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Determining the highest-paid NFL players in a particular year is more complicated than in MLB and the NBA. NFL contracts are often front loaded because the deals aren't fully guaranteed. This practice creates more variance on a year-to-year basis. 

Salary is usually deferred in the most lucrative NFL contracts. Typically, when these players have a large signing bonus in a contract, a portion isn't received until the next calendar year. 

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. $18.5 million of the $34.5 million wasn't paid to Manning until March 2005. 

The Packers routinely pay signing bonuses, regardless of the amount, in the same calendar year as signing as a trade off for a vanilla contract structure with veteran players. The only guaranteed money in a Packers contract is a signing bonus. The lone exception is quarterback Aaron Rodgers whose deals have conventional contract guarantees.

The chart below contains notable salary deferrals into 2021 and beyond. 


TeamTotal signing bonusDeferred amountPayment date

Joey Bosa

Chargers

$35,000,000

$17,500,000

3/15/21

Christian McCaffrey

Panthers

$21,500,000

$14,000,000

$7.5M on 4/1/21; $6.5M on 4/1/22

DeAndre Hopkins

Cardinals

$27,500,000

$12,500,000

$5M on 7/15/21;$7.5M on 7/15/22

Dalvin Cook

Vikings

$15,506,361

$12,000,000

$5M on 3/15/21; $3M over '21 season; $4M on 3/15/22

Kirk Cousins

Vikings

$30,000,000

$10,000,000

3/31/21

Julio Jones

Falcons

$11,000,000

$9,000,000

3/31/21

Keenan Allen

Chargers

$13,500,000

$8,500,000

3/15/21

Teddy Bridgewater

Panthers

$15,000,000

$7,500,000

4/1/21

Jalen Ramsey

Rams

$25,000,000

$7,500,000

4/30/21

Note: Jones' $9 million is an option bonus.

Below are the 10 highest paid NFL players for 2020. The only money taken into consideration is from NFL player contracts and is before taxes (i.e; gross income). Since the final regular season game is on Jan. 3, 2021, players will receive 16/17th of base salary at the most in 2020. Some teams pay players every two weeks. Players are being treated as receiving weekly paychecks so 1/17th of base salary will be paid next year.

1. Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks: $51,941,176

Wilson moves up from number two on the list last year to the top spot. It's because $35 million of his NFL record $65 million signing bonus from the four-year, $140 million contract extension (worth up to $146 million through salary escalators) he signed in 2019, which made him the league's highest-paid player at the time, was deferred until this past April 1. 

2. Jared Goff, QB, Rams: $50,981,348

Goff ranks second in pay largely because $20 million of his $25 million signing bonus in the four-year, $134 million extension (worth as much as $147.95 million because of incentives and salary escalators) he signed shortly before the start of the 2019 regular season wasn't payable until March 31 of this year. The $110,042,682 of guarantees in the deal was an NFL record when Goff signed.

3. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Titans: $40,870,588

The Titans were able to sign the 2019 NFL Comeback Player of the Year to a four-year, $118 million deal containing $91 million in guarantees before the March 16 deadline to designate franchise and transition players. This allowed Tennessee to place a franchise tag on running back Derrick Henry

Tannehill is receiving all of his $20 million signing this year. $3.175 million of Tannehill's compensation is incentives earned in 2019 that were paid in the middle of February. A portion of Tannehill's $1.75 million 2019 base salary was paid in 2020 because Tennessee has a unique payment schedule in contracts. It's a standard practice for the Titans to pay 30 percent of base salary during the regular season (1/24th every two weeks). Another 25 percent is paid bi-weekly through mid-March. The remainder is paid on March 31. Tannehill had enough leverage to get a conventional payment schedule of his base salaries in his new contract.

4. Carson Wentz, QB, Eagles: $39,301,647

Wentz's place on the list is glaring because of his surprising regression this season. The bulk of Wentz's 2020 compensation comes from the $30 million Philadelphia had to give him in order to pick up his 2024 contract year. Wentz got the entire option bonus before the first regular season game.

5. David Bakhtiari, OT, Packers: $36,866,177

Bakhtiari recently became the highest paid offensive lineman in NFL history with a four-year, $92 million extension (worth up to $94 million through incentives and salary escalators) averaging $23 million per year. The deal contains a $30 million signing bonus, which is a record for an offensive lineman. Half of the $30 million was payable within days of signing. The other half is due on December 30.

6. Frank Clark, DE, Chiefs: $32,882,353

The Chiefs gave Frank Clark a five-year, $104 million contract with $62.305 million in guarantees ($43.805 million fully guaranteed at signing) when he was acquired from the Seahawks for a 2019 first round pick and a 2020 second round shortly before the 2019 NFL draft was held. There was also a swap of 2019 third round picks. $9.5 million of Clark's $19 million signing bonus was deferred until this past April 5.

7. Ronnie Stanley, OT, Ravens: $30,559,716

Stanley's five-year, $98.75 million extension, which is worth up to $100 million through incentives, contains record setting guarantees for an offensive lineman contract. There are a little more than $65.5 million in overall guarantees where slightly more than $58.8 million was fully guaranteed at signing. The guarantees include a $22.5 million signing bonus that Stanley received in a lump sum days after signing. 

8. Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys: $29,561,412

Prescott is playing this season on a $31.409 million franchise tag because of an inability to reach a long-term agreement. He was having the best year of his career when he sustained an open or compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle against the Giants five games into the season. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has indicated that Prescott's injury doesn't change Dallas' plans for him. This makes putting a second franchise tag on Prescott in 2021 for an NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement mandated 20 percent raise at $37,690,800 likely. 

9. Tom Brady, QB, Buccaneers: $29,367,647

Brady ended his 20 year tenure with the Patriots to join the Buccaneers in free agency. He signed a fully guaranteed two-year, $50 million deal worth up a maximum of $59 million with incentives. Brady is making money from both teams this year. $5.25 million of the $20.5 million roster bonus in his renegotiated Patriots contract from August 2019 wasn't paid until the end of this past March. 

10. Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans: $29,285,003

Watson signed a four-year, $156 million extension worth a maximum of $160 million through incentives with $110,717,124 million of guarantees as the start of the regular season was approaching. None of Watson's $27 million signing bonus is deferred into 2021.

The new money average in the early years of Patrick Mahomes' blockbuster 10-year, $450 million contract extension (worth up to $500 million with incentives) was expected to serve as a salary ceiling for Watson. It didn't. Watson is ahead of Mahomes in new money at every juncture in the common years of their contracts. Most importantly, Watson's $39 million extension average is $50,000 more per year than Mahomes' new money average after four years.