Dak Prescott entered the off-season with no active contract and a broken ankle that had ended his 2020 season in Week 5. But the star quarterback had enough leverage remaining after two years of intense negotiations that he managed to come to a four-year, $160 million agreement with the Dallas Cowboys in March, with $126 million guaranteed. That included an upfront payment of $66 million—the largest signing bonus in NFL history.
The deal gives the 28-year-old the top spot in the 2021 Forbes ranking of the highest-paid NFL players, one notch ahead of seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady. Prescott’s total of $87 million in pretax earnings also includes $12 million from endorsements.
That is impressive—one of the best sponsor numbers in the NFL—but Brady blows right past him with $45 million off the field, including the proceeds from a massive partnership with cryptocurrency exchange FTX that he struck in June and his appearances in a couple of Subway commercials. Those new deals, plus bonuses triggered by his 2020 exploits for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, help push the 44-year-old quarterback past the NFL off-the-field record of $31 million he established on Forbes’ list of the world’s highest-paid athletes just four months ago, installing him as an emphatic No. 2 on the NFL earnings list with $72.5 million, including his playing contract.
In all, the NFL’s ten highest-paid players are set to make $418 million in 2021, according to Forbes’ calculations, an increase of 9% from last year despite a dip in the salary cap that has dented salaries around the league. The top ten will collect $306.6 million in salary and bonus in 2021, a 5% drop from last year and the lowest on-the-field figure since 2017, but offset that with $111 million from their off-the-field ventures, including endorsements, licensing, appearances and memorabilia, as well as businesses they operate. That represents an 84% increase from 2020’s top ten, mostly thanks to Brady, and demolishes the previous high-water mark of $67 million from 2016.
Quarterbacks dominate once again, taking seven of the ten spots in the ranking, including Brady’s Super Bowl LV rival Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, who land at Nos. 3 and 4 with $44.8 million and $33.4 million, respectively. A non-quarterback—San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Trent Williams—rounds out the top five with $33.3 million.
Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft in April, comes in at No. 8 with $30.8 million, becoming the first rookie to rank among the top ten since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement drastically reduced contracts for the sport’s top draft picks. Lawrence, who received a $24.1 million signing bonus from the Jacksonville Jaguars, is adding $6 million off the field, including his own endorsement deal with FTX and partnerships with brands like Adidas, Gatorade and Fanatics.
The world’s most lucrative sports league is riding the momentum of monster new media rights and betting deals, but NFL players are not yet sharing in the spoils. While the average team value is up 14% to a record $3.5 billion this year, the decline in game-day revenue from ticket, concessions and merchandise sales amid the pandemic led the NFL to cut its salary cap for the first time in a decade, to $182.5 million for 2021, from $198.2 million last year. That has tempered spending by front offices left facing a payroll crunch after handing out a wave of huge contracts in recent years. This off-season, according to Spotrac, the league’s 32 teams committed a combined $4.6 billion in extensions and free-agent contracts (down 10% from 2020) with $2.5 billion in guaranteed money (down 11%).
Still, for the league’s superstars, sponsors are easing the pain.
Here are the NFL’s ten highest-paid players for 2021.
On-Field Earnings: $75 M • Off-Field Earnings: $12 M
Total Earnings: $87 M
Dak Prescott’s $66 million signing bonus from the Dallas Cowboys beat the $57.5 million mark for a single-payment bonus that Aaron Rodgers had set in 2018. The 28-year-old quarterback owns a significant stake in four Walk-On’s restaurants in Texas and is up to $12 million in endorsements, including a major new deal with NFT platform Ethernity. A jump from Adidas to Jordan Brand in June also supplied a sizable raise.
On-Field Earnings: $27.5 M • Off-Field Earnings: $45 M
Total Earnings: $72.5 M
Just a year or two ago, Tom Brady was making $12 million a year off the field. Now, after winning a seventh Super Bowl title in his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and making his partnerships more of a focus, the 44-year-old quarterback is hauling in almost four times as much. Beyond his endorsements, which include Fanatics and Under Armour in addition to his huge new deal with FTX, Brady has the TB12 supplements line and a media company, 199 Productions, as well as an NFT platform, Autograph, that he launched this summer. He also reportedly picked up $3.4 million in playing-contract incentives for his performance in 2020 and the Bucs’ championship (a number not reflected in his earnings for this list).