Calculating and listing the NFL’s highest-paid players is an inexact science. There are so many metrics by which to measure contracts, and since NFL deals are, largely, not fully guaranteed, many argue that the guarantees are all that matters.
If we’re talking guaranteed money, Josh Allen ($150 million) takes the cake. If we’re talking about year-to-year base salary, then Jimmy Garoppolo ($24.1 million) is the clubhouse leader, believe it or not. And in terms of total contract value, Patrick Mahomes’ $450 million deal dwarfs all others.
That said, for the purpose of this list, Sporting News is using average annual salary to rank the NFL’s highest-paid players. NFL contracts are unique in that guarantees and base salaries vary widely from contract to contract. As such, average annual salary paints the most accurate picture of the league’s earnings landscape.
Here’s a look at the league’s highest-paid players for 2021, with all salary information coming via Spotrac.com.
NFL’s highest-paid players 2021
1. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs
Mahomes, 25, has made it to the last two Super Bowls, winning one, and has averaged 4,931 passing yards, 41 pass TDs and eight interceptions per 16 games played during his career. It doesn’t look like the Chiefs are going to regret giving him the NFL’s richest contract — 10 years, $450 million — any time soon.
2. Josh Allen, QB, Bills
Allen, 25, signed a contract in August of 2021 that will pay him an NFL-record $150 million in guarantees. He has markedly improved in each of his three seasons and led the Bills to an AFC Championship Game in 2020 while throwing for 4,544 yards, 37 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He added an additional 421 yards and eight TDs on the ground.
3. Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys
Prescott, 28, played in just five games during the 2020 NFL season before breaking his ankle, but he was nearly on pace for a 6,000-yard passing season. He hasn’t had much playoff success, posting a 1-2 record in three playoff games, but the Cowboys are banking on him improving in that area as they rebuild their defense.
4. Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans
Watson, 25, led the NFL in passing yards (4,823) and yards per attempt (8.9) in 2020. He’s one of the game’s better young quarterbacks, but he has been accused in 22 civil lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints of sexual misconduct and sexual assault. It’s unclear when (or if) he’ll play again.
5. Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks
Wilson, 32, has been one of the NFL’s steadiest performers since the Seahawks got him in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft. The former N.C. State and Wisconsin QB has never missed a start in nine seasons and has averaged 3,772 passing yards, 30 pass TDs and nine interceptions per season during his career. He won a Super Bowl during his second season and was named the Walter Payton Man of the Year for 2020.
T-6. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
Rodgers is the oldest player in the top 10 at age 37. He is coming off an MVP season in 2020 that saw him complete an NFL-high 70.7 percent of his passes for 4,299 yards, a league-best 48 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He is staying with the Packers for 2021 though he held out from the team during the offseason in the hopes of orchestrating a trade.
T-6. Jared Goff, QB, Lions
Unlike Rodgers, Goff, 26, didn’t ask for a trade. He was, however, dealt to the Lions along with a couple of future first-round draft picks to send Matthew Stafford to the Rams. Goff has averaged 4,215 yards, 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions per 16 games played during his career, but he’ll need to prove he can find success without Sean McVay in Detroit. Even under McVay, Goff was inconsistent.
8. Kirk Cousins, QB, Vikings
Cousins, 32, was brought to Minnesota to get them over the hump. He hasn’t done that, but he did throw a career-high 35 TD passes last year. However, that came along with 13 interceptions — also a career-high — and just a 7-9 record. Cousins is .500 in his career as a starter with a record of 51-51-2.
9. Carson Wentz, QB, Colts
Wentz, 28, was traded this offseason to the Colts after a woeful 2021 campaign in which he led the league in interceptions (15) and get benched in favor of Jalen Hurts. He’s reunited with Frank Reich — who coached Wentz during his MVP-caliber season of 2017 — but he’s also dealing with a preseason foot injury that could cost him some time during the regular season.
10. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons
In each of the last 10 years, Matt Ryan has thrown for at least 4,000 passing yards. He has only missed one game during that span and led the Falcons to a Super Bowl appearance after winning the MVP in 2016. Now 36, Ryan will try to help the team bounce back after a 4-12 season, which tied the worst single-season record during his career as a starter.
11. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Titans
Since escaping Adam Gase in Miami, Tannehill, 33, has posted an 18-8 regular-season record as a starter and has led the Titans to an AFC Championship Game berth. He also has a 55 to 13 TD-INT ratio. That helped him earn a four-year contract that pays him nearly $30 million annually.
12. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, 49ers
Garoppolo has been the primary starter in San Francisco for three seasons. In 2018, he got injured after three starts and was out for the year. In 2019, he was solid and led the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance, though they lost to the Chiefs. In 2020, Garoppolo struggled with injuries against and played in just six games. Now 29, can Garoppolo regain his 2019 form? Or will he be pushed out of a starting role by the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Trey Lance?
13. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Cardinals
Hopkins is the first non-quarterback on this list. He logged 1,407 receiving yards in his first season in Arizona while tying a career-high with 115 catches. The 29-year-old is still, clearly, one of the best receivers in the NFL. Think the Texans regret only receiving David Johnson and a second-round pick in exchange for Hopkins?
T-14. Matthew Stafford, QB, Rams
Stafford spent the first 12 years of his career with the Lions. Now, he gets to join Sean McVay and the Rams’ impressive offensive staff. The Lions could never properly build around Stafford, yet he still was a solidly productive quarterback. He’s cheaper than the Rams’ previous starter, Goff, so this price tag could look like a bargain if Stafford, 33, can stay healthy and continue to play at a high level.
T-14. Joey Bosa, DE, Chargers
Bosa, 26, is the only defensive player to crack the top 15, but with good reason. He is a great sack artist and has averaged 12 sacks per 16 games during his career. He’s the best player on the Chargers’ defense. It will be fun to see what new head coach Brandon Staley can do with him as Bosa shifts from being a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker.
T-16. Tom Brady, QB, Buccaneers
Brady has always been a bargain compared to other quarterbacks in the NFL. He has seven Super Bowl rings, yet he has rarely made more than $25 million during his career. That’s one of the perks of being married to a world-renowned supermodel Gisele Bundchen — whose net worth is higher than Brady’s. The 44-year-old Brady completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 4,633 yards and 40 TDs last year. He had 12 interceptions, his highest total since 2011, but he’s still one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL.
T-16. Derek Carr, QB, Raiders
Carr, 30, is a solid value on the quarterback market. He’s tied for the 14th-highest-paid player at his position with Brady, and Carr plays like a top-12 quarterback at times. He hasn’t yet won a playoff game, nor has he ever quite recaptured the magic of his 2016 season, when he led the Raiders to a 12-3 record before breaking his leg. Still, he has missed just two games in his career and posted 4,103 passing yards, 27 TDs and just nine interceptions last year.
T-16. Myles Garrett, DE, Browns
Garrett has been as-advertised during his NFL career. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft has totaled 42.5 sacks in four NFL seasons. He has averaged 13 sacks per 16 games played. He also has 10 forced fumbles during his career. He may be the NFL’s best pass rusher, so he’s certainly worth this type of money, especially considering that he’s still just 25.
19. Khalil Mack, OLB, Bears
Since 2015, Mack has been named to six consecutive Pro Bowls and he has been an All-Pro three times. He has forced at least five fumbles in three of his seven NFL seasons, and he has averaged 11 sacks per season over the last six. He’s consistent and has shown no signs of slowing down at age 30. There’s a reason that the Raiders continue to have selling remorse after trading Mack in 2018.
20. Trent Williams, OT, 49ers
Williams, 33, narrowly edged David Bakhtiari as the NFL’s highest-paid offensive tackle. He is making just $10,000 per year more than the Packers’ blindside blocker. Williams skipped the 2019 season while embroiled in a spat with the Washington Football Team’s front office but was traded to San Francisco in 2020. He played at a Pro Bowl level and earned a 91.9 overall grade from Pro Football Focus.
21. David Bakhtiari, OT, Packers
Bakhtiari has been an All-Pro twice in the last three years for the Packers and he allowed just one sack in 12 games last year. He tore his ACL at the very end of December, so he may not be ready to start the season. That said, the 29-year-old should eventually return to the field and continue to be one of the best blindside blockers in the NFL.
22. Aaron Donald, DT, Rams
Donald, 30, has been an All-Pro for six consecutive seasons. In three of the last four years, he has won the AP’s Defensive Player of the Year award. He has never logged fewer than eight sacks in a season and once recorded a league-high 20.5 sacks — just two sacks shy of Michael Strahan’s record of 22.5 — from the defensive tackle spot. That’s elite production, so him being the 22nd-highest-paid player and fourth-ranked defender in terms of salary is a steal.
T-23. Julio Jones, WR, Titans
In seven of his last nine seasons, Jones has posted at least 1,198 receiving yards. In the two that he didn’t, he missed a combined 18 games. Jones may be 32, but he’s still one of the top deep threats in the league and has twice led the NFL in receiving yards. It will be interesting to see how he fares in his first season with the Titans.
T-23. Laremy Tunsil, OT, Texans
Tunsil, 27, allowed just two sacks last year despite playing for a Texans team that went 4-12 on the season. He’s a strong starting left tackle and should continue to be for the duration of his prime.
T-25. DeForest Bucker, DT, Colts
The Colts swapped the 13th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft for Buckner and they certainly didn’t regret it. Buckner, 27, was an All-Pro in 2020 and he has totaled 29 sacks the last three years combined. That’s not easy for an interior defensive lineman to do, so that’s a feat for which he deserves credit.
T-25. Leonard Williams, DT, Giants
In his first five NFL seasons, Williams totaled 17.5 sacks combined. Last season, he broke out and logged 11.5. The No. 6 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft is still just 27 and should continue to be a threatening weapon on the Giants’ defensive line.
T-25. DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Cowboys
Lawrence, 29, has long been a very good pass rusher and has stayed healthy the last four seasons. He hasn’t missed a game in his last four seasons after missing 16 combined in his first three. He has averaged nine sacks per season in that span.
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