What Numbers Really Matter in an NFL Contract

Marc LillibridgeContributor IFebruary 20, 2013

Ravens QB Joe Flacco is about to be paid!
Ravens QB Joe Flacco is about to be paid!Harry How/Getty Images

Guaranteed dollars! That is really all that matters in an NFL contract. As a certified contract adviser in the NFL, getting your client money that is guaranteed is the most important factor.

The NFL is unlike any of the other major sports. Players in the NBA and Major League Baseball have their entire contract guaranteed the second the ink dries on their contract.

When Albert Pujols signed with the Los Angeles Angels last baseball offseason, the former St. Louis Cardinals first baseman signed a 10-year, $240 million contract. That money will be his, no matter what. The entire contract is guaranteed. The same is true for an NBA player.

The NFL is different. On July 16, 2012, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees signed the richest contract in NFL history, a five-year, $100 million deal to stay a Saint through the 2016 season.

What most fans do not know is that only $60.5 million of that contract is guaranteed. Granted that is tons of money. But with salaries of $19 million and $20 million in the last two years of the deal, the Saints could release Brees without owing him the final $39 million. So realistically, the Saints could pay Brees $61 million for three years if they so choose.

That probably will not happen. But if Brees were to get injured and not be able to fulfill the length of the contract, the Saints would not owe him past the guaranteed monies in the contract.

That is why every agent worth his salt will work to get as much money as possible in the signing bonus and the first three years of the contract. The keys are to get as much of the contract guaranteed for skill, cap and injury. Let me explain these distinctions.


Some players simply get old or do not perform up to the level of play they did in the past. This happens quite a bit in the NFL. This week alone, as NFL teams work to get under the salary cap of $120 million, veteran players who were under contract are being released. The New York Jets released five players Tuesday to free up more than $31 million in cap space.

These players were released largely because their salary was more than what the Jets front office deemed their talent level to be. If any of those players had a contract that was guaranteed for skill (playing ability), they would be owed that money even if released.


Each NFL team is limited in the money it can spend on player contracts. Unlike in baseball, where a team can spend as much as it has, as long as it is willing to pay a luxury tax for exceeding a set maximum, the NFL puts a cap on the amount each team can fork out.

In 2013, the NFL salary cap is estimated to be $121 million. This means that each team must not exceed that amount in player contracts on March 12. That date is the start of free agency.

If a contract adviser can get his client a contract that is guaranteed against the cap, that player will not be released in a cap-saving move. I know you are reading this saying, "If I was an agent, I would get all my clients that deal." That is much easier said than done. Most NFL organizations will not guarantee a contract past three years of the signing date.

The clubs understand the workings of the NFL. The average career of an NFL player is three-and-a-half years. By guaranteeing a contract for longer than three years, the team is gambling that the player will still be playing a high level in the final years of his deal.


Injuries are a part of the NFL. Every year, each NFL team puts an estimated 10 players on injured reserve for the season. Each team can designate one player who can go on injured reserve for six weeks and then play again. The other players are done for the season, no matter what.

If a player has an injury guarantee in his contract, that player will get paid his money. Let's say a player signs a five-year deal and has injury guarantees for the first three seasons. These guarantees state that said player will get his entire salary even if he is injured at any point in the first three years.

In the first year of the contract, that player blows out his ankle and is forced to retire. The guarantees in the contract allow the player to get paid his full salaries for the first three years of the deal. The team will eat the gamble they took by signing the player, but will be off the hook for Years 4 and 5 of the contract. The team will not owe the player any of the money in the last two years of this example contract.

So as you start to see teams purge their roster of aging or expensive veteran players, know that even the players they sign to big-money deals in March may not be on your favorite team for more than three seasons.

Find out how much money your team guaranteed the player. This will more or less tell you how long that player will be wearing your team's colors. When you read about a player getting a six-year deal for $120 million, do some digging. Most of the salaries after the first three years are inflated to make the contract look larger than it truly is.

The only numbers that do not lie in an NFL contract are the guaranteed salary numbers.