Two of the most controversial picks in last weeks draft were the selections of two quarterbacks, Jordan Love and Jalen Hurts, in the early stages of the draft. The reason they are so controversial is because both the Packers and Eagles already have their starting QB’s under contract for the foreseeable future and it becomes a waste of a draft pick and salary cap space to draft another QB. So let’s examine a few sides to this story.
While the two starting QB’s (Aaron Rodgers and Carson Wentz) are at different stages of their career both are very expensive players- Rodgers’ contract averages $33.5 million a season while Wentz’ contract averages $32 million a season. That is what brings up the primary argument that the teams are already so invested at the position that they are harming their own salary cap by adding another QB to the mix.
This is one of those areas where I think people lose sight of market values and realities across the NFL. Drafting a QB is basically the exact opposite of drafting a RB. A RB’s value relative to the market requires a player to be a top tier back, while a QB is closer to the low salaried rung of players. At the worst Love and Hurts will be expected to be the primary backups for their clubs. Love will sign a contract that averages $3.096 million a season and Hurts will sign for $1.506 million a season. The average NFL backup in 2020 will play on a contract that averages $2.879 million (that number does not include the Colts salary structure nor the fact that the Seahawks don’t have a backup). So from an salary standpoint the Eagles will have a cheaper than average backup and the Packers will be paying about the league average.
The Packers will be second in the NFL on average spending on top two QB’s while the Eagles will be eighth. Are either of those absurd? Not really. Think about it this way. Did anyone accuse the Colts of irresponsible spending on quarterbacks by signing Philip Rivers when they already had an expensive QB on the roster? The Colts have nearly $53 million invested in QB this year, why wasn’t it criticized? Because Jacoby Brissett wasn’t any good last year and if they went into the 2020 season with him as QB they likely were not going to make the playoffs. They needed a starter and they got one. It was the best move to give them a chance in 2020.
Given the importance of the QB position there is no reason to not find a way to get the best possible backup possible and the best chance you have to find a backup that can really fill a void is in the draft. This probably applies to the Eagles pick more than the Packers one due to the age disparity between Rodgers and Wentz but the strategy could be the same. The option for both is to buy a backup QB and then pray that the QB never has to see the field because generally the starter going down means death to the team’s chances.
Backups that cost more than Love include AJ McCarron, Chase Daniel, Josh Rosen, Taysom Hill, Case Keenum, Nick Foles, and Marcus Mariota. Hurts will cost less than players like Matt Barkley, RGIII, Nathan Peterman, Cooper Rush, Colt McCoy, Jeff Driskel, Matt Schaub and Nathan Peterman, the Eagles current backup QB. The draft is the only spot in the NFL where you are likely going to have access to a potential legit option to cover for an injured starter and in most cases it is cheaper than signing the backup that makes you cringe when he takes the field. In both cases the teams at the least potentially signed themselves the best cheap backups in the NFL.
The second criticism is that the teams don’t have the ability to walk away from their current starters even if they wanted to and thus you waste the cheap years for the rookie. That’s true for 2020 but not so much in 2021 and 2022. In both cases the closest comparable from a cap perspective is the situation the Cowboys had when Dak Prescott established himself as a starter with a very expensive Tony Romo still on the roster. Dallas made the decision to release Romo after Prescott’s first year taking on $19.6 million in dead money across two seasons. That would be the equivalent of about $24 million in dead money today. Rodgers next year would be around $30M and both would be under the Romo threshold by 2022, so at worst it would be two years sitting on a bench and starting in year 3.
Considering most think of a rookie season as a waste on the field anyway is waiting until the third year a problem? I wouldn’t think so. Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, and Josh Allen have pretty much struggled through two years on the field. Lamar Jackson only saw action as a rookie due to injury. Pat Mahomes took a redshirt first year. Deshaun Watson missed most of his rookie season with an injury. At the most they are losing one year with their current roster construction. They also will be getting a chance to evaluate the players in practice and in some game situations without having to expose to the critisicms the first three names have gotten for struggling through two seasons.
Would the dead money put the teams at a disadvantage compared to say the Chiefs with Mahomes while Mahomes was a rookie? Maybe a bit, but in general the dead money is sunk cost for Rodgers and Wentz. By cutting (or trading) the players you are going to open up far more cap space one season later because you are taking the base salary off the books plus you are now in a position to plan for that which is different than Dallas. In that respect this is probably closer to the Ravens with Jackson and Joe Flacco as the Ravens after making that pick on Jackson were able to plan around the Flacco release (Flacco was $16M dead).
Dallas did waste some of the cap benefits of Prescott but it wasn’t because of Romo alone. It was because they also had a bad situation with Dez Bryant and some other deals on the team. Imagine how much worse Dallas would have been if they continued to trot out a breaking down Romo or the Ravens kept going with Flacco? This allowed the teams to take one big cap hit while freeing up millions in actual salary that could be used in the future.
The rookie QB basically allows you to take more risks in free agency because you can tolerate mistakes easier, but it can also allow a team that maybe already has some mistakes on the roster an easier path out. The Eagles in particular have a more dire salary cap outlook in the future with millions of sunk costs all over the roster. If they ever decide to make the switch from Wentz in many ways this is likely the cure for some of those contracts.
Name quarterbacks will always have trade value. Aaron Rodgers would likely have tremendous trade value just based on name alone. Wentz would also have solid trade value. If the players happen to excel you can also showcase the rookies in the preseason and likely recover the pick. No player in recent memory had a worse rookie season than Rosen and even he fetched a 2nd round pick. While obviously that is effectively deferring a draft pick you can probably get most of the value back unless the player just looks terrible for multiple preseasons and the front office does a poor job hiding their disdain for the player.
When it comes to the QB position you should stock up as much as you can. Years ago I had speculated that maybe the path for most teams should just be to keep drafting and playing younger cheaper talent unless they hit on a real star. This was something I wrote about when salaries for the position all started to get bunched together and it was impossible to derive any value from the veteran contract. In a sense I think this may be just that.
Both Rodgers and Wentz are big names but Rodgers at this stage is not what he was a few years ago. He’s fine but so are probably 10 other QB’s in the NFL. Wentz is younger but in the same boat. I’m not sure either is special and special is what is going to consistently dominate in the NFL. While I’ve softened on my original stance that you probably should just walk away from the Wentz level player, if these moves are successful I think it goes back to what I was saying all year about Prescott. Pay him whatever he wants but structure it so he can be cut/traded within two years and don’t avoid the position in the draft. You may find an upgrade or a cheaper lateral movement.
The third criticism is probably the funniest one. This is the one that we always hear when the team drafts a QB an then refuses to add another player to a mix. What does it do to the QB’s ego or attitude to see competition. We don’t say that about any other position on the field. We will wax poetic about Rodgers ability to play with ice water in his veins in the last two minutes on the road but someone he cant handle looking at a 23 year old kid taking reps as a backup. Please that’s just silly. If a young player cant handle it then they are never going to be good. If a veteran cant it probably says something about where his game is at this stage of his career.
The one criticism that I think is valid is what is the opportunity cost that is being wasted with the selections though its probably being overstated. Per the research Brad and I did the expected value at Love’s selection is about 44% of a top five player, so basically a lower level starter or situational player. There is about a 25% chance of finding an elite player and 20% chance of a total bust. Of course those percentages apply to Love as well but on average the Packers could be giving up a player that would likely be worth $7.5 and $10M a season. The breakeven on that would probably require Love to start 4-6 games a year before becoming a full starter (this is assuming he is decent of course). But the Packers were likely not passing up on Reggie White here but more along the lines of adding a replacement for a Blake Martinez.
For Philadelphia the expected return is 33% of a top five player with about a 20% chance of finding a star. That’s basically an expected return of a $5 to $7 million player. That’s not passing up on the next Darius Slay but more the next Buster Skrine. A few productive gadget plays and a few starts on offense would likely level out that loss.
Again there is no guarantee that either QB will be a productive pro (those same percentages of finding a star apply here) and while everyone is going to point to Jackson many QBs in this stage of the draft end up not playing well, but the strategy isn’t crazy. At worst they will provide the same salary and skill set as a typical NFL backup. At their best the teams have laid out a potential path to gain a few draft picks while finding to a cheaper solution at the position without having to struggle through multiple bad years to convince themselves that the current QB isn’t worth it anymore. I’m not sure why that’s a stupid way to plan for the next two to five years, which is what everyone seems to think.
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.