Peyton Manning had one of the most notable performance bonuses during the salary cap era last season. The future first ballot Hall of Famer took a $4 million pay cut to remain with the Broncos in what turned out to be his NFL swan song. Manning earned the money back in the playoffs. He made $2 million when the Broncos got to the Super Bowl because he played at least 70 percent of the offensive plays in the AFC Championship Game. Manning got the other $2 million for winning Super Bowl 50 after hitting that same playing time threshold.
Performance bonus can be divided into two basic categories: incentives and salary escalators. Both types of bonuses can be used to bridge the financial gap when there is a disagreement in a negotiation between a player's agent and the team on the player's value. Incentives are also a way for a player taking a pay cut to make back some or all of the money he is losing through the salary reduction, like Manning did last year.
Incentives are usually designed to be classified as not likely to be earned (NLTBE) so that they will not count against the salary cap when a deal is signed. Generally, any incentives with higher thresholds than the player or team's statistical performance in the prior season qualify as NLTBE. The most frequent categories for individual achievement are playing time or based on the player's primary function, such as receptions or receiving yards for a wide receiver. Coupling an individual achievement with a team statistical performance also makes an incentive NLTBE.
Incentives are preferable to escalators. Triggering an escalator doesn't necessarily mean that the player will make the increased salary. The escalated amount is rarely guaranteed so teams can still ask the player to take a pay cut or release him without incurring the financial obligation. This happened with John Abraham in 2013. The Atlanta Falcons cut him instead paying him for the 2013 season after he triggered a $1 million base salary increase by reaching the required play time and getting 10 sacks in 2012.
The final week of the season can create an interesting dilemma for teams that have players with incentives and salary escalators hanging in the balance. Resting a player with money on the line to preserve him for the postseason or to evaluate unproven players on teams out of playoff contention can create friction between the locker room and the team's coaches and front office. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick kept defensive tackle Vince Wilfork on the field long enough in a meaningless 2014 regular season finale for him to reach the highest playing time levels in his incentives.
There aren't any performance bonuses this season quite like Manning's, given his stature. But there is still some big money at stake for some big names. Here's a look at pending 2016 performance bonuses for 10 noteworthy NFL players and five bonuses that won't be earned due to injury or poor performance. The highest dollar amount that can be earned highlighted in each situation.
Bonuses: $3.25 Million
Bradford's 2017 base salary will increase from $13 million to $14 million by taking at least 90 percent of Minnesota's offensive snaps. He doesn't have much margin for error. Bradford sat out the season opener because he wasn't familiar enough with the Vikings' play book after a surprising trade from the Eagles in the days leading up to the first game. His playtime is currently 91.7 percent.
The remaining $2.25 million can be earned as incentives through a lengthy Minnesota playoff run. Bradford gets $250,000 if the Vikings win a wild-card game, provided he takes a minimum of 50 percent of the team's offensive snaps in the game. It's $500,000 each for wins in the divisional playoff round and NFC Championship Game. A Super Bowl win is worth $1 million. The same playtime requirement for the wild-card game is necessary with each successive contest.
Bonuses: $1.85 Million
Murray cut $5.45 million out of the base value of the remaining four years of his contract to help facilitate his offseason trade from the Eagles to the Titans while adding $1.85 million of annual incentives. He's already earned $450,000. $250,000 is for reaching 1,000 rushing yards and $200,000 is for nine rushing touchdowns. There's $750,000 total for yards topping out at 1,500. It's a maximum of $750,000 with 15 rushing touchdowns. Since Murray is on pace for 1,391 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, he should reach the 1,250-yard mark for an additional $150,000. Murray will get another $150,000 if he reaches the end zone three more times carrying the ball. He also gets $100,000 for being selected to the Pro Bowl, which should occur, and $250,000 if named AFC Offensive Player of the Year. Murray is on track to earn $700,000 with an outside shot at $1.6 million.
Bonuses: $2 Million
Lee missing the final Cowboys game last season with a hamstring injury prevented his 2016 base salary from increasing to $5 million because his defensive play time was less than 80 percent. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gave Lee a way to still get the $2 million by sticking a $125,000 bonus for each game he is the 46-man active roster this season into his contract when it was restructured in August to create cap room.
Lee has made $1.75 million so far by playing in every game. Having his 2017 base salary escalate from $7 million to $9 million isn't an issue because Lee has been on the field for all but one of Dallas' defensive plays this season. He should clinch the escalator this week against the Giants.
The 43-year-old went into a mini-slump (by his standards) when he missed a couple of kicks after setting an NFL record with 43 straight made field goals. Keeping his field-goal percentage at or above 90 percent gets the ageless wonder $500,000. Vinatieri has made 22 of 24 field goals (91.7 percent) this season.
Bonuses: $1.275 Million
Wake isn't showing any ill effects from the torn Achilles that sidelined him for the final nine games last season. He's 10th in the NFL with 8.5 sacks. Wake makes $475,000 for getting nine sacks. He gets another $400,000 with 12 sacks and an additional $400,000 at 15 sacks. Wake is on pace for 12 sacks.
Bonuses: $1 Million
Blount's one-year, $1 million deal can double in value to $2 million by earning all of his incentives. He has already made $450,000 for reaching the 950 rushing yard mark. Blount is on track to gain 1,276 yards, which would get him all $750,000 based on his rushing total. The top threshold is 1,100 yards. There's another $250,000 available for making the Pro Bowl.
Bonuses: $3 Million
Pitta reduced his 2016 base salary by $4 million to $1 million with an opportunity to make $3 million back because hip injuries limited him to seven games over the previous three seasons. He's already earned the entire $1 million relating to receptions when he caught his 50th pass this season. He should also make all $2 million based on his offensive playtime, which requires 50 percent, since he has participated in 74.2 percent of Baltimore's offensive plays this season.
Bonuses: $3 Million
Okung signed a one-year, $5 million deal (worth up to $8 million through incentives) in the offseason giving the Broncos an option for an additional four years worth $48 million. It remains to be seen whether the Broncos will pick up the option between the end of the season and the start of free agency on next March 9. Okung gets $1.5 million by playing at least 80 percent of Denver's offensive snaps and another $1.5 million with playtime of 90 percent or above. His offensive playtime is 98.4 percent this season.
Bonuses: $2 Million
Ware is taking advantage of the increased workload created by Jamaal Charles' knee problems. He has a career high 734 rushing yards this season. With 116 more yards on the ground he will increase his 2017 base salary, which is $700,000, by $300,000. Hitting 1,000 rushing yards, also is within reach, makes the increase $600,000. The increase would be $900,000 by rushing for at least 1,200 yards.
The Chiefs making the playoffs also has significance for Ware. This escalation doubles with a postseason appearance. His 2017 salary can increase by an additional $150,000 or $200,000 respectively with eight or 10 rushing touchdowns. Ware would need a flurry of scores in the last four games since he only has three rushing touchdowns this season.
Bonuses: $2.5 Million
Bushrod's one-year, $1.5 million deal gives him the ability to almost triple his compensation through incentives. The two-time Pro Bowler is going to make $1 million for playing at least 70 percent of Miami's offensive snaps. His playtime is currently 99.7 percent. The remaining $1.5 million is for 85 percent of offensive playing time and Miami making the playoffs.
Bonuses that won't be earned
Bonuses: $12 Million
A broken thumb 12 games into the last season ended any chance Dalton had of triggering up to $15 million of base salary escalators for his 2016 through 2020 contract years because his playing time didn't hit 80 percent. Dalton's playing time isn't the problem this season because he's been under center for 825 of Cincinnati's 827 offensive snaps. Cincinnati being on track to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010 is the issue.
A $1 million bonus would be added to each of Dalton's remaining base salaries by reaching the divisional playoffs while playing at least 80 percent of the Bengals' snaps in the regular season and playoffs. Another $500,000 would be added for reaching the Conference Championship game if those same playing time requirements are met. It would become a $3 million-per season escalation with a Super Bowl win and the requisite playing time.
Bonuses: $1 Million
Adrian Peterson's contract includes a $1 million bonus for having at least 1,550 yards on the ground and the Vikings winning a playoff game. But that went out the window after the veteran back tore the meniscus in his right knee in his second game of the season. His extremely slow start to the season before the injury put the required rushing total in jeopardy, and as it stands, the Vikings wouldn't be in the playoffs if the season ended today.
Bonuses: $3.5 Million
Griffin fractured a bone in his left shoulder in his opening start for the Browns, all but making the incentives in his two-year, $15 million deal impossible to earn.
There's $500,000 for playing between 75 percent and 89.99 percent of Cleveland's offensive plays. The amount increases to $1.5 million with 90 percent playing time.
Griffin would have gotten $250,000 with 3,250 to 3,499 passing yards in a season. He has an additional $250,000 for reaching 3,500 yards and $500,000 more at 4,000 yards. A passer rating between 88 and 89.9 (minimum of 224 pass attempts) is worth $250,000. There's an additional $250,000 for a 90 passing rating. It increases by another $500,000 with a passer rating of 93 or better.
Bonuses: $3.5 Million
Ware took a $3.5 million pay cut in the offseason to lower his total salary to $6.5 million. The money could be incrementally earned back depending on Ware's sack total. Ware will get $1.25 million back with eight sacks. Another $1 million is for 9.5 sacks. An additional $750,000 comes with 11 sacks. Ware will be made whole with 13 sacks. But missing five games because of a forearm fracture put earning any of that money in jeopardy because Ware has three sacks with just four games to go.
Bonuses: $2.5 Million
The Rams signed Austin to a head-scratching four-year extension in the preseason that averages approximately $10.5 million per year with $28.5 million of guarantees that can easily be worth more. There are $14 million of incentives and base salary escalators in the contract. Reaching 1,000 combined receiving and rushing yards this season is worth $250,000. Every 125 combined yards up to 1,375 is worth an extra $250,000, except the highest threshold also requires at least nine wins by the Rams or a playoff berth.
The amount earned is also added to Austin's 2017 base salary. If Austin's performance remotely matched his contract, making $1.5 million under this clause would be a realistic possibility. Since he's projected to have less than 750 combined yards, he won't earn anything. There are also annual incentives for touchdowns between $250,000 and $500,000, with 10 scores as the highest threshold.
Pro Bowl bonuses
Numerous NFL contracts contain Pro Bowl bonuses, like Blount, Martin and Murray have. Occasionally, extremely lucrative contracts have these bonuses. For example, Oakland Raiders offensive guard Kelechi Osemele, who is the NFL's highest-paid interior offensive lineman, has an annual $300,000 bonus for being selected to the Pro Bowl. In order to cash in on a Pro Bowl bonus, players must be selected on the original ballot and participate in the game unless medically excused or playing in the Super Bowl. Getting in the game as an alternate doesn't suffice.