NFL: Miami Dolphins at San Francisco 49ers

The last couple of weeks of the regular season can create an interesting dilemma for teams that have players with incentives and salary escalators -- the two major types of performance bonuses -- hanging in the balance. Resting a player with money on the line to preserve him for the postseason or to evaluate unproven players on teams out of playoff contention can create friction between the locker room and the coaches/management. 

I had firsthand experience with this scenario when I was an agent. Jaguars Pro Bowl wide receiver Jimmy Smith, who was represented by the sports agency I helped found, had $1.85 million in annual incentives in his contract. Smith needed four catches to earn an additional $300,000 in incentives and 23 receiving yards for his ninth season with 1,000 receiving yards. The Jaguars had a meaningless regular-season finale because a wild card playoff berth was already secured. Since we represented Jacksonville's head coach, Jack Del Rio, in the latter stages of his playing career, I called him during the week of the finale to let him know what was at stake for Smith in the game. 

Del Rio assured me he would take care of Smith. He featured Smith offensively at the beginning of the game so he could make the extra money and reach the personal milestone. Smith played sparingly after catching four passes for 46 yards early in the contest.

Salary escalators and incentives can be used to bridge the financial gap when there is a disagreement in a negotiation between a player's agent and the team on the player's value. Incentives are also a way for a player taking a pay cut to make back some or all of the money he is losing through the salary reduction. 

Incentives are usually designed to be classified as not likely to be earned (NLTBE) so that they will not count against the salary cap when a deal is signed. Generally, any incentives with higher thresholds than the player's or team's statistical performance in the prior season qualify as NLTBE. The most frequent categories for individual achievement are playtime or based on the player's primary function (i.e.; rushing yards for a running back). Coupling an individual achievement with a team statistical performance also makes an incentive NLTBE. If earned, a team will incur a salary cap charge for most incentives after the playoffs end. Incentives are typically paid in February or March following the season in which they are earned.

Per game roster bonuses are treated as incentives under the salary cap even though they are calculated as a part of a contract's base value. Because of this treatment, they weren't given any consideration.

Incentives are preferable to escalators. Triggering an escalator doesn't necessarily mean that the player will make the increased salary. The escalated amount is rarely guaranteed so teams can still ask the player to take a pay cut or release him without incurring the financial obligation. 

There are entirely too many performance bonuses in NFL contracts to recognize them all. Here's a look at 2022 performance bonuses for 20 noteworthy players. 

J.J. Watt, DL, Cardinals

Maximum: $1 million
Expected bonus: $1 million

The 33-year-old announced on Tuesday he is retiring at the end of the season. The two-year, $28 million contract (worth up to $31 million through incentives and salary escalators) Watt signed with the Cardinals in 2021, after the Texans granted his request to be released, is expiring. The $1 million in incentives is based on the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year's sack total for 2022. Getting five sacks is worth $500,000. The amount increases to $700,000 and $900,000 with eight and nine sacks, respectively. The entire $1 million is earned with double-digit sacks. Watt has 9.5 sacks this season.

Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys

Maximum: $1 million
Expected bonus: None

The four-year, $160 million contract Prescott signed in March 2021 contains a $1 million incentive each year for the Cowboys winning the Super Bowl. Prescott also must take at least 50% of Dallas' offensive snaps in the Super Bowl to collect.

Derrick Henry, RB, Titans

Maximum: $500,000
Expected bonus: $500,000

The Titans moved $2 million of Henry's 2023 base salary into his 2022 compensation while leaving his $500,000 incentive for reaching 1,300 rushing yards intact. Henry hit the 1,300-yard mark in Week15's game against the Chargers.

Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, 49ers

Maximum: $8.45 million
Expected bonus: $3.7 million

San Francisco's plan to trade Garoppolo early in the offseason went out the window because an injury to his throwing shoulder during last season's playoffs required surgery in March. The trade market never materialized thanks to Garoppolo's right shoulder injury. 

Garoppolo surprisingly agreed to a massive pay cut from the $25 million he was scheduled to make this season to $7 million with an additional $8.45 million in incentives right before the final roster cutdown to stay with the 49ers as 2020 third overall pick Trey Lance's backup. Lance's season-ending broken right ankle early in Week 2's contest versus the Seahawks put Garoppolo back in the lineup. Garoppolo is currently sidelined because of breaking his left foot against the Dolphins in Week 13. The 49ers could choose to stick with 2022 seventh-round pick Brock Purdy during a deep playoff run even if Garoppolo can return.

Garoppolo has an incentive paying $250,000 for every game in which he participates in at least 25% of San Francisco's offensive plays where there's an additional $100,000 in a 49ers win. San Francisco making the playoffs where Garoppolo's regular-season playtime is 50% or more is worth $500,000. Garoppolo also gets $500,000 if his offensive playtime is 50% or above in the NFC Championship Game and $500,000 more with a win. Playing at least 50% in the Super Bowl is worth an additional $1 million.

The 49ers have seven wins in the 10 games where Garoppolo played at least 25%. His playtime for the season after 15 games is 63.23% (614 of 971 offensive snaps).

Bobby Wagner, LB, Rams

Maximum: $3 million
Expected bonus: $750,000

Wagner was intent on coming back home to Southern California after the Seahawks released him in March rather than pay him $16.6 million this year on a $20.35 million salary cap number. He joined the Super Bowl LVI champion Rams on a five-year, $50 million contract worth up to $65 million through incentives. 

Wagner has $3 million in annual incentives based on playtime, team success and individual honors. There's $250,000 each with 80% or more defensive playtime and the Rams improving on 2021's league ranking in points allowed, total defense and average net yards per passing play. Another $500,000 is made with at least 90% playtime with an additional $750,000 for this playtime and making the playoffs. A Pro Bowl selection, which didn't happen, with the Rams improving on one of those rankings, is worth $500,000 instead of the Pro Bowl bonus when both are accomplished. First team All-Pro/All-NFL by the Associated Press, Pro Football Writers of America or the Sporting News earns $1 million.

Wagner's defensive playtime is 99.06% with two weeks left in the season. The Rams were 15th, 15th and 17th, respectively, in points allowed, average net yards per passing play and total defense in 2021. This year's rankings are tied for 17th, 22nd and 12th in these categories.

Geno Smith, QB, Seahawks

Maximum: $3.5 million
Expected bonus: $2.5 million

Smith won a training camp battle with Drew Lock to succeed Russell Wilson, who was dealt to the Broncos in a blockbuster trade at the beginning of the offseason. He is playing on a one-year $3.5 million contract worth up to $7 million though incentives. 

Smith gets $250,000 with 55% or more offensive playtime. There's an additional $250,000 each at the 65%, 75% and 85% playtime levels. The amount earned doubles if the Seahawks make the playoffs or have 10 wins. The necessary playtime thresholds are each 5% lower in this instance. Throwing for at least 3,400 yards is worth $250,000. The amount goes to $750,000 if 3,700 passing yards is reached and is $1 million for hitting the 4,000-yard mark. Smith earned $500,000 for being selected to the Pro Bowl. He has easily exceeded the 20 touchdown passes also necessary to qualify for this $500,000.

Smith has been on the field for all 951 of Seattle's offensive snaps this season. Smith has thrown for 3,886 yards and 27 touchdowns. Seattle needs to win the final two regular-season games and get some help from other teams to make the playoffs with a 9-8 record.

Chris Jones, DT, Chiefs

Maximum: $1.25 million
Expected bonus: $1.25 million

Jones signed a four-year, $80 million contract in 2020 as a franchise player. The deal contains $1.25 million in annual incentives for reaching 10 sacks. Jones has 12 sacks this season. His 10th came in a Week 12 contest against the Rams.

Stephon Gilmore, CB, Colts

Maximum: $1.5 million
Expected bonus: $1 million

Gilmore didn't sign a two-year, $20 million deal worth up to $23 million with incentives until the middle of April when the 2022 NFL Draft was approaching. He has $1 million in playtime incentives. Gilmore earns $250,000 for at least 70% defensive playtime, another $250,000 once he hits 80% and an additional $500,000 with playtime of 90% or more. He has been on the field for 99.01% of Indianapolis' defensive snaps this season. There's also $1 million for being named first team All-NFL by the Associated Press.

Terron Armstead, OT, Dolphins

Maximum: $2.5 million
Expected bonus: $1.35 million

Armstead's market didn't develop as anticipated in free agency because of durability concerns. He only played eight games in 2021 and had knee surgery in January. Armstead had played 97 of a possible 145 regular-season games in nine NFL seasons prior to signing a five-year, $75 million contract containing $43.73 million of guarantees with the Dolphins. There are $2.5 million of incentives in every year that make the deal worth up to $87.5 million.

Up to $1.85 million of the $2.5 million is playtime incentives contingent on the Dolphins ranking in the NFL's top 25 in either average net yards gained per passing play or average net yards gained per running play. Miami leads the league in average net yards gained per passing play. Armstead makes $300,000 for 65% or more offensive playtime, with an additional $400,000 for 70%. He gets another $500,000 for 80% or more playtime and $650,000 more for at least 85% of Miami's offensive snaps. Armstead's offensive playtime is 74.7% (688 of 921 plays) through 15 games. There is $650,000 for making the Pro Bowl, which has been achieved.

Za'Darius Smith, Edge, Vikings

Maximum: $1 million
Expected bonus: $750,000

Smith was set to return to the Ravens, who took him in 2015's fourth round, on a four-year, $35 million contract before Von Miller and Chandler Jones signed for deals averaging significantly more. Instead, he joined the Vikings on a backloaded, three-year, $42 million deal worth up to $44 million with incentives.

Smith has $1 million in 2022 incentives based on sacks. It's $500,000 for 8.5 sacks. He gets an additional $250,000 with 10.5 sacks and another $250,000 for 12.5 sacks. Smith has 10 sacks in 15 games this season.

Christian Kirk, WR, Jaguars

Maximum: $3 million
Expected bonus: $1.5 million

The Jaguars raised eyebrows by signing Kirk to a four-year, $72 million contract with $37 million fully guaranteed when free agency began. The deal is worth up to $84 million through incentives for a maximum value of $21 million per year. Kirk's $18 million per year easily exceeded all reasonable projections of his contract. He didn't have 1,000 receiving yards in any of his four NFL seasons with the Cardinals.

Kirk has incentives for 80, 90 and 100 catches. He also has incentives for 1,000, 1,100 and 1,200 receiving yards. He makes $500,000 for each of the six thresholds reached. Kirk has 76 receptions for 988 yards through 15 games. He's on track for 86 catches and 1,120 yards.

Frank Clark, Edge, Chiefs

Maximum: $7 million
Expected bonus: $1 million

Clark was originally scheduled to make $19.5 million in 2022 before dropping his pay to $6.75 million, with an additional $7 million in incentives, in order to stay in Kansas City. His $21 million 2023 salary remained as is. 

The $7 million is based on Clark's playtime, sacks and Kansas City's playoff success. Clark gets $2.5 million with 60% or more defensive playtime and at least eight sacks. It's $4 million instead with at least 65% playtime and 10 or more sacks. There's $1 million with at least 60% playtime and the Chiefs making the playoffs. Kansas City has clinched a playoff berth. There's another $500,000 with winning the AFC Championship Game, a minimum of 50% defensive playtime in that game and at least 60% playtime during the regular season. An additional $1 million is for winning the Super Bowl with at least 50% participation in the game and 65% or more playtime during the regular season. 

Clark's playtime is 64.19% through Week 16. He has five sacks in 13 games this season.

Justin Houston, Edge, Ravens

Maximum: $2 million
Expected bonus: $1.5 million

Houston re-signed with the Ravens on a one-year, $3.5 million deal worth up to $5.5 million through incentives with $1.5 million of the $2 million for sacks. The other $500,000 is for a Pro Bowl selection, which didn't occur. Houston gets $500,000 for reaching five sacks. There's $500,000 more with 7.5 sacks. It's an additional $500,000 with 10 or more sacks. Houston has already made $1 million because he has nine sacks. One more sack in the final two games will get Houston the entire $1.5 million based on sacks. 

Jordan Poyer, S, Bills

Maximum: $2 million
Expected bonus: $500,000

The Bills added $2 million of incentives to Poyer's contract rather than sign him to a contract extension. Poyer will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. There are multiple ways for Poyer to earn the $2 million: (1) $750,000 for six or more interceptions, (2) $500,000 for a Pro Bowl selection, (3) $500,000 for 92% or more defensive playtime, (4) $500,000 for at least 90% defensive playtime and the Bills improving in wins from 2021, (5) $500,000 for at least 90% defensive playtime and the Bills improving over 2021's league rank in sacks, (6) $500,000 for at least 90% defensive playtime and the Bills improving over 2021 league rank in turnover margin, (7) $250,000 for one fumble recovery or $300,000 with two fumble recoveries or $500,00 with five fumble recoveries and (8) $250,000 for at least one interception return for a touchdown.

Poyer isn't going to earn any of the playtime related incentives. His defensive playtime is 70.75%. He has four interceptions and hasn't recovered any fumbles. None of the interceptions were returned for a touchdown. Poyer was selected to the Pro Bowl.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Chiefs

Maximum: $7.5 million
Expected bonus: $4.5 million

Tepid free agency interest after an injury-plagued 2021 season prompted Smith-Schuster to sign a one-year, $3.25 million contract with the Chiefs worth up to $10.75 million through incentives. The Chiefs subsequently modified his contract so he could earn an additional $510,000 because his $510,000 of per game roster bonuses ($30,000 for each game active) were increased to $1.02 million ($60,000 for each game active).

There are $3 million of incentives based on receptions and receiving yards. It's $495,000 for at least 16 receptions and also separately for 130 receiving yards. There's $515,000 more for reaching 50 receptions and the same amount with 650 yards. It's an additional $500,000 each at 65 receptions and 900 yards, while 65% or more offensive playtime and Kansas City making the playoffs is worth $1.5 million. Playing at least 50% on offense in the AFC Championship Game win while having at least 65 catches and 900 yards earns $1 million. Doing the same in the Super Bowl with those regular-season statistics nets another $1 million. Being selected to the Pro Bowl, which Smith-Schuster wasn't, would have yielded $1 million as well.

Smith-Schuster has 74 catches for 877 yards so far this season. His offensive playtime is 66.31%.

Jack Conklin, OT, Browns

Maximum: $4 million
Expected bonus: $4 million

Conklin took a $4 million pay cut from $12 million to a fully guaranteed $8 million after a dislocated left elbow and a torn right patellar tendon limited him to a career-low seven games last season. The money can be earned back through playtime incentives. Conklin makes $1,333,334, $2,666.667 or $4 million, respectively, with a minimum of 55%, 65% or 75% offensive playtime. His playtime this season is 83.29%. Conklin has already gotten a bigger reward by signing a four-year, $60 million extension with $33 million of guarantees last week.

Andy Dalton, QB, Saints

Maximum: $3 million
Expected bonus: $1 million

Dalton signed a one-year, $3 million deal with $3 million of incentives to back up Jameis Winston. A back injury to Winston got Dalton in the starting lineup after the third game of the season. He has remained there despite Winston being healthy.

Dalton makes $500,000 by taking at least 50% of New Orleans' offensive snaps and another $500,000 with this playtime and making the playoffs. He can make $500,000 more by hitting the 60% playtime mark. There's an additional $500,000 for each playoff win where Dalton has at least 50% playtime for the wild card, divisional and conference championship games.

Dalton's playtime is 68.15% through 15 games this season. The Saints are still mathematically able to win the NFC South but the chances are remote.

La'el Collins, OT, Bengals

Maximum: $4 million
Expected bonus: $2 million

La'el Collins signed a three-year, $21 million contract (worth a maximum of $30 million through salary escalators and incentives) after the Cowboys released him. He has playtime incentives of $1 million for at least 80% offensive playtime and an additional $1 million once 90% is reached. The earned incentives are also added to Collins' 2023 base salary, which is currently $3.5 million. A $1 million incentive for being selected to the Pro Bowl wasn't earned.

Collins was on track for the $2 million in incentives and the $2 million salary escalator before tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee during Week 16's game versus the Patriots. He had only missed seven offensive snaps before the game. Collins' playtime is currently at 91.35% (951 of 1,041 plays). In order for Collins to be at 80% or above playtime for the season, the Bengals can't have more than 147 offensive snaps over the final two regular-season games. The Bengals are averaging 69.4 offensive plays per game.

Trent Brown, OT, Patriots

Maximum: $4.5 million
Expected bonus: $4.5 million

The two-year, $13 million deal Brown signed to remain with the Patriots is worth as much as $22 million because of $4.5 million in annual playtime incentives. Brown gets $500,000 for 65% or more offensive playtime and another $500,000 with 70% or more. At least 75%, 80%, 85% and 90% are each worth $750,000. There's also $500,000 for reaching 95% or making the Pro Bowl, which didn't happen. Brown's playtime is 97.84% through 15 games. 

Taylor Heinicke, QB, Commanders

Maximum: $2 million
Expected bonus: $625,000

Heinicke signed a two-year, $4.75 million deal worth a maximum of $8.75 million through incentives in 2021. He has an incentive paying $125,000 for every win in which he plays at least 60% of the Washington's offensive snaps for a maximum of 12 wins. There's an additional $125,000 for hitting the 60% playtime threshold in a playoff victory that's capped at two wins. Heinicke also gets $250,000 with at least 60% playtime during the regular season and Washington making the playoffs.

Heinicke took over seven games into the season after Carson Wentz broke the ring finger on his throwing hand. The Commanders won five of the nine games Heinicke has started. His playtime for the season is 58.12%. Heinicke was benched during the second half of Week 16's contest versus the 49ers. Wentz is getting the start for Week 17's game against the Browns. Washington currently holds the seventh and final seed in the NFC playoffs.