Why you should care
NFL contracts are so complicated, you need a law degree to understand them — so we went to the experts.
Should the best player in the NFL also be its highest paid? The question isn’t necessarily a fair one. While it’s difficult to define “best,” it’s just as hard in this league to define “highest paid.”
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, entering his 14th NFL season, is the odds-on favorite to win this year’s MVP award, according to OddsShark. Rodgers has been remarkably consistent, topping 3,800 yards with 28 or more touchdowns in every season, except for two injury-shortened ones, since 2008. But his projected earnings for the upcoming season don’t correlate with his lofty regard.
Aaron Rodgers, widely considered the best quarterback in the game, is only the 15th highest-paid player in the NFL this season.
If Rodgers is the league’s best QB, why isn’t he paid like it? “In retrospect, [Rodgers] made a bad deal in 2013 when he agreed to a five-year extension of the two-year deal he made in 2011,” says sports law attorney Alan Milstein. “But at the time, he wanted the security of a long-term deal.”
This is all likely to change soon. Rodgers and the Packers are negotiating a new deal expected to be the richest in NFL history, an honor now held by Atlanta’s $150-million man, Matt Ryan.
But for this year, Rodgers is not in the top tier. His 2013 deal will pay Rodgers $20,562,500 in total cash in 2018, which ranks 15th in the NFL, according to Spotrac. Wide receivers Jarvis Landry (Browns) and Sammy Watkins (Chiefs) will make more, as will offensive linemen Nate Solder (Giants) and Zack Martin (Cowboys). Spotrac co-founder and editor Michael Ginnitti explains that “total cash” represents all likely to be earned compensation for a player in a given year, including base salary, signing bonus, roster bonuses, per-game-active bonuses, workout bonuses, option bonuses and incentives.
As you can see, that’s a lot of bonuses. And therein lies the rub for Rodgers. He signed his deal years ago, while those ahead of him on the list tend to have more recent contracts inflated with enormous signing bonuses. No. 1 on this year’s cash list is San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who takes home $42.6 million, thanks to a new megadeal. If you exclude signing bonuses, Rodgers’ pay would rank No. 4 on the list.
Rodgers likely wants to lock himself into being the highest-paid quarterback on an annual basis.
The collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players’ union states each team must spend 89 percent of the salary cap on player salaries. At $177.2 million per team in 2018, the cap is a function of the league’s total revenues. When Rodgers signed his extension in 2013, the cap was set at $123 million. “[Rodgers] and his agent did not imagine the cap would rise so dramatically,” says Milstein. As he enters year six of a seven-year deal, Rodgers has missed out on his share of these profits.
As he negotiates a new deal, Rodgers and his team have different aims. While the Packers are more interested in offering a hefty signing bonus — which can be spread across a maximum of five years in salary cap terms — to conserve their cap space, Rodgers likely wants to lock himself into being the highest-paid quarterback on an annual basis. Otherwise, young guns like Los Angeles’ Jared Goff and Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz could cash in once their rookie deals expire and displace Rodgers once again.
So don’t be surprised if Rodgers and his reps seek a nontraditional contract that would change the way future deals are negotiated.
For instance, Rodgers could explore an adjustable salary based on the league’s highest-paid player, an adjustable salary based on 20 percent of the cap each year or even an ownership stake in the team. While Rodgers is a minority owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, he couldn’t pull off the latter feat in Green Bay, which is the NFL’s only publicly owned franchise and does not allow any one person to hold more than about 4 percent of its outstanding shares.
Ginnitti suggests Rodgers will look for increasing base salaries with adjacent roster bonuses that increase each year as well, keeping him aligned with a growing salary cap and new contracts. But that means he’d likely have the highest salary cap hit of anyone in the league, Ginnitti says, “a factor the Packers may simply not be able to take on and remain relevant.”
The Packers would thus need to make a “winning” argument. Other stars across the NFL have worked out creative contracts so their teams can free up salary cap space to lure better players. The prime example: Tom Brady, who plays for the league’s winningest franchise this century. Brady’s total take-home cash from the New England Patriots for 2018, per Spotrac, is a mere $15 million — No. 47 in the league.