The Biggest NFL Free Agency Deals of All Time

Being an NFL player is a notably lucrative endeavor. NFL salaries and contracts can make your jaw drop. However, while running backs, wide receivers, linemen, and defenders all make more than the average person, most of the money goes to superstar quarterbacks. Still, when it comes to acquiring the best of the best, NFL teams have no qualms offering massive deals to those who perform. Figuring out how it affects them, however, is another issue altogether. Let’s look at the biggest NFL free agency deals of all time.

How the NFL salary cap affects free agents

Free agency works in several different ways, depending on the league. In Major League Baseball, the teams don’t have a cap to work off of. This is why the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers can sign whoever they want for however much they want. The NBA has a soft cap with guaranteed money that lets big market teams manipulate the luxury tax to stay ahead. Football is a little more complicated. 

According to the Pro Football Network, NFL teams rarely pass the salary cap because there are steep penalties for teams that do so. Teams have to make sure their accounting is in order if they want to bring in new free agents, from hefty fines to lost draft picks and nullified trades and contracts. However, when a team goes over the cap, they have one week to sort it out before any fines are levied. 

This adds a bit of chess to the financial situation. It’s easier to handle when a player returns to their team in free agency unless they go from minimum contracts to max deals. When teams get lucky and bring in an outsider, however, it occasionally requires some massive cap flexibility to make it happen. 

In 2021, many thought the cap would go down thanks to the lost revenue that came with the pandemic. However, the NFL kept the revenue afloat with new TV deals and some reformatting that allowed teams to move forward with $181 million in cap space every year. With that type of money, the teams that made the following signings could have used this boost when they brought in some of the most notable players of all time. 

The biggest NFL free agency deals of all time 

Peyton Manning, one of the biggest NFL free agency deals
Peyton Manning was one of the biggest NFL free agency deals ever | Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Massive free-agency deals are not as common in the NFL as its two major American competitors. After all, the strict cap rules make it harder for teams to take a chance on superstar talent, and those players who do not plan on staying with a team are often traded and extended before they hit the market. However, this isn’t always the case. Yardbarker collected a list of the biggest, most memorable deals of all time. 

Peyton Manning’s career was on the line when the Indianapolis Colts moved on following his career-threatening neck injury. Still, the Broncos happily ate the cap space for a $96 million deal with $58 million of it guaranteed. When the Miami Dolphins acquired Ndamukong Suh, they paid an astounding  $114 million over six years with $60 million guaranteed to lure him away from the Lions. 

The Vikings desperately wanted Kirk Cousins after suffering through the Case Keenum season. While Cousins has never been considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, any starting-caliber NFL quarterback will get paid more than the best players at any other position. As such, the Vikings forked over $80 million fully guaranteed to lure him away from Washington. 

Trey Flowers got $56 million of his $90 million guaranteed when he went to the Lions, while Olivier Vernon got $52 million of his $85 million guaranteed to sign with the Giants. The NFL capology is the hardest to figure out, but these players managed to make themselves rich within the current system. Just how rich, however, can be hard to figure out. 

NFL free agents must consider a base salary, signing bonus, roster bonus, and more

Russell Street Report notes how NFL contracts offer diminishing returns the second they are signed. When a player signs a new deal or extension, the largest number is often contingent on reaching a nearly unattainable benchmark. NFL contracts go toward the cap as soon as a player makes the roster. This is why players consistently get let go at the end of training camp, even if they added value to the roster. When it comes to taxes, however, that varies from state to state. 

When it comes to NFL bonuses, however, signing bonuses are drawn out of the contract’s length, while incentives depend on what is asked of the player. Capology is a tough nut to crack, and there’s a reason that the people in charge of it are paid handsomely to do so. Numbers may not lie, but figuring out their truth can take some ferocious digging when it comes to the NFL’s salary cap. 

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