) — $4,572,822

No. 31: OL Austin Blythe* (2016, seventh round) — $4,087,049

No. 32: TE Tony Moeaki (2010, third round) — $4,053,284

No. 33: CB Josh Jackson* (2018, second round) — $3,874,260

No. 34: OL Adam Gettis (2012, fifth round) — $3,789,979

No. 35: LB Pat Angerer (2010, second round) — $3,620,000

No. 36: DT Carl Davis* (2015, third round) — $3,391,156

No. 37: OL Andrew Donnal* (2015, fourth round) — $3,328,891

No. 38: LB Abdul Hodge (2006, third round) — $2,912,991

No. 39: QB C.J. Beathard* (2017, third round) — $2,582,467

No. 40: DT Christian Ballard (2011, fourth round) — $2,507,552

No. 41: DT Jaleel Johnson* (2017, fourth round) — $2,343,355

No. 42: CB Desmond King* (2017, fifth round) — $2,243,612

No. 43: OL Julian Vandervelde (2011, fifth round) — $2,088,379

No. 44: LB A.J. Edds (2010, fourth round) — $2,026,764

No. 45: LB Josey Jewell* (2018, fourth round) — $1,984,537

No. 46: TE George Kittle* (2017, fifth round) — $1,963,287

No. 47: S Amari Spievey (2010, third round) — $1,957,000

No. 48: CB Shaun Prater (2012, fifth round) — $1,818,881

No. 49: OL Bruce Nelson (2003, second round) — $1,870,000

No. 50: QB Ricky Stanzi (2011, fifth round) — $1,754,851

No. 51: OL Seth Olsen (2009, fourth round) — $1,513,210

No. 52: DL Kenny Iwebema (2008, fourth round) — $1,495,150

No. 53: DE Anthony Nelson* (2019, fourth round) — $1,267,080

No. 54: DB Amani Hooker* (2019, fourth round) — $1,228,480