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.