NFL salary caps are fragile. Just one bad deal can redirect a whole franchise. Quarterback contracts are particularly important. They're the highest-paid players in the league and often the most misevaluated players in the league. That leads to some awful deals but also some great value deals. This is part one of a two-part series looking at each team's quarterback situation in the NFL.
Patrick Mahomes signed the richest contract in NFL history this week. It's a 10-year extension that will tie him to the Kansas City Chiefs until 2031. While that extension will average $50 million per year, Mahomes will only cost the Chiefs $5 million this year. The extension doesn't kick in for two more seasons. Mahomes' cap hit ranks 29th in the NFL this year.
28 quarterbacks currently cost more than Mahomes for the 2020 season, it will be at least 29 when Joe Burrow signs his deal. For 202 at least, Mahomes offers the perfect balance between cost and performance.
But most teams don't have such a clear-cut situation. Most teams don't have one of the best quarterbacks in the league on one of the cheapest salaries. The value of each team's quarterback is impacted by how much it costs to have him on the roster. Because the NFL has a salary cap of $198.2 million, no team can just outspend everyone else to win the Super Bowl. Having the best value matters more than having the best players.
Quarterbacks are taking up more and more of their team's cap space. According to Spotrac, NFL teams on average spend 10% of their cap space on quarterbacks. There is a massive variance from team to team though. The Indianapolis Colts are spending $47.9 million on their quarterbacks, a quarter of their cap. The tanking Jacksonville Jaguars are spending $2.4 million on their quarterbacks, 1% of their cap. In between those opposite ends of the spectrum there are egregiously ugly deals and contracts that represent great value.
Those overpaying their starting quarterbacks have limited ceilings. Those getting value only need competent coaching and decision-making to become contenders.
For the purposes of this article, we're going to use a scale to measure each quarterback's value. 10 will be the best value quarterbacks in the league. 1 will represent the worst contracts in the league. 5 will be average and everything in between will be equidistant to each other. We're going to look at the total amount each team spends on its quarterbacks rather than just what they pay their starter. But the evaluation will be weighted to represent the heightened importance of the starter over the diminished value of having the best third-string quarterback in the league.
Combined Quarterback Salaries: $10.2 million
Combined Quarterback Salaries Rank: 23rd
Salary Value: 8/10
Kyler Murray is entering an important year. The first-overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft had an outstanding rookie season. His deep ball was particularly impressive. Murray is a minuscule quarterback who plays in a spread offence. His ability to avoid sacks with his movement and his scrambling potential are easy to see, but his overall accuracy and the nuances of his performances were what set him apart last season.
He's not yet a star, which is what prevents the Cardinals from having a higher value rating, but his rookie performances suggest he will be one soon.
Combined Quarterback Salaries: $22.6 million
Combined Quarterback Salaries Rank: 14th
Salary Value: 8/10
Matt Ryan has spent most of his career in the shadow of the league's best quarterbacks. He's consistently been a top-10 starter and has one of the broadest skill sets of any quarterback in the league. While the Falcons have stuttered over recent seasons, Ryan is coming off a strong year when he was the most accurate quarterback in the NFL on third down. The question for Ryan is how long he can sustain his level of play, 35 years of age and has never been celebrated for his athleticism or arm strength.
The Falcons are paying an above-average salary for at worst an above-average starting quarterback. Getting a better backup than Matt Schaub would probably help though.
Combined Quarterback Salaries: $6.4 million
Combined Quarterback Salaries Rank: 29th
Salary Value: 10/10
The most valuable thing in the NFL is an elite quarterback on a rookie deal. Ever since the rookie wage scale was introduced in 2011, the salaries of young quarterbacks have been automatically suppressed. The sliding scale of salaries for rookies means that the further you fall in the draft the less money you make. Lamar Jackson fell to the bottom of the first round. The Ravens got him with the last pick in the first round, meaning they got him on the cheapest possible contract that came with a fifth-year option.
He's a league MVP in his second season and running right next to Mahomes as the best player in the NFL. Both Jackson and Robert Griffin III count $2.5 million each against the cap this year. Nick Foles costs $5.3 million.
Combined Quarterback Salaries: $9.3 million
Combined Quarterback Salaries Rank: 25th
Salary Value: 3/10
The difference between the Buffalo Bills and the Houston Texans in last year's Wildcard matchup was that one franchise had a great team with an awful quarterback and the other had a great quarterback with an awful team. Deshaun Watson outperformed Josh Allen that day by a long way. He wasn't the first to. Allen was a problem for the Bills all season long. Their defence was consistently excellent, yet they often scraped to victories against teams they had outperformed for four quarters. That's because of how many mistakes Allen made and how many opportunities he missed.
Even though he's cheap, he's on his rookie deal, Allen needs to take major strides forward. Jake Fromm was drafted this year, but he won't start unless Allen completely bottoms out.
Combined Quarterback Salaries: $15.6 million
Combined Quarterback Salaries Rank: 18th
Salary Value: 7/10
Teddy Bridgewater was a great signing for the Carolina Panthers. Bridgewater was previously one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings. His dislocated knee derailed his career so he wound up proving his health in New Orleans over the last two seasons. Bridgewater comes with some risk because of the unknown with a player whose played so little, but his process as one of the league's premier pocket passers was on show for the Saints last year.
Entering the offseason, it looked like the Panthers would be tanking. Some smart decisions in free agency and a strong draft puts them in position to compete for a playoff spot.
Combined Quarterback Salaries: $15.5 million
Combined Quarterback Salaries Rank: 19th
Salary Value: 4/10
Mitchell Trubisky isn't anywhere near as bad as his reputation suggests he is. But he's not good either. The Bears have a lot of problems on offence, one of them is their inability to play to Trubisky's strengths. He is a prime candidate to have more success with his eventual second team. Trubisky on his own isn't particularly bad value, he's still on his rookie deal. Add in Nick Foles as his overpaid competition and the value of the quarterback room drops.
Foles will probably be the starter once the season starts, that's not going to solve anything in Chicago.
Combined Quarterback Salaries: $7.5 million
Combined Quarterback Salaries Rank: 28th
Salary Value: 5/10
Joe Burrow hasn't signed his contract yet because of Covid. He's slotted as the first-overall pick in the 2020 draft, so we've attributed the cap hit of the 2019 first-overall pick to him. All first-time starters are unknowns. Burrow has the skill set to be a quality starter in the NFL, we just need to see how he transitions to the professional level. For the 2020 season, he's not likely to be one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL.
But 2020 isn't about winning for the Bengals. It's a building year.
Combined Quarterback Salaries: $13.3 million
Combined Quarterback Salaries Rank: 20th
Salary Value: 3/10
Baker Mayfield needs to prove he can stay in the pocket before we even have him prove he can play from the pocket. His 2019 season was so disastrously bad that it's hard to see him continuing as Cleveland's starter surpassed this season. Kevin Stefanski's offensive system will help hide him but it won't fundamentally change who he is as a player.
Despite many options available this offseason, the Browns didn't bring in real competition for his starting spot. Case Keenum isn't a potential starter, John Elway found that out the hard way a few years back.
Combined Quarterback Salaries: $35 million
Combined Quarterback Salaries Rank: 2nd
Salary Value: 9/10
The biggest storyline of the offseason prior to Mahomes' new deal was Dak Prescott's continued stand-off with the Dallas Cowboys. Prescott is on the franchise tag and he's signed it. He's not likely to get a new deal until next offseason. The Cowboys also signed Andy Dalton, bloating their quarterback cap space allocation. Prescott isn't likely to be the second-best quarterback in the NFL next year but he is amongst the five best in the league at his position entering this season. Dalton is one of the better backups in the league too, despite his recent struggles as a starter.
Jerry Jones is fighting with his quarterback to save money under the guise of making the team better. It's a bad look, especially when Prescott is worthy of a huge contract extension.
Combined Quarterback Salaries: $4.6 million
Combined Quarterback Salaries Rank: 30th
Salary Value: 8/10
John Elway has specialized in bad value quarterbacks for years. From Brock Osweiler to Case Keenum to Joe Flacco, he's missed far too often. Finally, he appears to have hit on one. Drew Lock's performances during his rookie season were very impressive. He didn't play a lot and he struggled on his debut, but he showed off a skill set that suggests he can quickly become a high-end starter.
The Broncos are paying next-to-nothing for their quarterbacks so even if Lock is only average he's a valuable starter.
Combined Quarterback Salaries: $24 million
Combined Quarterback Salaries Rank: 12th
Salary Value: 4/10
Matthew Stafford is 32 years old and coming off a major back injury. Chase Daniel and David Blaugh don't belong on an NFL field, except during the regular season. The Lions have ridden Stafford for a decade now and gotten nowhere. His physical traits have never made up for his reckless decision-making and poor mechanics. He's a below-average starting quarterback being paid like an above-average starting quarterback.
If this season goes as expected, the Lions will have an out from Stafford this time next year. After passing on Tua Tagovailoa this offseason, the Lions need Stafford to have a great year this season.
Green Bay Packers
Combined Quarterback Salaries: $25.3 million
Combined Quarterback Salaries Rank: 11th
Salary Value: 9/10
Still one of the best quarterbacks in the league, the Packers should have used the money saved on Aaron Rodgers to improve his supporting cast this offseason. Instead, they picked his future replacement. The Packers had one of the most valuable contracts in the NFL for the 2020 season and paired it with the least-valuable first-round picks for the 2020 season. There's no upside to Love for this season. If he plays, it means Rodgers is hurt. He'll then be trying to learn as a rookie while throwing to simply terrible receivers.
The over-reliance on Aaron Rodgers has cost the Packers multiple Super Bowls over the course of his career. Even though they've changed their GM and Head Coach, the failure to maximize the roster around him has remained.
Combined Quarterback Salaries: $9.7 million
Combined Quarterback Salaries Rank: 24th
Salary Value: 10/10
Bill O'Brien would have been fired a long time ago if Deshaun Watson hadn't turned into the quarterback he is today. O'Brien isn't just failing to take advantage of Watson's cheap contract, he's dismantling the whole roster around his young quarterback at a heavy price. Watson has outperformed his salary each year he's been in the league, even when he missed half the season during his rookie year. In 2020, he figures to be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL despite earning less money than Taysom Hill.
He's already looking toward his big deal.
— Deshaun Watson (@deshaunwatson) July 6, 2020
Combined Quarterback Salaries: $47.9 million
Combined Quarterback Salaries Rank: 1st
Salary Value: 1/10
The Indianapolis Colts are paying Philip Rivers $25 million. Rivers arm has abandoned him. He can no longer physically throw the ball the way he needs to. His arm gets dramatically worse late in games and late in the season. Winning with him is a major obstacle. He wouldn't be a valuable starter if he was the cheapest starter in the league. He's the fifth-highest paid quarterback in the league. His backup, Jacoby Brissett, is the 13th-highest-paid quarterback in the league.
Spending $50 million on quarterbacks in 2020 is insane. Doing so and not having an elite starter is something worse than that.
Combined Quarterback Salaries: $2.4 million
Combined Quarterback Salaries Rank: 32nd
Salary Value: 6/10
Gardner Minshew was much better than expected last season. He still wasn't anywhere close to good enough to be considered a long-term option. He's the perfect tanking quarterback, an exciting fan-favourite who won't help you win too many games. The Jaguars will get everything they want from their quarterback and they'll pay him less than any other starter to do it.
He's exactly what the Jaguars want but he's also not good.
Kansas City Chiefs
Combined Quarterback Salaries: $8.3 million
Combined Quarterback Salaries Rank: 26th
Salary Value: 10/10
And finally, the man of the hour. Mahomes' broad skill set and consistency since he became the Chiefs starter two seasons ago has him on course to be a hall of famer. He's got the potential to be the best player to ever play this sport. If he realizes that, Andy Reid will win a lot of Super Bowls. The rookie wage scale was implemented to protect teams from badly overpaying bad quarterbacks. Now it's hurting most teams, as the Chiefs and the Ravens can build juggernauts that will lap their opponents.
Maybe in 2027 when his cap hit is $59.95 million those teams with bad value contracts can try to compete with the Chiefs.
Look out for part two of this article later this week.