When it comes to NFL fines, it's defenders paying up

Ndamukong Suh, entering his first season in Miami, has paid $231,500 in fines since 2012. Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports

Cullen Jenkins grew up in a more innocent time. It was before the concussion litigation started affecting the league's image and bottom line, and before the NFL rulebook started to look more like one of those old phone books it took half a tree to print.

"It's football," said the Giants defensive tackle. "I grew up watching it when you try to hit the quarterback as many times as you can so he's thinking about it on the pass. Now you can't go in with that approach. It's almost like baseball and there's a little strike zone and you have to go in that strike zone."

Miss the strike zone, and it's time to tighten your budget. Because it's not just the rules -- and players like Jenkins are studying a new batch of them in anticipation of the season opener -- it's that the NFL system is designed in a way that vacuums money out of the pockets of defensive players while the guys across the line of scrimmage keep most of their paychecks.

Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins joked that a team needs to set aside a pool of money for defensive players, or maybe that money needs to be built into a contract.

"We have to start negotiating," Jenkins said with a smile. "You want me to be an enforcer? Then I need another $200,000 for fines."

There is a reason defensive players often mention the fine system when new rules come up. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 189 offensive players were fined $2,167,959 since 2012. Compare that to the 445 defensive players fined a total of $6,808,889 in that same time period.

"I think what people get upset about is the fines," Malcolm Jenkins said, "and a lot of them are unavoidable. We're paid money to tackle people. The game is so fast. In a split second a receiver can change where the target is. So you may be going for his waist and all of a sudden he ducks and doesn't give you any surface to hit but his head and neck."

Players can appeal a fine and the amount, but if the league upholds its decision, that money is deducted from a player's paycheck. Appeals are heard by people paid jointly by the players' association and the NFL, and money goes to charities, not the NFL.

Cullen Jenkins plays on the line and not the defensive backfield, but didn't need to know the numbers to get the sense that defensive players bear the brunt of the current fine system. He suggests a sliding scale that accounts for the difference in player salaries.

"I've seen players who don't care, they'll take a fine no concern," Jenkins said. "And I've seen undrafted free agents get hit in the preseason with big fines for something like unnecessary roughness -- $15,000 -- and they haven't even made that or they have to make the team to be able to pay that fine. They maybe could adjust it according to the player's salary."

That's not likely, but Jenkins said the way fines extend to every part of a player's actions takes a toll.

"It affects the way you play, it affects the way you prepare," Jenkins said. "When you're getting ready before a game, do my socks look right? Am I showing enough color? That's a $5,000 fine. Is my jersey tucked in? Make sure I have the right shirts on underneath. You have to think about everything."

Players aren't naive as to why. Jets linebacker Jason Babin said it was a simple matter of economics, and the league had to install new rules to protect current players after former players filed the first concussion lawsuits in 2011.

"At the end of the day most things are done for one reason and that's money," said Babin, who has been fined five times since 2012 for a total of $87,787.

Even with that as a suspected consideration, Giants defensive end Robert Ayers said it's in the league's interest to protect offensive players since fans like to see touchdown passes and first-down runs.

"It's become an offensive league," Ayers said. "I don't know if they're making things for the fans; fans do love to see high-flying offenses. You look at recent history with Peyton Manning and the Colts, they changed that press [coverage] rule because the Colts couldn't score as many points."

Ayers noted that some calls that should theoretically apply to both sides of the ball seem to be called against defenders more often.

"I do think they need to pick up the emphasis on defensive players," Ayers said. "One thing that bugs me, [is offensive players can] accidentally hit us in the face mask -- it has to be quick -- and I think that's unfair because if we hit them at all it's a foul."

Is his sense of how this unfolds backed up? Let's look at some of the data ESPN Stats & Information supplied.

Since 2012, Cam Newton has been fined twice for a total of $31,000, which is the most a quarterback has paid during that time -- with 18 fines assessed at the position. Of those, 12 were issued for infractions like taunting or uniform violations, while only six were for illegal hits or a face mask.

DT Ndamukong Suh has been fined four times totaling $231,500 in that same time frame. Those were among the 50 fines paid by defensive tackles, and all but six were for illegal hits. (Fun fact, three out of four punter fines were for face-mask violations.)

This is just a snapshot, a look at the extremes, but it also shows there is more opportunity for defensive linemen, cornerbacks and outside linebackers to pick up fines in their line of work. Defensive players can feel like they're being penalized and still understand why the league is trying to make the game safer.

"It's a fine line between what makes this game exciting and keeping guys safe," Malcolm Jenkins said. "People love the big collisions, they love football because it's a violent sport, but we want our athletes to walk away from the game in good health."

Plenty of the rules are designed to protect defenseless players. A new one this year makes it illegal to take out a wide receiver if he's tracking a ball that is intercepted. But there's one that would benefit defenders, and it's the new rule expanding the zone where chop blocks are illegal beyond the tackle box.

"One thing is good, they can't do cut blocks when they come back across the line, which is huge -- it changes the entire way that you take that block on," Jets linebacker Trevor Reilly said. "In the past you have to come in timid; if you move too fast they take your knees. Now you can just fly in there and run them over. ... It's just going to be a collision, which is better for the defensive guys."

Defensive players can like a rule, while there are offensive players who don't like the way the system is evolving. Giants wide receiver James Jones is one of them.

"To me I'm not a big rule change guy because we're not in Pop Warner," Jones said. "I feel like every player that takes the field understands why they play the game, what they do it for and they understand the consequences. Every football player that goes out there takes the risk. You know nine times out of 10 if I get hit the right way I can get a concussion, if I get hit in the knees the right way I can tear my ACL."

Love them or hate them, players are being instructed with the new rules in play through training camp and during preseason games. There's no way to know immediately if the incremental moves to take head hits out of the game will have the intended effect on player health, or if they will alienate fans who come to the game for its physical violence.

"It's all still very violent, very physical and the popularity is still up," Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said. "So the NFL is doing fine with some of the changes they've made."