At the beginning of the league year in March 2021, the NFL affirmed itself as the most popular professional sport in the United States by signing a new television contract worth $113 billion over 11 seasons, beginning in 2023 running through 2033.
There are still four television networks involved, digital streaming rights, new NFL betting, and NFL odds deals in the works. In perhaps the most significant change before the 2021 season, there was an agreed-upon lengthening of the regular season to 17 games.
The NFL gets a lot of eyes through its television deal, and the 32 league owners get an awful lot of money. But, as the product on the field, the people actually putting their bodies at risk, and the people earning the billions of dollars, half of the money goes to the players.
Actually, 48 percent of all revenues go to player salaries, which is how the yearly salary cap is created and why it changes each season.
NFL Rookie Salary Structure
A player’s first introduction into the world of wealthy professional football is with a largely predetermined contract. Based on where a player is drafted – which round and which pick in that round – there is a salary slot with a floor and a ceiling.
There is a signing bonus for rookies based on where the player is selected and based on the overall salary cap. So consider the rookie salary structure a salary cap inside the overall salary cap.
One other thing of importance is that all contracts for draft picks are for four years, and in year three, a new contract can begin. First-round picks contain a fifth-year option that can be exercised by the team but must be exercised in the player’s third year.
If they enter their fourth year without the fifth-year contract in place, they will become a free agent.
Biggest Overall Contracts
It was following the third year for Patrick Mahomes, after his rookie season of 2017 when he sat behind Alex Smith, the 2018 season when he won the NFL MVP, and the 2019 season when he won the Super Bowl MVP, that Mahomes and the Chiefs worked out the largest total contract in NFL history.
Mahomes and the Chiefs agreed to a 10-year, $450 million contract that included $141.4 million in guaranteed money. The deal was signed in 2020, but it didn’t go into effect until 2021, meaning he won’t become a free agent until 2032.
Before the 2021 season, the Buffalo Bills locked up their young quarterback, Josh Allen. His contract is for $258 million and covers six seasons. So while he signed for $192 million less than Patrick Mahomes, he will become a free agent after six years. The deal kicks in for the 2023 season, meaning that in 2029 Allen will be a free agent.
Allen’s contract contains $150 million in guaranteed money and escalates to a cap hit as high as $51 million in 2025. From 2024 through the end of the contract in 2028, Allen’s cap hit exceeds $40 million.
When Dak Prescott suffered his compound fracture last season, it was feared that he would lose money on his next contract. It turns out those fears were unwarranted.
Before the 2021 season, Prescott signed a four-year extension for $160 million, with almost all of it – $126 million – guaranteed.
His contract began in 2021, meaning Prescott will be a free agent by 2025. So, in contrast to the Mahomes deal, and to a lesser extent the Allen contract, which gives each team more control over their quarterback’s long-term salary, the Cowboys will have to pony up another big contract in just four years.
By 2023 Prescott’s salary cap hit will reach $45 million.
All of the above players will be on this list and at or near the top of it before their careers are over. But in terms of which players right now have made the most money by playing in the NFL, here is the top 10.
$291.0 million – Tom Brady
$267.2 million – Ben Roethlisberger
$267.0 million – Matt Ryan
$263.3 million – Aaron Rodgers
$246.5 million – Matthew Stafford
$181.3 million – Russell Wilson
$171.0 million – Joe Flacco
$164.9 million – Ndamukong Suh
$161.6 million – Kirk Cousins
$144.4 million – Von Miller
A couple of worthwhile mentions from this list, beginning with Suh and Miller, the only non-quarterback in the top-10 of career earnings.
Wilson is 33, and his contract only runs through 2023, so he may have another big contract in the future. He’s also likely looking at a restructured deal if he stays in Seattle, with a $40 million cap hit coming in 2023.