The Two Distinct Roster Construction Strategies in the NFL

With seven teams making changes to their quarterback position over the last two months, now would be a great time to discuss the two main team building strategies that teams typically employ in the NFL today, plus a third middle of the pack spending strategy that more teams are employing in 2018 than they have the last few years, which could make teams with less productive, but still competent veteran quarterbacks more competitive, although this strategy isn’t very widespread. This conversation is an extension of the conversation in chapter five of Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions where I discuss the quarterback market and how about half of the NFL spends over 10% of the cap on their quarterback each year, which decreases the potential strategic avenues to success for many teams with average quarterbacks being paid first tier money.

The two main strategies for success in the NFL today are to either spend over 10% of the cap on your veteran quarterback or have a rookie contract quarterback leading your team. Illustrated in the graphic below, you’ll see that 16 teams employ a strategy with a quarterback over 10% of the cap, 10 have a quarterback under 5% of the cap either as a veteran or on his rookie contract, and six teams have a potential starter between five and ten percent of the cap.

What we’re concerned with in this article and with most of the stuff I try to analyze from the team perspective is what teams have the highest probability of Super Bowl success by analzying the spending strategy they employ and those strategies start at the quarterback position. In today’s NFL the two main strategies of over 10% veteran quarterback versus rookie contract quarterbacks has created two distinct strategies. The over the 10% strategy typically leads to a roster centered around the quarterback and his performance, which can typically lead to some holes on the defensive side of the ball unless the front office can string together some great drafts and find low-cost free agents who can contribute.

Kirk Cousins’ signing to Minnesota looks like a great fit because they already built out the NFL’s best defense in 2017; they’ve added Sheldon Richardson in 2018 as well to fill a key need, and they’re just plopping Cousins in that very well rounded and talented roster. They have some savings on defense and rookie contract contributors, plus Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs producing at a level much higher than two players their combined cost of 3.90% of the cap would normally create with Dalvin Cook looking like a top running back at just 0.81% of the cap. They also have Latavius Murray, another starting quality running back, at 2.93% of the cap. The top two paid wide receivers and top paid running back cost for the past 23 Super Bowl champions of the cap era is 11.03% of the cap on average, so they’re getting elite production for 6.83% of the cap, which is 62% of that average Super Bowl cost. If you’re looking at that and the offense as a unit, that’s like having another 4.20% of the cap to play with. It’s those kinds of savings that allow a team to put out the money for Cousins and expect to still field a complete roster.

Some of those savings went to Kyle Rudolph as their top paid offensive skill player at 4.33% of the cap. He’s a tight end who could produce 600 to 700 yards if given the opportunity in their deep offensive skill group. He peaked with 83 catches for 840 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2016, but that was on 132 targets, which isn’t something he’s likely to see now that the offense appears much deeper, especially with today’s addition of wide receiver Kendall Wright who was one of the NFL’s top slot receivers with a Pro Football Focus tracked 80.4% catch rate with 1.36 yards per route tun out of the slot. Most importantly Rudolph provides them another elite mismatch that defenses have to deal with and a redzone target that helps improve the probability of touchdowns when the team gets down there. This is similar to the tight end based spending strategy I advocate for in Caponomics as the Patriots have created an offense in this same manner, with Rob Gronkowski, a much more productive tight end, as their key piece they’ve built around with low-cost receivers. The Vikings made the same move and Thielen and Diggs have exceeded expectations. The whole offensive skill group of the quarterback, top paid running back, top paid three receivers, and tight end cost 25.42% of the cap, which is actually far below what the teams with the two most expensive Super Bowl champion quarterbacks paid for their top offensive skill players as the 1994 49ers’ group cost 31.81%, while the 2015 Broncos’ group cost 29.16%. It’s those savings elsewhere that make the Cousins’ deal so sensible, but not every team that’s spending a lot of money on their quarterback has this kind of roster or these kinds of savings.

The rookie contract strategy is one we saw the Eagles and Jaguars use to success in 2017 as they had low-cost quarterbacks, which then allowed them to invest heavily on the defensive side of the ball, specifically their defensive lines. Investing heavily in the defensive line creates a scenario for teams where they can decrease the performance of their opponent’s quarterback to a level where their rookie contract quarterback can lead their offense to a better performance and secure victory.

The six teams with veteran quarterbacks between five and ten percent of the cap are the Bengals, Browns, Jaguars, Broncos, Cardinals, and Jets. This is a slightly higher total than in past years with it being just the Bengals, Bills, and Raiders, in the first year of the Derek Carr extension, being three teams executing this strategy in 2017. The Bears had Mike Glennon at 8.38% of the cap, but that quickly became a rookie quarterback situation and Glennon was simply a poor investment, so they would count as a fourth. The Bills obviously had their playoff success, but were ready to move on from Taylor as he became an over 10% of the cap player for them in 2018, which is just not what he’s worth as someone who produced just 187 passing yards per game in 2017. Taylor is now a Brown at 9.03% of the cap, but they have a cap of $241 million with cap carryover and he’s a great one-year bridge quarterback to help whoever they draft at #1 grow as a player and Taylor will help the team compete immediately. Out of these teams, the Jaguars, Broncos, and Cardinals stand a reasonable chance of being serious playoff contenders with the Jaguars being a serious Super Bowl contender after giving Bortles an extension that brought him down from over 10% to 5.64%. This allowed them to make some of the moves necessary to keep a solid roster around him as extra $9 million they gained from extending Bortles helped them secure both Marqise Lee and sign Donte Moncrief in what was a questionable decision. The Browns could even contend for a playoff spot with cap carryover bringing them up to a $241 million cap with 9 more draft picks to use in 2018 along with some big improvements already this offseason. The Jets have Josh McCown at 5.64% of the cap, plus Teddy Bridgewater at 3.39% of the cap, giving them two veteran quarterbacks who could potentially lead the team as Bridgewater has injury concerns. Both are on one-year deals.

The Broncos and Cardinals had down 2017 seasons in years where they came in with high expectations, but their signings of Case Keenum and Sam Bradford respectively put them in a position to compete. If the Broncos can improve their offensive line, Keenum might be playing with a similar strategic formula to what got him to the NFC Championship in Minnesota, while Bradford will have a good defense and a healthy David Johnson at running back. Having serious contenders in this window of quarterback spending is a trend I hope continues because the current quarterback market is in a place where average players are being paid first tier money, while great players at other positions don’t see those same kind of earnings.

With the over 10% of the cap crowd we get into a discussion regarding what a first tier quarterback is. In Caponomics, I define the first tier as between 10 and 13% of the cap, but with the understanding that many teams will breach that 13% of the cap ceiling as that’s just the way the quarterback market works. Like I also point out in the book though, only one Super Bowl quarterback was over 13% in Steve Young at 13.08% on a 1994 49ers team that had a little more cap space to work with as they re-signed 17 veterans in December 1993 to skirt the new salary cap rules coming into affect. The second highest cap hit for a quarterback was Peyton Manning at 12.21% in 2015 for the Broncos with his brother Eli being number three at 11.75%. Going down the list the only other quarterbacks to win at over 10% of the cap were on teams that had Hall of Fame level quarterbacks as the list expands to include Tom Brady, Brett Favre, and Drew Bledsoe in 2001 when Brady took over.

When deciding on whether a quarterback is a first tier player, he should be someone who has a stat line that reflects something similar to these metrics: 65% completion percentage, 7.5 yards per attempt, 260+ yards per game with the ability to go for 350 to 400 yards in a game if necessary like facing a great rush defense that stops your rushing offense, 30 touchdowns, and 10 to 12 or less interceptions. In my opinion, from Caponomics, “first tier quarterbacks should only be quarterbacks that a team would pick very few others, if any, over–they should be exactly what the team is looking for with what they’re trying to do on offense and who can elevate the play of the offense around them.” These players have to be elite because, by spending first tier money on them, they need to be elite for your team to compete unless the front office has gone on a streak of finding value to make up for the value suck an average quarterback at 12% of the cap can be.

I quote Jason in Caponomics with his assessment of the quarterback market after Matt Stafford’s record setting contract. Jason writes, “the salary cap is supposed to promote some type of competitive balance in the league. Generally, if you spend highly on one position it should mean that you have an area of weakness at another. The most expensive position has always been the quarterback, so if someone has a great quarterback they should have to break the bank for that player. It should create a system in which the team with the so-so quarterback has extra cap dollars (and dollars in their actual cash budget) to spend on other players to try to counteract the great quarterback” they’re competing against. There are quite a few teams who have been dragged either into the first tier with non-first tier quarterbacks or teams with first-tier quarterbacks who have to pay them 15% of the cap, when better quarterbacks are making less. This creates a situation where they don’t have the same opportunity to make up for that player being a lesser player through creating advantages elsewhere.

As Michael Holley writes in Belichick & Brady, Belichick realized when he came to the Patriots that “the skill wasn’t just in acquiring good players anymore. It was an athlete/asset puzzle now.” This is why the Patriots have sustained this dynasty forever past the fact that Brady’s an elite quarterback. Throughout Belichick’s tenure they’ve let players go before they got too expensive and replaced them with less expensive, but still productive players who gave them much more value from a salary cap perspective. A player who produces seven sacks and 55 pressures against the quarterback for 2% of the cap is more valuable than the perceived elite edge defender who produces 11 sacks and 65 pressures for 9% of the cap. This concept is precisely why they were comfortable trading away Chandler Jones before earning their fifth Super Bowl in 2016. It’s my hope, and I believe it’s the hope of Jason, that the league starts to trend towards having some of these less productive players at a lower-cost, so the league can see more of a competitive balance with more than just these two main spending strategies for success with the expensive quarterback and the rookie contract quarterback model. This would also clear space for some of that money to go to other veteran players, which is a good thing considering that 17% of total salaries in the NFL in 2016 went to just 50 players and about 50% of the money goes to just 150 players, which is about 12% of the total league population, according to Jason Fitzgerald here at Over The Cap. With 17 quarterbacks on contracts currently over $20 million a year, much of that money is going to quarterbacks.

The second tier of the quarterback market is defined in Caponomics as being between six and ten percent of the cap and it’s the kind of quarterback who is a clear step below that first tier, like a Blake Bortles, which got me excited to see his extension slip him down right under this tier to expand the Jaguars window of success. This category of player is loosely defined by this kind of stat line: 61 or 62% completion percentage, 7.0 to 7.2 yards per attempt, 235+ yards per game, and a slightly worse touchdown to interception ratio than first tier quarterbacks. Bortles’ 2017 exemplifies this with a line of 60.2% completion percentage, 7.0 yards per attempt, and 230.4 yards per game with a 21 to 13 ratio.

Even Dan Snyder seems to be noticing the need to lower costs at the quarterback position as Alex Smith was signed to a contract that will keep him under 11% of the cap over the next three seasons, which isn’t second tier costs, but maybe my perceived second tier should be expanded to there considering the high costs so many are willing to pay over 13% of the cap. By going with Smith over Cousins, even with the trading of one of the top young cornerbacks in the NFL in Kendall Fuller with a third round pick, the Redskins may have given themselves some cap value and room to build out the roster. Looking at these next three years, the Redskins will save $5.6, $8.6, and $9.6 million in cap space versus if they paid Cousins the same amount he got in Minnesota and the Redskins still have Josh Norman and Quinton Dunbar at cornerback, so the position still has talent. Those millions in savings are enough to sign quite a few good players who could be key pieces that build out a better roster with Smith at the helm than what they would have had with Cousins.

In the coming years there are quite a few players who teams could, or should, find in the five to ten or eleven percent of the cap area. Smith is the top of this expanded market right now, which is what he’s seemed to always be, the top second level quarterback, which may have been a part of what led to him being in the same class as Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady for most wins since 2011. Maybe Smith’s slightly lower costs than the top of the quarterback market helped his teams field one or two more good players. Behind him, all five of the players currently in the five to ten percent of the cap group mentioned above should be there into the future, but it’s not that simple. Bortles, Keenum, and Bradford are on contracts that will bump past 10% at least in 2019, but they really haven’t proven to be first tier players at any point in their careers and teams would be best served extending them if they do well and hoping to keep them at a lower cost.

For example, if Bortles doesn’t prove himself to be better than he was in 2017 in these next couple seasons, then maybe both sides would be best served on a long-term deal that keeps him in the eight to eleven percent of the cap range for the foreseeable future because that version of Blake Bortles is only effective with an elite run game and defense, both of which Jacksonville has. Bortles is currently projected to consume 10.97% and 11.19% of the cap in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. He has a cap hit of $21 million in 2019 with just $5 million in dead money if he’s traded after June 1st in 2018 and $5 million in dead money if he’s traded or cut in 2020. This year and next year will be where the team makes their decision on what direction they want to go at quarterback dependent on his performance. If Bortles is the same player, then with so much young talent on the defense, I think they would look to continue to keep Bortles in a reasonable spending range or find another quarterback, rather than pay him first tier money.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team take Lamar Jackson if he’s there at the end of the first round because they might want to keep their options open and this would allow them to do that. It also makes Bortles expendable, which could help them get value back in a trade if they decide to go with Jackson to maintain this run-first, defensive model. Mobility at quarterback is a key factor in this run-first model because it adds another dimension to the offense if the quarterback isn’t producing at a high level passing. Remember, it was Bortles mobility that played a key role in helping them earn two playoff wins in January 2018 with 88 rushing yards to 87 passing yards against Buffalo, then some key rushes on the way to 35 rushing yards in the three-point win against the Steelers. In those two games he completed just 53.1% of passes for 301 total passing yards, so it’s not like a mobile rookie contract quarterback can’t produce at that level.

Teddy Bridgewater with the Jets and A.J. McCarron with the Bills are two players who are on contracts below 5% of the cap, but could be nice long-term pieces if they prove to be on that Bortles level this year and in the right situation for this five to ten percent range. They can both make their teams competitive if they play good defense. The Bills saw an opportunity to extend their window of using this run-first, defensive strategy with McCarron being just 1.69% of the cap in 2017, then a projected 2.7% in 2018.  He’ll help the team compete and provide a bridge to whoever they may draft in the first round this season.

Of the other current veterans, Eli Manning would be well served to take a page from the Brady and Patriots book on how to decrease cap hits, while maintaining reasonable earnings as he’s no longer a first tier elite player or at least he hasn’t been able to show us that behind a porous offensive line. He wasn’t very good in 2017 with Odell Beckham for only four games and he wasn’t very good throwing to anyone but Beckham in 2016 with a 105.3 passer rating when targeting him, but just a 78.9 passer rating when throwing to other receivers. If the Giants do keep Eli past 2018, it would have to be at a reduced rate and it could even be a favorable situation for both sides as he’s not in a position to be a 12 or 13% of the cap quarterback anymore, and having him closer to something like 8% of the cap might just extend his career and improve the team around him enough for him to compete again. Say Eli had a cap hit of $15 million in 2019 rather than his projected $23.2 million, that’s $8.2 million they have to improve the offense around him to elevate his play to a level he can’t create without a lot of help at this point in his career. Taking a lower cost in a player’s late-30s may actually extend the player and team’s window of opportunity to compete and continue to be paid. Getting paid $15 million to play quarterback at 42 is better than not getting paid $15 million if you still have the desire to play.

Cam Newton is on a first tier contract through 2020 with his last year being under 11% of the projected cap, but if he wants to extend his career past that he’s a very likely candidate to need to decrease to this tier to compete. He’s a big, mobile quarterback who isn’t very accurate and turns the ball over a little too much. He’ll be 32 years old in 2021 and, considering much of his value comes from running, I think his career is going to have a decline more similar to a running back than a quarterback’s career path. If he’s going to be on in the NFL past 2020, he’s not going to be worth 12% of the cap unless he drastically improves his accuracy and production in the passing game, but the team could be in a more competitive position and he could extend his career if he’s in the second tier. He will need to slightly improve his passing to deal with the rushing decline that will be coming eventually, but he’ll have the experience and intelligence necessary after a decade in the NFL to make the adjustments to his game. The Panthers are already built on a rushing based offensive strategy with a good defense, so Ron Rivera could continue to employ this strategy with him at a rate closer to 8% and the team could compete.

Joe Flacco could be perfect example of a second tier quarterback if he didn’t have the leverage after his Super Bowl win to catapult himself towards 14% and 15% of the cap each year on one of the NFL’s worst contracts from a value standpoint. In fact, his winning the Super Bowl was probably the single most impactful factor in today’s quarterback market. Through his first five seasons, he had a completion percentage of 60.5% with 7.1 yards per attempt and 220.4 yards per game. His seasonal touchdown-to-interception ratio was 20-to-11. That’s basically Blake Bortles 2017 season, so maybe he would have been signed to something closer to second tier value, maybe even below the 11% threshold for a few years and he could have been an Alex Smith type of value for the team. Instead, Flacco saw the richest deal in NFL history at the time and, considering who he is as a player, it essentially justifies the ever-increasing top of the market we see because every quarterback that comes into negotiations is justified in saying, “well look at what Flacco makes. I expect more than that.”

The Ravens could begin to plot their move on from him in 2019, then release or trade him in 2020. This will be his 35-year-old season, so if I were the team that traded for him, I’d try to extend him for a few years in this second tier area and make a run with him. All this said about Flacco’s contract, we all must still acknowledge the masterful job by the Ravens front office to continue to field a really good roster around him. We can’t fault them for paying him what they paid him: he was the franchise quarterback, he just earned the team their second Super Bowl, he was the first real franchise quarterback the organization had ever had with their first Super Bowl coming completely because of their defense, and he had a four-game playoff run with a 57.9% completion percentage, 1140 passing yards (285 yards per game), and 9.1 yards per attempt with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. There was nothing they could do but sign the guy and they’ve done a great job building their defense around that contract, they’ve provided a real example of how to draft and spend around that quarterback to extend a competitive window even with such a value suck.

Teams can still be successful spending over 10% of the cap on a quarterback, that’s clear, but as stated earlier, it has to be a high performing player with a well-constructed team around him. No matter how good a quarterback is, he still needs a great roster around him. That was a bit of the issue with Peyton Manning throughout his career as he cost an average of 13.35% of the cap from 2001 through 2015. By comparison, Brady only had one year that breached 13% of the cap, which was 2006, the year Manning cost 10.36% of the cap and edged past the Patriots in the AFC Championship by a 38-34 score. Throughout his career, Manning was on teams slanted towards playing offense, while Brady was on more complete rosters. From 1998 through 2015, Manning’s defenses were on averaged ranked 15th in the NFL in points allowed at 21.6, while Brady’s defenses from 2001 through 2016 averaged 18.6 points allowed per game, which ranked about eighth. When you spend more on the quarterback, he must be an elite player, but many teams aren’t paying that kind of money to truly elite players.

I can’t blame teams for paying their franchise quarterbacks. The NFL is a win now league with the potential for being fired a year after you’re hired if things aren’t working out, which is a difficult position to be in for any general manager or head coach who just secured his dream job. There are a handful of quarterbacks over 10% of the cap in 2018 who might not be that kind of elite quarterback though like Joe Flacco, Derek Carr, Eli Manning, Cam Newton, and the unproven Jimmy Garoppolo. Again, not blaming teams for spending this way, whether you have an elite quarterback or not, leads to a situation where there has become a real opportunity for teams that hit on their rookie contract quarterbacks to compete for Super Bowls with more complete rosters than these high spending opponents. As noted in Caponomics, my sister and her classmates at McCombs Business School at the University of Texas did a regression analysis of every quarterback from 2011 through 2015 and found that 8.67% of the cap is a tipping point for quarterbacks where their cap hit can begin to affect their team’s chances of winning.

On the way to a Super Bowl, teams face multiple elite teams, all with their own strategies for success. Some of those teams have great offenses, some have great defenses, and some are great at everything like the 2016 Patriots and 2017 Eagles. If you don’t have a complete team that’s good in every phase of the game, you could run into an opponent that can drag you into the kind of game you can’t excel in or they might just be better than you across the roster. This is why the rookie contract quarterback strategy has become popular after seeing what the 2013 Seahawks and now the 2017 Eagles were able to create around good rookie contract quarterbacks with an elite rushing attack, great offensive line play, and defense with a pressure producing defensive line.

As I’ve said many times, if the game does come down to the quarterback position, then using money saved on a quarterback to invest in the defensive line, whose pressure can drastically decrease the performance of the opponent’s quarterback’s efficiency is a really strong strategy. Sam Monson from Pro Football Focus found that simply applying pressure to quarterbacks in 2016 dropped passer ratings from 96.7 to just 62.5 as a league-wide average. We remember how much pressure Peyton Manning was under in that Super Bowl victory for the Seahawks. In the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings, as I detailed here, the Eagles had two game changing plays because of pressure. Patrick Robinson had an interception returned for a touchdown because of Chris Long putting pressure on Case Keenum and hitting his arm to cause a floater to fall right into Robinson’s arms, which made the game 7-7. This was the Vikings second drive of the game after a nine play, 75-yard drive that made it 7-0 and looked easy– it was a real game changing play. The next game changing pressure was Derek Barnett’s sack-fumble with 3:25 left in the first half when it was 14-7 and the Vikings were on the Eagles 16-yard line driving to score. The Eagles recovered the fumble, went down field, made it 21-7, then hit a field goal before the half as well to make it 24-7. The Eagles got the ball at half, scored again to make it 31-7 and the Vikings were suddenly down 24 points, rather than seven, and had run just six plays since the fumble. This put them in a desperate position. They had to go for it on 4th and goal from the Eagles 7-yard line on the next drive, where they turned it over on downs, and the Eagles went down to make it 38-7 and the game was effectively over. Yes, Nick Foles played very, very well, but without those two turnovers created by pressure, it would have been a completely different game.

One of the big things about having a rookie contract quarterbacks is that if you can get near first tier performance levels, even second tier performance levels out of these quarterbacks on contracts that cost a maximum of four and a half percent of the salary cap, you’ve got an opportunity to get a similar performance to what others pay as much as 15% of the cap . This can lead to a scenario where the team is getting that production with as much as 10% of the cap more to spend on other positions. And to this point, there are quite a few 2018 contenders with rookie contract quarterbacks because of this and great talent around him. Six teams that jump off the page at you are the Eagles, Cowboys, Rams, Texans, Chiefs, and Titans with each of them making moves this offseason partially made possible because of the lower-costs they have at QB.

Just looking at these teams in terms of what they’re creating, the Eagles have maintained the roster that earned them a Super Bowl last year and may have even improved in some places. The Cowboys are basically still the same roster that went 13-3 in 2016 and would’ve made the playoffs in 2017 if Ezekiel Elliott wasn’t suspended for six games. The Rams were one of the best teams in football in 2017 at 11-5 and they’ve added Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, Nickell Robey-Coleman, and Ndamukong Suh. They’ve gone from a pretty weak secondary to what may be the NFL’s best, while adding one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL to a team that may have the best in Aaron Donald. That’s the kind of improvement that teams can make with this low-cost under center, which is why they’ve become an early favorite to win the Super Bowl.

As an aside, Scott Barrett and I have had this conversation in recent weeks, a team’s play caller may be the second most important position on the field considering the jump we saw from Jared Goff from 2016 to 2017 with the addition of Sean McVay. Think of how good Matt Ryan was in 2016 compared to a slight decline in 2017 after Kyle Shanahan left for San Francisco. The importance cannot be understated.

Houston already had a great defense before injuries derailed them in 2017. The defense got them a playoff win after 2016 with Tom Savage at quarterback, so with Deshaun Watson under center in 2018, they’re in position to compete. They already had J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and D.J. Reader creating pressure in the front seven, while they’ve added Tyrann Mathieu and Aaron Colvin to a defensive backfield that needed improvements, as it was one of their weaknesses in 2017. They signed three offensive linemen in Zach Fulton, Senio Kelemente, and Seantrel Henderson in an attempt to improve , while also adding an elite special teams player in Jonathan Bademosi to improve in the important and oft-forgotten third phase of the game.

The Chiefs are hoping to get the same production out of Patrick Mahomes they came to expect out of Alex Smith, but for 9.5% of the cap less, which allows them to make improvements like signing Sammy Watkins to a $16 million a year contract that will consume most of those savings. Tennessee keeps investing in their defense, at running back, and along the offensive line to build up a winnable formula with the mobile Marcus Mariota, setting up a situation where he’s not expected to throw for 270 yards a game for them to win because he might not be that player yet. They re-signed right guard Josh Kline, then added cornerback Malcolm Butler, and running back Dion Lewis. They re-signed 3-4 defensive end DaQuon Jones for a reasonable $7 million a year after the career year he was having was cut short by injury.

Of course, there are quite a few teams with top paid quarterbacks who are among the top contenders like the Patriots, Steelers, Chargers, Packers, Vikings, Falcons, Panthers, Saints, Seahawks, and maybe even the upstart 49ers, but these two distinct strategies have created a real opportunity for teams with rookie contract quarterbacks as they can get similar production levels for as much as 10% of the cap less than others. Teams have an easier road to turning their organization around with the right pick at quarterback under this CBA than the previous one as rookie contract quarterbacks were getting out of control, so this is a big win for all sides in the previous CBA. The dynamic of these two strategies will continue to play out until more teams can create a viable alternative in between the two, but for now, these are the main ways in which to perceive how most teams are built. Are they investing heavily at quarterback and basing their strategy for success around the quarterback and do they have the potential savings and low-cost, but productive players elsewhere to make up for his high costs and develop a complete roster? Or do they have a quarterback on his rookie contract and have they made the moves around him to build up the offense and defense in a way that helps elevate his play and the entire team’s performance?

The fact of the matter is that no matter what the team has at quarterback, Super Bowl champions have to be competent in every phase of the game, so the game comes down to who solves the athlete/asset puzzle the best. It’s up to each organization to identify their strategy, then make the moves to maximize their potential with this strategy by identifying the valuable players they can find to surround their quarterback whether through the draft or through free agency. The kind of spending you have at quarterback also influences this, meaning that if you have an expensive quarterback, you might then want to find the lower cost value on the defensive line like the Patriots do every year signing pressure producing defensive ends at a low-cost like Chris Long and now Adrian Clayborn. If you have a rookie contract quarterback like the 2017 Eagles , then you might want to invest almost 28% of the cap in your defensive line with a 2017 first round pick going to defensive end Derek Barnett as well.

The decision made at quarterback affects the decisions made around the rest of the roster in a variety of ways from the money available to the rest of the players to the kinds of players you’re going to want to invest in to achieve your strategy for success based on what you have at quarterback, so choose wisely and create a situation that has the highest probability of success for the on-field strategy that you’re employing. Understanding the spending at quarterback creates the framework for understanding how teams spend along the rest of the roster, so this provides at least a starting point for analyzing how each team is constructed.

Zack Moore is a writer for and author of the recently released book titled, “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions,” which is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL. 

Looking at the Sando/ESPN QB Rankings from a Salary Perspective


Mike Sando did a terrific piece on ESPN Insider (subscription required) in which he polled a number of people in football to rank the starting Quarterbacks in the NFL. Sando grouped the quarterbacks into tiers based on the rankings and also provided their overall ranking in his article. I wanted to examine that list from a salary standpoint and see if the consensus opinions match the price tags associated with each player.

Because rookie contracts are pre-determined I only wanted to look at veteran players (that means no Luck, Bradford, Newton, etc…) who I felt would start (that also eliminates Hoyer for me).  That left us with 20 QBs. Just looking at annual contract values and equally dividing the tiers our “salary tiers” are

Tier 1: Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning

Tier 2: Colin Kaepernick, Jay Cutler, Tony Romo, Matt Stafford, Eli Manning

Tier 3: Phillip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer

Tier 4: Matt Schaub, Matt Cassel, Josh McCown, Chad Henne, Ryan Fitzpatrick

Based on Sando’s article the players who would be situated in the proper tier are Rodgers, Brees, P. Manning, Kaepernick, Romo, Stafford, E. Manning, Smith, Palmer, Schaub, Cassel, Henne, and Fitzpatrick. That’s a pretty good list with 13/20 being properly slotted by tier. Here are the tier average salaries:


ESPN’s tier two was a bit larger than the one I’m using and their tier 1 average is pulled down by Brady’s contract which in many ways is an outlier, but for the most part the average salaries are slotting pretty close to where they should be.

If we examine the list by overal rankings and compare the salary rank to the ESPN rank we can pick out the best and worst salary slotting based on the consensus scoring.

Brady of course is the biggest gainer. He ranks tied for number 1 overall in the Sando article but just 13th in salary, a 12 slot differential. Brady has always been a unique case, really only receiving one contract in his entire career that would be considered a market setter despite being universally accepted as one of the top two quarterbacks of the last 10 years.

Rivers and Roethlisberger both provide six benefit points. This is not surprising as both signed contracts prior to 2011 when the salary escalation at the position really began to occur. The two of them, Roethlisberger in particular, have provided great value for many years for their teams. Both kind of get lost in the shuffle because one never won a Super Bowl and the other does not put up the huge statistical output some of the other great QB’s put up.

Of the lower tier QB’s the biggest positive would be McCown who ranks 18th in salary but 16th in the survey. Other players that would be considered some type of salary bargain include P. Manning, Brees, E. Manning, Tony Romo, and Chad Henne.

Not surprising to me is that the biggest drop would be Joe Flacco. Flacco ranks 3rd in compensation but just 10th among Qb’s, a drop of 7 slots. Flacco’s salary was largely driven by his team winning a Super Bowl and the Ravens cap situation at the time. Cutler and Kaepernick both see differences of 6 slots, which is actually a bigger move from a salary perspective than Flacco due to the lack of a middle class in the NFL QB salary scale. Ryan was the other big drop, with 5 slots between his salary and ranking.

If we re-distribute the salaries on a 1-20 basis, using averages for each slot in which there is a tie score, we can look at the players in terms of best and worst bargains in the NFL.

Brady would deserve a raise of a whopping 81.7%, which equates to $9.3 million a season. Again it just illustrates how Brady’s willingness all these years to work with the Patriots has given them more ammo to take risks on players that many others can not. Rivers and Roethlisberger would each deserve in the ballpark of $4 million more a season, which may give some guidelines as to what they will be asking for when their extensions come up for discussion in the near future. Another interesting name is Eli who the consensus indicates should get around a 10% raise and that is coming off an abysmal season. A bounce back season should really increase his stock when an extension comes up as many of the personnel people who ranked Manning seemed to put a great deal of weight in his 2013 season.

From a percentage standpoint both McCown and Henne are big bargains within those lower tiers. Hennehas the chance to earn more based on performance that could bring him to that higher level.

Cutler is the most overvalued in the NFL. He should earn $6.7 million less a season, a decrease of 37% over his current rate. Cutler’s contract was one I did not understand much when signed and he will need to improve greatly as he moves forward to justify it. Kaepernick and Flacco would be the other two that see big decreases in annual value. On a percentage basis Cassel is highly overpaid as is Schaub.

The following chart breaks down each players ranking, their salary, adjusted salaries and anything else discussed. Right now they are sorted by the percentage change in salary that would occur if their salary was based on the consensus ranking. Clicking on a column header should allow you to sort the data in any manner you would like.


PlayerTeamSalary TierESPN TierSalary RankESPN RankRank DiffAPYAdjusted APYAPY Difference% Change
Tom BradyPatriots3113112$11,400,000$20,712,500$9,312,50081.7%
Josh McCownBuccaneers4318162$5,000,000$6,750,000$1,750,00035.0%
Ben RoethlisbergerSteelers321266$14,664,417$19,000,000$4,335,58329.6%
Philip RiversChargers321156$15,300,000$19,200,000$3,900,00025.5%
Chad HenneJaguars4419181$4,000,000$5,000,000$1,000,00025.0%
Eli ManningGiants221073$16,250,000$17,922,222$1,672,22210.3%
Peyton ManningBroncos11514$19,200,000$20,712,500$1,512,5007.9%
Drew BreesSaints11413$20,000,000$20,712,500$712,5003.6%
Alex SmithChiefs3314140$9,258,333$9,258,333$00.0%
Carson PalmerCardinals3315150$8,000,000$8,000,000$00.0%
Ryan FitzpatrickTexans4420200$3,625,000$3,625,000$00.0%
Tony RomoCowboys22871$18,000,000$17,922,222-$77,778-0.4%
Aaron RodgersPackers11110$22,000,000$20,712,500-$1,287,500-5.9%
Matt StaffordLions22911-2$17,666,667$15,300,000-$2,366,667-13.4%
Matt RyanFalcons1227-5$20,750,000$17,922,222-$2,827,778-13.6%
Joe FlaccoRavens12310-7$20,100,000$16,250,000-$3,850,000-19.2%
Matt SchaubRaiders441617-1$6,750,000$5,250,000-$1,500,000-22.2%
Colin Kaepernick49ers22612-6$19,000,000$14,664,417-$4,335,583-22.8%
Matt CasselVikings441719-2$5,250,000$4,000,000-$1,250,000-23.8%
Jay CutlerBears23713-6$18,100,000$11,400,000-$6,700,000-37.0%



Super Bowl Rings and the Overpricing of the Quarterback

With Tiki Barber taking to the airwaves again to make his latest outlandish statements, it immediately brings up the more modern TV made argument of just how important a Super Bowl ring is to the legacy of the QB. Since then its grown to become a difference maker in salaries and contracts for QBs who have outdistanced everyone else in the game by a wide margin now because of the correlation that is expected between QB and SB titles. Seems like a good topic.

To be honest I don’t really recall the “he just wins” argument being a big deal when I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. Obviously Montana would be the guy who won, but Montana also put up good stats for that era, specifically in the defense dominated NFC. He was  a perennial Pro Bowl guy  and was always in the upper 20’s in his Touchdowns when healthy.

I don’t recall (and maybe its just from being too young) people killing Dan Marino and John Elway on TV. I remember people talking about both as two of the greatest QB’s of all time. It wasn’t until much later on that I would hear people bringing up Elway’s Super Bowl wins as reasons that he was one of the best 3 or 4 of all time, which is a ridiculous argument since the Elway of the late 90’s was the one being carried to a title whereas the Elway of the 80s was the guy carrying really bad teams to title games, where the team would get exposed for being awful.

I don’t recall anyone putting Terry Bradshaw’s name on the list of greatest of all time. Hall of Famer sure, but whenever people talk of best ever does his name pop up?  Not really, despite all the Super Bowl success. Even Troy Aikman, leader of the famed 90’s Cowboys, doesn’t get brought up as the greatest ever because statistically he did not produce to the same level as other players of his time. If Aikman or Bradshaw played now they would not just be Hall of Famers but considered among the greatest to play the game because of the way the criteria changed at some point.

I always felt that the change in QB evaluation metrics came with the Patriots second Super Bowl Championship. ESPN or other media outlets wanted to create an argument that Tom Brady was better than Peyton Manning. Manning was the far more polished player, being drafted number 1 overall in 1998 and being considered the perfect prospect. Brady was an unknown playing for a defensive minded coach who was a failure in his first stint as a head coach in the NFL.

Statistically there was no comparison. Manning was consistently at 4,200 yards on a high powered offense that averaged 26 points a game. Brady was a 3,600 yard guy on a team around 22 points a game from 2001-2003. In 2003 they beat the Colts two times and in 2004, again, came out with another two victories. By the end of the 2004 season Brady was a bonafide playoff superstar and Manning was anything but. The debate was strictly turned to rings.

From that point forward playoff success has gone from the media right into the negotiating room. The ring became the biggest money maker in all of the NFL. In the pre-rings era players like Mark Rypien, Brad Johnson, Jay Schroder, Jeff Hostetler, Jim McMahon, Jim Plunkett, Ken Stabler, and so many more didn’t break the bank off a Super Bowl. In many cases they had to fight for long term job security and are more or less footnotes in history, rather than legends.

Teams now put so much value on that ring. Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning only had one championship when they were made the highest paid players at the position. Not multiple rings, just one. I think we all tend to forget that Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Peyton only have one title each. Joe Flacco joined that club this season. Brees, Rodgers, and P. Manning are prolific passers but look at the difference in treatment Brees gets compared to a Tony Romo type, who in a different generation would probably be looked up very differently.

The question should be if teams better off by paying QB’s for past rings and past success at the current price levels we are seeing?  Brady may go down as one of the best QBs to play the game in part based on the fact that he has 3 Super Bowls. But when Brady put his name into the statistical arguments as well as “ring” argument how many does he have?  The answer is none. Brady the superstar Manning-esque level player  has lost two times. Manning got back once. Brees and Rodgers haven’t returned.

When I did a more statistical valuation of the QB marketplace the one clear this is that the market is overpaid based on actual production compared to an average player level. The difference is price is really attributed to past success and perceptions of future success. Is it worth it?  It is a debatable question. Here is the annual salary estimates presented as a percentage of the salary cap for the Super Bowl winning QBs from 2000-2012. For the uncapped year I assumed a cap of $129 million which was the expected number based on cap growth in the prior CBA.



% Cap (based on APY)





E. Manning












E. Manning



P. Manning




















The two highest cap eaters were the Manning brothers, with Roethlisberger being the only other player whose APY at the time ate up more than 10% of the unadjusted salary cap. It should be noted that both Eli and Roethlisberger were on extensions that allowed the total cap to be less than the new money APY used in these estimates.  They would be closer to the 11% mark looking at total contract value.

With the increased emphasis on rings the market has skyrocketed for the QB. In 2009 Manning’s Super Bowl driven APY was $16.25 million, highest in the NFL. Now that number only ranks 7th in the league.  Considering the way the cap has retreated to 2009 levels the positional spending on the QB has now spiked to incredible levels because of the “ring” part of the equation, except the highest prices are not necessarily providing more rings. Resources have to be moved out of other spots on a team to now pay for the QB. Here are the players that rank above the median Super Bowl champion in terms of cap percentage ( 7.88%) and their percentage of the current years salary cap:


% Cap            (based on APY)







P. Manning






E. Manning


















If any of the first six names win a championship this season it would represent the highest percentage of cap spent on a QB contract since 2000. The first 12 names all represent numbers greater than 10%, a feat only achieved by three players.

Teams are focusing on the wrong things with the QB payscale and it’s most likely the reason why a team like the Patriots pulled Brady back so much. For as great as he is his salary level was unsustainable if you are looking to build a complete team to win a championship.

With a good crop of young QB’s now in the NFL under a low wage system you will continue to see the trends of the lower cost player winning championships while those with the big money items struggle to find balance on their football teams. It is going to put teams at a competitive disadvantage, at least for the long term, with the overspending on a past Super Bowl on a team constructed with far less spend on the QB position.