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© Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Identifying the highest-paid NFL players annually is more difficult than with their counterparts in the NBA and MLB. NFL contracts are often front-loaded with signing bonuses because the deals aren't fully guaranteed. This creates more variance on a year-to-year basis.

Salary is usually deferred in the most lucrative NFL contracts. When a player has a large signing bonus in his contract, a portion of the money isn't received until the next calendar year in a lot of instances.

Salary deferrals are a well-established practice in the NFL. The seven-year, $98 million contract Peyton Manning signed with the Colts in March 2004, which made him the league's highest-paid player (by average salary), included a then-NFL-record $34.5 million signing bonus of which $18.5 million of the $34.5 million wasn't paid to Manning until March 2005.

The chart below contains notable salary deferrals into 2022.

Name

Team

Total signing bonus

Deferred amount

Payment date

Jonathan Allen

Washington

$30,000,000

$15,000,000  

4/1/2022

Tom Brady

Buccaneers

$20,000,000

$15,000,000  

2/4/2022

Darius Leonard

Colts

$20,000,000

$10,000,000  

3/31/2022

T.J. Watt

Steelers

$35,000,000

$10,000,000  

5/31/2022

Joe Thuney

Chiefs

$17,000,000

$8,500,000  

4/5/2022

Braden Smith

Colts

$15,000,000

$8,000,000  

3/31/2022


Determining the highest-paid players in a particular year has become a more complicated endeavor because the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement changed the payment schedule of base salary. Beginning this year, base salary is being paid over twice the number of regular-season weeks. Fifty percent is paid over the course of the regular season, with the final payment coming at the end of 36 weeks. This means the final payment of 2021 base salary will be in early May 2022.

Players who converted base salary into signing bonus for salary cap purposes have a more favorable payment schedule. The automatic conversion rights teams have been sticking in NFL player contracts aren't reflecting this change. The converted money is usually paid in equal installments over the course of the 18-week regular season. If conversion rights aren't in the contract, a player's agent can negotiate even more favorable payment terms.

Below are the 10 highest-paid NFL players for 2021. The only money taken into consideration is from NFL player contracts and is before taxes (i.e; gross income). Sixteen of the 18 regular-season weeks are in the 2021 calendar year. Since two regular-season games are being played in January 2022, players are treated as receiving 44.4% of base salary in 2021. The final game of last year's regular season was in January 2021, so 1/17th of 2020 base salary is also reflected in the calculations.

1. Dak Prescott: $68,969,810  

Prescott takes the top spot largely because he is getting almost all of his NFL-record $66 million signing bonus from the four-year, $160 million contract he signed in March during the 2021 calendar year. He received $25 million of the $66 million within 15 days of signing his $40 million-per-year contract. The remaining $41 million is being paid in equal installments during the 2021 regular season. Prescott is one of two returnees from last year's list. He was eighth when he played under a $31.409 million franchise tag in 2020.

2. Trent Williams: $32,141,830

The six-year, $138.06 million contract Williams signed in free agency to remain with the 49ers makes him the NFL's highest-paid offensive lineman at $23.01 million per year. His $30.1 million signing bonus is also the largest ever in an offensive lineman contract. The last of the three installments with the $30.1 million was paid on Oct. 31.

3. Tom Brady: $29,735,131

Brady is the other returnee from last year's list. He was ninth in 2020. Brady would be second if $15 million of the $20 million signing bonus from the one-year contract extension he signed in March wasn't deferred until February 2022. His 2021 compensation includes $3.375 million of incentives earned during the 2020 season that were paid in March.

4. Leonard Williams: $26,070,810

Williams, who was designated as a franchise player by the Giants for a second year in a row, signed a three-year, $66 million contract. The $45 million fully guaranteed, which includes a $22.5 million signing bonus, is the most ever in a Giants contract. Williams will be in receipt of the entire signing bonus, which was broken into four payments, on Dec. 22.

5. Matt Ryan: $24,720,262

Ryan wouldn't be on this list if the Falcons hadn't created $14 million of 2021 salary cap space by converting $21 million of his $23 million 2021 base salary into a roster bonus that's being prorated like signing bonus. He's benefitting from the more favorable payment schedule with the salary conversion. The $21 million is paid in equal installments over the 18-week regular season. Additionally, $5 million of a $6.95 million salary conversion in March 2020 wasn't paid until this past April 15.

6. Trevor Lawrence: $24,352,233

The 2021 first overall pick got the Jaguars to do something they had never done. Lawrence's $24,118,900 signing bonus was paid in a lump sum within 15 business days of his contract's execution. The typical Jaguars payment schedule for first-round pick signing bonuses had been one-half within 15 business days of signing and the other half at the end of the following March.

7. Joey Bosa: $24,081,699

The 2016 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year signed a five-year, $135 million extension averaging $27 million per year with $102 million in overall guarantees during training camp last year. The $102 million is the most guaranteed money ever for a non-quarterback. As for Bosa's $35 million signing bonus, $17.5 million was deferred until this past March 31.

8. T.J. Watt: $23,879,398

Watt became the NFL's highest-paid non-quarterback with a four-year, $112.011 million extension averaging $28,002,750 per year right before the start of the regular season. More surprisingly, the Steelers abandoned a long-established contract precedent where signing bonus is the only guaranteed money to give Watt the most money fully guaranteed at signing in NFL history for a non-quarterback with $80 million. A $35 million signing bonus, in which $10 million isn't payable until next May, is part of the $80 million fully guaranteed.

9. Zach Wilson: $23,217,465

As 2021's second overall pick, Wilson signed a fully guaranteed four-year deal for $35,150,680 which included a $22,924,132 signing bonus. The signing bonus was payable in a lump sum on Aug. 15.

10. Julio Jones: $22,681,046

A 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 fourth-round pick were dealt to the Falcons for a disgruntled Jones and a 2023 sixth-round pick in June. The Titans assumed the remaining three years of Jones' contract running through the 2023 season worth $38.326 million in the trade. A $14 million salary conversion for salary cap purposes paid in equal installments during the 2021 regular season and a $9 million deferral of the $11 million payment necessary for the Falcons to pick up Jones' 2023 contract year in March 2020 make up most his 2021 compensation.