The NFL can be a very strange place when it comes to quarterbacks and their contracts. Normally when it comes to contracts most people can at least get a ballpark estimate of value on a player. Age, playing time, and draft status all are basic indicators of free agent success and failure. For the most part very few players sign contracts that are complete surprises and probably 95% of the time you can figure out the rationale behind the way that the signings have gone during free agency even if you don’t agree with the decision. But when it comes to the quarterback almost all logic can be thrown out.
Quarterback salaries have been trending in this direction, for the most part, since Joe Flacco won the Super Bowl in 2013. By almost any metric Flacco was not a top line quarterback. He had never thrown for 4,000 yards, never had more than 25 touchdowns in a season and wasn’t a top 5 draft pick. The Ravens reportedly had looked to sign him to a $15 million a year extension which was more in line with his production, but following the Super Bowl win and in part due to their salary cap issues they signed him to the second largest contract with arguably the most player friendly contract structure in NFL history.
Post Flacco few teams seemingly put much effort into their quarterback contract negotiations outside of the Bengals and 49ers and by the same token few agents of the real stars seemed to really reach for the gold. Matt Ryan went close to $21 million. Cam Newton bested that by a few dollars. Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger went slightly above those numbers. Russell Wilson got close to $22 million. Ryan Tannehill came in at over $19 million. Flacco came back in for round 2 around $23 million. It became this odd market where performance meant little, it was just that if you were ordained a long term starter you got paid around the same as the true great ones. Still at least you could make some sense of the position of why teams were doing what they were doing.
Last year things started to get stranger. It started when the Eagles signed Sam Bradford to a contract worth $17.5 million a season prior to the start of free agency. Bradford’s NFL career was mainly spent on the sidelines struggling with injury. He had not played in 16 games since 2012 and his best ever record as a starter was 7-7. Sure he was a former number 1 draft pick, but his career wasn’t much of anything.
Still Bradford had one thing going for him and that was the “P” word- potential. For as average as Bradford’s career had been, many people considered his injury history, general lack of talent of his teammates, and various coaching changes as a reason for his failures. There was still something there and they would pay to see it. Bradford, by the end of the 2017 season, will have made about $113 million which is pretty ridiculous.
The ironic thing about Bradford is that his rookie contract of $78 million of which around $50 million was guaranteed was one of the driving arguments for a rookie wage scale. See the argument was NFL owners were being forced into bad contracts with players who hadn’t proven themselves, yet here was Bradford earning more on a yearly basis after 6 years of showing he was average at best than he did as a rookie. (Its very clear at this point that the rookie wage scale was really about driving down salaries at every other position in the league, which it has succeeded at doing, but that’s a topic for another day).
After Bradford it got stranger. Brock Osweiler signed for $18 million a year with $36 million guaranteed with the Texans. Osweiler started 7 games in 4 years and wasn’t even thought of highly enough in college to be a first round pick. Tyrod Taylor started 14 games in 5 years and landed a player friendly deal worth over $18 million a season that the Bills regretted before the ink was dry. Ryan Fitzpatrick, a journeyman who came off a good season in 2015, somehow landed a $12 million contract. All three of these players were benched last season. Osweiler has since been traded to the Browns at the cost of a 2nd round pick, Fitzpatrick can’t find a job, and Taylor had to take a pay cut.
The madness continued this year. Mike Glennon, a former 3rd rounder who started 18 games in 4 years and was replaced by a 35 year old Josh McCown, signed a $15 million a year contract to start with the Bears. McCown himself wasn’t immune from the craziness signing a contract with the Jets that, if healthy, will amount to an $8 million contract despite a 2-20 record as a starter in the last three years. That contract represents a raise of over $2 million from what he was supposed to earn from the team that cut him last month. Brian Hoyer, whose been benched, hurt and everything else under the sun en route to his 13-14 record as a starter will earn at least $6 million from San Francisco this year and has a few million more guaranteed in 2018.
In general you can lump these players into two buckets of players. The younger players were those who hadn’t done anything so negative as to turn the NFL off to them as a starter. They started a few games, didn’t embarrass themselves in the process and are worth the risk just like would have been taken on a rookie in the past. The second bucket are the overachievers. Guys that have reputations for being good veterans in the locker room and making the most out of lesser talent on the field.
The way the NFL works with this position really makes me wonder what benefit there is, unless you are a super high draft selection, of even pushing for a starting job especially if the team around you is bad.
EJ Manuel was overdrafted by the Bills back in 2013. The Bills were terrible and Manuel pretty uninspiring. He best use seemed to be as a gimmick player that could give a hard snap count on a 3rd or 4th and short situation. He was benched for Kyle Orton and lost out the next year to Taylor. Losing two QB competitions and having the label of a 1st round bust killed his free agency value.
Geno Smith fell into the second round the draft in part due to character concerns. His run with the Jets probably did little to remedy that consideration, but it was a no win situation for him. The team stunk and there was a feud between the general manager and coach that saw both fired after his second year. Smith had already been benched for a washed up Mike Vick and was going to be benched for Fitzpatrick before a teammate sent Smith to the bench with a punch. Most people thought he would lose out to Mark Sanchez as a rookie before Sanchez was injured. Very clearly Smith was considered a flop because he had opportunities and did nothing with them.
Those two players signed contracts last Friday that are for $800,000 and $1.2 million respectively. Those numbers are basically $14-$17 million less than Glennon and Osweiler received. There is absolutely nothing that separates those four players outside of the perception that hit two of them on rookie contracts which escaped the latter two players.
Given the small range of salaries at the top what do you gain by playing well? At this point the upside in the market is basically $22 million (Wilson) and the downside is $19M(Tannehill). If you don’t play at all you still get $15M and maybe more. Manuel and Smith essentially risk $14 million for the chance to earn an extra $4-7 million by playing well.
Given those numbers, if you are Smith or Manuel and you could get a redo wouldn’t you have wanted to just sit on the bench for 3 or 4 years? How different would their careers and financial futures be if they sat right off the bat behind a Fitzpatrick or a Vick and never had much of a chance to claim a starting job because of the circumstances of the organization? I look around the NFL today and see players like Paxton Lynch, Christian Hackenberg, or AJ McCarron and wonder why they would even want to get on the field right now.
The issues extend into the veteran market as well. Jay Cutler and Colin Kaepernick are both better players than McCown and Hoyer, each of whom will likely start in 2017, and neither has a job. The issues with both players has more to do with other circumstances.
Cutler missed 11 games last year and has had health issues in the past, but he’s a competent pro. The perception about Cutler is terrible. While McCown and Hoyer are considered “gamers” and “overachievers”, Cutler is considered an underachiever and player who never accepted that being a success in the NFL meant more than having a strong arm. He’s a negative in the locker room and not a leader. His poor record in Chicago is an indictment while McCown’s is passed over.
Kaepernick has many of the same issues surrounding him. Once Jim Harbaugh was forced out as head coach in San Francisco, Kaepernick became a scapegoat for the failures of the organization. He was benched for Blaine Gabbert and it took him a few weeks to get his starting job back last season. Unlike Cutler he had a few highs last year, but there is a knock on him that he’s beyond the point of being able to learn a typical NFL offense.
Like Cutler, Kaepernick also had some of the knocks on him that go beyond the field. He’s not front and center with interviews the way many QBs are and at times he came off as aloof. He supposedly had trouble connecting with teammates in the locker room in the past, though by all accounts that seemed to go away this year. There is also the added attention that he received when he sat and then kneeled for the national anthem. While he was never looking to create a movement, he found himself in the middle of what became a movement and that only makes him less attractive to other teams.
While its not all bad for those players (both benefited from what the NFL QB contract system evolved into when they signed extensions in 2014) both highlight the strange nature of the way teams select quarterbacks to start or compete for starting jobs. It’s still possible that one or both will start next year as a few teams may be waiting for the Tony Romo saga to end before signing anyone, but how different would things be for them right now if they had different personalities and/or highlight reels of taking a shot to the head while diving into the end zone or trying to rally a one win team to a victory? These issues are all part of the job and I get why teams get scared off by it, but I cant see why they value players with worse skillsets/history so much higher.
It doesn’t even take much to kill a career. Fitzpatrick went from a crazy $12 million contract to probably being out of the NFL. Fitzpatrick was pretty much considered a gamer just like McCown and Hoyer except Fitzpatrick played on a team with expectations and melted down in the process. When he was benched last year he handled it terribly and basically seemed like an outsider on his own team. He was pretty much blamed for the collapse of the Jets franchise and barring injury its hard to imagine any team bringing him in. Compare that with Nick Foles who was a good soldier with the Rams and happy as a backup in Kansas City and he’s the highest paid backup in the NFL.
No other position in the NFL is treated this way. Could you imagine a linebacker drafted in the mid first or second round who more or less sat for four seasons landing a $10 million contract in free agency? No chance. Could you imagine some veteran that comes out of nowhere to sack the QB a bunch of times landing a $12 million a year deal? Nope. Teams are just crazy with the QB position and the way that they are valuing and de-valuing players just doesn’t seem to point to long term success for most of these organizations.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.