The NFL returned to play for the 2021 season under more normal circumstances than in 2020. Because of the availability of the COVID-19 vaccines, cheering spectators are back in the seats. Fans have been enjoying games in glitzy new stadiums in Southern California and Las Vegas, which were empty last season.
Despite the abnormal 2020, it was business as usual in NFL front offices in the offseason, as they continued to juggle their rosters to get the most bang for the salary cap buck. The limit for total pay for all players on a team in 2021 is $182.5 million, and the job for team money managers is made even tougher when you consider each team has a player or two who gobbles up a big chunk of the cash.
So just how much money do some of these big earners make? Top salaries in the NFL are in the $20 million per year range, which has contributed to significant net worths for some of the league’s stars.
Tom Brady won six Super Bowl championships over 20 seasons with the New England Patriots, then repeated his magic in 2020 in his first year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With seven Super Bowl titles, Brady himself has won more of the big games than any one NFL franchise, and after turning 44 in August, he shows no signs of slowing down. He is under contract to the Bucs through the 2022 season at an annual average value of $25 million. Provided he starts at least one game in the 2022 season, he will be the oldest person ever to start a game as a quarterback in the NFL, surpassing Steve DeBerg, who was 44 years and 279 days old on Oct. 25, 1998, when he started for the Atlanta Falcons.
Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, won the 2020 NFL Most Valuable Player award, his third overall, after leading the team to a 13-3 record and a trip to the NFC championship game — won by Tom Brady and his Buccaneers. The 37-year-old Rodgers had a busy offseason. He announced his engagement to actress Shailene Woodley, won reviews as a guest host on “Jeopardy!” and pondered retirement. Rodgers has had philosophical differences with the franchise in the past, and he sat out preseason workouts. As part of an incentive for him to return, the Packers reworked the language of his contract to give him an earlier out clause. He is due $22.36 million this season.
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The MVP in his second year in the league in 2018, Patrick Mahomes has built up an impressive net worth in just four seasons. But it will get much bigger in the coming years for the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback. Mahomes will earn $22.8 million in 2021, but in 2022, his 10-year, $450 million contract will kick in. The deal includes $141.5 million in guaranteed money. He’s invested some of his money in the city, buying a piece of the Kansas City Royals franchise and joining an investment group to bring Whataburger restaurants to Kansas and Missouri. A native of Texas, where Whataburger is based, Mahomes wanted to bring a taste of his first home to his second home.
Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce signed an endorsement deal in August with Midwest grocery giant Hy-Vee that will run through 2025. While complete terms of the agreement were not announced, it will, in part, provide $1,000 for each touchdown Kelce scores this season to his 87 and Running charitable foundation. Hy-Vee also will stock exclusive Kelce-branded merchandise in the Kansas City area. Kelce, 31, is now in his ninth NFL season – all with the Chiefs – and is a three-time All-Pro selection. He will earn $11.85 million in 2021, with a four-year, $57.25 contract extension kicking in next year.
A third-round draft pick by the Seattle Seahawks in 2012, quarterback Russell Wilson signed a standard rookie contract: four years for $2.99 million. In the ensuing years, he’s led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl victory and started every game of every season, posting a 98-45-1 regular-season record. In 2019, he signed his second contract extension — this one for four years and $140 million, which at the time was the richest-ever NFL deal. He and his wife, entertainer Ciara, have shared their wealth generously, including a donation of 1 million meals to the Seattle area food bank at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. For that and other philanthropic efforts, the 32-year-old Wilson received the NFL’s highest off-field honor, Walter Payton Man of the Year, in 2020.
In 2018, Aaron Donald signed a six-year, $135 million contract that included a $40 million signing bonus and an average annual salary of $22.5 million. The Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle has proved to be worth the investment. He’s been named to the All-Pro team six times and is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. This year, he ranked No. 40 on the list of the world’s highest-paid athletes, put together by Forbes, which said he has endorsement deals with Dick’s Sporting Goods, Electronic Arts and Panini.
An icon of the Texans franchise, J..J. Watt is no longer on the team there after 10 seasons and three Defensive Player of the Year awards. After the Texans agreed to his release, Watt, 32, signed a two-year, $28 million deal with the Arizona Cardinals in 2021 — $23 million of it guaranteed. He is a winner of the Walter Payton Man of the Year honor, awarded in 2017 for his work to raise $37 million for people affected by Hurricane Harvey. For his next philanthropic effort, he can turn to his brother, T.J. Watt, for a contribution. The younger Watt, a linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers, signed a four-year, $112 million extension on Sept. 9. The deal makes him the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL in terms of annual average value.
Wide receiver Davante Adams of Green Bay had a career year in 2020. He led the league in touchdown receptions with 18 and was named an All-Pro for the first time. The favorite target of Aaron Rodgers, he finds himself in limbo with the Packers. At 28, will be a free agent after the 2021 season and wants a contract extension that will make him the highest-paid receiver in the NFL. His $12.69 million earnings in 2021 put him 21st in total cash at his position. He’s made money off the field through endorsements with Nike, Pepsi, Head & Shoulders and Associated Banc-Corp since joining the Packers.
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