While paid players predate the formation of the NFL in 1920 by several decades, most players were paid on a per-game basis. In 1926, Red Grange changed that when he signed a 19-game deal with the Chicago Bears that earned him roughly $100,000. That was the first large NFL contract.
During the next few decades, player salaries depended on their star quality and the teams they played for. Some teams were stingy with money, while others paid in other ways--in the late 1950s, Baltimore Colts often got free beer after games. Starting around the late 1950s, players demanded a league minimum, but that fell on deaf ears. The average player at the time was getting less than $6,000 per season.
The Financial Breakthrough
The Players Association finally won recognition in 1970, and the owners agreed to a $9,000 minimum salary for rookies and $10,000 for veterans. The minimum salary crept higher through the 1970s.
Rival leagues often helped escalate salaries. In the 1960s, it was the AFL, followed by the WFL in the 1970s and the USFL in the 1980s. Salaries jumped due to bidding, including the famous John Brodie case where he was offered close to $750,000 to go to the AFL. He had been making $35,000 in the NFL.
The Big Money
The NFL strikes in 1982 and 1987 led to an explosion in salaries because the players won the rights to get more team revenues as well as the ability to bargain collectively. That helped average salaries go from $198,000 in 1986 to almost $800,000 by the start of the 1993 season.
The Deion Sanders Rule
In 1995, the Dallas Cowboys signed cornerback Deion Sanders to a $35-million contract that was loaded on the back end with bonuses and had a very small base salary in the first three years. Other owners cried foul, saying this circumvented the league's salary cap. The NFL now requires no such distorted contracts in the future.