Money talks — especially in sports. Even if you’ve got no idea what the difference is between a touchdown and a touch back, you can probably surmise that player A is better than player B based on the fact that one is paid more than the other. Maybe “better” is the wrong word — perhaps more and less “essential” would be more diplomatic. While skill may be relative, what is fairly objective is popularity. While there may be no true way to measure popularity, the NFLPI — the marketing portion of the NFL Players Association — tracks how much merchandise any given player sells over a given quarter ( a new report is released quarterly.)
The list is, per the NFLPI, “based on total overall sales of all licensed products from online and traditional retail outlets,” and covers sales from the usual suspects — Nike, Fanatics, and VF Imagewear — to the less common such as Fathead, McFarlane Toys, and Photo File. Everything from photographs, murals, bobbleheads, licensed glasses, and drinkware. The NLFPI list was generated using data from March 1, 2013 until February 28, 2014. Without further adieu, here are the 12 most popular players in the NFL by virtue of their sales numbers over the last year.
12. Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
What a difference a year makes. This time last year, in April of 2013, Richard Sherman was nothing more than another up and coming defensive end on an up and coming Seattle team that had made the playoffs, but hadn’t done very much in the postseason despite a solid defense and a developing quarterback. Now he’s one of Time magazine’s 100 influential people, as famous for his post-game diatribes as his smothering cornerback play.
Sherman, who the Seahawks are trying to nail down to an extension that will probably make him the highest paid corner in the game, was not in the top 50 of popular players before the season began. He became a household name when he shouted “I’m the best corner in the game” at Erin Andrews after he shut down Michael Crabtree to seal the NFC Championship game. You can see that video (again, since this won’t be your first time) here.
11. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
On the other side of the equation is a man who wishes that the season hadn’t unfolded the way it did. Coming off the 2013 season, the Houston Texans were, mostly, in the same position as the Seahawks — a good defense first team that had been bounced in the playoffs but was expected to come back and compete for a deeper run next season. That, uh, didn’t happen. Instead, the Texans finished 2-14 and are looking at the number one overall pick in the 2014 draft. J.J. Watt, who sustained his popularity with appearances on The League and endorsements from Nike, Axe, and Ford. Watt is also the most popular defensive player in the league — that’s right, all offense from here on out.
10. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Offense doesn’t come much more voluminously than the offense generated by New Orleans Saints Quarterback Drew Brees. The former Purdue Boilermaker who was taken with the first pick in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft, Brees and his cannon arm have consistently made the Saints one of the most entertaining of the ball teams from the last decade. Saints fans obviously feel the same way, given his position on this list. In the offseason, Brees stays visible through his relationships with Tide and Vicks VapoRub, which produced one of the most enduringly adorable Super Bowl ads of all time.
9. Andrew Luck, Idianapolis Colts
At the risk of spoiling the surprise of the list, it might be fairly obvious that it’s going to be dominated by quarterbacks. The quarterback is the most visible face of the franchise, the player who handles the ball on 95 percent of the offensive possessions. He’s also, usually, the one that gets the most marketing time around the franchise. If you want people to purchase things with your likeness, you might what to be a quarterback. That’s the takeaway. Look at Luck — he’s approaching his third year in the league and he’s already selling more swag than Drew Brees (although Brees has been in the league so long that it’s possible people have bought all the jerseys and Fatheads they could handle.)
8. Eli Manning, New York Giants
See? Even if you’re having a terrible, terrible year, you can still have people buy things with your likeness on them. Eli Manning, who threw 27 interceptions but somehow played even worse than that if you saw it in real life. It was, definitively, the worst season the younger Manning has ever had on the field. As Giants general manager Jerry Reese put it, “You see some of the things that he does, you think ‘Wow, that’s the guy that we know and love.’ [And] sometimes, it’s not exactly that.”
Which, really, is the best way to describe Eli Manning. Here he is, not exactly being the guy Giants fans know and love, at what might have been his lowest point in 2013.
7. Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks
As the sole running back on the top 12 list, Marshawn Lynch is arguably the best (although that not probably still goes to Adrian Peterson) but certainly the most visible. Even though Beast Mode was fairly quiet on the sport’s biggest stage, the fact that Pete Carroll’s offense was slated around his explosiveness despite the emergence of the rest of the offense is telling. For now, things are good for Marshawn Lynch — the highest selling back in the National Football League.
6. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Now we’re in for the real faces of the NFL. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Tom Brady’s so high on this list — he is, after all, the King of New England — and with other notable Patriots like Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola garnering headlines for their semi-permanent residence on the IR rather than their play on the field, a Brady jersey, poster, or commemorative mug is the safest best for the Patriots fan. Plus, look at him — he’s positively electric.
5. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Three words, as many syllables as you want — Discount Double Check. Rodgers, who’s State Farm ads keep him in the public eye even when the Packers are suffering a rough go of things on the injury front, has been one of the reliable front runners for NFL swag since being grabbed by Green Bay in the first round of the 2005 draft (25th pick overall.) Posting an 8-7 record and a first round exit at the hands of the 49ers in 2013 might have a harsh effect on the quarterback’s position on this list next year, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he stayed right where he was on this list. Now, the State Farm ad super cut.
4. Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
Not even an ACL can keep RGIII down. Griffin — the electric quarterback who brought life and excitement back to the Washington Redskins franchise after over a decade of mediocrity — was on his way to being the most entertaining rookie quarterback of 2010 when a hit tore his ACL and his LCL, retiring him for the season. After watching him struggle through the 2013 season, the common consensus is that he came back too early, and it only reinforced the fact that not everyone is Adrian Peterson (who may secretly have bones made of Adamantium, like Wolverine.)
Despite the extended car crash that was the Washington Redskins season last year — and that’s not including owner Dan Snyder’s deaf response to the fact that the team name is definitely offensive — ‘Skins fans seem to have coalesced around Griffin. Maybe it’s the fact that Mike Shanahan is no longer their coach. Whatever the case, RG III’s popularity doesn’t seem to be waning.
3. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers
Neither does Colin Kaepernick’s popularity. Kaepernick, the starter for the 49ers who has caught all kinds of praise and grief about his ink and playing style, is certainly appealing to a specific type of NFL fan — the kind who’d rather wear Beats by Dre (which Kaepernick endorses) than Brett Favre’s Wrangler jeans. This has made him a lightning rod for discussion around “what it all means” when it comes to quarterbacks, as well as one of the best selling jerseys in the NFL’s recent history. His Dre headphones advertisement — one of a series touting “hear what you want” that features LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Bryce Harper, and Cam Newton — hits on the salient points around Kaepernick, delivered in the unimitable patois of a pissed off fan.
2. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
It can’t be terribly surprising that the two most popular players in the NFL, according to their sales from March of last year until the end of this February, are the two quarterbacks who ended up guiding their respective teams into the Super Bowl. Manning and Wilson, who each share similarly “nose-to-the-grindstone, working-hard-beats-hardly-working” public personas (and may very well be the same people in real life, by virtue of the insane amount of effort it takes to make it to the NFL) and sponsors — even if Manning and Papa John’s are probably the best marriage since the institution became commonplace.
1. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
So what gives Wilson the edge over Peyton? Age, probably — Manning’s been in the league since Bill Clinton was in the White House, and many of his supporters have already amassed a solid stable of paraphernalia bearing his likeness, even if they had to swap over once Manning moved from Indiana to Denver — and the fact that, you know, Seattle was more fun. Even when the Broncos were busy steamrolling every record they could find, Seattle offered a fun alternative to the Manning machinery. Maybe. It could just be that the Russell Wilson bandwagon picked up right around last year’s playoffs and stayed strong all year. Click here for the top 50.