The NFL's top QB deals … and a little reality

It’s time to have smarter conversations about NFL contracts. Professional football deals are unique among American sports in that they’re mostly non-guaranteed, leading to all kinds of confusion and manipulation. Fans and media members alike will often quote the maximum possible terms a contract can offer, which is naive. More skeptical folks look for the guarantees — and those can be equally misleading. The reality is, even the number fully guaranteed at signing, often the most conservative mark, is too short.

Let’s fix that. Let’s get a stronger grip on where the QB market actually stands and clear up who really has the best contract in football. The initial reports surrounding the five-year, $ 125 million extension Derek Carr finalized with the Raiders on Thursday suggested the Oakland quarterback had reset the bar for quarterbacks at $ 25 million per year, just ahead of the five-year, $ 123 million pact Andrew Luck signed last June.

My colleague Dan Graziano correctly noted how the new Carr contract does nothing of the sort. Luck’s deal is actually a six-year, $ 139.1 million pact. Here’s what each quarterback will take home in actual cash over the course of their respective deals on a year-by-year basis, with Carr’s 2021 and 2022 salaries estimated to fit the announced $ 125 million term:

The difference between the two deals, as I mentioned in talking about Carr’s future last week, is what each player was due in the final year of their respective rookie deals. Luck was about to make $ 16.2 million, while Carr was in line to pocket only $ 977,519. Take those two numbers off the top and you’ll see how the Carr contract will be sold: Luck earned $ 123 million in new money, while Carr’s new deal brought him home $ 124 million.

That small increase is no accident.

Agents look to constantly reset the top of the market with a new top figure, with help from highly competitive players who want to be recognized as the best (and most expensive) players at their respective positions. Deals get sliced together and turned into stories that don’t actually reflect reality. Sure, Carr got more new money, but whose deal would you rather have?

Let’s run through a simple framework for judging QB deals, most of which will apply to contracts for players at other positions, too. From there, we can gain a much clearer sense of where the quarterback market actually stands. Let’s start with some reality, and lessons:

The final year (if not two) of a starting QB’s second contract is basically irrelevant.

To be clear, “second contract” is talking about the extensions handed out to quarterbacks as they come off their rookie deals.

Regulars don’t play out their full deal because they head down one of two plausible paths. If a player is bad or suffers a serious injury, he won’t be worth the terms of the contract to his team. Because virtually all the guaranteed money in NFL deals comes early — often in the first two seasons — they can be cut without paying any additional money out of pocket. The team will owe some amount of dead money because the remainder of the player’s signing bonus will accelerate onto their current cap, but that will frequently be less than what they would owe the player to stick around.

Alternately, if a player is good, he’ll likely work his way into a new contract. Teams will occasionally allow a player to enter the final year of his deal and play out the full contract, like Pierre Garcon in Washington last season, but this is virtually never the case with quarterbacks who are on lucrative second contracts. They either flame out and lose their deal or sign a massive extension before coming close to sniffing free agency.

In the current NFL, there are five starting passers who are on their third long-term contract. None of them were allowed to enter the final year of their contract as a lame-duck passer. Joe Flacco was re-signed with three years to go in his deal as part of a cap crunch. Aaron Rodgers was a comical bargain to such an extent that he was given a five-year extension with two years left to go on his deal. Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger all signed their third deals before the 2015 season kicked off and a year before they would have hit unrestricted free agency in March 2016.

This year, the only quarterbacks who qualify are Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford. (Kirk Cousins is technically on his third contract, given that he played out his rookie deal and has been franchise tagged to two consecutive one-year deals.) Stafford is extremely likely to receive a new deal this summer. Bradford is an interesting case, given that he played out the most lucrative rookie quarterback contract in league history and then signed a two-year extension just before free agency began. He might be a rare exception to the rule, but it’s also not really accurate to compare his two-year pact with the five-year extensions signed by players like Carr, Luck and Cam Newton.

With that in mind, it’s probably a good idea to throw away the final year of most quarterback extensions. Teams will use that number as leverage when they negotiate an extension, but it’s far less likely to be a bargain than a quarterback’s rookie deal, as was the case with Carr.

Be cognizant of how the guarantees work.

It’s too simplistic to look at the initial guaranteed number that leaks out at the time of a contract. Remember how Colin Kaepernick’s six-year, $ 114 million extension was supposed to guarantee him $ 61 million? Just $ 13 million of that figure was actually guaranteed at the signing. Kaepernick ended up making $ 39.3 million from that deal after he restructured it in 2016 and declined his player option this offseason.

It’s also not insightful enough to look into the number fully guaranteed at signing, because that can also be misleading. Early in extensions, a team would owe far more in dead money to cut a player than they would to keep him around, ensuring his presence on the roster. In some cases, too, a player’s future base salary will guarantee a year before it’s actually triggered, which is practically a guarantee.

Take Matt Ryan‘s extension, for example. It was $ 30 million fully guaranteed once he put pen to paper in July 2013. In 2014, the Falcons technically could have gotten out of his deal after one season, but they would have owed $ 39.4 million in dead money, which is totally impractical. Naturally, they kept Ryan around, which guaranteed his $ 12 million option bonus, 2014 base salary of $ 9.5 million, and $ 7.5 million of his $ 11.5 million base salary in 2015, meaning that the Falcons were extremely unlikely to cut him to save $ 4 million that year, either. Practically, Ryan was guaranteed to take home $ 63 million from his extension.

There’s no quick and dirty way to measure what a player is practically guaranteed, and in some cases, it depends on the eye of the beholder. No team is going to eat $ 31 million in dead money on their cap, but would they be willing to eat $ 17 million if they can designate a player as a post-June 1 release and spread it across two cap periods? $ 12 million? It all depends on the structure and size of the deal along with the circumstances of the team.

Use the three-year value of the deal for most players, although the four-year value applies for QBs.

The best simple measure of a contract’s value, as I mentioned in writing about Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald, is the total amount it’s due to pay a player over its first three seasons. It’s the happiest medium between looking strictly at guarantees and using the maximum return of a contract. It won’t be perfect, but it’s a measure plenty of NFL teams use in their own contract evaluations.

For quarterbacks — especially those on or entering second deals — it might make more sense to use the value of the first four years, just because teams are often giving them longer contracts and structuring them in a way that leaves them likely to remain on the roster on one deal for four seasons. I’m going to split the difference. To figure out the 10 biggest quarterback contracts, I’ll use the average of each quarterback’s three-year and four-year contract value. Players whose contracts are shorter than four years won’t be included, which leaves out Cousins, Drew Brees and Tom Brady.

The top of the QB market

Three-year value: $ 56,642,000
Four-year value: $ 72,142,000

Wilson signed a four-year, $ 87.6 million extension before entering the final year of his rookie deal in 2015, one which gave the former third-round pick a $ 31 million signing bonus. Wilson was the closest comparison I could find for Carr, given that he’s the most notable quarterback to sign an extension after excelling as a midround pick in the draft under the new CBA. Carr got far more in new money, which suggests Wilson left money on the table. The Seahawks also prefer to hand out shorter contracts under John Schneider than most teams, even for stars.


9. Aaron Rodgers

Three-year value: $ 60,750,000
Four-year value: $ 73,350,000

The Packers sat Rodgers behind Brett Favre for three years, but after just seven starts in 2008, Ted Thompson saw enough to lock up Rodgers with a six-year extension. Rodgers was two years from free agency, but his six-year, $ 63.3 million deal ended up as an enormous bargain. Rodgers made $ 44.2 million over the first four years of that deal before Thompson locked up Rodgers again with a five-year extension. He still has three years and $ 55.7 million to go on that deal, which is $ 10 million more than what the Bears gave Mike Glennon this offseason. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Rodgers get another extension in 2018.


8. Matt Ryan

Three-year value: $ 63,000,000
Four-year value: $ 78,750,000

This deal might have seemed like a relatively disappointing contract given Ryan’s (and the Falcons’) downturn between 2013 and 2015, but Ryan responded with a stunning MVP season in 2016. Ryan and Rodgers have the two oldest deals on this list, with both having signed their extensions during the 2013 season. Ryan has two years and $ 45.4 million remaining on his contract, but he’s likely next in line for an extension after the Falcons lock up Devonta Freeman.


7. Joe Flacco

Three-year value: $ 62,000,000
Four-year value: $ 80,500,000

Flacco might have entered the league with Ryan, but he’s already part of the way through his third deal after making one of the most lucrative and successful bets in league history. Flacco elected to play out his rookie deal and delivered far beyond anybody’s expectations, playing brilliant football en route to a Super Bowl title. Nobody in Baltimore will complain about that, but the resulting contract the Ravens were forced to give Flacco to keep him in town has turned into a boondoggle. Flacco made $ 62 million over the first three years of that deal, which was structured in such a way that it forced the Ravens to give the Delaware grad another extension after 2015. Flacco will pocket an additional $ 62 million from the first three years of that third contract, giving him a cool $ 124 million for six years of work. He has been a mediocre quarterback over that time frame and doesn’t profile as likely to improve at 32, but the Ravens can’t realistically move on from Flacco until the 2019 season.


6. Ben Roethlisberger

Three-year value: $ 65,000,000
Four-year value: $ 82,000,000

The Steelers would have been responsible for somewhere around $ 18 million on their cap for Roethlisberger this season regardless of whether he retired or not; Pittsburgh would have been stuck with $ 18.6 million in dead money on their 2017 cap for the future Hall of Famer had he left the game and will instead be in line for an $ 18.2 million cap hold this year. While the Steelers are hoping Roethlisberger sticks around for the immediate future, next year would be more palatable; Roethlisberger’s $ 23.2 million cap hit would fall to $ 12.4 million were he to retire.


5. Cam Newton

Three-year value: $ 67,166,666
Four-year value: $ 82,666,666

The Panthers couldn’t have timed the Newton deal much better. They gave their former first overall pick a five-year, $ 103.8 million extension as he entered the fifth-year option of his rookie deal, and Newton promptly responded by leading the Panthers to the Super Bowl and winning an MVP award. The two-time college champ took home $ 31 million between his base salary and various bonuses for his MVP campaign. Newton has the third-best deal among quarterbacks on their second contracts, although he’s likely to be pipped in 2019 by Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota.


4. Philip Rivers

Three-year value: $ 68,000,000
Four-year value: $ 83,000,000

Rivers’ deal is listed with $ 37.5 million in guarantees at signing, but the first three years of his deal were practically guaranteed, given that his cap hit this year ($ 20 million) would be far less than the dead money on his deal ($ 29 million). The North Carolina State product also has a full no-trade clause, upon which we can’t really place a monetary value. Rivers still has two years and $ 31 million left on his third deal with the Chargers, at which point he’ll be entering his age-38 season. If Rivers wants to play into his 40s, Los Angeles would likely look to extend Rivers next offseason.


3. Eli Manning

Three-year value: $ 68,500,000
Four-year value: $ 84,500,000

Roethlisberger, Rivers and Manning came from the same draft class in 2004. They were each set to become unrestricted free agents following the expiration of their second contracts with their respective teams at the end of the 2015 season. Roethlisberger signed his extension first, in March. Rivers followed up by signing his in August. Manning was the last to sign, coming in several days before the start of the 2015 season in September. Note the tiny differences between their three contracts and the order in which they appear on this list. That’s not a coincidence! If you’re wondering why Stafford was waiting for Derek Carr to sign his extension, this is why.


2. Derek Carr

Three-year value: $ 67,600,000
Four-year value: $ 87,700,000

While Carr’s deal didn’t reset the quarterback market, he’s certainly residing in some very expensive real estate. The Raiders could theoretically get out of Carr’s deal in 2019 after two seasons and $ 47.5 million, but it’s hard to imagine that things would go south that quickly, even in the worst-case scenario. Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie has typically stayed away from signing bonuses during his tenure — the largest veteran signing bonus on the books for the Raiders before Carr’s deal was $ 7 million — but he gave Carr a $ 12 million signing bonus in addition to $ 22.5 million in roster bonuses over the next two years.


1. Andrew Luck

Three-year value: $ 75,000,000
Four-year value: $ 96,125,000

If anyone in the NFL is truly a $ 25 million-per-year quarterback, it’s Luck, who will pocket that much over the first three years of his massive extension with Indianapolis. Luck’s cap hit is under $ 20 million this year, but it spikes to $ 24.4 million in 2018, $ 27.5 million in 2019, and $ 28.4 million in 2020. Only Flacco, Drew Brees and Ndamukong Suh have larger cap hits in 2018, with Luck second behind Suh in 2019 before topping the charts in 2020.

This is the contract that led Ryan Grigson to bemoan how he was fiscally unable to build a defense — a comment that makes you wonder why Grigson gave Luck that much money in the first place. It’s a huge gap between Luck and the rest of the market, but as Graziano noted last year, Luck almost definitely left more money on the table.

As big as these numbers appear, quarterbacks are almost definitely underpaid as a species, and if the Colts didn’t want to pay Luck this much, teams like the Browns and 49ers would be falling over themselves to make the Stanford star the league’s first $ 30 million quarterback.

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