What would the NFL's richest roster look like? Anthony Holzman-Escareno assembles an all-star group based on dollars and cents below:
The 2021 NFL All-Paid Team is a collection of the highest-paid players in the league at each position. It's essentially an All-Pro team, but the pocketbook supersedes pedigree and production for the day.
Average per year (APY) is the most accepted measure of comparison for player contracts, so it's what will be used for our purposes. Also, players who received the franchise tag are ineligible, due to the fixed nature of their salaries.
If you need help understanding any of the terms in this article, please refer to our Free Agency and Contract Glossary.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $45 million
Full contract: 10 years, $450 million extension (Signed: 2020)
Guaranteed at signing: $63.1 million (14 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $22.8 million
2021 cap hit: $7.4 million (4.1 percent of 2021 salary cap)
Death, taxes and Patrick Mahomes becoming the highest-paid player in NFL history. These are things that I can say will happen with absolute certainty.
That is the beginning of Mahomes’ entry on the 2020 All-Paid Team of Tomorrow, and 2020 did indeed become the Summer of Mahomes. He signed the largest contract in NFL history, bought a part of the Kansas City Royals and got engaged to his longtime girlfriend.
Now, in terms of the contract, Mahomes did more than simply reset the market; he created an entirely new one. In many top-of-the-market deals, players surpass the previous high by a million here or there -- even a $10,000 increase was enough to put one player on this list and push another player off.
Mahomes’ $450 million contract tripled the previous NFL record for total value (Matt Ryan’s $150 million deal from 2018) and increased the high-water mark for average per year by almost 30 percent (from Russell Wilson’s $35 million APY). It might be a while before we see a contract like Mahomes’ again, though the specifics of the deal -- in terms of guaranteed money, specifically -- left some to be desired.
Mahomes is the only player to average 300-plus passing yards per game in his career and is the highest-rated passer in NFL history (108.7). Entering his fourth season as a starter in 2021, Mahomes will look to make his third straight Super Bowl appearance.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $16 million
Full contract: Four years, $64.1 million extension (Signed: 2020)
Guaranteed at signing: $30.1 million (46.9 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $8.2 million
2021 cap hit: $6.9 million (3.8 percent of 2021 salary cap)
Bad luck struck McCaffrey's first year as the NFL’s highest-paid running back; he missed a majority of last season due to myriad injuries. The 2019 first-team All-Pro selection played just three games in 2020, but had 20-plus touches and scored two touchdowns in each of them. His rate production saw no decline, as he ranked top three in the league in scrimmage yards (124.7) and touchdowns per game (2.0) last year.
McCaffrey is one of the NFL’s rare three-down workhorses, leading the league in touches and scrimmage yards per game over the past three seasons. In his last healthy season (2019), McCaffrey became just the third player in NFL history with 1,000-plus rushing and receiving yards in a single season -- finishing with 2,392 scrimmage yards, the third-highest total in NFL history.
Fellow 2017 draft classmate Alvin Kamara took a swing at the All-Paid Team's top RB spot in September, but fell a little over $1 million short of the mark on a contract with an additional year in length. Ezekiel Elliott, whom McCaffrey eclipsed in April of 2020, still has the most total guarantees ($50.1 million) at the position.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $27.3 million
Full contract: Two years, $54.5 million (Signed: 2020)
Guaranteed at signing: $42.8 million (78.4 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $13.8 million
2021 cap hit: $12.5 million (6.8 percent of 2021 salary cap)
I can only feel for the city of Houston when its previous head coach, Bill O'Brien, said this about trading arguably the team’s best player. The aftermath of the trade? Hopkins finished top three in the NFL in receptions (115) and receiving yards (1,407) during his first season in Arizona. O'Brien was fired four games into his first season without the star wide receiver.
Hopkins also negotiated his own two-year extension that made him the first wide receiver in NFL history to earn over $25 million annually. Then he helped Kyler Murray improve his completion percentage, pass yards, pass touchdowns and passer rating in his second season. Not only did Hopkins tie a career high with 115 receptions in 2020, but he also accounted for the highest percentage of any team's receiving yards (34.3).
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $22 million
Full contract: Three years, $66 million (Signed: 2019)
Guaranteed at signing: $64 million (96.7 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $15.3 million
2021 cap hit: $23.1 million (12.6 percent of 2021 salary cap)
Jones is the only wide receiver in NFL history to average 90-plus receiving yards per game in his career (95.5). He averaged 85.7 receiving yards per game in 2020, good for seventh in the NFL. However, his impact is best seen through the play of 35-year-old Matt Ryan. In a tough injury season last fall, Jones played more than 40 percent of the snaps in just seven games, and Ryan’s splits with and without him tell the story:
- With Jones: 3-4 record, 67.8 comp pct, 324.3 pass YPG, 15 pass TD, 3 INT, 106.4 passer rating.
- Without Jones: 1-8 record, 62.9 comp pct, 256.7 pass YPG, 11 pass TD, 8 INT, 82.9 passer rating.
To give those numbers some context, a 106.4 passer rating would be the third-highest in Ryan’s career, while 324.3 pass YPG would set a career high. An 82.9 passer rating would have been Ryan’s lowest since his second NFL season in 2009. Ryan, unsurprisingly, is just a better QB with No. 11 on the field.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $20 million
Full contract: Four years, $80.1 million (Signed: 2020)
Guaranteed at signing: $26.5 million (33.1 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $13 million
2021 cap hit: $15.7 million (8.6 percent of 2021 salary cap)
One of four wide receivers earning $20 million per year, Allen’s average annual value is $25,000 more than Amari Cooper’s, which got him the final spot on this list. Once considered an injury risk after missing 23 games in 2015 and '16, Allen has been sidelined for just two games in the last four seasons (both in 2020). He’s one of three players with at least 400 receptions over that span, along with DeAndre Hopkins and Michael Thomas. Hopkins is WR1 on this squad, while Thomas was WR3 on the 2020 team (the spot Allen now holds). Allen predictably became Justin Herbert’s No. 1 target, helping the quarterback set an NFL rookie record with 31 touchdown passes in 2020.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $15.0 million
Full contract: Five years, $75 million (Signed: 2020)
Guaranteed at signing: $23.6 million (31.5 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $3.6 million
2021 cap hit: $5.4 million (3 percent of 2021 salary cap)
It took the years for the tight end market to see any growth. Jimmy Graham was the NFL's highest-paid tight end from 2014 through '19 despite playing for three different teams (Saints, Seahawks, Packers) on two separate contracts. One reason being the Chiefs' savvy move to extend Travis Kelce during the 2016 offseason before his string of (now five) 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
In 2020, the piper was to be paid for the Chiefs, who gave Kelce a four-year deal worth $14.3 million per season. On the same day, however, the 49ers and Kittle agreed to the five-year, $75 million pact that surpassed the former's contract by just under $1 million a year. Kittle missed eight games last season, but still made the most of his time on the field. Only Kelce (94.4) averaged more receiving yards per game among tight ends than Kittle (79.3) in 2020.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $23.1 million
Full contract: Six years, $138.1 million (Signed: 2021)
Guaranteed at signing: $40.1 million (29 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $32.3 million
2021 cap hit: $8.2 million (4.5 percent of 2021 salary cap)
That $10,000 increase this offseason mentioned in Patrick Mahomes' entry? Williams surpassed Green Bay's David Bakhtiari by that figure this offseason, and the latter let the former know, in good fun, that he was aware of this development.
The 49ers traded for Williams during the 2020 NFL Draft after he missed the 2019 season with Washington (the only season where he's missed the Pro Bowl after since 2011). Williams went on to be PFF's highest-graded overall and run-blocking offensive tackle in 2020, and San Francisco rewarded his efforts this offseason with a contract that included the highest total value, average per year and signing bonus ($30.1 million) for an offensive lineman in NFL history. However, the actual total value of the contract is inflated, especially with a $32 million base salary for a 38-year-old Williams in 2026.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $16.0 million
Full contract: Five years, $80 million (Signed: 2021)
Guaranteed at signing: $31.9 million (39.9 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $18.1 million
2021 cap hit: $4.5 million (2.5 percent of 2021 salary cap)
Injuries along the offensive line and the Buccaneers' pressure on Patrick Mahomes spoiled the Chiefs' bid for back-to-back Super Bowl championships. Kansas City has remade its offensive line this offseason, and Thuney gives the Chiefs a two-time Super Bowl champion who's never missed a start in his career and allowed just three sacks over the last three seasons, per Pro Football Focus.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $13.5 million
Full contract: Four years, $54 million (Signed: 2021)
Guaranteed at signing: $25.5 million (47.2 percent of contract)
2021 cash: N/A
2021 cap hit: N/A
New quarterback Jared Goff has to be pleased with his new franchise's investment along the offensive line during the 2021 offseason. The Lions made Ragnow the NFL's highest-paid center a week after drafting tackle Penei Sewell with the seventh overall pick in the draft. Ragnow surpassed Corey Linsley, who was the only center with a higher PFF grade than Ragnow in 2020, by $1 million per season. The 2018 first-round pick made his first Pro Bowl last season, but he couldn't celebrate due to a fractured throat which left him unable to talk for two weeks following a Week 14 game against the Packers.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $14.1 million
Full contract: Four years, $56.4 million (Signed: 2019)
Guaranteed at signing: $13.3 million (23.6 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $10.5 million
2021 cap hit: $7 million (3.8 percent of 2021 salary cap)
Brooks started 48 straight games and made three Pro Bowls for the Eagles from 2017 through 2019. He earned the highest PFF grade by an offensive lineman in 2019 (92.9), but he's also suffered three major injuries in the span of two seasons. He tore his right Achilles during the 2018 playoffs (though didn't miss a game in 2019), suffered a dislocated shoulder during the 2019 playoffs and then missed the entire 2020 season after tearing his left Achilles.
NOTE: Brandon Scherff will earn $18.0 million with Washington in 2021 on a non-exclusive franchise tag.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $18 million
Full contract: Four years, $72 million (Signed: 2019)
Guaranteed at signing: $25 million (34.7 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $13.7 million
2021 cap hit: $17.8 million (9.8 percent of 2021 salary cap)
Despite the disparate views on right tackles, Johnson was elite enough to be the NFL's highest-paid offensive lineman at one point in 2019 and now ranks fifth at the position. He missed nine games in 2020 and was not selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time since the 2016 season. Jalen Hurts will hope for Johnson's healthy return, as the Eagles allowed 65 sacks in 2020, 15 more than the next-closest teams.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $22.5 million
Full contract: Six years, $135 million (Signed: 2018)
Guaranteed at signing: $50 million (37.0 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $19.9 million
2021 cap hit: $14.4 million (7.9 percent of 2021 salary cap)
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year remains the NFL's most dominant presence. Only three players in the history of the league have won the award three times: Donald, J.J. Watt and Lawrence Taylor. After a dominant regular season, the NFL's No. 1 scoring and total defense in 2020 regressed in the playoffs as Donald struggled to stay on the field due to a rib injury.
As an interior defensive lineman, Donald has 10-plus sacks in five of his last six seasons, and he's the only player in the NFL to be named an All-Pro and Pro Bowler in each of the last six seasons. (Donald earned a Pro Bowl bid but not All-Pro honors as a rookie in 2014.) He's also been PFF's highest-graded defensive player in each of the last five seasons.
Donald has gone from the NFL's highest-paid defensive player (and first to make $20 million annually) to a legit value in the span of three seasons, with Joey Bosa now making $4.5 million more per year. Donald's defensive NFL record $40 million signing bonus has allowed the Rams to create immediate cap relief by restructuring his contract, as they did this offseason.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $21 million
Full contract: Four years, $84 million (Signed: 2020)
Guaranteed at signing: $39.4 million (46.9 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $17 million
2021 cap hit: $17 million (9.3 percent of 2021 salary cap)
After trading the 13th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to the 49ers for Buckner, the Colts made him the NFL's second-highest-paid interior defensive lineman. The 49ers, on the other hand, drafted Javon Kinlaw 14th overall (after trading back with the Buccaneers), who contributed 1.5 sacks and four QB hits in 14 games.
The Waianae, Hawaii, native (shout out to the 808) is a physical force who helped transform the Colts into a top-10 scoring and total defense; he led Indianapolis in sacks (9.5), QB hits (26) and tackles for loss (10) in 2020. His QB hit total set a new career high and ranked fourth among interior defensive lineman in 2020, and Buckner was named first-team All-Pro for the first time.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $27 million
Full contract: Five years, $135 million (Signed: 2020)
Guaranteed at signing: $78.0 million (57.8 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $13.8 million
2021 cap hit: $20.8 million (11.4 percent of 2021 salary cap)
Football is in Bosa's blood. He's the son (John), brother (Nick, who will find himself on this team soon enough) and nephew (Eric Kumerow) of first-round NFL draft picks. He attended NFL factory St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale and played his college ball at recent pass-rusher hotbed Ohio State. Is it really a surprise that Bosa became the NFL's highest-paid defensive player last summer? Or that he is the first such player to receive either $100-plus million in partial guarantees or $70-plus million in full guarantees.
Bosa has missed 13 games over the last three seasons, including four in 2020. Despite recording just 7.5 sacks in 12 games, Bosa finished with the second-highest quarterback pressure percentage (15.6) in the NFL (according to Next Gen Stats, minimum 150 pass rush snaps). He's been selected to the Pro Bowl in three of the last four seasons.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $25 million
Full contract: Five years, $125 million (Signed: 2020)
Guaranteed at signing: $50 million (40 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $21.7 million
2021 cap hit: $9.4 million (5.2 percent of 2021 salary cap)
Garrett was the NFL's highest-paid defender for exactly two weeks before Bosa signed his extension on July 28 and surpassed him. He's definitely been worth the price of a No. 1 overall pick. Garrett has averaged 0.83 sacks per game in his career, the most of any player in the 21st century. The three players right below him: T.J. Watt, J.J. Watt and Von Miller.
Garrett was integral to the Browns' 2020 playoff run, as his 56 QB pressures last season trailed only Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald (71). If his appearance at the 2021 NFL Draft is any indication, no weight will be spared in Garrett's preparation for the 2021 season.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $18.0 million
Full contract: Three years, $54.0 million (Signed: 2019)
Guaranteed at signing: $24.5 million (45.4 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $13.4 million
2021 cap hit: $17.2 million (9.4 percent of 2021 salary cap)
If Wagner and the Seahawks' "Legion of Boom" defense were a meme, it would definitely be the overly used one with Will Smith in an empty living room during a scene from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Seattle ranked top five in scoring and total defense in each of Wagner's first five seasons; the 'Hawks haven't cracked the top 10 in either category in any of the last four seasons.
The last remnant of one of history's greatest units, Wagner has been the league's best middle linebacker for over half a decade. Nine inside linebackers have made seven or more Pro Bowls in his first nine NFL seasons. The list includes six Pro Football Hall of Famers, Patrick Willis, Luke Kuechly and Wagner.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $17 million
Full contract: Five years, $85 million (Signed: 2019)
Guaranteed at signing: $43 million (50.6 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $6 million
2021 cap hit: $7.5 million (4.1 percent of 2021 salary cap)
The Jets' return on investment on Mosley's contract has been less than desired thus far. However, an injury and pandemic are to blame for Mosley missing 30 of 32 games since signing his $85 million contract in 2019. The total value and fully guaranteed money are still the bar in the standup-linebacker market, despite being surpassed by Wagner in average per season.
Prior to joining the Jets as a free agent, the 2014 first-round pick ranked top five among linebackers in tackles, interceptions and passes defensed from 2014 through '18. He made four Pro Bowls in his first five seasons as a member of the Ravens. Robert Saleh should have no problem finding a place for the versatile linebacker in New York.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $20 million
Full contract: Five years, $100 million (Signed: 2020)
Guaranteed at signing: $43.7 million (43.7 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $17.5 million
2021 cap hit: $9.7 million (5.3 percent of 2021 salary cap)
The message was clear when Ramsey pulled up to Jaguars training camp in the back of a Brinks truck in 2019: The NFL's best cornerback was expecting to be compensated in a MAJOR way. It took a trade to the Rams, which cost Los Angeles two first-round picks and a fourth-rounder, but Ramsey finally got his well-deserved raise in September 2020.
The NFL's first $100 million defensive back, Ramsey and fellow All-Paid Team member Aaron Donald create the core of a Rams team that finished as the league's top scoring and total defense last season. Ramsey's elite play in coverage continued in 2020, as he allowed a 50.0 completion percentage in coverage, tied for the second-lowest among all cornerbacks with at least 25 targets in coverage (PFF).
Ramsey is another case of the intersection between value and compensation. He's the only defensive back to make the Pro Bowl in each of the last four seasons and has also earned two first-team All-Pro selections over that span.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $19.5 million
Full contract: Five years, $97.5 million (Signed: 2020)
Guaranteed at signing: $40.3 million (41.3 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $18.2 million
2021 cap hit: $10.2 million (5.6 percent of 2021 salary cap)
In the midst of his second straight Pro Bowl campaign, Humphrey signed an extension that made him the second-highest-paid defensive back in terms of total value, average per year, total guarantees and money guaranteed at signing. As the second-most-targeted defender in 2020 (103 targets in coverage, per PFF), Humphrey worked for his bag last season. Another physical, man-coverage corner always looking to make a play, Humphry led the NFL with eight forced fumbles in 2020. He was the first defensive back to lead the NFL in the category since Charles "Peanut" Tillman (creator of the "Peanut Punch") had 10 in 2012.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $17.3 million
Full contract: Four years, $69 million (Signed: 2020)
Guaranteed at signing: $36.7 million (53.2 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $18.3 million
2021 cap hit: $6.8 million (3.7 percent of 2021 salary cap)
There was statistical regression in 2020, but it's hard not to regress after allowing zero touchdowns and tying for the league lead with six interceptions the season prior. That's especially true in a game that puts defenders at a disadvantage by the nature of its rule set. White's complete body of work has been elite: Nineteen career takeaways (15 interceptions, four fumble recoveries) and 54 passes defensed each rank top five since White entered the NFL in 2017. Looking for his third straight Pro Bowl nod in 2021, White will make more cash in 2021 ($18.3 million) than any other defensive back in the league.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $15.3 million
Full contract: Four years, $61 million (Signed: 2021)
Guaranteed at signing: $32.1 million (52.6 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $17 million
2021 cap hit: $5.8 million (3.2 percent of 2021 salary cap)
Simmons has not missed a play since the start of the 2018. Those 3,067 consecutive snaps comprise the longest active streak of any player, according to Next Gen Stats. He does far more than just show up, too. Simmons was the only player with 90-plus tackles and five-plus interceptions in 2020, and All-Pro Tyrann Mathieu (six) was the only safety with more picks.
Simmons has gone from under-the-radar starter to bona fide star in quick time, finally earning Pro Bowl recognition for the first time last season. The Broncos placed the franchise tag on Simmons for the second straight offseason, but got a deal done shortly after the start of the new league year. Simmons' paycheck finally matches his production; his $17 million in cash paid is the most of any safety in 2021.
AVERAGE PER YEAR: $14.8 million
Full contract: Four years, $59 million (Signed: 2020)
Guaranteed at signing: $22.1 million (37.5 percent of contract)
2021 cash: $11.1 million
2021 cap hit: $7.8 million (4.3 percent of 2021 salary cap)
Baker is a versatile defender, though his presence is felt much more against the run. He ranked second among defensive backs with 64 tackles on such plays. He and Jordan Poyer were the only defensive backs with 100-plus tackles, two sacks and two interceptions last season.
The Cardinals set the expectations high by making him the league's highest-paid safety prior to the 2020 campaign. Baker responded by making his second straight Pro Bowl and completing his full transition from All-Pro special teamer as a rookie in 2017 to All-Pro safety in 2020. In all, Baker has three Pro Bowl selections in four seasons and just turned 25 in January.