Everything about the NFL is big--big players, big stadiums, and especially big salaries! Even the highest salaries can vary by tens of millions, but as far as lifetime earnings go, most of these players have some things in common: they are all quarterbacks, and they have all been at the game for a decade or more. There is some disagreement about how they rank, and if we were counting endorsements in addition to salaries, that would change the game completely, but for our countdown purposes, the numbers below are accurate through Superbowl LIII in 2019.
Carson Palmer’s lifetime earnings of $174.1 million put him handily in the top 10 of lifetime earners. He played 15 seasons with three different NFL teams. He was a first-round draft pick in 2003 and was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals, where he topped out in salary at $18.5 million in 2005. He was then traded to the Oakland Raiders, where he played from 2011-2013. Those were less than stellar performance years for the Raiders, however, and both seasons ended with losing records.
From 2014-2017, he played for the Arizona Cardinals, where he reached his salary cap of $24.1 million, which at the time was the second largest single-season cap ever. Palmer earned at least $17.5 million in three of his five seasons with the Cardinals, though he spent his last season almost entirely benched due to injuries. He retired in 2017, at the age of 38.
Matthew Stafford is one of the youngest quarterbacks on the list, he’s in the peak of his career, and is commanding the peak salaries and bonuses that go with that. With total career earnings of $178.3 million so far, the Detroit Lions’ QB has already garnered some record-setting pay-outs, such as his 2017 extension package, which made him at the time the highest-paid player in the NFL. The only reason he’s not higher on this list of all-time earnings is that he hasn’t been playing as long as some of the grand old men of football, such as Brady or Manning, but he’s younger and will certainly gain on them in terms of record-setting earnings. He’s one of only four players in history who has thrown over 5000 yards in a season, and with stats like that, team owners will pay whatever it takes to keep him happy and healthy!
Matt Ryan is the starting quarterback and team captain for the Atlanta Falcons, where he has played since the beginning of his pro career in 2008. Chosen by the Falcons in the first round of the draft, Ryan has led the team to four pro-bowls and has been chosen as the first team for the All-Pro Bowl. His total career earnings of $178.7 million includes his single season highest salary of $36.5 million and the extension package that expired in 2018. In May of 2018, the Falcons offered him a new five-year extension, which included $150 million over five years and a $46.5 million signing bonus. This is the largest total salary guarantee in the history of the NFL. If he serves out all five years of the contract, his lifetime earnings will total over $318 million.
“Big Ben” Roethlisberger is a veteran quarterback for the Pittsburg Steelers and has led his team to two Super Bowl victories and six Pro Bowls in the 15 years he has played for them. His total earnings to date are $187.3 million, but his current contract is due to expire in 2019, so he may be looking at another record-setting extension package. After 15 years in the game, he’s considering retiring, but the Steelers are still performing well under his leadership, and he has only struggled with minor injuries, so there’s every chance he will sign another five-year deal. His highest paying single year so far was in 2015, when he drew a paycheck of over $35 million, but expect that to rise with a new contract, especially considering that new contracts come with new signing bonuses, and his is bound to be big money.
Chargers’ quarterback Philip Rivers might not be the flashiest player in the league, but he’s a workhorse who has kept the Chargers competitive for over a decade. With career earnings of over $202.9 million and a new contract in the works, he is likely to bump his earnings well past $220 million. He has told the press that he probably won’t play into his 40s, but considering that he has been named Comeback Player of the Year, Passing Yards Leader, Passer Rating Leader, and Completion Percentage Leader in multiple years, and led the Chargers to eight Pro Bowls, it’s likely that the Chargers will do everything they can to keep him in his current position.
The Green Bay Packers’ quarterback A-Rod is probably the most controversial placement on this list. Since there are different methods for calculating income, some lists place him at the very top, but using the standards we’ve applied to this collection, his earnings are currently at $204 million. However, his 2018 season included a payout of almost $67 million, one of the highest single-season checks ever earned, even considering that part of it was a signing bonus. His record as a QB is so extraordinary—including six Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl—that the Packers have signed him through 2023, and there’s little doubt that when this list is revised at that time, he will be at the top.
Over 19 seasons, 13 Pro Bowls, and five championships, quarterback Tom Brady finally reached the $200 million total earnings mark. But most people don’t know that Brady sacrificed a great deal of income—some people estimate it might be as much as $100 million—by giving the New England Patriots discounted contracts, so they would have more money to spend on other players and could build their roster across all positions. His numbers look small, though NFL “small” is still pretty big bucks (a $28 million season is nothing to sneeze at), compared to other career QBs, his almost two decades in the game still put him at #4 on the list. However, there’s no doubt that with his accomplishments and sheer longevity, he’d be #1 if he hadn’t given the Pats so many breaks.
Drew Brees started his career in 2001 with the San Diego Chargers, in the same year that Philip Rivers was drafted by the same team. Brees was placed as the starter and played for four years until he was picked up as a free agent by the New Orleans Saints in 2006. He is the only QB to pass over 5000 yards in more than one season—he has done it five times! His top paying season so far has been $40 million in 2012, his current career earnings have reached $221.7 million, and pending new contracts may lead to career earnings of $245 million or more. Even 18 seasons into the game, Brees shows no signs of slowing down, and if he can stay injury-free, may play well into his 40s.
Eli Manning seems to have been born in the right place and the right time. He is part of a football legacy family—including father Archie and brother Peyton, both also NFL quarterbacks. He was also a first-round draft pick in 2004, the same year as football phenoms such as Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. All 15 of his professional seasons have been played for the New York Giants, and he has led them to two Super Bowls and 4 Pro Bowls.
His highest paying season, like so many of his class, was 2015, when he pulled in $37 million, and up to this point, his earnings bring the career total to $235.3 million. However, his current contract is coming to a close, so a new extension package might push him over the mark set by his now-retired brother, the only person on this list with higher career earnings.
Five-time MVP Peyton Manning, quarterback for both the Indianapolis Colts and the Denver Broncos, tops our list with total pro career earnings of $248.7 million. His highest single-season garnered him $35 million, and he was given a $4 million bonus for leading the Broncos to the win in Super Bowl L in 2015—his last appearance in the pros. In his 18-year career, Manning led the NFL in touchdowns and yards run, so maybe being the all-time leader in earnings both on and off the field isn’t much of a surprise. Between salary, endorsements, bonuses, and licensing, Manning’s career earnings are $61 million higher than his brother Eli, who is #2 on the list—although the younger Manning isn’t retired yet, so he could catch up!