Quarterback cost, as with everything, is a simple matter of supply and demand. The cost itself is multi-faceted. There’s salary, of course. But there’s also the cost of the acquisition, as well as the opportunity cost of not being able to allocate potential resources elsewhere. Normally, no one cares about the opportunity cost. If you trade up in the draft and hit on a quarterback, who cares what it took to move up? If the Jets send four first round picks for Deshaun Watson, no one will worry because they’re getting Deshaun Watson.
But whoever trades for Watson is acquiring him at a cost of his $156 million extension plus the draft capital used to secure him. That is a lot of asset allocation into one player. However, when it’s a 25 year old top-5 quarterback, you’re going to just tell yourself it’s worth it.
Watson may just be worth $156 million and four first round picks. The problem NFL general managers created for themselves is never establishing a middle class. In the not too distant past, the supply of adequate starting quarterbacks was low. General managers habitually paid their guy top dollar when it was time for an extension. There were only 16 starter worthy quarterbacks in a league with 32 teams. If you had a guy you ensured you kept him.
Long before Jared Goff became a punchline and years before he signed his extension, the precedent was set for someone like him to come along and get paid the way he did. The Bears and Bengals were so desperate for merely mediocre quarterback play after decades of being a barren wasteland they handed Jay Cutler a $126 million deal and Dalton a $115 million deal, respectively. Imagine your #TimeLine if that happened today.
The most valuable asset in the NFL is a viable starting quarterback on a rookie scale deal. The second most valuable asset is an elite quarterback on a fair market deal. The worst contract to be on the paying end of is a quarterback on a bloated deal.
There’s a wide spectrum for “quarterback on a bloated deal.” Brock Osweiler having no business as a starting quarterback is different from the Goff/Cutler/Dalton/Joe Flacco’s of the world being overpaid, which is different from Matthew Stafford being the highest paid player in the league at the time of signing. But this brings us back to the problem general managers made for themselves; they didn’t develop a middle class.
Flacco won a Super Bowl and was rewarded with the richest contract in league history at the time. Later, after proving he was much more middling than elite, Baltimore once again broke a quarterback contract record with a $40 million signing bonus in a subsequent extension. When the Ravens should have been plotting their exit plan, they doubled down on a top of the market contract for an average starter.
Cutler went from “wait, will he be best quarterback in franchise history?” to “how the fuck is this dude in the NFL?” all because he got the bag. Copy-paste Andy Dalton. The only thing that changed was the salary, but that changes everything.
Bloated Quarterback Contracts
Let’s just run through the details of these deals so we’re all on the same page when they’re referenced from here on out:
Flacco signed a 6-year, $120.6 million deal that included $52 million guaranteed with the Ravens in 2013, before signing a new 3-year, $66 million extension with Baltimore that included a $40 million signing bonus in 2016
Cutler received a 7-year, $126 million extension from the Bears that included $54 million guaranteed in 2014.
Dalton got a 6-year, $115 million deal from Cincinnati in 2014.
Osweiler got 4-years, $72 million and $37 million guaranteed from Houston in 2016.
Matthew Stafford (yes, Matthew Stafford) signed a 3-year, $53 million extension with $33.5 million guaranteed in 2013, and then a 5-year, $135 million new pact sporting $92 million in guaranteed money in 2017, a deal that made him the highest paid player in the league at the time of signing.
Ryan inked a 5-year, $103.75 million deal with $59 million guaranteed, the second largest guaranteed amount in history at the time. Matt Ryan then signed a back loaded 5-year, $150 million deal in 2018 with $94.5 million guaranteed making him the highest paid player in league history at the time.
Cousins was the highest paid player in league history for a solid two months before Matt Ryan had to be such a jerk about it. Cousins received a fully guaranteed 3-year, $84 million deal in 2018. Come opening day 2021, Cousins will begin a new 2-year, $66 million deal with $61 million guaranteed.
In 2018, Garoppolo received a… wait for it… record breaking 5-year, $137 million deal that guaranteed him $74 million.
In 2017 Derek Carr signed a deal that (you’re not gonna believe this) made him the highest paid player in league history at a cool $125 million over 5 years with $40 million guaranteed.
Everyone’s favorite twitter target signed his 4-year $134 million extension in 2019 that handed him a (brace yourself) record breaking $110 million guaranteed.
Earlier in 2019, Carson Wentz signed a “historic” 4-year, $128 million deal that shelled out $107 million guaranteed which, at the time, was (hold onto your butts) the most ever.
(Imagine being Dak Prescott right now)
It’s the Economy, Stupid
NFL general managers spent the 2010s breaking contract records – total value, average annual value, guaranteed dollars – every time their guy was up for a new deal, regardless of who it was. At the time it was white washed by “it’s the going rate” and “once you find a guy you gotta keep him.” For desolate franchises like Chicago, Cincinnati, and Detroit, it’s easy to overpay for an average starter when the alternative is to once again conduct a quarterback search. One in the hand, right?
It’s easy to see why this went horribly. When Cutler ($18m) is in the ballpark of Aaron Rodgers’ average annual salary, it doesn’t take a general manager, cap wizard, or spreadsheet warrior to see the problem. But let’s talk about Ryan and Stafford.
Ryan’s average annual value from the contract he signed in 2013 put him right in line with Rodgers. This time around, at present Ryan is set to have the second highest cap number in 2021, and $3.7 million higher than Rodgers. When Stafford’s second extension kicked in he had the second highest cap number among quarterbacks in the league. Each has shown flashes of brilliance, with the highlights being Ryan in 2016 and Stafford in 2011. However, neither has ever been a top five “year-in-year-out” level of quarterback, so yes, it still hurts to overpay even these guys.
The most valuable asset in the NFL is a quality starting quarterback on a rookie scale deal. Bill Barnwell once estimated a team receives about $90 million worth of surplus value during the span of the rookie contract. The mid 2010’s saw an arms race every offseason of teams studding out the surrounding roster when their quarterback was making pennies on the dollar in comparison to their market value. The quintessential example is Les Snead and the Rams. When Goff was making a few million a year Snead had the flexibility to put high quality starters at nearly every other position. The Eagles, Cowboys, Bears, and Browns have each tried their hand at this tactic.
The second most valuable asset in the NFL is an elite quarterback on a fair market deal. Sure, Mahomes, Rodgers, and Watson are going to command massive salaries, but the whole point is to find one of them. You just pay up and figure out the rest.
The worst asset in the NFL is an overpaid starting quarterback. There’s degrees to how bad it gets, but the Rams went from the best situation to the worst situation with a single signature.
Supply and demand
As alluded to earlier you can understand a franchise like Detroit paying Stafford what they have. The Lions have been downtrodden for so long, Stafford was the first pick of the draft, and after 2011 there’s no way you were going to let him leave town. The Bengals and Bears got Dalton and Cutler and didn’t want to let go. Baltimore and Los Angeles reached the Super Bowl with Flacco and Goff, and Baltimore even won. How can you rationalize letting them walk?
Quarterback economics have taken a fascinating turn over the last 5-10 years.
There was a time every team seemed content to just find a “starter” and they would build around him.
Starters were tough to come by. Andy Dalton was about middle of the pack
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) January 31, 2021
So a few years back, we got to a point that teams just started paying their starter like he was a top-5 QB.
“We found our QB, gotta pay him.”
Flacco, Alex Smith, Goff…
Goff got paid, but how hard would it have been for the Rams to find another Goff in today’s QB market?
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) January 31, 2021
Matt Ryan is an interesting subject in this evaluation. There’s a roster construction strategy that has yet to be deployed when given the opportunity. Unless your quarterback is at or above a certain line, you should keep looking for a quarterback. So even though Flacco, Cutler, Dalton, Goff are adequate enough, you should be aiming higher.
That line, for the better part of the 2010s, was arguably Matt Ryan. While not elite, he was approximately the 8th best quarterback in the league, on average, per year. So Matt Ryan was the line. Unless you have Matt Ryan or better, you should keep looking.
The Rams, with McVay’s system, were better positioned than perhaps any team had ever been to walk away from a ho-hum starter while being confident they can find someone significantly cheaper that was a close enough facsimile. After two consecutive years of elite offensive production, and a Super Bowl appearance, the Rams opted to pay up for the known commodity rather than risk the nightmare scenario of letting Goff walk and not finding a good enough replacement.
But in this market, with this supply curve, and in McVay’s system, Los Angeles was primed to try. At a minimum, Los Angeles could have held off handing Goff an extension until it was necessary, and brought someone in to groom should they have wanted to pivot when they could no longer kick a Goff extension down the road. There is some hindsight bias to this, admittedly, and I’m in no way suggesting he is better than Goff, but would Gardner Minshew not be capable and producing fairly similar results in McVay’s system, and for a 6th round price tag? As accidental as it may be, are the 9ers not proof of on concept for this strategy?
How did the market get flooded with worthy starters, pushing teams to chase an elite quarterback harder? The draft, of course. 2006-2010 produced Cutler, Ryan, Flacco, Stafford, and Sam Bradford as viable starters. That’s it. Five guys over a five year period, with a single MVP worthy season combined. 2012 alone sent Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson, and Kirk Cousins to Sunday afternoons.
After a notoriously awful 2013 class, the 2014-2020 drafts generated Teddy Bridgewater, Carr, Garoppolo, Winston, Marcus Mariota, Goff, Wentz, Prescott, Mahomes, Watson, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, Minshew, Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, and Jalen Hurts. You can reasonably argue Tua and Hurts belong in a “we don’t know yet” bucket, joining Sam Darnold, Daniel Jones, and Jordan Love. Depending on your own tastebuds, we’re looking at 15-19 guys over seven years. Mahomes and Jackson each have an MVP, and they figure to be joined as annual contenders by Watson and Prescott, as well as potentially Allen and Kyler. (This isn’t a snide at either Burrow or Herbert, just a preference for having seen more than just a rookie year)
Back date to 2011 and we have an MVP in Newton, an elite guy in Wilson, the second most efficient quarterback the past two years by composite EPA+CPOE in Tannehill, plus Dalton and Colin Kaepernick.
It took time, of course, for enough of these guys to pan out before anyone could confidently conclude the supply curve had shifted. The issue is the league took too long to react. But with the spike in available talent, and opposing elite talent, teams simultaneously can easily replace an average level starter, while more than ever need to chase an elite option. In a world where everyone is good, no one is good, and being significantly better is the prerequisite to obtaining an advantage.
Shoot your shot
Let’s hone in on the first round of the last five drafts. This will result in the omission of Prescott, but just hear me out. Here’s a quick guide for the first round quarterbacks, in order, by year from 2016-2020:
And let’s just make some vague categories:
Look no further
Budding star, at least probably
Average to above average starter, but below the Ryan line
Bottom 16 starter
This is where the inexact science of the scouting process enters the equation. Accuracy is non-negotiable. Typically, it’s not something that can be developed or improved, at least significantly. While Allen made a quantum leap with his accuracy in 2020, this needs to be placed within the proper context. To begin, his completion percentage his rookie season was 52.8%. In 2020 it was 69.2%. That 16.4% increase in two years is the largest increase over a two year span in NFL history. Allen is the exception, not the rule. In fact, given his sophomore year was under 60%, and his career college mark was 56.2%, the most likely outcome for 2021 is Allen’s completion percent comes back down, as opposed to residing in the 69% territory.
So we need accuracy as a foundation, but if your special trait is incredible accuracy, we’re seeing the limitations of your ceiling. Allen’s special trait is his arm, and with that comes crazy off-script, off-platform completions that simply should never happen. There are idiots out there that swore this mix of skills could not possibly lead to success.
ANOINT THIS CHILD
look at when he throws it LORDY pic.twitter.com/irPQpaTl6S
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) November 22, 2020
General managers need to chase the idea of Allen more than the construct of Allen. Allen’s growth and progression over his first three years is so unlikely to reoccur with any one particular quarterback the lesson is not to just ignore accuracy concerns. The lesson is to shoot for the moon with a tools-y prospect.
Baker and Tua came out of college and their ace in the hole was their accuracy. It was elite levels of fantastic. It’s not all they were bringing to the table, but it was their calling card. The same is true for Goff, but just not at as high a level.
The trend line of the past half decade is tools-y quarterbacks with escapability that can make plays outside of structure have succeed. What does Josh Rosen lack? Escapability and making plays outside of structure. What does Dwayne Haskins lack? Escapability and making plays outside of structure. What does Jared Goff lack? Escapability and making plays outside of structure.
Who are the best quarterbacks drafted in the past half decade? Mahomes, Watson, Allen, Lamar, Kyler, and probably Burrow and Herbert. Would you really argue with anyone saying the top four quarterbacks in the NFL are Mahomes, Watson, Rodgers and Russell Wilson?
NFL defenses, at all three levels, are just better and faster. Quarterbacks can’t sit in a pocket waiting for an opening in coverage. The league appears to be moving in such a direction where you essentially have to be Peyton Manning to end up above the Matt Ryan line as a pocket passer only. Also Tom Brady doesn’t count as he officially has more jewelry than Thanos.
Nothing is 100 percent
The obvious rebuttal is Trubisky and Jones. Escapability and making plays out structure is what they bring to the table. The problem is it’s the only thing they bring to the table. If you only have one skill, it’s not enough. In a world where accuracy alone doesn’t cut it anymore, some backyard highlights won’t suffice either. A certain level of accuracy is required. A certain processing speed is required. Getting the ball out on time is required.
The reason shooting your shot on Trubisky and Jones wasn’t worth it is because they didn’t have the foundation, and their one trick wasn’t even special. You can say Allen and Herbert didn’t have the foundation, but their tools were otherworldly. If Trubisky and Jones become the best version of themselves you end up with, what, an ok starter?
The draft is still a crapshoot. There isn’t evidence one team performs better than the rest year over year, writ large. Tampa is on a hot streak lately, but odds are they’re on borrowed time at this point. If everyone was right all the time during the draft, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation, we’d already know the outcome of every college prospect.
The value of quitting
Josh Rosen’s contract was no obstacle to moving on. One year into the Rosen era and the Cardinals found themselves in a position to shoot for the moon at the position. Previously, due to the money, teams were forced to stick it out, feeling pot committed. There is upside to quitting, and the rookie scale allows for its embrace.
Freakonomics did an entire episode on the upside of quitting. In short, once you know you’re headed to a dead end you should quit. The time spent between realizing you’re headed to a dead end and arriving at the dead end is a complete waste. Move on to another endeavor. Had Arizona forced itself to build around Rosen, even if for another year, they would have passed on Kyler. You can say “well they would have had a shot at Burrow/Tua/Herbert in 2020” and that’s most likely true, but Kyler was theirs for the taking. All they had to do was turn in a draft card.
Washington was able to move on from Haskins after a year and a half. The Giants can move on from Jones should they want to. The time spent trying to build around Jones will most likely be a waste, so just shoot your next shot.
The last piece of the puzzle is the offensive evolution. The game is more spread out and faster, something you don’t need me to tell you. But I would venture to say coaches are doing a better job of putting players in a position to utilize their strengths. Honing in on quarterbacks, coaches seem much more willing to build the system around the quarterback, as opposed to forcing the quarterback into their system.
Instead of forcing Kyler and Lamar to be classic drop back passers, Arizona and Baltimore tap into their elite athleticism. Did Josh McDaniels force Cam Newton to be Tom Brady, or did he embrace Cam’s running ability? Is Andy Reid forcing Mahomes to run a west coast system? Dak’s ascension from decent starter to clearly above the Matt Ryan line is directly correlated with Kellen Moore taking over as offensive coordinator.
While teams obviously still want Peyton Manning, they’re no longer forcing quarterbacks to be him. Mahomes isn’t the most accurate quarterback in the league. What he can do with his arm, and on the run, is what makes him special. Lamar doesn’t have the classic desired accuracy, but the value he brings as a weapon is why you take a chance on him.
Getting back to Goff, he’s capable of being a starting quarterback. He’s also easily replaceable as he’s not a game changer and the league is currently flooded with capable starters. He also goes from an incredible value to a liability the moment he inks an extension. Coming out of Cal, Goff wasn’t a tools-y prospect. He’s exactly what he was there; capable of running a system with an adequate arm and fairly impressive accuracy. He doesn’t have escapability and when it all breaks down he isn’t going to Russell Wilson his way into a positive play.
If Goff becomes the best version of himself, he’s Kirk Cousins, which isn’t good enough. You should aim for top five starter at quarterback in the draft. If you swing and miss, moving on is now easy thanks to rookie salaries. I’d argue it’s better to draft a bust than serviceable starter. Due to fear of the unknown, you’ll tie yourself to what you have in a top 20 starter. Out of necessity you’re going to try again at quarterback if your guy stinks.
It’s easy to say this in a blog post no one will read without my job being on the line. At the end of the day, general managers and coaches are operating based on self-preservation. Are you going to let Stafford walk to shoot for the moon when your job is at stake? Probably not, but at this point, in this economy and this market, it’s the best strategy.