The 2016 Sando/ESPN QB Tiers Project and QB Salaries

Mike Sando just released his 3rd annual QB Tiers project results over at ESPN and as usual we are here to piggyback off that and look at the rankings from a salary perspective. For those unfamiliar with Mike’s piece he basically asks a number of NFL executives and front office personnel to slot the starting quarterbacks into tiers. Mike then crunches the numbers and puts the results out (and probably gets a bunch of blame for a QB being too low from ESPN readers) It’s a great concept and one of my favorite articles of the year. We’ll break those tiers down now and see how the exec opinions match up with the NFL salaries.

The one immediate thing I noticed this year was how many more veterans are starting in the NFL. Last year there were just 22 I believe when he did this and this year we are at 28. Part of that is some of the players getting new contracts from the Andrew Luck draft class but I guess part of that is also more aversion to start rookies with the Rams, Broncos, and Eagles all going with veteran starters over first round draft picks and teams like the Jets abandoning hope with the Geno Smith types.

The second takeaway I found interesting was how few QBs ranked in the top tier, but at the same time how so many are lumped together just underneath. Last year there were five veteran QBs ranked in the top tier in Sando’s 2015 article (six total) and this year just three.  Last year we just had seven tier 2 QBs (eight in total) and this year it’s 12 names.

The fact that so many names show up in this second tier I think really matches up with the salaries that the quarterbacks make. If you look at the positional salary groups, the QB position has one of the smallest (if not the smallest) ranges at the top. Essentially everyone is lumped together and if we adjusted for cap inflation to bring the Tony Romo salaries of the world into today’s dollars you would see it is even tighter.

I think the lack of top QB play, which seems to be agreed upon by the execs, also backs up an opinion Ive had over the last year or two that the quality of play in the league has declined. Ive talked about that on the podcast (when I have time to record it) and in a few pieces here and there that the league reminds me of the post Dallas dynasty era of the 90s through the 2004 draft. IMO the league back then had a number of declining veterans, a few young studs, a number of “maybe” types, and a small grouping of truly great QBs.  That was around the time teams really began focusing on running games which I think helped the game because it allowed the Tier 2/3 types to be treated as a part of a team rather than the savior but right now too much burden is placed on the Eli Manning’s of the world and the end result is not great football. But I digress…

I was also surprised at how poorly the young quarterbacks rank. I watched Derek Carr last year as much as I could. He’s really good. I didn’t see Blake Bortles as much but he’s not too bad. Jameis Winston had more ups than downs. A few others are a bit more unknown. None ranked higher than 3rd tier. If you want to know why guys like Alex Smith and Jay Cutler make so much money with no threat of being asked for a pay cut just think about this list and whose opinions it reflects.

Front offices only have their jobs as long as the team does well. These executives are almost all of the mindset that you need to be pessimistic with the young players performance unless its someone with a pedigree like Andrew Luck. Teams are so bearish on the young talent that nobody should be surprised when the Chiefs opt for a tandem of Smith and Nick Foles over drafting a player and giving him a real chance to win the job. This is also responsible for the inflation of the QB contracts of second and third tier players.

Since rookie contract are slotted I eliminated them from any evaluation. I then broke up the veteran tier (I included Case Keenum in this category because he did land on a first round tender) into even quarters and averaged those numbers to compare with the ESPN numbers.  Since the ESPN counts were also so varied per tier I also broke up the salaries based on the counts for each ESPN tier:

TierSalary (even quartiles)Salary (ESPN count)ESPN

For the most part the salaries match up relatively well which is to be expected because the market is so tight. The only real exception is how overpaid the 4th tier is compared to the APY using ESPNS tier count. The reason for the big differential is if we use just 5 names it doesn’t bring into play the lowest of the high compensated starters. ESPN’s average salary is also pulled way up because of the presence of Colin Kaepernick. Using the even count tiers, ESPN’s list put 13 of 28 in the proper tier and its 15 of 28 if we use the ESPN counts to assign tiers to the quarterbacks.

I made the comment when writing about this last year that the third tier was moving up too high and that it would continue to grow with extensions and that was the case as last years tier 3 averaged $16.5M and its up by a million this year. Just two years ago it was around $12 million and Ill stand by the statement that more and more of those teams are putting themselves at a disadvantage.

We can also use the numbers to determine who are the best and worst values in the NFL. In terms of salary ranking vs ESPN ranking Carson Palmer is the biggest bargain with a gain of 11 slots. I haven’t looked closely at Palmers new contract, which did bump his salary slightly, but I don’t think he jumped 11 slots. Number 2 is Tom Brady with a gain of 9 spots. Brady is no longer on the super bargain contract but he is still undervalued. Andy Dalton and Tyrod Taylor both gain 7 slots.

In terms of salary increases there is no question Taylor is the most undervalued in the NFL. He makes pennies and should earn around $16.5 million, an increase of $15.38M from his current salary. Taylor signed a contract reflective of a low level backup and now he has a chance to earn a pretty nice bridge contract for a few seasons averaging over $15 million a year.

The second most undervalued QB is Ryan Fitzpatrick who deserves a $5 million raise. Fitzpatrick’s ranking in this drew the ire of Jets fans because of his placement behind some of the young unproven QBs, but in a league where most veteran starters make huge money, he doesn’t. Brady, Palmer, and Rodgers would be the next three most undervalued players.

The most overvalued QB is Colin Kaepernick which should come as the surprise to nobody. Kaepernick was awful last year and is overvalued by 10 slots, which was worse than his 8 differential last year. On a salary basis he should fall by $11.5 million, a 60% decrease. This is the main reason why the 49ers had such a problem unloading him as his reputation around the NFL is poor.

The other player to drop 10 slots was Joe Flacco who lost some of the benefit of the doubt of the playoff runs after an ineffective and injury plagued season. His ranking was also hurt by a new extension which he received for cap purposes. If he was still on his old contract he wouldn’t be that far off as he is being paid about $2.5 million too much.

Other big salary losers would be Sam Bradford who should be valued at $12 million, which is where I had pegged him when previewing free agency before the Eagles signed him to the higher value contract. The Eagles may have bid against themselves. RGIII is overpaid by about $5 million. Ryan Tannehill and Andrew Luck are both six slots overvalued, but like Flacco the salary differential is not huge. Tannehill fared poorly last year in this as well so that is looking more and more like a small blunder by the Dolphins.

Players whose actual salary and tiered salary are within $1 million are Alex Smith, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Manning, Mark Sanchez, and Russell Wilson. You would say that these players are close to correctly valued.

The biggest improvement from last year was Cam Newton who was considered the most overvalued last season in this poll. This year he is actually considered undervalued. Cutler also moved from one of the most overvalued to only being slightly overvalued. Rivers moved in the other direction going from most undervalued to being valued properly.

The noticeable name not on the list is Chase Daniel whom the Eagles inexplicably signed to a $7 million a year contract to be a backup. If they planned to draft a QB all along and saw Daniel as a safety net once they dump Bradford maybe it makes a tiny bit of sense but Im not sure. The next closest non-potential starter makes $4.6 million (Josh McCown) and he was signed to start for a year. The next pure backup earned $4 million. Maybe he would have ranked highly if people were asked to rank him, but Id imagine he would have been a low tier 4 player.

Here is the breakdown of all the players:

PlayerESPN TierSalary TierSalary RankESPN RankRank
% Change
Tom Brady121019$20,500,000$24,594,000$4,094,00020.0%
Aaron Rodgers11312$22,000,000$24,594,000$2,594,00011.8%
Ben Roethlisberger11532$21,850,000$22,000,000$150,0000.7%
Cam Newton22844$20,760,000$21,900,000$1,140,0005.5%
Drew Brees221156$20,000,000$21,850,000$1,850,0009.3%
Russell Wilson2146-2$21,900,000$21,000,000-$900,000-4.1%
Andrew Luck2117-6$24,594,000$20,812,500-$3,781,500-15.4%
Philip Rivers2178-1$20,812,500$20,760,000-$52,500-0.3%
Eli Manning2169-3$21,000,000$20,750,000-$250,000-1.2%
Carson Palmer23211011$16,500,000$20,500,000$4,000,00024.2%
Tony Romo2316115$18,000,000$20,000,000$2,000,00011.1%
Joe Flacco21212-10$22,133,333$19,953,000-$2,180,333-9.9%
Matt Ryan22913-4$20,750,000$19,250,000-$1,500,000-7.2%
Matt Stafford2318144$17,666,667$19,000,000$1,333,3337.5%
Andy Dalton2422157$16,000,000$18,100,000$2,100,00013.1%
Alex Smith3320164$17,000,000$18,000,000$1,000,0005.9%
Kirk Cousins321217-5$19,953,000$18,000,000-$1,953,000-9.8%
Jay Cutler331518-3$18,100,000$17,666,667-$433,333-2.4%
Ryan Tannehill321319-6$19,250,000$17,500,000-$1,750,000-9.1%
Ryan Fitzpatrick3423203$12,000,000$17,000,000$5,000,00041.7%
Tyrod Taylor3428217$1,116,667$16,500,000$15,383,3331377.6%
Brock Osweiler331722-5$18,000,000$16,000,000-$2,000,000-11.1%
Sam Bradford331923-4$17,500,000$12,000,000-$5,500,000-31.4%
Colin Kaepernick421424-10$19,000,000$7,500,000-$11,500,000-60.5%
Blaine Gabbert4427252$2,000,000$4,500,000$2,500,000125.0%
Mark Sanchez442526-1$4,500,000$3,635,000-$865,000-19.2%
Robert Griffin III442427-3$7,500,000$2,000,000-$5,500,000-73.3%
Case Keenum442628-2$3,635,000$1,116,667-$2,518,333-69.3%