Articles on the best or worst contracts usually only reflect the viewpoint of teams. As a former agent, my outlook is instinctively from the often-neglected player standpoint. When assessing NFL contracts, structure is of the utmost importance because the deals aren't fully guaranteed as in MLB and the NBA. Overall contract value and the average yearly salary are the most popular contract metrics with the general public, but since salary guarantees are now as customary as signing bonuses in the most lucrative NFL contracts, the amount of guaranteed money at signing or vesting early has become more significant.
Whether the guarantees have offset language is another consideration. An offset clause reduces the guaranteed money a team owes a player when he is released by the amount of his new deal with another team. Without an offset, the player receives his salary from the team that released him as well as the full salary from his new contract with another club (also known as "double-dipping ").
Compensation in the early years of a multi-year deal can be useful in determining whether a multi-year contract is front-loaded or back-loaded, with the latter considered to be team-friendly deals.
The general public sometimes gets confused on how to value contracts. Professionals within the industry (agents and team negotiators) typically value deals by new money, which is the amount of compensation in a contract excluding what a player was scheduled to make before receiving a new deal. Every negotiation I had while I was an agent for a player with an existing contract was over new money.
New money can be illustrated with Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, who became the NFL's first $25 million per year non-quarterback during the middle of July. Garrett had two years remaining on his rookie contract with $4,612,125 and $15.184 million salaries for 2020 and 2021 when he signed his new deal. Although Garrett signed a seven-year contract for $144,796,125, his deal is considered as a five-year, $125 million contract extension averaging $25 million per year among industry professionals. His two existing contract years for $19,796,125 are subtracted from the $144,796,125 seven-year total to arrive at this number.
If a player signs after his contract has expired as in free agency, new money isn't applicable. The valuation is based from the deal total.
Something else I pay close attention to is how contracts measure up historically by adjusting for salary cap inflation. For example, three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J Watt signed a six-year extension averaging $16,666,667 per year with the Texans in 2014 when the salary cap was $133 million. Since the salary cap has grown by 49.02% since Watt signed, his deal equates to $24,837,093 per year under the current $198.2 million figure.
The best NFL contracts from the player's perspective are below, with the contracts ordered from highest to lowest average yearly salary. In addition to the factors already mentioned, the circumstances of when a contract was negotiated and how the deal has held up are also being taken into account. It should be noted that high-end contracts are often surpassed relatively quickly after they are negotiated.
Texans QB Deshaun Watson
- Year signed: 2020
- Contract value: $156M for four years (up to $160M with incentives)
- Average yearly salary: $39M
- Contract guarantees: $110,717,724
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $73,717,124
- Earliest realistic exit point: 2024
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 extension average is $50,000 more per year than Mahomes' new money average after four years.
By taking the shorter deal like all of the highest-paid quarterbacks except Mahomes, Watson is better positioned to maximize his career earnings from his NFL player contracts. Most likely, the Texans will attempt to extend Watson's deal in 2025 when he is heading into his contract year. Mahomes' new money through the most relevant point of his deal will almost certainly be a monetary benchmark. On another four-year extension in 2025, Watson would need additional an $191.1 million to match Mahomes' $347.1 million in new money through 2029. Essentially, a four-year extension averaging $47.75 million per year is the breakeven point for Watson with Mahomes' contract after eight new years.
It remains to be seen how much the quarterback market will have grown in five years with the addition of a 17th regular season game and new media rights deals in place. Watson getting to $50 million per year on his next year would be little more than a 28% increase over his newly signed extension.
There was five-year lag times between Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan's current contracts and their previous deals. Rodgers got a 52.2% raise in average yearly salary with his current deal while Ryan's increased by 44.6%. If their deals are any indication of what's going to be store for Watson, $50 million per year could prove to be a conservative estimation.
- Year signed: 2020
- Extension value: $66M for two years
- Average yearly salary: $33M
- Contract guarantees: $96M ($30M as signing bonus)
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $61M
- Earliest realistic exit point: None ($96M earned)
Minnesota's tight salary cap and the way Cousins' fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract from 2018 was structured created leverage for him to get a new deal this offseason. The contract contained a no-trade clause and language preventing Minnesota from designating Cousins as a transition player. A franchise tag on Cousins next offseason would have been for $44.64 million.
The Vikings created just over $10 million of much needed cap relief with Cousins' two-year extension. The total contract guarantees greatly exceed the $66 million of new money in the extension because Cousins had one year remaining on his contract, which is fully guaranteed, and his injury-guaranteed $35 million 2022 base salary becomes fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2021 league year (next March). The early vesting of the 2022 base salary guarantees makes it extremely difficult for Minnesota to get out the contract unless Cousins is traded. If Cousins plays well, he is perfectly positioned for another extension in 2022 because of a $45,166,668 2022 salary cap number, the early vesting of his 2022 salary guarantee and putting a franchise tag on him in 2023 would be nearly $65 million (144% of Cousins' 2022 salary cap number).
- Year signed: 2020
- Extension value: $54.5M for two years
- Average yearly salary: $27.25M
- Contract guarantees: $49.4M ($27.5M as signing bonus)
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $42.5M
- Earliest realistic exit point: 2023 ($60.05M earned)
The Cardinals made Hopkins, who was dealt from the Texans in March, the NFL's highest-paid non-quarterback despite having three remaining contract years for $39.915 million. Hopkins' $27.5 million signing bonus is the biggest ever for a wide receiver. Hopkins, who utilized a small team of trusted advisors to assist him in his contract discussions rather than a traditional agent, surprisingly can void the final year of the contract based on his performance and has a clause preventing the Cardinals from designating him as franchise or transition player when the deal expires.
There are four different ways for Hopkins to void the final year of his deal in 2024. Hopkins can have his freedom by catching at least 400 passes, reaching 5,000 receiving yards, having 40 or more receiving touchdowns, or being named first-team All-Pro/All-NFL four times from 2020 through 2023. Accomplishing any of these four things will suffice.
Hopkins eliminating the final year of the contract would make his new deal a one-year extension for $39.585 million. At 31, Hopkins would have extreme leverage over the Cardinals for a new contract because of an inability to keep him from hitting free agency thanks to the franchise/transition tag prohibition while likely remaining in the discussion of the NFL's best wide receiver with sustained outstanding performance.
- Year signed: 2020
- Extension value: $135M for five years
- Average yearly salary: $27M
- Contract guarantees: $102M ($30M as signing bonus)
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $78M
- Earliest realistic exit point: 2024 ($102M earned)
Garrett's $25 million per year extension instantly became Bosa's salary floor, and Bosa's deal then exceeded expectations. Reasonable projections put Bosa's deal between $26 million and $26.5 million per year, but at $27 million per year, Bosa became the highest paid non-quarterback in league history at the time. Although Hopkins has surpassed Bosa since, he is still the highest-paid defensive player ever.
Bosa is also the highest-paid defensive player since the 2011 NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement was implemented when adjusting contracts for salary cap inflation. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who is second, signed a six-year, $114.375 million contract with the Dolphins in 2015 that equates to $26,369,259 per year under the current $198.2 million salary cap.
Bosa's $102 million in overall guarantees and $78 million fully guaranteed at signing are both the most ever in an NFL contract for a non-quarterback. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers are the only players who have more than Bosa's $78 million fully guaranteed in an existing contract with $94.5 million and $78.7 million, respectively. Bosa's $35 million signing bonus is the second most for a non-quarterback.
Bosa's first three years are fully guaranteed, and he is practically assured of remaining in Los Angeles through the 2023 season. Bosa's entire $24 million 2023 base salary, which is guaranteed for injury, becomes fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the 2022 league year.
Bosa is also protected in the final two contract years (2024 and 2025). He has $7 million and $8.36 million third day of the league roster bonus in those years. The roster bonuses force the Chargers to make a decision about Bosa at the beginning of free agency in those years, so if he is going to be released, it won't be at an inopportune time like the Cowboys did with wide receiver Dez Bryant in April 2018 as the NFL Draft drew near.
Rams DL Aaron Donald
- Year signed: 2018
- Extension value: $135M for six years
- Average yearly salary: $22.5M
- Contract guarantees: $86.892M ($40M as signing bonus)
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $50M
- Earliest realistic exit point: 2022 ($86.892M earned)
It was widely assumed that any long-term deal Donald signed would make him a charter member of the $20 million per non-quarterback club. Donald shattered the barrier by getting 18% more than Broncos edge rusher Von Miller, who had been the NFL's highest-paid non-quarterback on the six-year deal he signed in 2016 averaging $19,083,333 per year. Donald's $86.892 million of overall guarantees was almost 25% more than the Miller's $70 million, which was the previous non-quarterback standard.
Donald's contract has an extremely player-friendly structure. His $40 million of guarantees via a signing bonus made him tied with then-Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco for the fourth-biggest signing bonus in an NFL contract when Donald signed in 2018. $77 million of the guarantees don't have offsets. Between the lack of offsets and the large signing bonus, the Rams are committed to Donald at least through the 2021 season. Donald's 2020 and 2021 guarantees vest early and have $5 million second day of the league year roster bonuses in the final three years.
Donald's deal is front-loaded, as he has $80 million in the first three new contract years (through 2021) for a $26,666,667 per year average. Almost 60% of Donald's new money is the first three new years. By contrast, Miller had approximately 53% of his money in the first three years. Miller was designated as a franchise player after playing out his rookie contract, while Donald was in a contract year and facing a franchise tag in 2019.
Falcons WR Julio Jones
- Year signed: 2019
- Extension value: $66M for three years (worth up to $72M with salary escalators)
- Average yearly salary: $22M
- Contract guarantees: $66M ($25M as signing bonus)
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $64M
- Earliest realistic exit point: 2023 ($75.513M earned)
It was expected that Jones would become the NFL's first $20 million per year wide receiver after the Saints signed Michael Thomas to a five-year, $96.25 million extension (worth up to $100 million through salary escalators) averaging $19.25 million per year. Nobody anticipated Jones getting $22 million per year, especially with an extremely front-loaded contract when there were two years remaining on his existing contract. Jones' $66 million in total guarantees and $64 million fully guaranteed at signing are records for a wide receiver.
The first three years of Jones' deal (2019 through 2021) are fully guaranteed. 73.5% of Jones' $87.026 million five-year total is in the first three years. Jones' deal is more front-loaded the Russell Wilson's four-year extension with the Seahawks, which included an NFL-record $65 million signing bonus. Wilson has 68.2% of his $157 million five-year total in his first three years. Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper only has 60% of his money in the first three years of the five-year, $100 million contract he signed this year as an unrestricted free agent.
Jones' $12.8 million fully guaranteed per contract year was easily the most for a non-quarterback. It's now second behind Bosa's $13 million per contract year. When signed, Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence was second at $9.6 million per contract year.
Texans OT Laremy Tunsil
- Year signed: 2020
- Contract value: $66M for three years
- Average yearly salary: $22M
- Contract guarantees: $50M ($13M as signing bonus)
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $40M
- Earliest realistic exit point: 2023 ($57.85M earned)
Tunsil exploited the tremendous contract leverage the Texans gave him by neglecting to secure an extension when acquiring him from the Dolphins for essentially two first-round picks and a second pick right before the start of the 2019 regular season. Acting as his own agent, he became the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history at $22 million per year.
Tunsil also corrected an offensive tackle market anomaly where right tackles Lane Johnson and Trent Brown had become the league's highest paid at the position last year. Traditionally, the highest-paid left tackle has made more the highest-paid right tackle by a considerable margin. Over the last five years (2015 through 2019), the highest-paid left tackle's deal has averaged 13.73% more than the highest-paid right tackle's. In order to restore the traditional left tackle/right tackle financial relationship, Tunsil's extension needed to average just under $20.475 million per year, since the four-year extension Johnson signed with the Eagles last year averages $18 million per year. He shattered this mark by averaging 22.22% more than Johnson.
Tunsil's $40 million fully guaranteed at signing sets a new standard for offensive linemen. The previous benchmark was Trent Brown's $36.25 million with the Raiders. Tunsil's $50 million in overall guarantees is tied for second among offensive linemen with Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan behind Johnson's $54.595 million. It should be noted that Lewan and Johnson's deals put them under contract for six and seven years, respectively, while Tunsil's is only for four years.
Rams CB Jalen Ramsey
- Year signed: 2020
- Extension value: $100M for five years (worth up to $105M with salary escalators)
- Average yearly salary: $20M
- Contract guarantees: $71.203M ($25M as signing bonus)
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $43.703M
- Earliest realistic exit point: 2024 ($75.703M earned)
A stagnant cornerback market finally had some significant movement with the five-year, $82.5 million contract Byron Jones received from the Dolphins in this year's free agency. Jones had then-cornerback records of $54.375 million in guarantees and $40 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Ramsey took cornerback salaries to a different level by becoming the NFL's first $20 million per year defensive back. It's conceivable Ramsey could have hit the $21 million per year mark if Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White hadn't signed a four-year, $69 million extension (worth a maximum of $70 million with incentives) a few days before. White coming in at $17.25 million didn't do Ramsey any favors.
Nonetheless, Ramsey established new cornerback records of $71.203 million of overall guarantees and $43.703 million fully guaranteed at signing. The $43.703 million doesn't have offsets.
Jets ILB C.J. Mosley
- Year signed: 2019
- Contract value: $85M for five years
- Average yearly salary: $17M
- Contract guarantees: $51M ($7.5M as signing bonus)
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $43M
- Earliest realistic exit point: 2023 ($51M earned)
Mosley took inside linebacker compensation to a surprising level. Entering 2019 free agency, Luke Kuechly's $12,359,059 average per year, $34,363,324 in overall guarantees and $26 million fully guaranteed in the five-year contract extension he signed with the Panthers in 2015 were the standards. The $43 million fully guaranteed was the third most in the NFL for a non-quarterback when Mosley signed the deal. Mosley's contract has a player-friendly structure: $8 million of Mosley's $16 million 2021 base salary was secure upon signing, while the other $8 million, which is guaranteed for injury, became fully guaranteed this past March on the fifth day of the 2020 league year. Mosley's deal paved the way for six-time All-Pro Bobby Wagner, who represented himself, to sign a four-year extension with the Seahawks averaging $18 million per year and containing $40.25 million in guarantees shortly after training camp opened in 2019.
Mosley voluntarily opted out of this season because of COVID-19. Under the COVID-19 rules, Mosley gets to keep the fully guaranteed $10 million roster bonus he received in March although his contract tolls. Essentially, his contract is frozen and will resume in 2021 because of the tolling. This means Mosley's 2020 contract year becomes his 2021 contract year and additional years in the contract also get pushed back one year.
Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey
- Year signed: 2020
- Extension value: $64,063,412 for four years
- Average yearly salary: $16,015,853
- Contract guarantees: $39,162,500 ($21.5M as signing bonus)
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $30,062,500
- Earliest realistic exit point: 2023 ($39,162,500 earned)
Teams not getting much of a return on investment lately from the most lucrative running back contracts didn't keep McCaffrey from raising the salary bar at the position. The previous benchmark was the $15 million per year Ezekiel Elliott received from the Cowboys last year after a lengthy preseason holdout.
McCaffrey's $21.5 million signing bonus is the largest ever for a running back. The $30,062,500 fully guaranteed at signing eclipsed Elliott's veteran running back contract record of $28,052,137.
McCaffrey's deal is an outlier for running backs. Several running backs (Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara and Joe Mixon) have signed multi-year deals averaging between $12 million and $12.6 million per year since McCaffrey's extension. Technically, Kamara's deal averages $15 million per year but he has no chance of seeing the $25 million in his 2025 contract year. McCaffrey's deal averages $17,287,804 per year after the first three new years, while none of these other deals average more than Kamara's $12,733,333 per year after the first three new years.
- Year signed: 2020
- Extension value: $75M for five years
- Average yearly salary: $15M
- Contract guarantees: $40M
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $30M
- Earliest realistic exit point: 2024 ($48.133M earned)
A long overdue reset of a stagnant tight end market took place with Kittle, whose $40 million in overall guarantees and $30 million fully guaranteed at signing are both the most ever in an NFL contract for a tight end. In fact, Kittle is the highest-paid tight end in the salary cap era when adjusting contracts for salary cap inflation. It had been Jimmy Graham with the $10 million per year deal he signed with the Saints as a franchise player in 2014, but Graham's deal translates to $14,902,256 per year in today's salary cap environment.
Kittle was able to exact some unexpected structural concessions from the 49ers. San Francisco's most lucrative veteran contracts historically have had a team-friendly structure, where the guarantees after the first contract year are usually injury guarantees that typically become fully guaranteed on April 1 of each specific contract year. San Francisco's guarantee vesting date is the latest in the NFL. With most teams, the guarantee vesting date is in March during the first few days of the new league year.
Kittle's base salaries in his first two contract years (2020 and 2021) are fully guaranteed at signing, as is $6.367 million of his $11.45 million 2022 base salary. The remaining $5.083 million, which was guaranteed for injury at signing, becomes fully guaranteed next April 1. $4.917 million of Kittle's $11.65 million 2023 base salary is also guaranteed for injury at signing. This $4.917 million becomes fully guaranteed on April 1, 2022. I can't recall a 49ers veteran contract of any magnitude in recent years having guarantees vest early like with Kittle's 2022 and 2023 contract years.
49ers FB Kyle Juszczyk
- Year signed: 2017
- Contract value: $21M for four years
- Average yearly salary: $5.25M
- Contract guarantees: $9.75M
- Fully guaranteed at signing: $7M
- Earliest realistic exit point: N/A (last year of deal)
It was inconceivable that Juszczyk could land a deal that, at the time, made him the NFL's sixth highest-paid veteran running back on a multi-year contract when 2017 free agency started, considering he plays a position that is increasingly becoming an afterthought. Juszczyk's deal averaged 2.5 times as much as the NFL's second-most lucrative fullback contract in 2017. The next highest-paid fullback was Patrick DiMarco with his four-year, $8.4 million deal ($2.1 million per year) he got from the Bills the same time Juszczyk signed.
Three years later, the fullback market hasn't come close to catching up with Juszczyk's deal. Ravens two-way player Patrick Ricard, who provides depth at defensive tackle, is the second highest-paid at the fullback position with the two-year extension averaging $3.65 million per year he signed late last season.