Brace yourself to hear the word guarantee(d) a lot in this section. It’s just what it is called, so it is what it is. Unlike NBA and MLB deals, NFL contracts are not guaranteed. However, some money in some contracts is fully guaranteed when a player puts pen to paper. Any signing bonus a player receives is guaranteed. Other compensation (i.e. base salaries, roster bonuses, etc.) in an NFL contract can be guaranteed for injury, skill and/or cap purposes (NFL CBA, p. 104-105).
Injury-only guarantees are just as they sound. If a player is released while he is injured and has an injury-only guarantee in a future contract year, he has a right to the money protected by the guarantee. A player who can’t perform football duties is considered injured. This type of guarantee is the most common in NFL contracts.
If a player has a skill guarantee in the future, he will be owed the money covered by it if he is neither injured nor a cap-casualty and is released for a loss or lack of skills comparable to others on the team at his position.
A player with a cap guarantee is protected against being cut to enable his team to get under the cap, to sign a free agent or to resign one of its current players.
Guaranteed P5 salaries, roster bonuses, etc. are protected for at least one of these three options and can be guaranteed for any combination of them (subject to some rules). Compensation guaranteed for all three (skill, cap or injury) is the only time the word “guarantee” truly carries weight.
Example: LeSean McCoy
During the 2012 offseason, McCoy resigned with the Eagles for $45 M over five years. He received future fully guaranteed years in his deal. He got $8.5 M to sign and had his 2012 ($650,000), 2013 ($3 M) and 2014 ($7.65 M)—along with $1 M of his 2015—P5 salaries guaranteed for skill, cap and injury. If the team released him for any reason any time after signing, he would have earned $20.765 M of his contract even if he never played another down.