Going into the 2020 regular season finale, it didn't seem like Antonio Brown had a chance at earning any of the $750,000 of incentives based on his individual statistical achievements. But since the contest wasn't affecting Tampa Bay's playoff seeding, quarterback Tom Brady made sure Brown had his most productive game since joining the Buccaneers at midseason to reach 45 catches for $250,000.

Performance bonuses 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.

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 playtime or based on the player's primary function (i.e.; rushing yards for a running back). Coupling an individual achievement with a team statistical performance also makes an incentive NLTBE. If earned, a team will incur a salary cap charge for most incentives after the playoffs end. Incentives are typically paid in February or March following the season in which they are earned.

Per game roster bonuses are treated as incentives under the salary cap even though they are calculated as a part of a contract's base value. Because of this treatment, they weren't given any consideration.

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. Running back Todd Gurley didn't get the $1 million increase of his 2023 salary from his 2018 performance because the Rams released him in March 2020. 

There are entirely too many performance bonuses in NFL contracts to recognize them all. Here's a look at 2021 performance bonuses for 20 noteworthy players.

  • Maximum: $4.5 million
  • Expected Bonus: $2.375 million

Tom Brady's one-year contract extension running through the 2022 season tweaked the $4.5 million of annual incentives in his contract. The $2.25 million of incentives based on Tampa Bay's success and Brady participating in least 75% of Tampa Bay's offensive plays (which he has) added a requirement of improving over the team's NFL ranking in average net yards gained per rushing play. This improvement is taking place.

With the requisite offensive playtime, Brady gets $500,000 for the Buccaneers making the playoffs. The amount increases by $250,000 to $750,000 for winning a wild-card playoff game where Brady plays a minimum of 75% of Tampa Bay's offensive snaps or earning a first-round playoff bye. It becomes $1.25 million instead for winning a divisional round game and the same playtime requirement for that contest. There's another $500,000 for being NFC champions where Brady takes at least three-fourths of the offensive snaps in the game. If Tampa Bay wins the Super Bowl and Brady is on the field for 75% or more of the offensive plays during the game, he gets the entire $2.25 million.

The $2.25 million annually tied to how Brady performs remains intact. Brady can still make $562,500 each for ranking in the NFL's top five in four of the following categories: passer rating, touchdown passes (or throwing for at least 25 touchdowns), passing yards, completion percentage or yards per pass attempt. He must throw a minimum of 224 passes to be eligible to earn any of these incentives. The team requirement was also added to touchdown passes and passing yards. Brady is leading the NFL in these two categories this season.

The team requirement was necessary to turn the $3.375 million of incentives Brady earned last season from likely to be earned to NLTBE. As NLTBE, there isn't a salary cap charge for the incentives until after the playoffs, if achieved.

  • Maximum: $1 million
  • Expected Bonus: $550,000

The Packers reworked a disgruntled Aaron Rodgers' contract to end his offseason rift with the team. A team qualifier of improving from 2020 in touchdowns on returns and recoveries was added to make $850,000 of existing likely to be earned incentives unlikely. There's $125,000 for each game of the playoffs where Rodgers has at least 72.5% offensive playtime during that specific game, as long as his regular season playtime was at least the same number. The regular season playtime isn't an issue, but Green Bay still needs another touchdown to exceed last year's mark.

There's also $100,000 each for finishing top three in the NFL for the following categories with the same team improvement, a minimum of 224 pass attempts, and by taking 72.5% or more Green Bay's offensive snaps during the season: (1) passer rating, (2) completion percentage, (3) interception percentage, (4) yards per pass and (5) touchdown passes. 

Rodgers currently ranks in the top three in passer rating and interception percentage. He leads in both categories.

  • Maximum: $1 million
  • Expected Bonus: None

The four-year, $160 million contract Dak Prescott signed in March contains a $1 million incentive each year for the Cowboys winning the Super Bowl. Prescott also must take at least 50% of Dallas' offensive snaps in the Super Bowl to collect.

  • Maximum: $2 million
  • Expected Bonus: $250,000

When Russell Wilson became the NFL's first $35 million per year player in April 2019, a mechanism to increase his 2023 salary was also included in his four-year extension. Wilson's 2023 base salary increases based on his performance during the 2020, 2021 and 2022 seasons. Each Pro Bowl selection adds $250,000. Each time Wilson is named Super Bowl MVP is worth $500,000. The same goes for NFL Offensive Player of the Year. Every season in which Wilson completes at least 66% of his passes (minimum of 224 pass attempts), throws for 4,000 or more passing yards or has at least 36 touchdown passes adds $250,000 for each achievement. 

Wilson's 2023 base salary increased by $1 million to $22 million because of his 2020 performance. The finger injury that sidelined Wilson for three games ended his chance to duplicate or exceed last year's amount. The only potential escalation is for completion percentage. Wilson is completing 65.4% of his passes this season.

  • Maximum: $3.5 million
  • Expected Bonus: $3.5 million

Xavien Howard wanted his contract redone to reflect the changing cornerback market after a league leading 10 interceptions last season. The Dolphins had no interest in a renegotiation since there were four years left on Howard's deal. Instead, some modifications were made to Howard's contract, including the addition of $3.5 million in incentives. He was also given assurances that a renegotiation would take place in early 2022 reflecting his 2021 performance and health.

There are $2.5 million in playtime incentives contingent on Miami improving in NFL ranking from the 2020 season in either total defense, average net years given up per passing play or average net yards given per rushing play. With this condition satisfied, Howard earns $750,000 for at least 70% defensive playtime, another $750,000 once he hits 80% and an additional $1 million with playtime of 90% or more. 

Howard has been on field for 90.47% of Miami's defensive snaps this season. The Dolphins are on track to improve in total defense and average net yards given up per passing play. 

There's also $1 million for being selected to the Pro Bowl or being named first-team All-NFL by the Associated Press. The Dolphins have a $1 million salary cap charge for this incentive because Howard accomplished both feats last season.

  • Maximum: $1.55 million
  • Expected Bonus: $1.55 million

Stefon Diggs' 2021, 2022 and 2023 base salaries increased by $658,333, $750,000 and $800,000 because he hit 100 catches or 1,375 receiving yards in 2020. He led the NFL with 127 receptions and 1,535 receiving yards last season. Reaching either of those marks again this season adds $750,000 and $800,000 more to his 2022 and 2023 base salaries. Diggs is just off the pace with catches. He has 82 for 1,007 yards. Eighteen more receptions would put his 2022 and 2023 base salaries at $12.525 million and $12.65 million, respectively.

  • Maximum: $2 million
  • Expected Bonus: None

Rob Gronkowski returned to the Buccaneers on a one-year, $8 million contract with an additional $2 million in incentives -- $1.5 million of which is based on his 2021 statistical achievement. It's $500,000 each for at least 55 receptions, 750 receiving yards and nine touchdown catches. A rib injury and back issues have limited Gronkowski to nine games this season. In those nine games, he has 40 catches for 527 yards and six touchdowns. There are also $500,000 in incentives, which aren't achievable, tied to Tampa Bay's playoff success ($250,000 for getting to the Super Bowl and $250,000 for winning the Super Bowl), Gronkowski taking at least 65% of the offensive snaps and improvement from 2020 NFL ranking in average net yards gained per rushing play. Gronkowski has already missed too much time to hit the 65% playtime threshold.

  • Maximum: $1.25 million
  • Expected Bonus: None

Chris Jones signed a four-year, $80 million contract in 2020 as a franchise player. The deal contains $1.25 million in annual incentives for reaching 10 sacks. Jones has seven sacks in the 11 games he has played this season. The Chiefs are hoping to get Jones back from the COVID-19 list this week.

  • Maximum: $2.25 million
  • Expected Bonus: $666,666

Antonio Brown was the last starter from the Super Bowl LV championship squad to re-sign. His one-year, $4 million deal has $2.25 million in incentives. Brown gets $333,333 for hitting 50 receptions and another $333,334 with 70 receptions. There's $333,333 for 600 or more receiving yards and another $333,334 at 800 receiving yards. Five touchdowns are worth $333,333 and seven touchdowns earn another $333,333. There's also a $250,000 incentive for 45% offensive playtime during the regular season and a Super Bowl win where Brown is active for the game. Brown got off to a fast start before an ankle injury and a three-game suspension for violating COVID-19 protocols derailed his season. He has 29 receptions for 418 yards with four touchdowns in five games. The Super Bowl incentive won't be earned because of a lack of playtime.

  • Maximum: $2 million
  • Expected Bonus: $500,000

An injury plagued 2020 season prompted Jadeveon Clowney to take a one-year, $8 million contract year worth a maximum of $10 million with incentives from the Browns. There are $1 million in incentives based on sacks and another $1 million based on his playtime. Getting five sacks is worth $250,000. The amount increases to $500,000 and $750,000 with seven and nine sacks, respectively. Clowney has five sacks this season. The Browns making the playoffs, which wouldn't be the case if the season ended right now, adds $250,000 to the earned amount. 

Clowney makes $250,000 for reaching 60% defensive playtime. Hitting 70% is worth another $250,000. There's an additional $250,000 at the 80% threshold. The $250,000 increase for making the playoffs also applies to Clowney's playtime. His defensive playtime this season is 63.2%. Clowney is currently on the COVID-19 list, which kept him out of Monday's game against the Raiders. An extended stay will jeopardize his ability to earn any of the playtime incentives.

  • Maximum: $2.5 million
  • Expected Bonus: $1.25 million

A.J. Green signed a one-year, $6 million deal worth up to $8.5 million through incentives with the Cardinals to try to rejuvenate a career that has been plagued by injuries in recent years. There are $2 million of incentives based on his receptions and receiving yards. It's $250,000 for 50 receptions. There's $250,000 more with every additional 10 receptions until 80 for a total of $1 million. Six hundred, 700, 800 and 900 receiving yards are worth $250,000 apiece. Fifty percent offensive playtime, which Green has easily exceeded, and the Cardinals making the playoffs is worth $250,000. There's an extra $250,000 for the Cardinals advancing to the NFC Championship Game with the same playtime threshold and Green must also play at least 50% in the game. Green has 46 catches for 718 yards in 14 games this season. He has already earned $500,000 because of his yardage total.

  • Maximum: $2 million
  • Expected Bonus: $1 million

Haason Reddick took a one-year, $6 million deal worth up to $8 million through incentives from Carolina in free agency. He gets $1 million for 13 sacks and another $1 million for a Pro Bowl berth. Reddick has 11 sacks this season.

  • Maximum: $4 million
  • Expected Bonus: $2 million

Calais Campbell freed up $3 million of 2021 salary cap space in a contract renegotiation where he reduced his 2021 compensation from $10 million to $8 million and turned a $1 million incentive for making the Pro Bowl from likely to not likely by coupling it with a laundry list of individual and team statistical improvements from the 2020 season. The thresholds on existing sack incentives were lowered from seven to six and nine to eight. Each achievement is worth $500,000. $2 million of defensive playtime incentives were also inserted in the deal. Campbell makes $500,000, $1 million, $1.5 million or $2 million for at least 39%, 45%, 50% or 55% playtime, respectively. His defensive playtime this season is just over 58%. The 55% threshold could be in jeopardy if Campbell doesn't make a quick return from the thigh injury that kept him out of last Sunday's game against the Packers. The sack incentives seem remote as Campbell only has 1.5 sacks this season.

  • Maximum: $2 million
  • Expected Bonus: $2 million

Markus Golden is one of the NFL's best bargains for a pass rusher. He signed a two-year, $5 million deal worth up to $9 million through incentives. The $2 million of annual incentives are for sacks. He gets $250,000 for reaching six sacks. There's $250,000 more with eight sacks. It's an additional $500,000 with 10 or more sacks. Golden has already made $1 million because he is tied for eighth in the NFL with 11 sacks. Two more sacks in the final three games will get Golden the entire $2 million.

  • Maximum: $6 million
  • Expected Bonus: $5 million

The 40-year old Andrew Whitworth is the oldest starting offensive tackle in NFL history. He took a $5.5 million pay cut to $4 million to continue playing for the Rams. Incentives give Whitworth an opportunity to earn back $4.5 million of the $5.5 million.

Whitworth makes $1 million, $2 million or $3 million respectively with a minimum of 40%, 47% or 54% offensive playtime and a Rams improved NFL ranking in either points scored, average net yards per passing play or average net yards per rushing play. The Rams are significantly better in all of these categories compared to last season.

Whitworth also has incentives based on the Rams' playoff success and his offensive playtime reaching 65%. It's $500,000 for making the playoffs. Winning one playoff game is worth $500,000 more. There's another $500,000 with a Super Bowl victory.

Whitworth's 2022 base salary increases by the same amounts with these playoff achievements, but his playtime requirement is 75%. Whitworth's playtime this season is 90.13%.

  • Maximum: $2 million
  • Expected Bonus: $375,000

The four-year contract Dont'a Hightower signed in 2017 tolled because he opted out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This means Hightower's 2020 contract year became his 2021 contract year, which includes $2 million in incentives. Hightower makes $375,000 for 65% or more defensive playtime, with an additional $250,000 for 70%. He gets another $250,000 for 75% or more playtime and $125,000 more for at least 80% of New England's defensive snaps.

Hightower's defensive playtime is 66.32% through 14 games. There is $500,000 for making the Pro Bowl and an additional $500,000 for being first-team All-NFL, which won't be achieved.

  • Maximum: $3 million
  • Expected Bonus: $1 million

Andrew Norwell reduced his 2021 compensation from $12 million to $9 million with opportunity to make back the $3 million through incentives. His 2022 contract year was eliminated in the process. There are three different $1 million incentives predicated on Norwell playing at least 70% on offense this season. $1 million is for the Jaguars also making the playoffs, which isn't happening. $1 million also requires a Pro Bowl selection. The other $1 million is also contingent on Jacksonville ranking in the NFL's top 10 in at least one of seven offensive categories (points scored, touchdowns scored, total offense, average net yards gained per passing play, average net yards gained per rushing play, sacked allowed or completion percentage).

The playtime threshold isn't a problem, as Norwell has only missed six snaps this season. Fortunately for Norwell, the Jaguars are currently sixth in average net yards gained per rushing play. They are also tied for 12th in sacks allowed.

  • Maximum: $4.4 million
  • Expected Bonus: $1.25 million

A subpar 2020 season where Preston Smith's sack total dropped from 12 in 2019 to four led to a $4 million cut in pay. Smith's 2021 sacks determine whether he makes back the entire $4 million and a little more. He has seven sacks so far this season. Smith got $500,000 of the pay cut back with six sacks. Getting another sack will earn him additional $750,000 to bring the total to $1.25 million. Ten sacks are worth another $750,000. Smith tying his career high of 12 sacks would make the total $3 million. He gets the entire $4.4 million for hitting 14 sacks.

  • Maximum: $875,000
  • Expected Bonus: $750,000

The average salary for kickers is just over $2.4 million, according to NFLPA data. Nick Folk will make a little more than that on his one-year deal if he earns all of his $875,000 in incentives. There's $250,000 each for being in the NFL's top seven and top 10 for field goals made. Folk is leading the league with 34 field goals made. A 90% or better conversion rate on field goals is worth an additional $250,000. He has converted 91.9% of his 37 field goal attempts. Folk also gets $125,000 for a first- or second-team All-NFL selection.

  • Maximum: $4 million
  • Expected Bonus: $1 million

A salary reduction was necessary after Dante Fowler only produced three sacks in 2020. He cut his $14 million 2021 compensation to the $6 million that was already fully guaranteed. $4 million of incentives based on his sack total and Atlanta improving on last season's four wins, which has occurred, were included. He makes $1 million with five sacks. Seven, nine and 11 sacks are each worth an additional $1 million. Fowler has 4.5 sacks this season.