The Options for Falcons QB Matt Ryan

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With training camp just a short time away we will be turning our attention more towards potential extensions of pending free agents. One of the most prominent, and currently in the early stages of negotiating a deal, is QB Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons.

Ryan is almost the perfect prospect. He was highly regarded coming out of Boston College, selected 3rd overall in the 2008 NFL Draft. He has been to the playoffs in 4 of his 5 seasons in  the NFL and the only year his team missed the playoffs was his second year when he was injured and missed two games, both of which the Falcons lost. His record as a starter is an impressive 56-22 and only once has he not finished with double digit wins. From a statistical standpoint he is an incredible QB and his numbers have shown a steady progression in his time in the NFL.

I don’t think that it’s even arguable that he is the best QB drafted since 2006 and in terms of being effective since day 1 you might be able to state the case that he is the best QB drafted since Tom Brady in 2001 and the best 1st round player since Peyton Manning  in 1998. Obviously that discussion includes Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger, but in terms of playing at a high level from the start he is going to be better than Manning and Roethlisberger and was as high end statistically accomplished as Rodgers in the same time frame.

Of course the one thing missing from Ryan’s resume that all of those players have is a championship. It is going to be a major factor in pricing Ryan. I think the NFL has changed a lot since the early 2000’s when Peyton was always higher regarded and paid than Brady as the debate ranged between how one guy “just wins” and the other puts up great numbers. Since then, however, winning the big one has catapulted QBs into a game of leapfrog where each players new deal becomes the largest contract in the history of the NFL. Roethlisberger set a market after winning a Super Bowl. Eli jumped him and was then in turn jumped by Brady and Manning who were jumped by Drew Brees. Joe Flacco set a new bar fresh off his Super Bowl win while Aaron Rodgers then set the new threshold soon thereafter.

The problem for Ryan is that none of these players have gotten paid before winning a Super Bowl. So where does that leave Ryan who would like to get an extension now but also does not want to sell himself short?  He absolutely has the potential to be as good statistically, especially in that stadium, as Rodgers. But Rodgers has a ring and Ryan does not. Statistically you can not even compare Ryan and Flacco, but Flacco has great playoff success while Ryan is 1-4.  So it becomes a scenario as to how much do we value playoff success versus non-playoff success.

The top QB contracts in recent times given to non-winners were Mike Vick in 2011, Matt Schaub in 2012, and Tony Romo in 2013.  While those are the most fresh contracts in everyone’s mind I don’t think any would be valid here. All were past the age of 30 at the time of signing and had no upside remaining in their games. The best QB comparison out there is Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers. Rivers was the other big name of the 2004 draft class, the one who never won a championship.

Unlike Ryan he sat for two years, but once he finally got his chance he ran with it. Rivers first three years playing saw him surpass both Manning and Roethlisberger in a number of standard statistical categories. From 2006 thru 2008 here were the stat comparisons of the 3 star QB’s:

Yards

YPA

TD

Int

Rivers

10499

7.51

77

35

E. Manning

9818

6.42

68

48

Roethlisberger

9968

7.43

67

49

Rivers was throwing for more yards, far more touchdowns, and much fewer interceptions. In 2008, the year before his extension, Rivers actually led the entire NFL in YPA and TD’s. Over the timespan Rivers won 33 games compared to 30 for Manning and 29 for Roethlisberger. Rivers’ Chargers won their division three years in a row. But he didn’t have that Super Bowl, compiling a record of 3-3 and losing as a favorite in the playoffs.

Rivers looked like he should be the biggest star of the group and his production was far greater than Eli’s. But that SB ring means a lot. Manning ended up setting the market at $16.25 million a year while Rivers would sign soon for $15.3 million a year, about 6% less. Rivers was given a higher guarantee but had lower 3 and 4 year contractual values than both the Super Bowl winners making the meat of the contract worth less than that of his two contemporaries.

Rivers would go on to a number of exceptional seasons before the wheels seemed to come off starting in 2011, but he has yet to be able to win the big game. Manning won another Super Bowl and Roethlisberger appeared in yet another one.  The comparison of the 3 seems silly now because two are proven winners while Rivers has struggled and never got over the hump. Manning and Roethlisberger will likely both get mega contracts next season from their respective teams while there are questions as to whether or not Rivers will even remain in San Diego.

I think this brings up an interesting decision for Ryan. Manning’s and Roethlisberger’s original Super Bowl wins allowed them to become market setters at the position. Rodgers’ $22 million dollar extension he recently signed is now the top of the market and it had to be a disappointing figure for Ryan. Rodgers was so superior the last two years that he should have earned closer to $24 million a year considering Flacco’s $20.1 million dollar a year contract.  At that point I think it becomes easy. You sell Rodgers as the top line young winner and Flacco as the lower level setter and you fit in at the Rivers level, which would be around $22.4 million. Now if you put Rodgers as Eli and Ryan as Rivers the contract point becomes $20.57 million a year, assuming no concessions are made for Rodgers per game incentives which only lowers the number further. That has to be much lower than Ryan thought would happen.

Now to maximize his value I think Ryan is in a position where he has to sell Rodgers as a number to try to surpass. While many think of Rodgers as young he will be 30 at the end of the season and this will be his 9th year in the NFL. Its something of a limbo stage for comparison as he’s not really young but he’s also not early 30s like Brees, Manning, and Brady were when they jumped Eli in contract value.  But to get the number that Ryan probably felt he was going to get just a month or two ago he has to push using Rodgers as a baseline not a high point.

Of course to do that Ryan is going to have to play out the year and then try to force the Falcons hand in a negotiation. Ryan has a lot to gain by winning a Super Bowl before his extension. While I fully believe (and deeper stats do back this up) that Rodgers is a more productive QB than Ryan, it could be hard to separate the two if Ryan keeps up his current pace especially factoring in that Ryan is the younger player. Atlanta’s whole team is built around Ryan and his arm and, unlike the Lions and Matt Stafford, another player up for a deal, has been highly successful year in and out.

Playing the year out certainly brings along risks. The biggest is injury and as Jerry Maguire warned Rod Tidwell in the movies all those years ago “If you get injured you get nothing”. But at the QB position is that as much of a concern is it for a RB or a WR?  Probably not. QB’s are protected more than any other player and they are also not playing in the same manner that is as likely to lead to random injuries. And even if the injury was to occur would it damage the players earning potential?  I don’t think so. Carson Palmer blew out his knee in 2005 but the Bengals never walked away from his monster contract. Tom Brady had the knee injury in 2008 and ended up as one of the highest paid players in the game. Peyton Manning was signed to a mega deal while injured, missed the year, was cut and signed for an even bigger deal with another team. Even Rivers had a torn ACL in 2007 that he played through and he came back in 2008 to have the big deal that got him the big contract. The injuries had very little effect on the treatment of the players, outside of an injury protection for Manning that could have been avoided had he signed with the Titans. It’s a built in premium that teams are willing to pay.

The secondary risk lies in the application of the Franchise Tag. For the most part the tag never really happens as teams do want to keep the QB happy , but this still has to be a consideration. Atlanta’s cap situation in 2014 looks to be healthy with around $103 million committed to the 2014 salary cap and a whole roster that is filled other than at QB. The ballpark figure for a QB on the tag is going to be about $15 million with the exclusive tender coming in at $19.978 million and likely headed downward by the time next season is actually here.  So for one season they can tag Ryan and work within the cap without too much issue. If Ryan goes that route he is going to play this year for $10 million and next for less than $20, which is only an average of $15 million. In contrast Aaron Rodgers will earn $50.9 million over the next two years and Flacco $51 million. Even Romo’s $40 million payout will be far superior to Ryan’s. You can definitely damage your long term earnings taking this strategy as the extra million or two a year may not going to make up for lost wages over the next two.

Ryan’s cap hit this year is low so the Falcons don’t really have a need to get a deal done. This isn’t like the Ravens who basically could not afford to carry Flacco on a franchise tag type number.  That being said the Falcons are tight against the salary cap now and getting Ryan extended in 2013 probably helps their cap allocations over the next few years, but they can hold off if the two sides are far apart on compensation. So Atlanta might be willing to play it out as well.

Ryan has little to lose by playing and I think much to gain if he can get his team to the Super Bowl. I just don’t see the risks impacting his value greatly and his track record is so solid that at worst his value will remain the same.  There is also the chance that Manning or Roethlisberger can jump Rodgers next year as their teams may be forced to extend due to cap concerns, making the market even more lucrative than it is now.

At the worst he will be in the same position he is now. Even if he signed an extension now remember that his $10 million salary is going to be built into the contract (the new vs old money debate in contract valuations) so he is stuck at that salary being factored in under any scenario. Signing today doesn’t change that. I truly feel that if he wins a championship a strong case can and will be made that he deserves to be the highest paid player in the NFL. He can’t make that argument right now. All things considered I think his is a rare situation where you are better off playing out the year than accepting a deal that you may regret in another year or two.

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