Quarterback is the one NFL position that has seen consistent, top-of-the-market contract growth in recent years. This offseason, Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger pushed that to new heights, with respective deals from the Seahawks and Steelers that average $35 million and $34 million in annual value, and which exceeded the $33.5 million Aaron Rodgers got last summer from the Packers. Earlier this month, the Eagles extended Carson Wentz—who still has two years remaining on his rookie deal—for $32 million annually. Those deals all averaged more than 17 percent of the unadjusted salary cap at the time of signing. No other current position group tops out at more than 13.3 percent.
That Wilson, Roethlisberger, Rodgers, and Wentz play for regular playoff qualifiers—i.e., franchises that understand how to build sustainably successful rosters—prompts a question: In a hard-capped league like the NFL, how can these teams expect to surround their well-paid QBs with the kind of talent necessary to compete for and win a championship?
It’s a question that will have to be answered soon by the Saints and Drew Brees, the Chargers and Philip Rivers, the Cowboys and Dak Prescott, the Bucs and Jameis Winston, and the Titans and Marcus Mariota, whose deals all expire after the 2019 season. It’s also a looming consideration in the next year or two for the Rams and Jared Goff, the Texans and Deshaun Watson, and the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes. In the years ahead, it’s not hard to envision a QB pulling down an average of $40 million per year.
Let’s begin by stipulating this: Paying top-dollar for a quality quarterback is a smart move, with particular emphasis on that word quality, as opposed to just any old chump who’s capable of tossing a football forward. Yes, committing significant cap resources to one player can create limitations. “It definitely cuts down on your margin for error,” Overthecap.com founder Jason Fitzgerald recently explained on The Ringer’s NFL podcast. “Once you have that one big-time player, you really should be more cautious with the other moves that you do to keep as much flexibility as possible.”
But maintaining roster flexibility is definitely still possible with a high-priced QB. And there are a bunch of ways to do it.
There’s data to suggest the Seahawks, Steelers, Packers, and Eagles did something counterintuitive by extending their QBs for what seems like cap-devouring money. For starters, look no further than the Patriots, the league’s colossus. The Pats have long benefitted from Tom Brady’s willingness to work for less than top dollar—a fact Brady does not shrink from openly acknowledging.
“Actually, it’s the salary cap—you can only spend so much,” Brady said during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! early last month. “The more one guy gets, it’s less for others. For a competitive advantage standpoint, I like to get a lot of good players around me.”
Brady’s deal is also up after this season, and it will be fascinating to see how he and the Pats work things out, considering he’s an extreme outlier who turns 42 in August. But it’s not just Brady and the goddamn Patriots: This century’s Super Bowl champions have almost always built their rosters around QBs with salaries that haven’t consumed too much of their team’s cap. Just look at this chart (click to view the whole thing):
There’s a genuine pattern there! And one of the best team-building devices to emerge during this decade is the quarterback on a rookie contract, an asset that provides teams with four-to-five years of cost control at an extremely low rate. The Seahawks, of all teams, pioneered this technique—and they did it with Wilson, who counted for less than one percent of their cap in the years in which they won Super Bowl 48 and damn near won Super Bowl 49. The Eagles used a similar blueprint to construct the team that won it all two seasons ago. Last year, the Rams, Chiefs, Texans, Cowboys, Eagles, and Bears all made the playoffs with a QB on a rookie deal, while the Ravens did the same after eventually turning to their rookie, even as they were stuck paying Joe Flacco 14 percent of the cap to stand around and kill grass. Finally, of last year’s five highest-paid QBs—Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Matt Stafford—not one made the playoffs.
So what should teams do when QBs on fixed rookie contracts become QBs with significant bargaining power? The answer brings us back to that word quality. Kevin Clark of The Ringer summed it up most succinctly:
“The problem is not paying quarterbacks; the problem is paying bad quarterbacks. Teams must understand there is a difference between paying a quarterback a lot of money and overpaying a quarterback.”
It’s the scarcity of quality QBs that drives up the price. And that scarcity is what makes having a quality QB so vital. What allows teams to build around high-priced, quality QBs comes down to factors like timing, contract structure, roster construction, and that same rookie pay scale that makes drafted QBs so valuable in the first place.
Since June 2016, the salary cap has jumped 21.2 percent—or roughly half of the 42.3 percent increase seen by the top of the QB market during the same span. But such substantial inflation for both the cap and for QBs actually works to ease the cap crunch for teams that lock down high-priced QBs. Wilson’s and Roethlisberger’s recent histories are great examples of this.
In March 2015, Roethlisberger inked a new deal that paid $21.85 million in AAV, or 15.2 percent of the cap at signing. A few months later, the Seahawks locked Wilson down for $21.9 million in AAV, or 15.3 percent. Both deals were slightly less than the $22 million in AAV (17.9 percent of the cap at signing) Rodgers signed on for in 2013, which topped the market. But in the years that followed, that market kept growing—and growing and growing: Joe Flacco, Alex Smith, Andrew Luck, Brees, Derek Carr, Stafford, Garoppolo, Cousins, and Ryan all signed more lucrative deals. In this context, Roethlisberger, Wilson, and Rodgers all quickly became relative bargains for their respective teams.
By the final year of their previous deals, Roethlisberger accounted for just 13.1 percent of the cap, Wilson totaled just 13.4 percent, and Rodgers only 12.2 percent—which is Tom Brady territory. The league’s collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2020 season, but its broadcast contract with ESPN is in place through 2021, and its pacts with the other three networks run through 2022. With gambling and competition from streaming services to consider, it’s fair to assume that both the cap and the QB market will only continue to rise—and that the big-money contracts signed by Wilson, Roethlisberger, Rodgers, and Wentz will again become less of a burden.
The NFL may have a hard salary cap, but it’s pretty easy for teams to create workarounds. The big money in QB deals is ripe for all sorts of creative accounting that allows teams to spread cap resources around.
The 49ers did this with Garoppolo’s deal. In the years before they traded for him, the Niners had been squirreling away cap space. When they signed Garoppolo for $27.5 million in AAV in February 2018, they front-loaded his contract with a $28 million roster bonus in Year 1, leaving them with a 2018 cap hit of $37 million, which they could easily take on. As a result, Garoppolo’s 2019 cap hit dropped to $19.35 million—or just 10.3 percent of the cap. Voila! Flexibility.
The Seahawks took a different approach with Wilson by giving him a $65 million signing bonus that gets prorated for cap purposes through the end of his deal in 2023. Wilson’s cap hit this year is just 14 percent ($26.3 million); next year, assuming another $10 million in cap growth, it jumps to 15.5 percent ($31 million). By 2023, Wilson’s hit will be $39 million, but given the trajectory of the cap, it’s again pretty likely the top of the QB market will have surpassed that by then.
The Steelers took a similar approach with Roethlisberger, but with different accounting. Roethlisberger got a $37.5 million signing bonus and will collect $45 million this year. But he’ll count for $26.2 million in 2019 (13.9 percent) and $33.5 million (16.8 percent) in 2020 before his cap number drops to $31 million in 2021, the final year of his contract.
Despite all the eye-popping headlines about Wilson’s and Roethlisberger’s AAVs and cap percentages, what their teams did is somewhat in line with what the Patriots are doing with Brady, who’s actually due to count for $27 million, or 14.3 percent of the Pats’ 2019 cap.
Wentz’s deal was more complicated. Per Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, Wentz and the Eagles had to wrestle with a CBA rule that prevents a player’s salary, roster bonus, and pro-rated option-bonus for the year after the expiration of the CBA from exceeding 30 percent of the previous season’s—an obvious issue, given that Wentz’s rookie deal runs through 2020. The rule is in place to keep teams from stuffing money into post-CBA years to create additional cap flexibility now. Per Breer, the Eagles basically crammed a bunch of achievable incentives into Wentz’s deal. But his cap hits from 2021 to 2024 ought to hover in the $31 million to $34 million range—even, again, as the cap keeps going up.
Also, teams can still build caution into a QB contract by working a team-friendly vesting schedule into it that takes the deal year to year, or by forgoing a large signing bonus that locks in years of bonus proration. The cap, after all, can always be manipulated.
If teams can draft up QB contracts to massage the cap, they can also build out their rosters with the cap in mind. And there’s no one right way to do this.
As Fitzgerald told The Ringer podcast, the pursuit of second- and third-tier free agents is one approach. The Patriots and Eagles, in particular, have turned this into an art form by either allowing veterans to leave and then bringing them back years later for less money (e.g., Vinny Curry and DeSean Jackson for the Eagles, Jamie Collins for the Pats). Both teams also like to trade late-round picks for veteran players (Jackson and Jordan Howard for the Eagles, Michael Bennett for the Patriots). Additionally, the Pats are set to pay 25 of their top 53 players $4.6 million or less this year—the lowest of the four salary tiers Overthecap.com designates for those not on rookie contracts. And by dealing for Howard, the Eagles locked down a running back who’s still on his rookie deal—another pattern for them as they sought to maximize the years in which they’ve had cost control locked in for Wentz.
But there are other ways to go. The Colts are this offseason’s darlings because of the way GM Chris Ballard has been able to build a solid core around Andrew Luck ($24.6 million in AAV, on a deal signed in 2016) while also squirreling away more than $45 million in cap space, per NFLPA records. The Colts tore things down in recent years and timed their reconstruction around Luck’s return to health. They largely did it through the draft and by barely dipping their toes in free agency, where teams most frequently tend to overspend.
Having Luck allowed the Colts to trade back in the first round both last year and this year, and to stockpile picks. They had three of the first 37 picks in 2018, and they used two of them (right guard Quenton Nelson, right tackle Braden Smith) to fortify their offensive line to protect Luck. The other selection was used on inside linebacker Darius Leonard, who wound up becoming the defensive rookie of the year. This year, the Colts came away from the draft with 10 picks, including three of the first 59 selections, and six of the first 144.
The Seahawks, with Wilson on a high-priced deal, have pursued a similar strategy. Seattle continued with a purge of veterans that began last offseason by letting veteran safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Justin Coleman walk, tagging and trading defensive end Frank Clark, while safety Kam Chancellor and wideout Doug Baldwin retired. GM John Schneider went into this year’s draft with just four picks; he traded his way into making 11 selections. And other than kicker Jason Myers, the Seahawks were largely absent from free agency this spring.
Then there are the Cowboys, who have Prescott entering a contract year. As Robert Mays of The Ringer noted, Dallas is projected to have more than $50 million in cap space heading into 2020. But the Cowboys will also have a number of other players—cornerback Byron Jones, wideout Amari Cooper, linebacker Jaylon Smith, right tackle La’el Collins, plus running back Ezekiel Elliott in 2021—in line for possibly pricey extensions. That could force Dallas to do some roster pruning in other spots, as the Vikings and Falcons have had to do in recent years. But it can be done: The Steelers and Packers have long made a habit of drafting well and retaining the players they select—and the Packers still had enough flexibility this offseason to sign linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith to pricey free-agent deals, even with Rodgers making high-end QB money.
The common denominator here is having a quality quarterback; it’s much harder to find a good passer than it is any other position, so once you find one it’s generally worth paying to keep him. The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin recently cited the research of Daniel Houston, who mans the @CowboysStats Twitter account, to quantify this point:
Why does Houston feel comfortable with the prospect of the Cowboys investing in Prescott? For one, the data tells us that Prescott is an efficient quarterback. His completion percentage over expected ... puts him in a tier with players like Wilson and Matt Ryan, and Prescott also has two seasons with top-five finishes in ESPN’s QBR under his belt.
Houston’s reasoning draws on Riske’s results presented above. “The passing game is also the most consistent component of the team over time, both in-season and from year to year,” Houston explains. “You need both of those elements—impact and repeatable performance—to be a good asset. Quarterback is one of the few positions in football you can say with confidence has both,” he says, adding, “At the end of the day, the top quarterbacks in this league are making less than 20 percent of their team’s cap total. Given what we know and are continuing to learn, I think it’s reasonable to think the total could be much higher in the future.”
On the flip side, what a team does not want to do is invest big money in a crummy QB, as the Dolphins did with Ryan Tannehill, who will count $18.4 million against Miami’s cap this year even though he’ll be playing for the Titans. This, too, is why the Bucs and Titans are right to be cautious with Winston and Mariota, who are both on $20.9 million options this year with nothing to tie either team’s hands afterward.
That all drafted players are locked into four-year, low-cost contracts—with slotted fifth-year options for first-round picks—incentivizes teams into stocking their rosters with younger, cheaper players. As QB contracts continue to climb, teams are increasingly turning to the kind of cost certainty the rookie wage scale provides.
I cited the examples of the Colts and Seahawks, but they’re hardly alone. Chase Stuart of Football Perspective mined through a number of metrics—Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value; number of starts; sacks, interceptions, and forced fumbles; total tackles; total yards—to quantify the increasing value of draft picks.
“This is all consistent with prior research showing that the rookie wage scale screwed over NFL rookies and also mediocre NFL veterans,” Stuart concluded. “NFL teams are responding rationally, by giving players on rookie contracts more opportunities to prove themselves, because of the significant cost savings for a third-year player relative to a sixth-year player.”
This dynamic is also apparent in teams’ spending habits. Per Overthecap.com, the 2019 roster texture of every NFL team reveals exactly how reliant those rosters are on rookie contracts, ranging from the Packers’ league-high of 69.8 percent to the Bills’ and Patriots’ low of 34 percent. All told, more than half of all teams’ roster spending—52.42 percent—will go to rookie-scale contracts.
And while you might have noticed the Patriots are at the low end, New England has done more to manipulate the comp pick system than any other team through the years. The six-time Super Bowl champs are also set to spend less on veterans—47.2 percent of this year’s roster will go to low-priced vets, per Overthecap.com—than any team in the league. The lesson here appears to be less about spending on quality QBs than on how to spend everywhere else.