Quarterback is king in the NFL. With the increasing emphasis on the passing game, the key to sustained NFL success is good quarterback play.
The ideal scenario is finding a long-term quarterback solution in the NFL Draft who quickly becomes a starter so his team can stockpile talent and create depth while he's most affordable. The Seahawks nearly won consecutive Super Bowls during the 2013 and 2014 seasons when Russell Wilson, a 2012 third-round pick, was making less than $750,000 per year on his rookie contract.
The next best thing is a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback playing for significantly less than he's worth after he's commanded top dollar for an extended period of time. Tom Brady began consistently giving the Patriots hometown discounts instead of driving the QB market in 2013. The new money that Brady is scheduled to make over the five new contract years in his three contract negotiations since then, compared to what he would have gotten had he played out a 2010 contract making him the NFL's highest paid player, is $71 million for an average of $14.2 million per year. The approach has paid dividends for Brady in allowing the Patriots to assemble a more talented roster than they would have otherwise, which has resulted in two more Super Bowl rings since beginning the process. No other upper-echelon veteran quarterback has followed in Brady's footsteps contractually.
Good quarterbacks are a scarce commodity. Once a team believes it has found a quality quarterback, he rarely hits the open market. Typically, a new deal is signed when a quarterback is entering his contract year. The lack of supply of highly competent quarterbacks and the fear of starting over with an unfamiliar or unknown quantity is a driving force of the extensions.
The new contract king
Matthew Stafford reset the quarterback market when the Lions signed him to five-year, $135 million contract extension with an NFL record $92 million of overall guarantees during the preseason. His $50 million signing bonus is the largest ever for an NFL player. The $60.5 million fully guaranteed at signing is also an NFL record.
Stafford's contract is considered by some as the perfect illustration of quarterback salaries spiraling out of control because the Lions haven't won any playoff games in just three postseason appearances since taking Stafford No. 1 overall in the 2009 draft. There's also been speculation that Stafford's deal is too burdensome financially for the Lions to achieve great success.
Being successful in the NFL is obviously more challenging with a high-priced quarterback on the roster. It isn't an impossibility. There's less margin for error in building a team.
Twelve different players have been among the NFL's five highest-paid quarterbacks (by average yearly salary) on multi-year contracts in the six seasons since the 2011 lockout ended. The chart below summarizes how their respective teams fared while the quarterback was playing under that contract. Once a contract was reduced substantially in a renegotiation or modification, the deal no longer fit the criteria for consideration. Although average yearly salary is a simplistic way to evaluate NFL contracts, it was chosen over salary cap numbers. Cap figures aren't necessarily a better measure, especially when contract restructures strictly for cap purposes take place. In these instances, a player's current cap number gets reduced while the cap numbers in his future contract years increase.
|Player||Top 5 Years||Average salary||Pro Bowls||Team record||Playoffs||Super Bowls||Titles|
|Tom Brady||2011, 2012||$18M||2||25-7||2||1 (2011)||0|
|Eli Manning||2011-16||$16.25M/$21M||1||48-48||2||1 (2011)||1|
|Peyton Manning||2011-16||$18M/$19.2M||3||50-14||4||2 (2013 & 2015)||1|
|Ben Roethlisberger||2015, 2016||$21.85M||2||21-11||2||0||0|
|Matt Ryan||2013-16||$20.75M||1||29-35||1||1 (2016)||0|
|Michael Vick||2011, 2012||$16M||0||12-20||0||0||0|
|Russell Wilson||2015, 2016||$21.9M||1||20-11-1||2||0||0|
|Total (42 seasons)||16||365-305-2||20||5||2|
Pro Bowls are restricted to the selections in the initial balloting and don't include participating in the game as an alternate. This is the same criteria necessary to earn a Pro Bowl incentive in a contract.
The Colts' 2-14 season in 2011 after Peyton Manning signed an $18 million per year contract isn't included in the overall team record since his neck injury prevented him from playing any games. His young brother, Eli, Joe Flacco and Philip Rivers also have two contract amounts listed. Flacco received a lucrative extension in 2016 while the other two deals were signed before the 2015 season started.
The results are mixed when a quarterback receives a top-five contract. Teams won 54.5 percent of their games. This equates to almost a nine-win season, which would put a team in contention for a wild card playoff berth.
The best season was 2011. The Giants, with the NFL's third highest-paid quarterback (Eli Manning), beat the Patriots, who had the league's highest-paid player in Tom Brady, in the Super Bowl.
Teams fare much better when a quarterback is selected for the Pro Bowl. There were 15 playoff appearances in the 16 Pro Bowl seasons. The lone exception is the 2011 Chargers led by Rivers, who tied for second in the AFC West with an 8-8 record. The cumulative record of the Pro Bowl seasons is 174-81-1 (68.3 winning percentage).
Paying a quarterback who has consistently shown he can perform at an extremely high level seems to be worth the investment. This type of quarterback who is a true difference maker is best able to overcome any shortage in talent that exists because of his contract. There just aren't many true difference makers playing quarterback in the NFL. Teams often confuse true difference makers with very good production. The biggest problem is giving a slightly above-average quarterback top dollar. Roster deficiencies can become so magnified that contending for a championship isn't feasible.
The dearth of quarterbacks ensures that the cycle will continue. Several weeks before Stafford's contract, the Raiders made Derek Carr the NFL's first $25 million per year player. The Raiders are going to be facing a unique challenge once 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack signs an extension, which will be a top priority for general manager Reggie McKenzie in 2018. The Raiders are likely to become the first team in league history with a $20 million per year non-quarterback and a $25 million per year quarterback. It is rare for teams to have a quarterback on a lucrative contract while also having one of the league's highest paid non-quarterbacks.
The $30 million quarterback is on the horizon. It's conceivable that Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins could hit the mark next offseason, provided he hits the open market given the shortage of good quarterbacks. If Cousins doesn't, Aaron Rodgers or Matt Ryan probably will. Rodgers is expected to sign an extension with the Packers in 2018 when there are two years left on his current contract. The Falcons will likely extend reigning NFL MVP Matt Ryan next year as well since he will be in a contract year. Cousins is the risky proposition among the three passers.
Fortunately for teams, today's top quarterback contract is tomorrow's more moderately-priced deal because high-end contracts are made to be surpassed. As long as the salary cap continues an annual growth rate of around 8 percent, high-priced contracts will become more manageable over time. Teams being able to carry over unused cap room from one league year to the next is also helpful in this regard.