The NFL’s highest-paid players
Which NFL players make the most money? It depends. Unlike most of their counterparts in the NBA and Major League Baseball, pro football players work in a realm that more closely resembles the real world.
In the NFL, getting big money requires staying on the field and producing. Those enormous contracts you read about? Only a portion of the money, usually less than half, is guaranteed.
“As contracts have evolved, there are now various mechanisms for guarantees beyond a signing bonus: roster bonus, option bonus, future guaranteed salaries and salary advances, plus one-time incentives,” says Andrew Brandt, a former Green Bay Packers executive who runs National Football Post, a website that covers the business of the NFL. Brandt also blogs for Forbes.
|In Pictures: The NFL’s highest-paid players|
Making player compensation conditional is a way to deal with salary cap constraints – keeping base pay lower and paying out future incentives enables a team to charge less against the cap in a given year. Many players will indeed collect their full amounts. But if injury or ineffectiveness takes hold, a player can be cut before his contract is up, as long as he’s paid out his guaranteed portion. Young veteran quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger(notes), Eli Manning(notes) and Carson Palmer(notes) all have long-term deals that max out at over $100 million. But their guaranteed portions are much smaller. So unlike basketball and baseball players who collect no matter what, identifying the highest paid in the NFL requires a wait-and-see approach – which players will ultimately collect on their entire deals?
In the meantime, we’ve ranked the highest-paid players by the amount they’re guaranteed on an annual basis. Topping the list is Colts quarterback Peyton Manning(notes), who, entering the last year of his contract, has met all the criteria to earn $15.8 million in 2010. Right behind Manning: Raiders defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha(notes), who gets a guaranteed $28.6 million over the next two years, plus free agent status in 2012 if the club doesn’t pay him at least $16.8 million. Asomugha’s deal has thrown the market for defensive backs out of whack. The Jets’ Darrelle Revis(notes), a superior player, is now embroiled in a highly publicized holdout thanks to the generosity that Raiders owner Al Davis has heaped on Asomugha. For Revis, like everyone else, it’s all about the guarantee.
The issue of guaranteed money will be a big one in the upcoming collective bargaining agreement. “One of the priority issues for both sides,” says Brandt. Maybe not so much for how much of it gets paid out, but who gets it. Many veterans are starting to chafe at the big guarantees being handed out to rookies following the last couple of drafts. Of the league’s 10 highest annual salaries on a guaranteed basis, three are the leading first-round picks from last spring’s 2010 draft: Rams quarterback Sam Bradford(notes), Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh(notes) and Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy(notes). A fourth, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes), was the top overall pick in 2009. Other youngsters getting at least $5 million a year guaranteed include Chiefs defensive end Tyson Jackson(notes), Redskins offensive tackle Treat Williams and a pair of young gun quarterbacks, the Jets’ Mark Sanchez(notes) and the Falcons’ Matt Ryan(notes).
Don’t be surprised if the system gets reworked a bit in the next collective bargaining agreement. Few teams are excited about following in the footsteps of the Raiders, who handed 2007 first-round draft pick JaMarcus Russell(notes) a six-year contract worth a reported $32 million guaranteed. The Raiders cut Russell this past spring after he proved to be a three-year bust. There’s some legal wrangling going on over exactly how much he’s owed. But what’s certain is that he won’t collect the full $61 million his contract was potentially worth. Russell may be a millionaire despite a disappointing pro career, but he still lives in the real world.
The top five: