Football’s top ten earners are demolishing records, hauling in a combined $489 million as the world’s most valuable sports league continues its ascent.
His résumé is unparalleled, with seven Super Bowl titles and all-time passing records from completions to yards to touchdowns. Yet as Tom Brady heads into his 23rd professional season, the 45-year-old Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback is adding a new accolade: For the first time since Forbes began publishing a ranking of the NFL’s highest-paid players in 2010, he leads the list.
Having given the New England Patriots discounts on his contracts for much of his career, Brady has never been higher than No. 2 on Forbes’ annual NFL earnings leaderboard. And he came in second for the first time just last year when, in his second season with Tampa Bay and with a new commitment to his endorsement portfolio, he landed behind the Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott, whose $87 million in 2021 beat out Brady’s $72.5 million.
This time around, Brady is bumping his total to $75 million before taxes and agents’ fees, enough to pace a top ten that is set to haul in a record $489 million combined—a 17% improvement on 2021’s $418 million and 15% better than the previous high of $425 million from 2018.
The Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford places second with total earnings of $65.5 million, followed by the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers ($53 million), the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes ($51.5 million) and the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen ($51 million). All ten of the top-earning players are quarterbacks, with the league’s marquee position sweeping the list for the first time.
Brady comes out on top thanks to the estimated $45 million he’s collecting off the field, more than double the $22 million total of the NFL’s next-best pitchman, Mahomes. Brady has lucrative long-term endorsement deals with crypto exchange FTX, rental car giant Hertz and five other brands, and he is increasingly flexing his entrepreneurial muscles. He has founded or cofounded five companies: nutrition and training brand TB12; an NFT outfit called Autograph; the “Brady” clothing line; 199 Productions, a content company for film and TV; and Religion of Sports, another media company he launched with fellow football great Michael Strahan and sports documentarian Gotham Chopra.
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Brady’s endeavors have helped push the top ten’s total off-field earnings to $120 million, up 7% from last year’s record of $111 million and a remarkable 80% from 2016’s previous high of $67 million.
Football’s top earners still make more on the field, however. The top ten are set to collect $370 million from their playing contracts this season—just shy of 2018’s record of $373 million—as the NFL’s salary cap rises to $208.2 million. That represents a $25.7 million jump from 2021, when the cap fell for the first time in a decade as the Covid-19 pandemic ate into league revenues. The extra spending room has fueled an off-season bonanza, with the league’s 32 teams committing a combined $2.9 billion to free agents and $3.9 billion in contract extensions, according to contract database Spotrac, smashing the previous highs of $2.7 billion and $2.8 billion.
The last five months have seen record contracts, as measured by total value, at wide receiver, with the Las Vegas Raiders’ Davante Adams ($141.3 million over five years); at cornerback, with the Cleveland Browns’ Denzel Ward ($100.5 million, five years); and at kicker, with the Atlanta Falcons’ Younghoe Koo ($24.3 million, five years). And while Mahomes’ ten-year, $450 million extension from 2020 remains the NFL’s biggest contract ever, two other quarterbacks, the Cleveland Browns’ Deshaun Watson and the Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray, signed massive new deals this year to crack the top five of that list and secure their places in the highest-paid ranking.
Yet another quarterback, Lamar Jackson, could still elbow his way into the 2022 top ten as he negotiates an extension with the Baltimore Ravens ahead of the NFL’s regular-season opener on September 8. But even if that deal fails to materialize, expect to see a shakeup soon. The world’s most valuable sports league has new media rights deals—worth an average of 82% more annually—set to kick in next year, and the impending sale of the NFL’s Sunday Ticket package, currently drawing interest from Amazon, Apple and Google, could give teams even more money to play with.
THE NFL’S TEN HIGHEST-PAID PLAYERS 2022
#1. $75 mil
AGE: 45 | TEAM: Tampa Bay Buccaneers | ON-FIELD: $30 mil • OFF-FIELD: $45 mil
Brady announced his retirement in February but reversed the decision a month later, allowing him to improve on his NFL-record career earnings total of roughly $450 million, including endorsements. His off-field dominance is a relatively recent development: For many years, Brady was known for declining most sponsorship offers, and as recently as 2019, Forbes estimated he was making around $12 million annually off the field. He has since shown a new commitment to his business while continuing to rank among the NFL’s leaders in licensed merchandise sales, which guarantees the 45-year-old Buccaneers quarterback a seven-figure payout each year. Brady actually made even more off the field—$52 million—on the 2022 Forbes list of the world’s highest-paid athletes, placing ninth overall with $83.9 million over the 12 months ending in May. Not bad for the NFL’s only player over 40.
#2. $65.5 mil
AGE: 34 | TEAM: Los Angeles Rams | ON-FIELD: $61.5 mil • OFF-FIELD: $4 mil
No other NFL player will outearn Stafford on the field in 2022 after the 34-year-old quarterback led the Rams to a Super Bowl victory in February and was rewarded with a four-year, $160 million contract extension that included a $60 million signing bonus. He has also picked up endorsements with Amazon Prime Video, AT&T, Disney and Little Caesars. But it’s not all good news for Stafford, who has been bothered at training camp by an elbow injury that is more common in baseball players.
#3. $53 mil
AGE: 38 | Team: Green Bay Packers | ON-FIELD: $42 mil • OFF-FIELD: $11 mil
Rodgers stayed put in Green Bay after a dramatic 2021 off-season that seemed headed for a breakup, rewarding the Packers faithful with his fourth MVP performance. He’ll be back again on a three-year, $150.8 million contract extension he signed in March, which includes a $40.8 million bonus this year. Rodgers lost Prevea Health as a sponsor in November after revealing he had not received a Covid-19 vaccine but remains partnered with a dozen brands. He again raised eyebrows when he spoke on a podcast this month about his experience with the psychoactive tea ayahuasca, but the NFL clarified Monday that he had not violated its drug policy.
#4. $51.5 mil
AGE: 26 | TEAM: Kansas City Chiefs | ON-FIELD: $29.5 mil • OFF-FIELD: $22 mil
Dapper Labs announced in March that it had partnered with the Chiefs’ Mahomes to promote its NFL All Day digital collectibles, the football equivalent of NBA Top Shot, joining a dozen other brands in the 26-year-old quarterback’s endorsement portfolio. Of particular note is his deal with Coors Light, which has gotten around the NFL’s strict rules on alcoholic beverage endorsements by having Mahomes promote—technically, at least—a Coors-branded flashlight. Mahomes also competed in the June edition of The Match alongside Tom Brady, Josh Allen and Aaron Rodgers, earning a sizable paycheck for participating in the made-for-TV golf event.
#5. $51 mil
AGE: 26 | TEAM: Buffalo Bills | ON-FIELD: $47 mil • OFF-FIELD: $4 mil
Allen, who signed a six-year, $258 million contract extension with the Bills last August, has collected the bulk of his on-field compensation in 2022 in the form of a $42.4 million option bonus, coming on the heels of his $16.5 million signing bonus last year. Before turning 26 in May, Allen was the world’s highest-paid athlete 25 and under in Forbes’ 2022 ranking. The quarterback is sponsored by ten brands, including Nike, Pepsi and New Era.
#6. $46.2 mil
AGE: 26 | TEAM: Cleveland Browns | ON-FIELD: $45.7 mil • OFF-FIELD: $0.5 mil
Sexual misconduct allegations against Watson emerged in March 2021, and he sat out the ensuing season; he has since settled lawsuits with 23 of his 24 accusers while continuing to deny wrongdoing. Sponsors have forsaken the 26-year-old quarterback, leaving licensing money from sales of his jersey and other merchandise as his only significant source of off-field income, but he still ranks among the NFL’s highest-paid players after his off-season trade from the Houston Texans to the Cleveland Browns resulted in a new five-year, $230 million contract. The structure of that deal will mute the financial impact of his suspension this season (currently set at six games, with a chance it could grow as the NFL appeals the decision). Watson will lose one-eighteenth of his $1.035 million salary for each game he misses in 2022—translating to $345,000 for a six-game suspension—but his $45 million signing bonus won’t be affected.
#7. $42.5 mil
AGE: 33 | Team: Minnesota Vikings | ON-FIELD: $40 mil • OFF-FIELD: $2.5 mil
Like Patrick Mahomes, Cousins is a new endorser of Dapper Labs’ NFL All Day digital collectibles, and he has another eight brands in his stable, including Adidas, Honda and Verizon. The quarterback, who turns 34 next week, signed a one-year, $35 million extension with the Minnesota Vikings in March that gave the team salary-cap relief.
#8. $38 mil
AGE: 33 | TEAM: Denver Broncos | ON-FIELD: $24 mil • OFF-FIELD: $14 mil
After a decade with the Seattle Seahawks, Wilson was traded in March to Denver. The Broncos, newly under the ownership of billionaire Rob Walton, have suggested they would like to sign the 33-year-old quarterback to a long-term extension but for now are letting him play out the four-year, $140 million contract he signed in 2019, which runs through 2023. Wilson has more than a dozen traditional sponsors, most recently picking up Centura Health, and he is building an impressive portfolio of equity stakes, having cofounded or invested in at least seven companies, plus MLS’s Seattle Sounders.
#9. $33.5 mil
AGE: 25 | TEAM: Arizona Cardinals | ON-FIELD: $30 mil • OFF-FIELD: $3.5 mil
Murray has long-term partnerships with seven companies, perhaps most notably FaZe Clan, the esports powerhouse that went public last month. He even appeared on the cover of the July 2021 issue of Sports Illustrated not in Arizona Cardinals red but in a black FaZe hoodie alongside five fellow FaZe members. The 25-year-old quarterback has been getting attention more recently, however, because of his NFL contract—for its value ($230.5 million over five years), for the off-season drama it seemed to end and most of all for an addendum that required Murray to complete four hours of “independent study” per game week. Three days after that revelation, the Cardinals announced they would drop the homework provision.
#10. $33 mil
AGE: 29 | TEAM: Dallas Cowboys | ON-FIELD: $20 mil • OFF-FIELD: $13 mil
Prescott’s big payday came last year, when he ranked as the NFL’s highest-paid player with $87 million after signing a four-year, $160 million contract with the Cowboys that included an NFL-record $66 million signing bonus, paid upfront. But the 29-year-old quarterback holds on to his spot in the top ten thanks to his off-field work, which includes partnerships with Nike’s Jordan Brand, PepsiCo and a dozen other brands.
The Forbes ranking of the NFL’s highest-paid players reflects on-field earnings—including base salaries and all bonuses (option, roster, signing and workout)—paid in 2022 or in connection with the 2022 season, for contracts signed as of August 11, 2022. Incentives that are based on 2022 individual or team performance are not included. The $690,000 salary figure included in Deshaun Watson’s on-field total reflects the six-game suspension he has been assessed, pending the NFL’s appeal of the decision; he will lose one-eighteenth of his $1.035 million salary for each game he ultimately misses this season because of suspension.
The off-field earnings estimates are determined through conversations with industry insiders and reflect annual cash from endorsements, licensing, appearances and memorabilia, as well as businesses operated by the players. Investment income such as interest payments or dividends is not included, but Forbes does account for payouts from equity stakes athletes have sold. Forbes does not deduct for taxes or agents’ fees.
With additional reporting by Justin Birnbaum.
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Was Tom Brady ever the highest-paid player in the NFL? ›
Tom Brady is No. 1 in the NFL once again. The six-time Super Bowl champion has taken over the top spot on the list of highest-paid NFL players of all time with earnings of $303 million through 22 seasons.Who is the highest-paid NFL quarterback 2022? ›
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers — highest-paid player in the NFL.Who is the highest-paid QB in the NFL? ›
- Aaron Rodgers. GB, QB. $59,515,000.
- Deshaun Watson. CLE, QB. $46,000,000.
- Daniel Jones. NYG, QB. $46,000,000.
- Patrick Mahomes. KC, QB. $40,450,000.
- Kyler Murray. ARI, QB. $39,000,000.
He kept his initial 2002 salary of $375K, but the salaries jumped to $3.1M, $5.5M, $5.5M and $6M from 2003 through 2006. The Patriots tinkered with the deal in 2003 and 2004 to grab more cap space and dumped money forward so his cap charges in '05 and '06 were slated to be $10M and $14M.Who is the highest-paid NFL player in history? ›
The player in the National Football League (NFL) with the highest cumulative career earnings is Tom Brady, with total earnings of 332.96 million U.S. dollars. Two other players, both of whom are quarterbacks, earned over 300 million U.S. dollars by 2023 - Aaron Rodgers, and Matthew Stafford.Is Tom Brady the highest-paid athlete? ›
It took him 45 years, seven Super Bowl wins, and a brief retirement, but Tom Brady is finally the NFL's highest-paid player.