The ever-changing landscape of the NFL is, in a way, just like fashion. It’s never standing still, always looking for new and creative ways to evolve and, eventually, it’ll become a cycle. It’s all about trends while in the moment. Outside zone run concepts. Lighter boxes to defend the run. Versatile defensive linemen. At some point, the bell will toll on a new idea.
That theory translates to NFL contracts too, in terms of what they cost and how they’re structured. As the league has grown commercially on a global scale, now hosting games in four separate countries and peeling back the curtain for new and exciting markets, the teams have reaped the financial benefits. The NFL’s salary cap has grown at a steady rate of around seven percent year by year, apart from the COVID-19-impacted season of 2021, where the number dropped by eight percent and the rebounding year after where there was a surge of 14 percent, essentially recouping the cash flow of that lost year and then some.
The NFL cap boom has led to big QB deals
Predictably, the cap boom of the last few years has led to some large contracts. Most notably at the quarterback position. The quarterback has always been the most important player on the field — the game can live or die by their ability to control the tempo, make plays, and generally just be good at their job. But as the NFL has transitioned over the past decade to a predominantly pass-heavy league, teams are dedicating considerably more money to their signal callers.
There are currently 13 starting quarterbacks in the NFL making more than $30 million a year for their respective teams, with Aaron Rodgers currently averaging $50,271,667, the highest AAV in NFL history. On average, the quarterbacks earning more than that $30 million threshold are counting for 20 percent of their teams’ salary cap. Considering that an NFL roster consists of 53 players, one player accounting for that much money is startling.
It’s the nature of the beast, though. The best quarterbacks in the NFL give a team a better shot of winning a championship and, as a result, they command the most money. It’s perfectly acceptable to pay the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, and Josh Allen that sort of capital. But the current landscape has boomed and things start to get a little dicey.
Was the Kyler Murray deal worth it?
Teams are desperate for starting-caliber quarterbacks in the NFL. So much so, that they’ll do anything to get their guy. If that means giving a quarterback a little more to get the deal done, they’ll do it. Even if that guy isn’t necessarily a top-of-the-market player. Look no further than the Arizona Cardinals giving Kyler Murray a five-year $230 million extension with $160 million in guaranteed money.
At his best, Murray has proven to be a borderline top-10 quarterback in the NFL and he’s still only 25. The Cardinals can build around him for the next decade. Or can they? That’s the problem at play. The double-edged sword that keeps teams up at night.
Giving Murray all of that money to keep him around is nice, but he’s currently counting for 22.1 percent of the Cardinals’ cap. They’re hamstrung by their desperation right now. This is a roster that just won four games in 2022 and has multiple holes across the board. The Cardinals just aren’t a good football team, but they’ve committed a significant amount of cap to one player. A player that, just like any other, needs a supporting cast around him.
You can see where we’re going with this. Supporting casts cost money and that money becomes increasingly harder to hand out if it’s tied to one player. It’s not a new problem, though. This has been the drawback of the Minnesota Vikings during the Kirk Cousins era. The team was good enough to contend for the playoffs, but with Cousins - more specifically his contract — they struggled to put all of the pieces together to actually make a real dent in the postseason.
Cousins, like Murray, is a good-but-not-great quarterback. Effectively finding himself right in the middle of the pack as talent goes but, like Murray, earning more than that. Sure, the market eventually catches up and Cousins’ contract doesn’t look as bad as it once did, but the damage is already done.
It’s set a precedent around the league too. Middle-ground contracts just don’t exist anymore. A starting quarterback is either getting paid a rookie scale contract or he’s making the big bucks. There are exceptions, but those contracts belong to players like Mitchell Trubisky, Taylor Heinecke, and Jacoby Brissett. Bridge starters with little upside. They’re making that money because teams don’t expect them to be long-term starters.
Teams are just too scared to be in the quarterback wilderness, though, and continuity is important. But at what cost? The New York Giants just gave Daniel Jones a four-year, $160 million contract with $100 million in guaranteed money. He’s now one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in NFL history, despite being 27th out of 35 quarterbacks in EPA per play since 2019, per RBSDM.
Like the Cardinals, the Giants are now hamstrung in the short term. The Giants won nine games and made the postseason for the first time since 2016 last year, but the roster isn’t talented enough to repeat that success, even with a few additions in free agency. Paying Jones complicates the roster construction moving forward, and he’s just not good enough to carry an abnormal offensive load like Patrick Mahomes.
Consider Geno Smith
There has to be a middle ground. Teams need to find a way to adequately pay starting caliber quarterbacks while also giving themselves the flexibility to construct a roster that can compete. This round of free agency has taught us that it’s possible. On paper. The Seattle Seahawks and Las Vegas Raiders are providing parity in the quarterback market by giving Geno Smith and Jimmy Garoppolo mid-tier contracts.
The Seahawks and Smith agreed on a three-year, $75 million contract that gives him $40 million in guaranteed money, while the Raiders signed Garoppolo to a three-year, $72.7 million deal with $45 million in guarantees. In terms of AAV, the two slot in at 15th and 16th respectively. If those deals prove fruitful, they can provide a template for what could be.
Those deals perfectly fit the criteria for what could buck the trend of the inflating quarterback contract. The Seahawks can comfortably consider themselves as real contenders in the NFC with Smith, while the Raiders and Garoppolo might have a tougher time making the postseason in a vaunted AFC. These contracts give both teams flexibility, though. The Raiders still have the 11th most cap space in the NFL and the Seahawks have the 17th most, per Spotrac. While that doesn’t mean they have to spend the money right now, it sets them up nicely for free agency next year too. Both teams have top 10 picks in the NFL Draft and have the chance to pick up impact starters from day one, or even a quarterback to sit and develop behind either Smith or Garoppolo — but that’s not a necessity.
The main thing is neither team had to cave and put themselves in an awkward position and both quarterbacks got paid. This isn’t to suggest that guys like Joe Burrow or Justin Herbert shouldn’t make mega-money. When guys like Jared Goff, Kirk Cousins, or even Tua Tagovailoa hit the market soon, there might be a way to appease all sides.
After all, if you’re offering a mid-tier quarterback around $30 million a year instead of $45 million and promising that the extra cash will go towards constructing a team that has a better chance to compete for a Super Bowl, then it might be a hard offer to turn down. Once the formula proves successful, it’ll become just like fashion all over again. Follow the trends.
NFL writer from Glasgow, Scotland. Follow me on Twitter @tvalentinesport and talk Steely Dan to me.