The Biggest NFL Salaries of All Time

It’s no secret the NFL is a big moneymaker. With league revenues rising over the past several years, player and coaching salaries have skyrocketed accordingly. Unfortunately, the recent COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on the continued growth and for the first time in years, the salary cap is decreasing. But don’t feel too badly for the athletes and their fearless leaders because their financial futures are still promising. Let’s take a closer look at NFL salaries — from the lowest, to the highest, to smack dab in the middle.

What is the NFL salary cap for 2021?

The salary cap is an agreement between the NFL and its players association that places a limit on the amount of money each team can spend on its roster. Introduced back in the ’90s, the cap is determined by league revenues — attendance numbers, broadcasting contracts, and various other factors. According to ESPN, the salary cap for 2021 drops to $182.5 million per team — an 8% decrease from the prior year. 

The decline is the first since 2011 and a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. With fans unable or unwilling to go to games in 2020, the attendance for the season dropped, leading to reduced revenues and a decrease in the salary cap for this upcoming year. Because of this, teams need to make difficult decisions about whom to release into NFL free agency and how to create space on their rosters.

What is the average NFL salary?

While the salary cap decreased this year, NFL players still make a good chunk of change. The league minimum salary for 2021 is $660,000, with an average player salary of around $2 million. While that’s a great way to make a living, Uncle Sam still wants his cut. That’s right, NFL players are just like everybody else and need to fork over their taxes. Just how much depends on their income level and the state they live in. 

Players who live in high tax states like California and New Jersey pay way more in taxes than their counterparts. Those that live in the South often pay the least amount because many of those states don’t even have a state income tax. Things get trickier when the “jock tax” is involved. This piece of legislation requires players to pay taxes on the money they make in each state they play games in — talk about confusing!  

According to Spotrac, the players averaging those $2 million salaries come heavily from the defensive side of the field. Cornerbacks like Vernon Hargreaves and Justin Bethel are both expected to rake in the average in 2021.

Who is the highest paid NFL coach?

While NFL players often make tremendous amounts of money, the leaders of the team, the head coaches, are pulling in impressive numbers as well. ESPN 1420 reports that New England Patriots icon Bill Belichick leads all coaches with the highest annual salary of $12 million. He has an overall net worth of $35 million, but even more notable is the legacy he leaves behind. He’s a six-time Super Bowl champ and three-time AP NFL Coach of the Year. 

Hot on his tracks and vying for the top spot as highest-paid coach is the Seattle Seahawks commander Pete Carroll. ESPN 1420 estimates his salary at $11 million, just shy of Belichick. 

In addition to head coaches, other members of the staff, like offensive and defensive coordinators, bring in a good amount of dough, although they’re often overlooked. It seems that defensive coordinators are only second to head coaches in the salary department, with some of the top making over $2-$3 million.

Conversely, offensive coordinators usually make much less. They average around the $1 million mark in compensation.

Who is the highest paid NFL player?

Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, who has one of the highest NFL salaries, points to the sky before a game.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes points to the sky before a game against the New Orleans Saints. | Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Coaches usually build their teams around quarterbacks since they’re such an instrumental piece to the game. That’s why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the highest paid player in the league is a quarterback. Patrick Mahomes, leader of the Kansas City Chiefs, signed a massive contract extension back in 2020 that, at the time, was one of the largest professional sports contracts in history. He agreed to a 10-year, $450 million deal with the potential to make up to $503 million with additional bonuses. 

While the amount is staggering, Chiefs fans think Mahomes is worth it. In just four seasons in the league, Mahomes led Kansas City to the Super Bowl twice — as champs in 2019 and runners-up in 2020, only behind the re-energized Tom Brady. He already won the league’s MVP back in 2018, and at just 25 years old, Mahomes surely will break records in the upcoming years.

While Mahomes is the current highest-paid player, according to Spotrac, Tom Brady earned the most of all time. Currently entering his 22nd season, Brady’s NFL earnings top the list at $291,087,392 (contributing majorly to his net worth). With a plethora of records too long to mention, including both regular season and Super Bowl ones, Brady just might break another this upcoming season: the regular-season passing yards leader. 

Who is the lowest paid NFL player?

Because of the current collective bargaining agreement, active players must receive a one-year contract with $660,000, the league’s current minimum salary. However, there are still players that make less than that because they are working off old contracts. They won’t be able to get the pay upgrade until it’s time to renegotiate. 

With fullbacks and tight ends at the bottom of the pay barrel, it’s no surprise that the lowest-paid player in the league is, in fact, a tight end. While it’s easy to assume the rookie picked last in the draft makes the least amount, the collective bargaining agreement ensures he receives the league minimum. The title of lowest-paid player belongs to former Seattle Seahawks tight end Tyrone Swoopes. As part of Seattle’s practice squad, Swoopes was signed and waived over nine times. Reportedly, he only made $378,000 during his time with the team — well below the minimum.

Things are looking up for Swoopes. According to Sportskeeda, in 2020, he signed with the Washington Football Team as part of their practice squad, and in early 2021, he signed a future/reserves contract where he could potentially make more than he ever has.

Who is the richest QB of all time?

When considering the richest quarterbacks of all time, it’s easy to conclude it must be Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Maybe if it was based on NFL earnings alone, but the richest QB is actually a former Dallas Cowboys quarterback from the 1970s. Roger Staubach, a Heisman Trophy winner from the U.S. Naval Academy, probably wasn’t at the top of anybody’s list, but his off-field business dealings solidified him the top spot.

CNBC reports that at the end of Staubach’s time with the Cowboys, he was only pulling in $160,000 a year. In the offseason, he took a part-time gig as a real estate broker and eventually opened his own firm in 1977. “I was 27 and we had three children. If I got hurt, I knew I had a family to provide for, and it was not crazy money in the NFL then.”

After decades in the business, Staubach sold the company in 2008 for $613 million, easily upping his net worth and making him one of the richest QBs of all time.

How much is an NFL kicker’s salary?

NFL kickers are often overlooked until the game comes down to them. How they handle the intense pressure and whether they choke or succeed on the field often determines their staying power. Even still, kickers don’t usually land million-dollar contracts. In fact, many kickers often make the league minimum, currently set at $660,000.  

Earlier this year, the Miami Dolphins and Jason Sanders agreed to a deal that makes him the highest-paid kicker of all time. According to Full Press Coverage, Sanders signed a $22 million contract extension with $10 million guaranteed. The deal ousts Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker out of the top spot. Back in 2019, Tucker inked a $20 million extension with a guaranteed $12.5 million. At the time, the deal made Tucker the wealthiest paid kicker, but his reign didn’t last long.

Sanders and Tucker might try to replicate the career of one of the most legendary kickers to play the game — Adam Vinatieri. His career spanned 24 years and includes countless accolades and big games. Vinatieri is the NFL’s all-time leading scorer and holds the record for most field goals made and most postseason field goals made. 

CBS Sports recounts one of his most memorable kicks back in 2001 when he played for the New England Patriots. With only 35 seconds left to play, Vinatieri hit a 45-yard field goal in blizzard-like conditions.

NFL referee salary: What do they get paid?

Being an NFL referee is an often thankless job. Constantly second-guessed or jeered by fans, being a referee is tough. That’s why it’s a rigorous process to become one of the NFL’s elite. Most candidates often have 10 years of experience officiating, with five of that at a collegiate level. While fans aren’t always happy with their calls, the NFL reports that when they review performances, the refs are pretty accurate — 95% to 97% of the time. 

Because of all that pressure, NFL referees average a salary of $201,000 per season. Additional bonuses get paid out for postseason games, especially the Super Bowl. But sometimes NFL refs make such bad calls that their job is in peril. That happened to Hugo Cruz. Back in 2018, Cruz missed an obvious false start call that led to a touchdown. The fallout was immediate — fans booed, coaches balked, and commentators were speechless. The NFL wasted no time firing Cruz for his lackluster performance, sending a message to the other referees that incompetence wasn’t accepted.  

How much is an NFL cheerleader’s salary?

Each NFL team includes a variety of jobs that add to the atmosphere of the games and makes the team successful. Waterboys and cheerleaders, although often overlooked, are an integral part of the team. Cheerleaders have been around since 1954; the Baltimore Colts were the first to have cheerleaders on their sidelines. 

NFL cheerleaders perform at home games, make special appearances, and do volunteer work. They also practice several times a week, and many of them have other jobs. For all the hours they put in, their pay is low. Typical squads are grouped into two different sections — supporting and professional. The supporting squad makes far less than the pros, usually around $9/hour plus $250 per game, according to 888 Sport. The pros can get as much as $20/hour plus $500 per game, but that’s on the high end. 

In addition to supporting their team, cheerleaders also have to look good — that requires lots of primping, eating well, and exercising. They are under enormous pressure to get all the moves right or face getting benched from the NFL

RELATED: How Does Tony Romo’s New Salary Compare to Other NFL Broadcasters?