Urlacher earned $15 million for '03

During a 2003 season that continued a bull market for NFL salaries, it was actually a Bear who led the way, as the league's nouveau riche continued to expand.

Courtesy of a seven-year contract extension, worth about $52.5 million in so-called "new money" and including a whopping $13 million signing bonus, Chicago middle linebacker Brian Urlacher was the NFL's highest-paid player for '03. According to salary documents obtained by ESPN.com, the four-time Pro Bowl performer totaled $15.055 million for the season, with his signing bonus augmented by a $1.05 million base salary, a roster bonus of $1 million and a beer-money workout bonus of $5,600.

And in a mostly faceless game, where only the most recognizable stars are courted by the Madison Avenue advertising executives, Urlacher is carving out cachet as well. Just last week, the Chicago Sun-Times reported, Urlacher appeared at a local auto show as part of his national contract with Cadillac. He also has deals with Old Spice and Snickers, and McDonald's is among his newest ardent suitors.

Before the Super Bowl, he shot a Nike commercial in Los Angeles, and that spot, which co-stars Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, will begin airing soon.

Perhaps it was the Nike shoot, a linebacker mingling with a high-profile quarterback, that best represents the NFL's ongoing blurring of the celebrity line of demarcation. Certainly it is reflective of another trend, a movement in which quarterbacks aren't the only players who require a Brink's truck on pay day, or an armed escort home. As demonstrated by the '03 salary figures, and actually those of the past few seasons, too, guys from all positions are rubbing elbows in the line at the bank now.

Like no other time in NFL history, the wealth is being spread around, and even players at positions once viewed as financial afterthoughts are now grabbing a piece of the pie.

The 2003 salary documents only offer a snapshot perspective, but they do mirror the trend toward a more egalitarian league, with a subset of players who earned $5 million or more in total compensation including players at all but the tight end and specialist positions.

There were 90 players in 2003 who banked at least $5 million and, among them, consider this rather amazing factoid: The group included as many offensive linemen, 17 in all, as quarterbacks. A dozen linebackers, 11 wide receivers, nine cornerbacks, eight defensive ends, seven safeties, six defensive tackles and three tailbacks earned at least $5 million.

Among the super elite, those 15 players who made $10 million or more in 2003, there were five wide receivers. No other position, not even quarterbacks, had more than three players among those who earned $10 million or more.

"I think you're starting to see other positions catch up," said Flozell Adams of Dallas, one of three offensive tackles who made $10 million or more in 2003. "It appears that some teams have decided they can't afford to have a quarterback who breaks the bank and who maybe throws (their salary cap) way out of whack. Hey, that's good for the rest of us."

The unleavened approach, on the other hand, wasn't necessarily good for every team.

Tampa Bay, for instance, had six players who earned $5 million or more but did not qualify for the playoffs. Non-playoff rosters in Cincinnati and Minnesota included five $5 million-plus players, and the Bengals had rookie quarterback Carson Palmer, the league's top draft pick in '03, pocket $11.08 million despite taking zero snaps. Atlanta paid a pair of players, middle linebacker Keith Brooking and wide receiver Peerless Price, more than $10 million each but won just five games.

On the flip side, Super Bowl finalists New England and Carolina counted just two players each among the league's $5 million earners. Neither team had a player who earned more than $7 million for 2003.

Every franchise in the league had at least one player in the $5 million pay bracket and all but seven had multiple players.

Not surprisingly, the common denominator among the 15 players who earned $10 million or more in 2003 was that most received signing or renegotiation bonuses of eight figures. Three players -- Urlacher and Washington wide receiver Laveranues Coles ($13 million each) and St. Louis wideout Torry Holt ($12.5 million) -- got more than $12 million in upfront money.

Of the players who made $10 million or more, only Peyton Manning, who earned $11.327 million, cracked the elite group without benefit of a fat signing or renegotiation bonus. No one should be planning any telethons for the Indianapolis Colts star, however, since he is likely to sign the largest contract in NFL history this offseason.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.