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Next month’s annual induction of new members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, will be a celebration of NFL players who truly excelled on the field. Now, in this space, we will induct the inaugural members of the Business of Football Hall of Fame, a celebration of NFL players who have truly excelled off the field.
For those who follow me on social media, you know my periodic references to players who stand out in the business of football. Today we officially recognize some of them.
A couple of notes: This column addresses earnings only from NFL teams. Marketing and endorsement income are not part of the equation for this induction. Also, there are obviously players who have made significantly more money than some of the players below—both Manning brothers come to mind—but their earnings are not out of the ordinary for their level of talent and achievement. For the players below, their off-field success has largely outpaced their on-field success, or they have done something else notable to maximize their earnings or distinguish themselves.
Whether through good fortune and/or good negotiating, these 12 have made the cut. I present to you the inaugural class of my Business of Football Hall of Fame.
Sam Bradford (Career earnings: $130 million in nine seasons)
Bradford may be the easiest choice of all. Indeed, there may be a Sam Bradford wing in the Business of Football Hall of Fame.
Bradford came into the NFL at the perfect time, the top overall pick in the last season (2010) before the NFL and NFLPA agreed to drastically reduce earnings of players selected at the top of the draft. Bradford’s rookie contract earnings with the Rams were $78 million, almost $50 million more than the contract given to this year’s top pick, Trevor Lawrence. Not only was Bradford the highest-paid rookie ever, but he also became one of the highest-paid players in the history of the NFL before ever taking a snap.
Despite injury-filled seasons with the Rams, Bradford was able to leverage a player-friendly contract with the Eagles after being traded there, one that included an $11 million signing bonus that the Eagles would eventually eat before trading him to the Vikings. Bradford even secured $15 million at the end of his career with the Cardinals for starting just three games, while serving as a placeholder for Josh Rosen.
Bradford’s remarkable ability to cash in at every opportunity makes him the face of this Business of Football Hall of Fame.
Chase Daniel (Career earnings $38.9 million in 12 seasons and counting)
Daniel has parlayed a sterling reputation as a valuable addition to a quarterback room into a Hall of Fame career in the Business of Football. He has banked nearly $39 million in 12 seasons while making five starts, an astounding record of about $8 million per start that may never be broken. Daniel now continues to play his unique and valuable (especially to him) role, as a savant backup quarterback, now tutoring Justin Herbert with the Chargers.
He has thrown 261 total passes for the Saints, Chiefs, Eagles, Bears and Lions.
Ryan Fitzpatrick (Career earnings: $82.1 million in 17 seasons and counting)
Fitzpatrick is, in simplest terms, a Business of Football survivor. Every time he has signed on seemingly as a placeholder for a young quarterback, he has somehow caught lightning in a bottle and made the team rethink that proposition, while at the same time positioning himself for another starting opportunity elsewhere. He has earnings from nine different NFL teams and is now the new presumed starting quarterback for the Washington Football Team, where he could be the Week 1 starter for a fifth different team in the last eight seasons. Fitzpatrick is a Business of Football marvel.
Kirk Cousins (Career earnings: $161.7 million in 10 seasons and counting)
Cousins reaped fabulous financial rewards because the Washington Football Team only wanted to “date” and not “marry” him. The team did not offer him a serious contract extension before applying consecutive franchise tags in 2016 and ’17. Cousins was one of the few productive quarterbacks in history to reach the hallowed ground of free agency and leveraged that status with the first fully guaranteed veteran contract in NFL history, an $84 million deal with the Vikings. And in 2020, using the leverage of the last year of that deal coupled with the Vikings’ cap issues, Cousins cashed in again. Cousins will likely retire as one of the top earners ever, with many more successful quarterbacks ranking below him in career earnings.
Alex Smith (Career earnings: $189.7 million in 16 seasons)
The top overall pick in the 2005 draft received a $49.5 million rookie contract and—despite mixed results on the field—was later able to obtain starter-level from both the Chiefs and the Washington Football Team. Smith’s late-career earnings, paired with his pre-CBA rookie contract, now place him 10th all-time in career earnings. He’s ahead of contemporaries like Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco and the undrafted Tony Romo.
Nick Foles (Career earnings: $78.4 million in 10 seasons and counting)
Foles leveraged two separate stints as the Eagles’ backup turned starter—including the latter one that resulted in a Super Bowl victory—into elite-level quarterback contracts with both the Rams and Jaguars. As an Eagle, his performance certainly matched his level of compensation. As a non-Eagle, however, he has started and won just seven games in four years, making him a Business of Football marvel compared to his play.
JaMarcus Russell (Career earnings: $39.4 million in three seasons)
Russell, more than any one player in NFL history, can be blamed for the owners’ and players’ negotiating the current CBA rookie-pay system at the top of the draft. This contract, more than any other, embarrassed 1) owners who were paying elite-quarterback money to rookie busts, and 2) veteran players who were seeing unproven rookies make so much more than them. Russell was the No. 1 pick in 2007, started 25 games and threw 18 touchdown passes. He lasted three seasons in the NFL but somehow purloined almost $40 million from the Raiders. Masterful work in the Business of Football.
Brock Osweiler (Career earnings $41.4 million in seven seasons)
Osweiler, like Cousins above, is the poster child for the power of free agency. He flashed in the final year of his rookie contract with the Broncos to somehow leverage $37 million guaranteed from the Texans. Houston realized its mistake a year into the deal and packaged draft capital to send this albatross of a contract to the Browns, for whom Osweiler never played a down. Osweiler finished his career with seven starts and more than $41 million in career earnings, certainly Business of Football Hall of Fame numbers.
Larry Fitzgerald (Career earnings $180.8 million in 17 seasons)
Fitzgerald is the highest-earning non-quarterback in NFL history, and on the offensive side of the ball it’s not even close. Fitzgerald, represented by the late, great agent Eugene Parker, signed not one, not two, but three different market-setting wide receiver contracts! His career earnings rose to levels never seen by a skill-position player, and his ability to reach the top of his position’s market multiple times may never be matched. He has not yet decided whether he’ll continue to raise the bar for an 18th season.
Ndamukong Suh (Career earnings: $165 million in 11 seasons and counting)
Suh’s $9 million guaranteed from the Buccaneers this year place him within $10,000 of Julius Peppers’s record for highest-earning defensive player in NFL history, and an additional $1 million in incentives could give him the record by the end of 2021. This will be Suh’s 12th season; Peppers played 17. Drafted second behind Bradford in 2010, Suh pocketed $64 million on his rookie contract before leveraging more than $60 million guaranteed from the Dolphins in free agency. He followed up those two massive long-term deals with a sequence of one-year deals totaling more than $40 million. Suh may make the regular Hall of Fame one day, but he is now inducted into the Business of Football Hall of Fame for his ability to maximize his earnings at every step of his career.
Darrelle Revis (Career earnings: $124.2 million in 11 seasons)
Revis’s name has become synonymous with the business of football. He consistently and strategically leveraged his value, even while on a rookie contract with years remaining. Revis stayed away from the team until his contract was addressed, creating angst for the front office that played out on a national stage on Hard Knocks. He then used the power of free agency to cash in on two separate occasions, first with the Buccaneers—who released him after only one year—and then the Patriots. Revis made $28 million in those two years, while preserving his free agency status, only to cash in once again with the Jets for $39 million in guarantees heading into his age-30 season (the Jets paid Revis about $96 million in total). Revis, more than the vast majority of NFL players, truly understood the leverage that he had due to his ability, and used it strategically to truly maximize his earnings.
Trumaine Johnson (Career earnings: $68.6 million in nine seasons and counting)
Johnson is the Kirk Cousins of defensive players. He played out his rookie contract with the Rams and parlayed himself into consecutive franchise tags for more than $30 million. Then he hit free agency, where he wrangled $34 million guaranteed from the Jets. Not surprisingly, his performance took a downturn. Johnson has been an incredible opportunist with maximizing his earnings, meriting him our last spot among the inaugural inductees in the Business of Football Hall of Fame.
There will be no speeches, no flowery introductions, no fanfare. But know one thing about these players: They are smiling all the way to the bank.
The Business of Football always wins.
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