In NFL salary terms, Ezekiel Elliott has reached the top of the mountain. In the NBA, his contract’s worth about as much as that of a six-team, five-point-per-game journeyman.
Put another way: the marquee running back for America’s Team is guaranteed to make about as much as the second baseman for a last-place baseball team.
Let’s set the stage. Elliott’s new deal, for six years and $90 million, doesn’t begin until after the 2020 season. While the specific payout structure hasn’t yet been spelled out, we can work with the basics: the deal will be worth an average of $15 million a year, with $50 million of that guaranteed.
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Bonuses and other escalators will likely shape that figure, but we’re not accountants here, we’re painting in broad strokes. (And yes, there is an “apples-to-oranges” line to consider: there are myriad considerations that affect paychecks, from the size of rosters, to the relative contributions to team success, to the percentage of salary cap, to the length of a season, to the length of careers. Even so, we’re focusing exclusively on individual paychecks across sports. That’s it. All salary figures via Spotrac.)
Elliott’s contract, which rode in on BREAKING NEWS alerts across the country Wednesday morning, is a perfect illustration of the immense salary disparity between the NFL’s top stars and those of the NBA and MLB. No offense intended to contract equivalents like Miles Plumlee of the Memphis Grizzlies or Dee Gordon of the Seattle Mariners, both of whom are getting paid quite handsomely for their respective efforts. But Elliott’s contract — the richest in Cowboys history, the richest ever for a running back — doesn’t even crack the NBA’s top 100 by some measures.
Switch to baseball, and we get one of sports’ little ironies: Elliott’s contract lines up with that of Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzjia — who switched sports away from football and now plays on a five-year, $90 million contract that, in pure numbers, equals Elliott’s … and still ranks “only” 47th in baseball.
Of course, the vast gap between a stated contract value and the actual guaranteed money is an NFL hallmark. Big numbers play well in the media, but don’t necessarily make their way into a player’s bank account, a fact worth keeping in mind when assessing lines like “biggest contract ever given to a Cowboy.”
Elliott’s $50 million guarantee puts him in the same boat as Plumlee, who’s the 20th highest paid center in the NBA and the 91st highest paid player overall. If we go with the $15 million average, Elliott will be pulling down the same salary as Memphis’s Jonas Valanciunas, Phoenix’s Kelly Oubre Jr., the Lakers’ Danny Green and the Knicks’ Marcus Morris and Bobby Portis.
Like most NBA contracts, baseball contracts are also guaranteed, meaning a $90 million deal is truly worth $90 million. If we drop back to just guarantees, Elliott’s $15 million-per contract is the equivalent of the 89th best in baseball, ranking even with Gordon, Philly’s Andrew McCutchen and Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell.
It’s also worth noting that Elliott is playing a devalued position. Although he’s the highest-paid running back in the league, his average salary ranks 55th in the NFL, tied with Jacksonville’s Calais Campbell and Washington’s Josh Norman. His total contract ranks 21st in the league, even with Cleveland’s Odell Beckham Jr. and Detroit’s Trey Flowers.
Look across sports, though, and the math starts to favor Elliott a touch more:
In golf, his $15 million deal would make him the Tour’s money leader, more than $5 million ahead of leader Brooks Koepka. (Rory McIlroy did pocket Elliott’s entire annual salary for winning just one tournament — the Tour Championship — last month, though.)
In the English Premier League, Elliott’s salary would rank him eighth overall, ahead of notables like Harry Kane and Mo Salah. His average is double the highest-paid player in MLS, the LA Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
In the WNBA, Elliott’s $15 million average is more than the payroll of literally every single team in the league combined.
So yes, in pure money terms, as vast as his new deal is, it’s clear Elliott’s not getting paid equivalent value relative to the wealth and popularity of his league. But hey, it could be worse. He could still be playing for free in college.
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