Media outlets typically announce and talk about the “guaranteed money” in a player’s contract. However, much of this money is only partially guaranteed. Compensation in NFL contracts can be guaranteed for three purposes: skill, cap and/or injury.
Compensation in a player contract can be guaranteed for one, two, all or none of the guarantees (subject to some rules). If money in a player contract is protected for skill, cap AND injury, that money is fully guaranteed at signing and will be paid to the player (i.e. Julio Jones has $64 million of his $66 million fully guaranteed.
If money is only guaranteed for one or two of the three protections, that money is only partially guaranteed. Here is a quick breakdown of each guarantee category:
Skill guarantee: If a player contract is terminated because, in the team’s opinion, he does not have the requisite skill (due to a loss or lack of skills comparable to others on the team at his position), the player will be entitled to any money that is protected by a skill guarantee.
Cap guarantee: If a player contract is terminated so that a team can get under the salary cap, sign a free agent or re-sign one of its current players, the player is entitled to any money that is protected by a cap guarantee.
Injury guarantee: If a player is released but is currently unable to perform football duties (i.e., doesn’t pass a physical) as a result of team activities, the player is entitled to any money in his contract protected against injury. An injury-only guarantee is the most common in terms of partially guaranteed money.
Full guarantees (guaranteed at signing): Money is fully guaranteed at signing if it is guaranteed for skill, cap and injury purposes.
Most fully guaranteed money: Matt Ryan ($94.5 million with the Falcons).