There are plenty of legitimate ways to compare NFL salaries – guaranteed money, average annual salary, total overall contract value, salary cap hit – but none of them is exact since those numbers are always changing. Some experts argue that total guaranteed money is the only NFL contract figure that matters, while others prefer to compare average annual salaries.
We have included both, plus thrown in each player’s salary cap hit, as well.
In terms of ranking the 2018 top ten highest NFL salaries, however, we have used each player’s average annual salary as the main point of comparison. This list will continue to morph and evolve throughout the season since football deals are still being made as this article is being written.
The biggest deal being discussed in the media right now is between the Los Angeles Rams and defensive end Aaron Donald. Rumors have it that a massive contract paying Donald $24 million per year with guarantees in the $65M - $70M range will be forthcoming.
If true, those figures would put Donald at #7 on our top-ten list, also making him the only non-quarterback to be included.
In the meantime, here are the current top ten highest paid athletes in the NFL. The big surprise here isn’t necessarily who’s on the list, but who’s not, proving once again that just because you happen to be the league’s GOAT, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be compensated accordingly.
#10 – Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
- Average annual salary: $22 million
- Guaranteed: $54 million
- 2018 Salary Cap Hit: $20.5625 million
How is Aaron Rodgers – a Super Bowl champion and MVP, a 2x NFL MVP, a 6x Pro Bowler and a 2x First-team All-Pro, and arguably the best current NFL quarterback – only tenth on this list?
Well, first off, he still has two years left on the contract he signed in 2013, and most teams are unwilling to negotiate a deal this early on, especially when they spent the entire previous season on the bench due to injury.
Secondly, Rodgers is a team player, and he knows that any mega-contract that would make him the highest paid player in the NFL would also hurt the Green Bay Packers in the long run. It would be impossible to pay him $35 million a year while still being able to re-sign key players and acquiring free agents.
Rodgers knows this and apparently prefers to handle his contract situation similarly to Tom Brady, who gives his Patriots a tremendous hometown discount. The alternative is to go the Drew Brees route, who in 2012 signed a $100 million contract to the detriment of his Saints.
There’s talk in the media that Rodgers and the Packers may eventually decide on a contract that’s never been done before. It wouldn’t be based on an actual dollar amount but instead his money would be a percentage of the salary cap. Were that to happen, it could change the way all contracts are negotiated in the future.
According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, the Packers and Rodgers have made “measurable progress” towards a contract extension, and the hope is that a deal will be done before the start of the season.
Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has confirmed that the team’s chief contract negotiator, Russ Ball, “remains in on-going discussions with (Rodgers’ agent) Dave Dunn.”
Now fully healed from the shoulder injury that kept him out most of last season, Rodgers will have the 2018 season to re-establish his worth. How that reflects monetarily remains to be seen.
# 9 – Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens
- Average annual salary: $22.13 million
- Guaranteed: $44 million
- 2018 Salary Cap Hit: $24.75 million
When a team spends a first-round draft pick on a quarterback, the writing is on the wall for whoever the current starter is.
With the 32nd pick in the 2018 NFL draft, the Baltimore Ravens selected dazzling Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson and sent a message to 10th year starter Joe Flacco that his time as the Ravens’ franchise quarterback is officially limited. Obviously, 2018 is a make-or-break year for Flacco, who’s been under center for the Ravens’ since 2008.
In 2016, Flacco received a three-year extension for $66.4 million total worth $44 million guaranteed. The Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome justified and defended the costly extension to fans who criticized it, saying, “They scrutinize our deal with our quarterback, but he’s won a Super Bowl (XLVII) for us.”
Flacco’s deal, a costly albatross hanging around the neck of the Ravens’ payroll, only makes sense if the team is winning, which it hasn’t been for the last three seasons. The last time the Ravens made the playoffs was in 2014, when they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card Playoffs 30-17 but lost to the New England Patriots in the Divisional Playoffs, 31-35.
Since then they’ve place 2nd and 3rd in the AFC North.
So far, in two 2018 preseason wins Flacco has stepped up. Surrounded by new offensive weapons, he’s looked effective, extending plays against the Rams while looking athletic and throwing the ball accurately.
And more importantly, he’s showed signs of being a leader once again, discussing a failed pass after the 10 play, 70-yard touchdown drive with his receivers and then by making a point to congratulate each of his offensive lineman personally.
Flacco has 2018 to prove he’s still valuable to the Ravens and worth the money he’s being paid, but with Jackson waiting in the wings, it’s only a matter of time before the mantle in Baltimore is passed on to the younger and hungrier rookie quarterback.
# 8 – Alex Smith, QB, Washington Redskins
- Average annual salary: $23.5 million
- Guaranteed: $71 million
- 2018 Salary Cap Hit: $18.4 million
In March of 2018, 33-year-old Alex Smith signed a 4-year, $94 million extension with the Washington Redskins, which means he’ll make $40 million in 2018 (which includes a $27 million signing bonus).
The Redskins have guaranteed $71 million of that contract to be paid out over the next three seasons. After that, Washington has an “out” option.
And even though that sounds like a lot of money (because it is), it’s still considerably less than the money being paid by the Minnesota Vikings to Kirk Cousins, the man whom he’s replacing. Cousins’ new contract (see below) is worth a fully guaranteed $84 million over three years.
The Redskins acquired Smith, who was the first overall pick in the 2005 draft, in exchange for cornerback Kendall Fuller as well as a third-round pick in the 2018 draft.
The Redskins will take the smallest salary cap hit in 2018 ($18.4 million).
How good is Smith?
His passer rating of 104.7 led the league last season. Smith also set career-highs in both passing yards (4,042) and touchdowns (26) while only throwing 5 interceptions. Overall, his win-loss record is 88-62-1 over his 12 seasons in the NFL.
Head coach Jay Gruden is convinced that the team has upgraded with Smith now at quarterback, saying, “I don’t want to compare two players, but we’re always trying to be better at every position. We got better.”
Gruden is only 28-35-1 as the Redskins coach, so it’s in his best interest to see that Smith actually does well in 2018. And unlike with Cousins, Gruden is quick to praise Smith.
“He’s very good at the intermediate ball. He’s good with the quick game. He can run zone reads, the RPO’s [run-pass options] … I don’t think there’s a limit on what he can do. He has all the things you want a quarterback to be able to do.”
And no limitations is exactly what a Redskins team that went 7-9 last season needs. The question is whether Smith, who in his first preseason game against Cousins’ Vikings, looked like a “journeyman” and failed to move the chains even once.
# 7 – Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
- Average annual salary: $24.594 million
- Guaranteed: $47 million
- 2018 Salary Cap Hit: $24.4 million
In 2016, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, a 3x Pro Bowler and former NFL passing touchdowns leader, signed the richest contract in NFL history. It was a five-year contract extension worth $122.970 million.
At the time, no other player averaged more per year ($24.594 million), the next closest player making $22.194 million per year. He received $87 million in injury guarantees, $47 million of which was guaranteed by the team upon signing.
In March, Luck earned his roster bonus, receiving $6 million according to a clause in his contract. He only saw half of it then, however, the balance of which is not due until September.
Having missed the entire 2017 season, the 28-year-old Luck has been practicing and throwing an NFL ball (he’d previously only been able to toss around a college-sized ball) during the Colts’ training camp.
If Luck can return to pre-injury form, the Colts are hoping his 2018 numbers will be similar to the ones he earned in 2016. That season in 15 games, Luck completed 346 passes for 4,240 yards for a career high passing percentage of 63.5. He had 31 touchdowns and 13 interceptions while rushing for 341 yards and 2 touchdowns more.
The Colts haven’t seen the playoffs since 2014, when with Luck under center they went 11-5 in the AFC South, won the Wild Card Playoffs against the Cincinnati Bengals (26-10), won the Divisional Playoffs against the Denver Broncos (24-13) but got slaughtered by the New England Patriots 45-7 in the AFC Championship.
Now that Luck’s shoulder is healthy and the front office has shown it’s dedicated to keeping him safer by drafting Notre Dame’s tough All-American offensive guard Quenton Nelson, the 2018 season looks to be a proving ground for the quarterback who hasn’t seen any action in over 17 games.
If he can return to pre-injury form, though, Luck will prove to be worth every last cent he’s being paid.
# 6 – Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
- Average annual salary: $25 million
- Guaranteed: $27 million
- 2018 Salary Cap Hit: 13.69% of Team Cap
This offseason in March, quarterback Drew Brees was set to be a free agent after the one-year contract extension he’d signed prior had ended. New Orleans Saints fans were just a little bit nervous that they were going to lose their franchise leader despite Brees’ insistence that he plans on being a Saint forever.
In March, fans breathed a collective sigh of relief as the Saints and Brees negotiated a two-year deal worth $50 million. Brees gets $27 million of that in guaranteed money plus a no-trade clause and a no-franchise-tag clause, too.
Brees is a Super Bowl champion and MVP (XLIV), an 11x Pro Bowler, a 2x NFL Offensive Player of the Year and has previously been named to the All-Pro first-team once and the All-Pro second-team 3x.
Last season, Brees had terrific numbers – he threw 386 completions for 4,334 yards and 23 touchdowns with only 8 interceptions. His 72.0 completion percentage was an NFL record. In the Saints’ two playoff games, Brees threw for 670 yards and 5 touchdowns.
So does Brees deserve to be the sixth-highest paid player in the NFL?
One brief look at his numbers answers that question easily with a resounding yes.
Brees has thrown for over 4,000 yards in every one of the 12 seasons he’s been quarterback for the Saints, which is an NFL record. He’s thrown for a total of 70,445 yards and 488 touchdowns in his 17 NFL seasons, his first five being with the San Diego Chargers. Brees holds NFL records (among many others) for most 300+ passing games in a season (13) and most consecutive games with 300+ yards passing (9, which he did twice).
Saints fans don’t have to feel too concerned about losing their Brees, however. He’s been quoted as saying, “Certainly, the relationship with this city will always play a strong role in me wanting to be here and … wanting to finish my career here.”
Brees is 39-years-old, though, and the Saints have to consider a future without him. But if he keeps putting up record-breaking numbers and continues to take his team to the playoffs, there’s no telling how long he’ll stay under center in New Orleans.
And with the even older Tom Brady still playing winning football over in the AFC, Brees’ advanced age matters less and less. Providing his offensive line can continue to keep him safe, that is.
# 5 – Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders
- Average annual salary: $25 million
- Guaranteed: $40 million
- 2018 Salary Cap Hit: $25 million
When Derek Carr and the Oakland Raiders came to an agreement on a contract extension the previous offseason, it made him the highest-paid player in the NFL.
At the time, Carr only had one year left on his rookie contract and would have only made $1 million to play last season without an extension. The Raiders didn’t have a fifth-year option on Carr, unlike with most first-round draft picks, so he was eligible to sign a contract extension a full year earlier.
That’s exactly what happened in the offseason.
The Raiders gave him a deal reportedly worth $125 million over five years that includes $40 million in fully guaranteed money plus an injury guarantee of $70 million at signing. And all that came with a $12.5 million signing bonus.
It also appears to be “back-loaded”, meaning Carr will receive more money in the later years when the team moves to Las Vegas.
Why is that important? For tax reasons.
Nevada has zero state taxes, while Oakland, California’s state taxes are relatively high, so Carr will receive more of his money by waiting. This precedent will undoubtedly benefit other free agents who sign with the Las Vegas Raiders in the future.
In the four years Carr has played in the NFL (all for the Raiders), he’s averaged 3,672.5 passing yards for 25.75 touchdowns and 11 interceptions per season. He’s been to the Pro Bowl three times and has an overall passer rating of 87.5.
Now here’s where Carr’s team numbers get a bit ugly.
In the four seasons Carr has been under center for the Raiders, his AFC West team has ended up 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 3rd place respectively in the division. And the one time he’s brought the Raiders to the playoffs (2016), the team got crushed in the Wild Card game by the Houston Texans 14-27.
Last season under head coach Jack Del Rio, the Carr-led Raiders went 6-10 and watched the playoffs from their living rooms. Carr’s 3,496 passing yards for 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 2017 for a passer rating of 86.4 were his lowest numbers since his rookie year.
The 2018 NFL season better go a whole lot better for Carr and his Raiders, or fans will begin to wonder if the money he’s being paid is actually worth it.
# 4 – Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions
- Average annual salary: $27 million
- Guaranteed: $60.5 million
- 2018 Salary Cap Hit: $26.5 million
Matthew Stafford is highly compensated, especially for a quarterback who hasn’t even won a playoff game, much less a championship.
But that’s not necessarily all his fault.
With a 32nd ranked running game (out of 32, mind you) and few receivers to call home about, it’s a miracle that Stafford does as well as he does. Last year was his 7th season in a row with over 4,200+ passing yards. He threw for 4,446 yards, which was 3rd best in the league – only Tom Brady and Phillip Rivers threw for more yards – and had 29 touchdowns with only 10 interceptions. His passing offense ranked 6th in the league and his accurate throwing arm (65.7 completion percentage) has made rising stars of his primary receivers Marvin Jones and Golden Tate.
A year ago, Lions general manager Bob Quinn decided to reward Stafford with a contract extension worth $135 million over five years. At the time, it made the nine-year veteran quarterback the highest-paid player in NFL history. But that didn’t last for very long as football fans continue to watch NFL quarterbacks set the salary bar higher and higher.
What exactly has Stafford, the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, done to deserve all that money?
First of all, the guy hasn’t missed a game since 2011 and has led the Lions to three postseason appearances during that time. Stafford holds the franchise records for passing yards (30,303), completions (2,634), attempts (4,285) and touchdowns (187). Plus, his career average of 278.0 passing yards per game is the most in NFL history for a player’s first eight seasons. In 2014, Stafford went to the Pro Bowl and won the offensive MVP award.
Now Stafford is only 4th on the list of highest-paid NFL players, but he’ll still have to earn his money this season, a feat made more possible with a few offseason team additions.
The Lions have brought in a new head coach Matt Patricia, formerly with the New England Patriots. He’ll work with offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter to balance Stafford’s passing attack against a newly improved running game that now includes Super Bowl winner LeGarrette Blount (PHI) and second round draft pick Kerryon Johnson (Auburn).
But to do that, Stafford needs to be on the field, and that will depend entirely on new defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni’s squad’s ability to shut opponents down, something their 27th ranked defense had trouble doing last season.
If the Lions don’t contend any time soon, though, Stafford’s massive paycheck may start to get second-guessed by everyone concerned.
# 3 – Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers
- Average annual salary: $27.5 million
- Guaranteed: $48.7 million
- 2018 Salary Cap Hit: $37 million
It didn’t take long for the San Francisco 49ers to give quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo a new five-year contract worth $137.5 million.
Not bad money for a guy who’s only started (and won) seven NFL games.
But five of those wins were in the final five games of the 49ers 2017 season and came after Garoppolo was acquired from the Patriots in exchange for a second-round pick in October. San Francisco had only won one of their games up to that point, so to go 5-0 to finish the season obviously gave the 49ers front office (and fan base) a whole lot of hope.
If Garoppolo can go undefeated after having no time to learn the 49ers playbook, imagine what he can do for the team after an entire offseason and training camp to get the hang of things. With very little prep time he threw for 1,560 yards and 7 touchdowns with 5 interceptions in the six 49ers games he played in last season, and also rushed for 11 yards and a touchdown.
What real difference did Garoppolo make?
In the first 12 weeks without him, the 49ers only scored 187 points (17 points per game), which put them in the bottom half of the league. During Garoppolo’s five-game win streak, however, the team scored 144 points (28.8 points per game) and were the only team to go undefeated in December.
Their most impressive win with Garoppolo was against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who had the NFL’s top scoring defense, one that allowed opponents to only score 14.9 points per game. But the Garoppolo-led 49ers scored 44 points against them and went on to become the first team in NFL history to start a season 0-9 and finish with more than three wins.
With the same receivers as last season and free agent running back Jerick McKinnon (MIN) now in the mix, it’s going to be very interesting to see if Garoppolo will be worth the big money he’s finally being paid after years of standing on the sidelines watching Tom Brady play and win in New England.
Based on the high praise being doled out by general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan during this preseason, it’s not hard to imagine Garoppolo completely turning things around for the struggling 49ers.
# 2 – Kirk Cousins, QB, Minnesota Vikings
- Average annual salary: $28 million
- Guaranteed: $84 million
- 2018 Salary Cap Hit: $24 million
Last season, the 13-3 Minnesota Vikings lost the NFC Championship game to the eventual Super Bowl winning Philadelphia Eagles by an embarrassing score of 38-7.
Despite having an 11th ranked passing offense led by quarterback Case Keenum who threw for an average of 234.6 yards per game, general manager Rick Spielman decided to go after one of the most highly sought free agents on the market, Kirk Cousins.
And for only $84 million, fully guaranteed over three years (including a $3 million signing bonus), Spielman got his man.
But was he worth it?
In 2017 for the Washington Redskins, a team that had a record of 7-9 and finished 3rd in the NFC East, Cousins completed 347 passes for 4,093 yards and 27 touchdowns with 13 interceptions. He also ran for 179 yards and four touchdowns, all while being sacked 38 times.
But when the Redskins traded for veteran quarterback Alex Smith, Cousins knew he’d be playing for a different team in 2018, one that would hopefully give him the stability that Washington failed to offer him.
Cousins’ base salary this season will be $22.5 million, followed by an even more impressive $27.5 million in 2019 and an even more remarkable $29.5 million in 2020. This deal put him past Stafford’s historic contract and made him the second-highest player in the NFL.
But for Cousins, it’s not about the money.
It’s about winning, and he’s told the media that he chose the Vikings as his new team because he thinks they’re built to win with their talented roster, stable leadership and a front office that continued to improve the team while moving into a new stadium and training facility.
“Winning is what I said it would be all about, and it’s true,” Cousins has said. “I think [playing for the Vikings is] the best chance, and that’s what truly matters.”
For those doubter Vikings fans who were happy with the way things were pre-Cousins, one look at the preseason matchup between Cousins’ Vikings and Keenum’s Broncos probably changed their minds for good.
In a single touchdown scoring series, Cousins threw four passes, had four completions for a quarterback rating of 150.0. Keenum, on the other hand, was said to look like a little out of place during his six snaps making only one completion out of four attempts and failing to move the chains even once.
If Cousins earns his money and plays as advertised in 2018, expect to see the Vikings make another run at the Super Bowl. And if they make there, it’ll be worth every penny.
# 1 – Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
- Average annual salary: $30 million
- Guaranteed: $100 million
- 2018 Salary Cap Hit: $21.65 million
The 2017 Atlanta Falcons had an incredible season, going 10-6 and scoring a Wild Card spot in the playoffs, which they won against the Los Angeles Rams 26-13. The eventual Super Bowl winning Philadelphia Eagles beat them in the Divisional playoffs 10-15.
The quarterback who led them there, Matt Ryan, still had a year left on the six-year, $103.75 million contract he’d signed in 2013, but it was due to expire after the 2018 season.
But Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff wasn’t about to let happen.
Ryan and the Falcons agreed to a five-year, $150 million contract extension with $100 million of that guaranteed. The deal runs through 2023 and makes Ryan the first NFL player to average $30 million a season.
What has Ryan done to deserve so much money?
He’s been to the Pro Bowl four times and in 2016, he was first-team All-Pro, the NFL’s MVP, the NFL Offensive Player of the Year and the league leader in passer rating. Last season he threw for over 4,000 yards (4,095) for the seventh year in a row and had 20 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. In the playoffs, Ryan completed 43 passes for 428 yards in two games, scoring 2 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
But can the highly paid veteran earn his money?
The 2018 season will be Ryan’s eleventh with the Falcons. In the ten years he’s been in Atlanta, he’s averaged 4,180 yards and 26 touchdowns with only 12.6 interceptions per regular season. He’s taken the Falcons to the playoffs in six of those seasons.
And he can throw the ball when it counts under postseason pressure.
Last season Ryan threw for an average of 267.2 yards and 2 touchdowns with 1.4 interceptions per post-season game. Atlanta’s offense was ranked 8th last season, and Ryan’s squad averaged 249.4 passing yards 22.1 points per game.
Now that he’s been properly paid, though, the NFL world expects Ryan to improve on his less than excellent playoff record of 4-6, and with a healthy Julio Jones and first-round draft pick Calvin Ridley catching passes, chances are he will.
And lastly, there’s this one guy who mysteriously isn’t on this top ten list of the NFL’s highest paid players:
# 16 – Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
- Average annual salary: $20.5 million
- Guaranteed: $28 million
- 2018 Salary Cap Hit: $22 million
For those of you wondering why Tom Brady, the 5x Super Bowl champion, 4x Super Bowl MVP, 3x NFL MVP (including last season), 13x Pro Bowler and last year’s NFL passing yard leader isn’t even on the top-fifteen list, you’re not alone.
Brady’s generous hometown discount got bumped up with some incentives.
In August, 2018, Brady did agree to a new contract that will pay him up to $5 million in incentives based on his 2018 performance. He’ll earn $1 million for each of these statistical accomplishments:
- Top 5 in passer rating (Brady was third in 2017)
- Top 5 in completion percentage (Brady was fifth in 2017)
- Top 5 in yards per attempt (Brady was fourth in 2017)
- Top 5 in touchdown passes (Brady was third in 2017)
- Top 5 in passing yards (Brady was first in 2017)
If the Patriots win Super Bowl LIII, however, Brady would get $2 million per incentive, but the maximum he could get is still $5 million total. That would put him tied for fifth on this current top-ten highest paid NFL players list.
The big question, though, is why the Patriots don’t just guarantee Brady that additional money and reward him for being the GOAT.
Some suspect it’s because Brady married well. His wife Gisele has been the highest paid supermodel in the world since 2004, and as of 2007 was the 16th richest woman in the entertainment industry.
But what is obvious is that the uber-healthy 41-year-old Brady doesn’t play professional football for the money. The NFL GOAT plays to win, and that’s exactly what he plans to keep doing as long as he’s physically able.