QB Salary Cap Charges and the Playoffs

With the exits from the playoffs of Josh Allen and Dak Prescott this past weekend along with the rumored trade of Aaron Rodgers, there has been more and more discussion about the ability to win and how much the QB earns. We do some work on playoff roster analysis so I thought I could throw a quick post together looking at the top earner for each team in a given season (so not the spend on the entire QB room, just the top player) and how much that salary cap level made the playoffs.

For this post I looked at the last five seasons and determined what QB had the highest salary cap charge for a team. That might not mean that the player was the starter, just that this was what the team budgeted at the top level for the highest earning position on the team. Each cap number was then adjusted to be a percentage of that years unadjusted salary cap. The players were then binned by cap percentage 0-1%, 1-3%, 3-5% and so on. Finally, I grouped the teams into playoff and non-playoff teams.

I thought the numbers here were kind of interesting. When we look at playoff teams you can see that a good number are cheap players and then there is a peak in that moderate-high range between 11 and 13% of the cap before it falls down. While that is certainly a positive for the low cap number when we get to the non-playoff chart it also becomes pretty clear that while there is a high reward on those lower cost players there is certainly a risk factor as that is also our biggest group for missing the playoffs. Here is how the success rates break down for each range and what those ranges would be based on a $225M salary cap:

Cap RangePlayersPlayoff RateMin Cap (2023)Max Cap (2023)
Under 1%540.0%$0$2,250,000
1-3%2544.0%$2,250,000$6,750,000
3-5%3735.1%$6,750,000$11,250,000
5-7%1540.0%$11,250,000$15,750,000
7-9%825.0%$15,750,000$20,250,000
9-11%1827.8%$20,250,000$24,750,000
11-13%2259.1%$24,750,000$29,250,000
13-15%1650.0%$29,250,000$33,750,000
15-17%955.6%$33,750,000$38,250,000
Over 17%520.0%$38,250,000$47,000,000

I think this gets us deep into the concept of risk and reward. The groups that have the highest success rate clearly are the most expensive players with over 50% of the teams spending between 11 and 17% making the playoffs. I would imagine when all is said and done with restructures that group would include players like Mahomes, Allen, Prescott, Rodgers, Cousins, Watson, and Goff next year. But it is certainly not 100% and too often the hit rate is considered to be just that and then you are left bitterly disappointed when you are one of the 45% or so of the teams on the outside looking in.

The other number that stands out, and it’s a very small group, are the teams that have been forced to carry a QB at a super high cap charge. There have only been five and the only one to make the playoffs was Mahomes this past year. While 17% is no magical number I think this is something to keep in mind for cap planning that when you do have one of these veterans under contract you should aim to keep the structure within a certain range. There may be no need to max out the restructures and instead should try to keep the numbers manageable year after year.

When we get into our cheaper players our success rates drop to about 40%. These are mainly going to be draft picks with a few exceptions for journeymen players like Jameis Winston, Mitchell Trubisky, and Marcus Mariota. The worst range is that 7 to 11% range which is mainly going to comprise those players who got a starting job off a small sample of games like Nick Foles, Teddy Bridgewater, and Case Keenum or were trade ins like Carson Wentz. This is no mans land in the NFL and generally speaking a waste of a team’s time if its not a pure cap manipulation for the front end of a veteran player’s contract.

What about long term success?  Here is the average spent per top QB, as a percentage of cap, by playoff appearances.

Playoff AppearancesAvg. Cap Spend
55.7%
46.8%
39.3%
28.0%
16.7%
07.8%

The team with 5 is the Chiefs but this group of teams that hits the 4 and 5 are mainly high end rookies during their rookie years and their initial extension years when the salaries drop lower. The peak spend comes from teams with 2 and 3 playoff appearances, which are mainly the teams with the Cousins type QB contracts.

Here is a look at the five year average salary cap spend and the average playoff appearances per group.

RangeTeamsAvg. Playoff Seasons
13-15%32.7
11-13%41.8
9-11%32.0
7-9%81.9
5-7%53.0
3-5%91.7

Again you can see the upside that comes from the long term of being able to have that salary cap figure remain low over a long term with our 5 to 7% averaging 3 playoff appearances in the last five years compared to 2.7 for the most expensive capped teams (these teams are the Vikings, 49ers, and Packers on the expensive end and the Bengals, Chiefs, Ravens, Patriots, and Browns on the lower cost end). Granted these are all small size groups but I think it helps to illustrate that the unknown of draft is often no worse than going nuts navigating the cap each year just to have about the same success rate.

Questions about this article? Reach Jason Fitzgerald on Twitter at @Jason_OTC