The NFL is the biggest and richest US sports league – by some margin – but what are the most lucrative player salaries right now?
The answer is not a simple one, as with most things in life NFL wage packets come in all different shapes and sizes. From massive guaranteed deals to smaller base salaries with big incentives for production on the field.
Pro football towers above its competitors due to its excellent TV ratings, fan attendance, and competitive balance. It’s a potent combination which has unlocked extraordinary amounts of money for the league and its 32 team owners.
Commissioner Roger Goodell affirmed his aim at the recent NFL AGM to take league revenues to a staggering $25 billion by 2027, having racked up $18billion in 2021.
What is fuelling this surge? The ridiculous success is mainly down to ever more lucrative TV deals. In 2021 the NFL had 75 of the top 100 most watched TV programmes in the United States – it is quite simply a TV phenomenon.
Against this background it surprised absolutely no-one when the NFL struck an 11-year, $113 billion domestic TV contract last year. This increase in revenues means the salary cap is also rising fast – which means player contracts and salaries will rocket too.
So, time for Squawka to detail which players get paid the most right now…
Top NFL salaries
A glance at the top yearly earners in the NFL underlines one fact – quarterbacks are the essential players in the game. They get paid like it too.
QBs are franchise-changing players and their salaries reflect that – the top 10 highest-earning players in Average Salary per Year (APY) are all quarterbacks.
Reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers tops the list with a massive $50.2million per year. The veteran Green Bay Packers quarterback is the best player in the game and he gets paid accordingly.
Rodgers is the only man to breach the $50million barrier so far, with a number of players now moving into that mid-40s range. Pretty soon $50million will seem like small potatoes..
Controversially, Deshaun Watson is second on the list despite a string of allegations of sexual misconduct (which Watson denies). When the Houston Texans traded him to Cleveland earlier in 2022, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam handed Watson a $230 million contract which is worth $46 million with all of it fully guaranteed.
The rest of the current top 10 boasts a string of MVP-calibre players who all have one thing in common – they throw the football for a living:
- 1. Aaron Rodgers (QB, Green Bay Packers – $50.2million
- 2. Deshaun Watson (QB, Cleveland Browns) – $46million
- 3. Patrick Mahomes (QB, Kansas City Chiefs) – $45million
- 4. Josh Allen (QB, Buffalo Bills) – $43million
- 5. Derek Carr (QB, Las Vegas Raiders) – $40.4million
- 6. Dak Prescott (QB, Dallas Cowboys) – $40illion
- 7. Matthew Stafford (QB, Los Angeles Rams) – $40million
- 8. Russell Wilson (QB, Denver Broncos) – $35million
- 9. Kirk Cousins (QB, Minnesota Vikings) – $35million
- 10. Jared Goff (QB, Detroit Lions) – $33.5million
Highest-paid non-quarterbacks in the NFL
While quarterbacks dominate the salary scale by some margin, there are some non-quarterbacks who get paid pretty handsomely too.
Defensive tackle Aaron Donald is the 12th highest-paid player overall in APY and now the highest-paid non-quarterback in the game. As a reward for helping the Los Angeles Rams win Super Bowl LVI, Donald recently signed a restructured $95million pact over three years – an average of $31.6million.
Donald’s deal highlights the importance of game-wrecking defenders, and Pittsburgh Steelers OLB T.J. Watt – third on the non-quarterback list – re-affirms that premium on elite pass rushers. Watt is the best in the business at getting to the QB, and his $28million APY places him 16th overall.
Defenders and wide receivers populate this list, demonstrating that these positions are the next most important. Dynamic pass catchers like like Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp and DeAndre Hopkins are top players at their position and have cashed in as a result:
- 1. Aaron Donald (DT, Los Angeles Rams) – $31.6million
- 2. Tyreek Hill (WR, Miami Dolphins) – $30million
- 3. T.J. Watt (OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers) – $28million
- 4. Davante Adams (WR, Las Vegas Raiders) – $28million
- 5. DeAndre Hopkins (WR, Arizona Cardinals) – $27.2 million
- 6. Joey Bosa (DE, Los Angeles Chargers) – $27million
- 7. Cooper Kupp (WR, Los Angeles Rams) – $26.7million
- 8. A.J. Brown (WR,Philadelphia Eagles) – $25million
- 9. Myles Garrett (DE, Cleveland Browns) – $25million
- 10. Stefon Diggs (WR, Buffalo Bills) – $24million
Top NFL salaries by position
No two positions are the same in terms of value to their team, and NFL salaries reflect that. We’ve already told you about QBs at the very top of the scale, while down the bottom the special teams stars – punters and kickers – receive much less.
The top salaries at each position right now are as follows:
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay Packers) – $50.2million
Running Back: Christian McCaffrey (Carolina Panthers) – $30million
Wide Receiver: Tyreek Hill (Miami Dolphins) – $30million
Tight End: George Kittle (San Francisco 49ers) – $15million
Offensive Tackle: Trent Williams (San Francisco 49ers) – $23million
Center: Jason Kelce (Philadelphia Eagles) – $14 million
Offensive Guard: Brandon Scherff (Jacksonville Jaguars) – $16.5million
Defensive tackle: Aaron Donald (Los Angeles Rams) – $31.6million
Defensive End: Joey Bosa (Los Angeles Chargers) – $27million
Linebacker: TJ Watt (Pittsburgh Steelers) – $28million
Safety: Minkah Fitzpatrick (Pittsburgh Steelers) – $18.2million
Cornerback: Jaire Alexander (Green Bay Packers) – $21million
Punter: Michael Dickson (Seattle Seahawks) – $3.6million
Kicker: Justin Tucker (Baltimore Ravens) – $5million
NFL salary cap, how does it work?
The NFL introduced the salary cap in 1994 to stop teams from spending their way to success and buying up all the talent.
As a result it became much harder to built dynasties like the 49ers of the 1980s and the Cowboys of the 1990s. Everything became a much more level playing field. Guess nobody told Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots…
The salary cap also protected teams from spending more than they could really afford. Basing it on league revenues meant those 32 owners were all pretty guaranteed an annual profit.
Teams must be under the cap on the first day of the new league year – this typically happens in mid-March just before the start of free agency.
The NFL salary cap for 2022 is set at $208.2 million, a jump from $182.5 million in 2021. The increase is down to those lovely new TV contracts and a season spent with fans in attendance after gate revenue fell due to the COVID pandemic in 2020.
The cap should increase in future years as the NFL expands internationally, explores new domestic markets and generates new revenue through legalised sports betting in the U.S.
NFL Draft salaries – how much do the rookies earn?
The NFL implemented the rookie wage scale in 2011 – before that rookies coming out of college could sign insane contracts before they had even played a down in pro football.
The poster boy for this was probably LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell – who received a $42million contract when he was selected #1 overall by the Oakland Raiders in the 2007 NFL Draft. Russell would become one of the biggest draft ‘busts’ in Draft history and many analysts felt he had received too much too soon.
In 2022 by contrast, first overall pick Travon Walker signed a four-year deal worth $37.7 million, while the base rookie salary for 2022 is $705,000 per year.
The rookie pay scale has changed the way teams think – draft picks are now hugely valuable as they are effectively a source of cheap labour.
Most rookie contracts last for four years, though teams can trigger a ‘fifth-year option’ for first-round picks at a specified cost, based on the player’s position.
What is an average NFL player salary?
The median NFL wage was $860,000 in 2021, though an average of around $2million is way more widely reported.
As stated though, it is very much a case of the haves and have nots when it comes to team rosters. A few players often take up a large portion of the cash available.
As those massive TV deals start to really kick in the salary cap is expected to follow suit, which means players will feel the trickle-down effect.