Highest-paid players in the NFL

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August 28, 2019
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Highest-paid players in the NFL

Despite its position as America’s most popular professional sport and biggest cash generator of the four major sports, National Football League contracts are often smoke and mirrors with little of the deal guaranteed. The brutal nature of football, among other things, is why NFL contracts are less rich than those given in Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association. Teams are risk-averse, understanding that the shelf life for their athletes is significantly less than that of other sports.

The hard salary cap in the NFL also factors into money spent. Despite significant increases in the league’s salary cap each of the last six seasons, each team can spend no more than a certain amount each year on player contracts for its 53-man roster. In 2019, that number is $188.2 million. The MLB has zero salary cap, so a team like the Boston Red Sox can enter 2019 with a payroll of nearly $225 million for a roster of 40 players. The NBA has a soft cap, meaning a team can spend over the cap to retain a player and pay a luxury tax.

All that said, there is still plenty of money to go around in the NFL, and the more valuable the player, the more money a team is willing to shell out in guaranteed dollars. It should come as no surprise that the majority of those massive contracts belong to players at the sport’s most important role: quarterback. Of the largest annual player salaries, the top 11—and 17 of the top 20—are quarterbacks. Additionally, QB is the only position on offense to crack the top 20, further displaying the perceived worth of the signal-caller. Stacker compiled a list of the highest-paid players in the NFL, ranked by annual salary, using data from Spotrac.

Read on to see the lucrative contracts doled out to the NFL’s most prominent and decorated players.

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#20. Philip Rivers

- Team: Los Angeles Chargers
- Position: QB
- Average salary: $20,812,500

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers inked a four-year, $83.25 million contract ($37.5 million initially guaranteed at signing) back in 2015, which lands him on this top 20 list. Rivers, who was drafted by the New York Giants and subsequently traded to the Chargers (then in San Diego) in 2004, has earned more than $200 million over the course of three different contracts throughout his playing career. Despite no Super Bowl titles or MVP accolades, Rivers has been a picture of consistency for the Bolts. Since becoming QB1 in 2006, Rivers has started every regular-season game, earning his way to the Pro Bowl eight times and leading L.A. to the playoffs six times.

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#18. Eli Manning (tied)

- Team: New York Giants
- Position: QB
- Average salary: $21,000,000

Eli Manning—who was traded for #20 on our list, Philip Rivers, back in 2004—also signed a four-year extension in 2015. His contract: an ever-so-slightly richer $84 million with $67 million guaranteed. Manning, who has led the New York Giants to Super Bowl titles on two separate occasions, is set to earn a base salary of $11.5 million, along with a $5 million roster bonus and a $500,000 workout bonus in 2019. While his best years are likely behind him, the Giants elected to retain the 38-year-old veteran in lieu of starting rookie Daniel Jones out of the gate.

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#18. DeMarcus Lawrence (tied)

- Team: Dallas Cowboys
- Position: DE
- Average salary: $21,000,000

The first of only three non-quarterbacks to grace this list of highest-paid players, Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence signed a five-year, $105 million deal lasting through 2023. The team can cut ties after three years and $65 million of the contract is paid out, but that guaranteed money is the most ever for a non-QB. Lawrence has been a standout on the Dallas defense, being selected for each of the last two Pro Bowls.

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#17. Nick Foles

- Team: Jacksonville Jaguars
- Position: QB
- Average salary: $22,000,000

A backup no more: Nick Foles signed a four-year, $88 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars this past offseason. Taking over for an injured Carson Wentz late in the 2017 season, Foles led the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl victory while capturing game MVP honors. While his body of work is a somewhat limited sample size, Foles has been a solid performer. Last season in the five games he started with the Eagles, Foles averaged a career high in both completion percentage (72.3) and yards per game (286.2).

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#16. Joe Flacco

- Team: Denver Broncos
- Position: QB
- Average salary: $22,133,333

While Denver Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco’s salary might look lofty at first glance, especially considering his declining play over the past few seasons, the team can move on at any time without major consequence. The Broncos agreed to acquire Flacco from the Baltimore Ravens this past offseason, and although there are three years remaining on his deal, no portion of the contract is guaranteed after 2019.

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#15. Aaron Donald

- Team: Los Angeles Rams
- Position: DT
- Average salary: $22,500,000

It’s fitting that the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year finds his way onto the highest-paid players list. Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams is an absolute force to be reckoned with, amassing a league-leading 20.5 sacks, 41 QB hits, 25 tackles for loss, and 73 QB pressures in 2018. The six-year, $135 million contract extension last year made Donald the highest-paid defensive player in the league at the time and is currently the second-richest deal for a defender.

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#14. Tom Brady

- Team: New England Patriots
- Position: QB
- Average salary: $23,000,000

Many might assume to find Tom Brady, six-time Super Bowl champion and three-time league MVP, a bit higher on this list, but Brady has restructured his contract a few times to save the team cap space. When your significant other makes as much as Gisele Bundchen does, taking a pay cut doesn’t hurt as much. He most recently agreed to a contract extension which will earn him $23 million for the 2019 season. Brady is currently 42 years old and continues to defy what fans thought was possible this late into a quarterback’s career.

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#12. Alex Smith (tied)

- Team: Washington Redskins
- Position: QB
- Average salary: $23,500,000

The injury suffered by Washington Redskins QB Alex Smith is an example of why NFL teams are reluctant to guarantee money. Late in the 2018 season, Smith suffered a broken fibula and tibia, and later suffered an infection as a result of the injury. While the 35 year old’s playing career is in jeopardy, his base salary of $31 million over the next two years is not. It’s not the $94 million he initially signed for, but it’s something given how conservative NFL contracts can be. It’s still unclear whether he’ll return in 2019.

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#12. Khalil Mack (tied)

- Team: Chicago Bears
- Position: OLB
- Average salary: $23,500,000

Just days after Los Angeles Rams DT Aaron Donald inked the richest contract ever for a defensive player, the Chicago Bears were not to be outdone. Promptly after trading for Khalil Mack, they gave the former Oakland Raiders pass-rusher a six-year, $141 million contract. The three-time First-Team All-Pro linebacker will earn $151 million over seven years if he plays out his entire contract.

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#11. Andrew Luck

- Team: Indianapolis Colts
- Position: QB
- Average salary: $24,594,000

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck signed a deal worth nearly $123 million back in 2016. Luck missed all of the 2017 season with a peculiar shoulder injury but made a resilient return in 2018, posting an impressive 39 touchdowns compared to just 15 interceptions and a career-high passer rating of 98.7. Injuries loom again for Luck, who has yet to see preseason action battling a “small little bone” issue as well as a calf strain.

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#9. Derek Carr (tied)

- Team: Oakland Raiders
- Position: QB
- Average salary: $25,000,000

Derek Carr cracks the top 10 as the five-year, $125 million contract extension he signed in 2017 remains one of the heftiest in all of football. The Oakland Raiders have chosen to stick with Carr as the face of the franchise but could have parted ways this offseason with very minimal consequence. It might be make-or-break for Carr in 2019, who led the Raiders to a 4-12 record last season and threw less than 20 touchdown passes.

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#9. Drew Brees (tied)

- Team: New Orleans Saints
- Position: QB
- Average salary: $25,000,000

The 2018 campaign for New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees may have been his most impressive yet, which is high praise for the 12-time Pro Bowler. Brees completed nearly 75% of his throws, finished the season with a passer rating of 115.7, and threw only five interceptions in his 15 starts (all career bests). It’s no surprise the 40 year old is one of the highest paid in the NFL, even at his age. Brees restructured his two-year, $50 million contract in the offseason to free up cap space for the Saints in 2019.

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#8. Matthew Stafford

- Team: Detroit Lions
- Position: QB
- Average salary: $27,000,000

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford signed his five-year contract extension shortly after Derek Carr signed his back in 2017. The Stafford deal is worth an additional $10 million than Carr’s ($2 million average annually), and came with a total guarantee of $92 million. At the time of signing, Stafford’s contract set the record for largest signing bonus ($50 million).

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#7. Jimmy Garoppolo

- Team: San Francisco 49ers
- Position: QB
- Average salary: $27,500,000

The Jimmy Garoppolo contract made waves in the 2018 offseason, not only because of the record-setting $27.5 million (the most annually at the time of signing), but because Garoppolo had started just two games over the course of four seasons with the New England Patriots. What the San Francisco 49ers also did was set the stage for the boom of the quarterback market.

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#6. Kirk Cousins

- Team: Minnesota Vikings
- Position: QB
- Average salary: $28,000,000

After a precedent was set by the 49ers and the Jimmy Garoppolo contract, Kirk Cousins was able to cash in. The three-year, $84 million deal Cousins signed in free agency with the Minnesota Vikings is almost fully guaranteed, which is precedent-setting in its own right. Can Cousins live up to the much-lauded contract? While he performed well last season, the Vikings finished a mediocre 8-7-1 and missed the playoffs.

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#5. Matt Ryan

- Team: Atlanta Falcons
- Position: QB
- Average salary: $30,000,000

Following suit in 2018, Matt Ryan dethroned Kirk Cousins as the highest-paid player in the NFL when the Atlanta Falcons inked the 2016 MVP QB to a five-year, $150 million contract extension with a whopping $100 million in guaranteed money. The $30 million annually and $100 million guaranteed were both record-breaking at the initial time of the contract.

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#4. Carson Wentz

- Team: Philadelphia Eagles
- Position: QB
- Average salary: $32,000,000

The lofty four-year, $128 million extension for Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz keeps the 26-year-old quarterback under contract through the 2024 season. The $107-plus million in guaranteed money is the current bar for all NFL players. While more guaranteed money is becoming standard for NFL quarterbacks, Wentz is coming off back-to-back injured seasons, having started less than 16 in each. This deal was done with two years left on Wentz’s contract in hopes that he’ll stay healthy and the team can avoid paying even more next offseason.

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#3. Aaron Rodgers

- Team: Green Bay Packers
- Position: QB
- Average salary: $33,500,000

The Aaron Rodgers contract was the biggest, and last, major deal of 2018. The four-year, $134 million extension, which aims to keep the 35-year-old Rodgers in Green Bay for the remainder of his career, will pay him as much as $180 million through the 2023 season. Rodgers, who was drafted by the Packers in 2005, has two league MVP awards and led the team to a Super Bowl title for the 2010 season. He is widely recognized as the most talented QB in the game; last year, he was finally paid like it.

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#2. Ben Roethlisberger

- Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
- Position: QB
- Average salary: $34,000,000

As NFL team salary caps increased again in 2019, so too did quarterback contracts. This was true of the two-year, $68 million extension signed by Ben Roethlisberger, which now keeps him with the Pittsburgh Steelers through the 2021 season. The Steelers may have said goodbye to Le’Veon Bell (Jets) and Antonio Brown (Raiders) this offseason, but they’ve secured their 37-year-old franchise QB for what should be the remainder of his career.

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#1. Russell Wilson

- Team: Seattle Seahawks
- Position: QB
- Average salary: $35,000,000

After seeing the market for top-tier quarterbacks and valuing his worth, Russell Wilson felt he should be the highest-paid player in football. After he made those wishes clear and gave the Seattle Seahawks a deadline, the 2013 Super Bowl champion inked a deal that made him exactly that—his $35 million annually is the most in the NFL. Additionally, his $65 million signing bonus ranks #1 in all of football. The $107 million in guarantees is just a fraction below what Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz agreed to weeks after Wilson’s extension.

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