The Options for Falcons QB Matt Ryan

With training camp just a short time away we will be turning our attention more towards potential extensions of pending free agents. One of the most prominent, and currently in the early stages of negotiating a deal, is QB Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons.

Ryan is almost the perfect prospect. He was highly regarded coming out of Boston College, selected 3rd overall in the 2008 NFL Draft. He has been to the playoffs in 4 of his 5 seasons in  the NFL and the only year his team missed the playoffs was his second year when he was injured and missed two games, both of which the Falcons lost. His record as a starter is an impressive 56-22 and only once has he not finished with double digit wins. From a statistical standpoint he is an incredible QB and his numbers have shown a steady progression in his time in the NFL.

I don’t think that it’s even arguable that he is the best QB drafted since 2006 and in terms of being effective since day 1 you might be able to state the case that he is the best QB drafted since Tom Brady in 2001 and the best 1st round player since Peyton Manning  in 1998. Obviously that discussion includes Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger, but in terms of playing at a high level from the start he is going to be better than Manning and Roethlisberger and was as high end statistically accomplished as Rodgers in the same time frame.

Of course the one thing missing from Ryan’s resume that all of those players have is a championship. It is going to be a major factor in pricing Ryan. I think the NFL has changed a lot since the early 2000’s when Peyton was always higher regarded and paid than Brady as the debate ranged between how one guy “just wins” and the other puts up great numbers. Since then, however, winning the big one has catapulted QBs into a game of leapfrog where each players new deal becomes the largest contract in the history of the NFL. Roethlisberger set a market after winning a Super Bowl. Eli jumped him and was then in turn jumped by Brady and Manning who were jumped by Drew Brees. Joe Flacco set a new bar fresh off his Super Bowl win while Aaron Rodgers then set the new threshold soon thereafter.

The problem for Ryan is that none of these players have gotten paid before winning a Super Bowl. So where does that leave Ryan who would like to get an extension now but also does not want to sell himself short?  He absolutely has the potential to be as good statistically, especially in that stadium, as Rodgers. But Rodgers has a ring and Ryan does not. Statistically you can not even compare Ryan and Flacco, but Flacco has great playoff success while Ryan is 1-4.  So it becomes a scenario as to how much do we value playoff success versus non-playoff success.

The top QB contracts in recent times given to non-winners were Mike Vick in 2011, Matt Schaub in 2012, and Tony Romo in 2013.  While those are the most fresh contracts in everyone’s mind I don’t think any would be valid here. All were past the age of 30 at the time of signing and had no upside remaining in their games. The best QB comparison out there is Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers. Rivers was the other big name of the 2004 draft class, the one who never won a championship.

Unlike Ryan he sat for two years, but once he finally got his chance he ran with it. Rivers first three years playing saw him surpass both Manning and Roethlisberger in a number of standard statistical categories. From 2006 thru 2008 here were the stat comparisons of the 3 star QB’s:

Yards

YPA

TD

Int

Rivers

10499

7.51

77

35

E. Manning

9818

6.42

68

48

Roethlisberger

9968

7.43

67

49

 

Rivers was throwing for more yards, far more touchdowns, and much fewer interceptions. In 2008, the year before his extension, Rivers actually led the entire NFL in YPA and TD’s. Over the timespan Rivers won 33 games compared to 30 for Manning and 29 for Roethlisberger. Rivers’ Chargers won their division three years in a row. But he didn’t have that Super Bowl, compiling a record of 3-3 and losing as a favorite in the playoffs.

Rivers looked like he should be the biggest star of the group and his production was far greater than Eli’s. But that SB ring means a lot. Manning ended up setting the market at $16.25 million a year while Rivers would sign soon for $15.3 million a year, about 6% less. Rivers was given a higher guarantee but had lower 3 and 4 year contractual values than both the Super Bowl winners making the meat of the contract worth less than that of his two contemporaries.

Rivers would go on to a number of exceptional seasons before the wheels seemed to come off starting in 2011, but he has yet to be able to win the big game. Manning won another Super Bowl and Roethlisberger appeared in yet another one.  The comparison of the 3 seems silly now because two are proven winners while Rivers has struggled and never got over the hump. Manning and Roethlisberger will likely both get mega contracts next season from their respective teams while there are questions as to whether or not Rivers will even remain in San Diego.

I think this brings up an interesting decision for Ryan. Manning’s and Roethlisberger’s original Super Bowl wins allowed them to become market setters at the position. Rodgers’ $22 million dollar extension he recently signed is now the top of the market and it had to be a disappointing figure for Ryan. Rodgers was so superior the last two years that he should have earned closer to $24 million a year considering Flacco’s $20.1 million dollar a year contract.  At that point I think it becomes easy. You sell Rodgers as the top line young winner and Flacco as the lower level setter and you fit in at the Rivers level, which would be around $22.4 million. Now if you put Rodgers as Eli and Ryan as Rivers the contract point becomes $20.57 million a year, assuming no concessions are made for Rodgers per game incentives which only lowers the number further. That has to be much lower than Ryan thought would happen.

Now to maximize his value I think Ryan is in a position where he has to sell Rodgers as a number to try to surpass. While many think of Rodgers as young he will be 30 at the end of the season and this will be his 9th year in the NFL. Its something of a limbo stage for comparison as he’s not really young but he’s also not early 30s like Brees, Manning, and Brady were when they jumped Eli in contract value.  But to get the number that Ryan probably felt he was going to get just a month or two ago he has to push using Rodgers as a baseline not a high point.

Of course to do that Ryan is going to have to play out the year and then try to force the Falcons hand in a negotiation. Ryan has a lot to gain by winning a Super Bowl before his extension. While I fully believe (and deeper stats do back this up) that Rodgers is a more productive QB than Ryan, it could be hard to separate the two if Ryan keeps up his current pace especially factoring in that Ryan is the younger player. Atlanta’s whole team is built around Ryan and his arm and, unlike the Lions and Matt Stafford, another player up for a deal, has been highly successful year in and out.

Playing the year out certainly brings along risks. The biggest is injury and as Jerry Maguire warned Rod Tidwell in the movies all those years ago “If you get injured you get nothing”. But at the QB position is that as much of a concern is it for a RB or a WR?  Probably not. QB’s are protected more than any other player and they are also not playing in the same manner that is as likely to lead to random injuries. And even if the injury was to occur would it damage the players earning potential?  I don’t think so. Carson Palmer blew out his knee in 2005 but the Bengals never walked away from his monster contract. Tom Brady had the knee injury in 2008 and ended up as one of the highest paid players in the game. Peyton Manning was signed to a mega deal while injured, missed the year, was cut and signed for an even bigger deal with another team. Even Rivers had a torn ACL in 2007 that he played through and he came back in 2008 to have the big deal that got him the big contract. The injuries had very little effect on the treatment of the players, outside of an injury protection for Manning that could have been avoided had he signed with the Titans. It’s a built in premium that teams are willing to pay.

The secondary risk lies in the application of the Franchise Tag. For the most part the tag never really happens as teams do want to keep the QB happy , but this still has to be a consideration. Atlanta’s cap situation in 2014 looks to be healthy with around $103 million committed to the 2014 salary cap and a whole roster that is filled other than at QB. The ballpark figure for a QB on the tag is going to be about $15 million with the exclusive tender coming in at $19.978 million and likely headed downward by the time next season is actually here.  So for one season they can tag Ryan and work within the cap without too much issue. If Ryan goes that route he is going to play this year for $10 million and next for less than $20, which is only an average of $15 million. In contrast Aaron Rodgers will earn $50.9 million over the next two years and Flacco $51 million. Even Romo’s $40 million payout will be far superior to Ryan’s. You can definitely damage your long term earnings taking this strategy as the extra million or two a year may not going to make up for lost wages over the next two.

Ryan’s cap hit this year is low so the Falcons don’t really have a need to get a deal done. This isn’t like the Ravens who basically could not afford to carry Flacco on a franchise tag type number.  That being said the Falcons are tight against the salary cap now and getting Ryan extended in 2013 probably helps their cap allocations over the next few years, but they can hold off if the two sides are far apart on compensation. So Atlanta might be willing to play it out as well.

Ryan has little to lose by playing and I think much to gain if he can get his team to the Super Bowl. I just don’t see the risks impacting his value greatly and his track record is so solid that at worst his value will remain the same.  There is also the chance that Manning or Roethlisberger can jump Rodgers next year as their teams may be forced to extend due to cap concerns, making the market even more lucrative than it is now.

At the worst he will be in the same position he is now. Even if he signed an extension now remember that his $10 million salary is going to be built into the contract (the new vs old money debate in contract valuations) so he is stuck at that salary being factored in under any scenario. Signing today doesn’t change that. I truly feel that if he wins a championship a strong case can and will be made that he deserves to be the highest paid player in the NFL. He can’t make that argument right now. All things considered I think his is a rare situation where you are better off playing out the year than accepting a deal that you may regret in another year or two.

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  • mike jones

    “Ryan’s cap hit this year is low so the Falcons don’t really have a need
    to get a deal done. This isn’t like the Ravens who basically could not
    afford to carry Flacco on a franchise tag type number.”
    Do you really think it is true that the Ravens could not free up enough money to afford to franchise Flacco? I mean the jets were in a much worse spot than the Ravens this offseason before they started making moves, yet they ended up significantly under the cap.

    My ultimate point is I thought the Ravens made a mistake by negotiating him with he was at his absolute zenith of bargaining power (after perhaps the most improbably playoff run for a qb in history) and they should have tagged him, watched him have most likely yet another mediocre regular season (and probably an early round exit from the playoffs if not missing them altogether), and then begin negotiations again in next offseason. I negotiate hospital healthcare contracts for a living, and my boss has instilled in me that one of the worst things you can do is to opt to begin a negotiation when you know you have an inferior bargaining position and there is the opportunity to bargain either earlier or later when circumstances are likely to be more favorable.

    • http://www.nyjetscap.com/ Jason Fitzgerald

      Franchising Flacco would have been very difficult especially because they would have used the exclusive on him to keep a team like the Browns or Jaguars from just throwing him something like 50 million in base salaries the next two years which the Ravens could not have matched. The Jets and Ravens were at different spots because one team was talented and the other team was not. The Jets also had a ton of flexibility in their deals because of the minimal dead money while the Ravens didnt really have release options that could clear major cap room outside of Boldin. I mean right now Flacco carries a cap charge of $6.8 million and the Ravens only have around $3 mil in cap left. So I cant imagine how things would have gone with Flacco on the tag. No Dumervil for certain.

      On the negotiation aspect I agree and its really a point I should have made with Ryan. Flacco took the gamble knowing not just the state of the Ravens as a win now team but the state of the Ravens salary cap which was going to force the Ravens hand. Flacco ended up with a much stronger contract than Aaron Rodgers because of it. If Rodgers falls apart the Packers can easily negotiate down or get out of it. If Flacco never jumps to even greater heights as a regular season player the Ravens are sunk and face the worst NFL decisions about overspending in real money or dealing with massive dead money charges by trading or cutting an underperforming player.90% of the time they pay the player meaning Flacco is going to earn a ton regardless of what he does.

      The situation is going to present itself with the Lions who are in so deep with Stafford and DT Suh that they are both going to get awesome deals just because of their negotiating leverage. Stafford is not an exceptional player yet and is not a winner yet either. Hes a higher drafted Jay Cutler at this point but hell end up with over $20 million a year because the Lions have no choice.

      • mike jones

        Thanks for responding. As you know its never *impossible* to make room to do something if you have the will. some of these cuts/non signings would of course be more reasonable than others. probably need to keep that tackle no matter what for instance.
        http://img845.imageshack.us/img845/4971/ravenscap.png
        (current year cap charges for newly signed players, and cap savings pulled from your numbers for others)
        If you believe flacco will turn into a top 5 regular season qb then the deal you got from him seems decent. I just doubt he ever progresses into that elite tier and would have moved heaven and earth to avoid doing a deal while he had the superbowl hero afterglow still on him.

  • http://twitter.com/thenflanalyst Pauly S.

    “I don’t think that it’s even arguable that he is the best QB drafted
    since 2006 and in terms of being effective since day 1 you might be able
    to state the case that he is the best QB drafted since Tom Brady in
    2001 and the best 1st round player since Peyton Manning in 1998.”

    What??? Not even arguable you say? This guy has won all of ONE playoff game, hasn’t even sniffed a Super Bowl and he is all of the sudden one of the all time greats of the last 15 years??

    Yeah he has great regular season stats, good for him. But Joe Flacco has similar stats, NINE playoff wins and a SB MVP/championship, all while playing infinitely harder defensive competition outdoors…not in a nice little stat padding dome like Matty Ice does for 70% of his games.

    Not to mention the fact that you are vaulting him over two multiple SB winners in Manning and Big Ben, when he hasn’t done squat compared to those in their respective careers.

    The “perfect prospect” has been FAR from perfect when it is crunch time. Until he proves otherwise, all the regular season stats in the world (not like we are talking about earth shattering numbers here either) won’t make up for his repeated postseason failures.

    • http://www.nyjetscap.com/ Jason Fitzgerald

      Pauly,

      In terms of prospect potential I would call him easily the best. If I ranked the QBs based on careers obviously he is below Eli, Ben, Brees, etc… but in terms of measuring at the same stage of career I would think most teams would select Ryan over them.

      He clearly is going to vault the multi time SB winners just like Eli and Ben did Peyton and Brady. In turn they will probably jump him in a year or two. Thats just the way it works. The minute Flacco jumped the market it made Eli obsolete as a bargaining point. Id imagine right now everything is going to be based off Flacco for the next crop of guys to get extended.

      But I think the argument you make is valid which is why I would say he has everything to gain by waiting to sign a deal. I dont want to compare Flacco to Brady as its only 1 vs 3 in terms of titles early on, but in terms of overall playoff success you cant discount Flacco, but in many ways you can make the argument that Flacco is Brady and Ryan is Manning. Manning got his first new deal in 2004.At that point Manning was 2-4 in the playoffs including an hairdressing 41 point loss to the Jets and a no show against the Patriots in the AFC title game. It certainly didnt stop him from being the highest paid even though the playoff record really dogged him his whole career even after winning the Super Bowl.

  • Dwight

    Enjoyed the article, but why not sign Ryan this year with an incentive built in for a super bowl win? That way Ryan doesn’t lose anything by waiting, Falcons gain flexibility, lock in their franchise QB for the next 5-6 years and Ryan’s agent will add the incentive into the contract when bragging about how much money he got his client.

    Seems like a win win. Ryan gets a big chunk of money & long term security, Falcons have the cap room to sign a couple of vets to fill out the squad or to deal with injuries.

    Also, wondered this for awhile and it seems like you’d know:

    if Ryan did have an incentive set up for winning the Super Bowl and say it was a yearly incentive- every year you win the super bowl you get X amount of dollars, when [ yeah, I'm a Falcons fan, why do you ask?] Ryan wins a Super Bowl, would that be considered a “Likely to be earned” incentive the next year?

    • http://www.nyjetscap.com/ Jason Fitzgerald

      They can do that but its unlikely that Ryan would agree. Their goal is to make the most that they can and have the most guarantees possible without having him need to earn the extra cash. For them to do this in a reasonable manner they probably would not set it up as an incentive but more likely a guaranteed series of escalator payments to his base salary. If it was an incentive then it would likely be considered LTBE the next year, though in the past in rookie deals its usually been 1 SB win to earn a bonus and then the bonus is gone, meaning it was just a 1 time bonus.

      My gut feeling is that the Falcons dont lock Ryan up until February (now watch them announce his signing in August). I think Rodgers deal threw everyone a curve ball. Now the question for Atlanta is do they want to wait for Detroit to do something with Stafford or not. Detroits front office is questionable with some contracts and Stafford is not a great QB. Maybe he can be one but he isnt now. Because of their cap situation he is going to get extended and I have a hard time picturing them winning a SB this year. Will they go crazy and pay him like Rodgers? If thats the case than Ryan, Super Bowl or not, has a great case. So they could be more proactive on the deal and just to avoid getting screwed over by the Lions.

      • Dwight

        Thanks for the reply. Really like the site, have it bookmarked and visit frequently.

        OK, so I used the wrong term, why not set up those escalator payments and sign him now? Seems like Ryan wins because he gets 50+ mil now, and escalated salaries when [oh, alright if] he wins the super bowl, team gets flexibility- also avoids a situation with time pressures like the Saints and Ravens had.