In the NFL, the guys with the ball not only get the glory, they sell the most products, too.
The first defensive player to appear on the list is 2021 defensive player of the year runner-up T.J. Watt, the Steelers’ outside linebacker, at No. 21. He is followed by the 49ers’ Nick Bosa (29th), reigning defensive player of the year Aaron Donald of the Rams (32nd), the Bears’ Khalil Mack (33rd), the Cowboys’ Leighton Vander Esch (38th) and the Washington Football Team’s Chase Young (39th).
The rankings are based on sales from March 1, 2020, through Feb. 28, 2021. Outside of jerseys, licensed products include T-shirts, hoodies, bobbleheads, plush toys, socks, face coverings, headbands, figurines, wall decals, backpacks, pennants, photos, drinkware and pet products.
Though past defensive stalwarts such as Michael Strahan and Howie Long, not to mention Watt’s brother J.J., have turned their on-field stardom into lucrative marketing and media opportunities, offensive players in the aggregate have dominated recent sales. Since 2014 the NFLPA has released quarterly Top 50 players sales lists, and when totaled up, offensive players outnumber defenders 142 to 41 (with each player being counted once).
While much of that difference undoubtedly comes down to the NFL’s emphasis on offense, particularly the quarterback position, some of it also depends on individual marketing strategies. “As an athlete in general, yes, what you do on the field is first and foremost, but there’s so many more things that people are paying attention to now,” Terése Whitehead, the NFLPA’s vice president of consumer marketing and strategy, said in an interview. “Off the field, that’s where players can really hone into branding themselves and building a market for themselves.”
Social media, especially Instagram, can play a major role in marketability. “You’re not hearing about them from an agent or a rep, you’re hearing from the player about who they are,” Whitehead said. “Brands are really honing in on how players are in their natural environments outside of the game and how fans are reacting to it.”
Watt, Donald, Mack, Young and Bosa are all previous defensive award winners or have made the NFL’s All-Pro first or second teams the past two seasons. But Whitehead noted that stellar play on the field doesn’t guarantee a spot in the top 50. Only three of the 24 defensive players on the league’s first and second all-pro teams made the current list.
The Cowboys’ Vander Esch, however, missed making the 2020 All-Pro team as well as six games due to injury last season, but it didn’t matter. He plays for second most valuable team in all of sports, and fans flock to purchase products from players they recognize. This also explains why Dallas QB Dak Prescott, who missed 11 games last season, was ranked 13th. Overall, the Cowboys have the most players on the list with five.
Each of the defensive players in this year’s list play on the front seven, which shows how difficult it is for defensive backs to move product. Outspoken Seahawks and 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman has finished as high as fourth overall in prior lists, but he’s an exception. Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard had the most interceptions in a season since 2007 with 10 and did not appear in the top 50.
“The guys up front traditionally will get more publicity than the defensive backs,” said Steve Rosner, co-founder of 16WMarkerting. “That is because if a defensive back is really doing his job and he’s a really good player, you might not hear his name too much because the offense is not going after him. The defensive linemen and the linebackers are active in the game all the time.”
Going forward, defensive players will have to continue to find unique ways to market themselves, because there doesn’t appear to be much sympathy for their plight. This past season NFL offenses scored the most points in league history, and league commissioner Roger Goodell welcomed the trend in his Super Bowl 55 and state of the NFL press conference.
“We are playing at the highest level and a degree of competitiveness we’ve never seen in the NFL,” he said. “We’re seeing competitive games even with high scoring that we’ve never seen before. The best days are ahead for our league.”