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What’s a Starting Quarterback Worth?

Conventional wisdom might suggest that the guy who plays the most important position should make the most money. But do the numbers reflect that?

Winning a Super Bowl is the NFL‘s crowning achievement. But what does it take to get there? NFL GMs and armchair GMs alike will probably tell you that you need a generational quarterback.

That’s a fantastic first step, but there’s a caveat. No matter how good a QB is, a good team is needed around him for a franchise to lift the Lombardi Trophy. Figuring out how to compensate that great quarterback and to build effectively up and down the roster is the balance a GM must strike.

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This gets even more complicated when you have a great young quarterback who hits free agency. Most will argue that you should pay whatever you can to retain him, but it is possible to go too far.

The NFL’s hard salary cap adds a level of difficulty in determining what “too far” means. In the NBA, which has a soft cap, teams can exceed that threshold, but doing so would risk penalties. That’s not an option in today’s NFL.

The salary cap was first implemented in the NFL back in 1994 and, at the time, was a minuscule $34 million. This was before NFL Network, RedZone, and other television rights deals were in place, and the cap has consequently risen by over 400% to $182 million since. It should only continue to rise moving forward.

With a rising salary cap, you’d think GMs would have an easier time paying star players and keeping their cores intact. In fact it’s becoming more difficult and, oddly, it’s because GMs are overpaying for their quarterbacks — at least compared to prices that might win them a Super Bowl.

With that in mind, here are the 10 teams with the most available cap space headed into the offseason, courtesy of Spotrac:

via Spotrac

Striking a Balance

Working with the NFL salary cap is a fine art. Essentially, every team has money to spend but can’t flush it down the drain like they’re the 2000s Yankees. NFL GMs have to be unfavorably picky when it comes to who they will sign long-term outside of a franchise quarterback. After the Seahawks paid Russell Wilson, their infamous Legion of Boom defense began to fall apart. Bobby Wagner got his contract extension, but Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas both left in free agency in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Wilson’s salary in 2018 took up 13.4% of the cap and in 2019, it took up 13.8%.

The Vikings had to trade Stefon Diggs to the Bills after the 2019 season and subsequently replaced him with Justin Jefferson in the following NFL Draft. Kirk Cousins makes $45 million, which will take up 21.4% of the cap in 2022.

The Ravens are another team that had to make trades and let All-Pro players walk due to an upcoming QB extension. That’s right, as of this post, Lamar Jackson still doesn’t have an extension and next year will be the last season of his rookie deal. Jackson is due $23 million and will be an 11.1% cap hit in 2022. Meanwhile, Za’Darius Smith left Baltimore in 2019 to become an All-Pro linebacker for the Packers. The Ravens then traded away Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Brown Jr. to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Speaking of the Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes had his contract restructured to help replenish the offensive line and defense for another Super Bowl run. This restructure helped save the Chiefs $17 million for 2021 and allowed the team to trade and sign players like the aforementioned Brown Jr., Joe Thuney, Kyle Long, and Melvin Ingram. After this season, Mahomes’ cap hit increases from 4% to 17%.

Keep it Under 8%

Average cap hit for Super Bowl winning QBs: 7.64%
Average cap hit for Super Bowl losing QBs: 7.89%

Highest cap hit for Super Bowl winning QB: Troy Aikman (13%)
Lowest cap hit for Super Bowl winning QB: Russell Wilson (<1%)

8% of 2022 NFL Salary Cap: $14.6M

If Mahomes manages to win a Super Bowl after this season, his salary will make him a statistical outlier. In the salary cap era, only four QBs with greater than a 12% cap hit have won a Super Bowl: Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady (twice). Those are four of the greatest QBs to play the game.

But overall, once star QBs start winning and making more money, the team around them generally starts to fall off. Consequently, guys like Joe Flacco and Nick Foles found themselves on other teams shortly after their Super Bowl-winning seasons. Colin Kaepernick and Jared Goff got substantial raises for taking their respective teams to the Super Bowl, but both were either released or traded shortly thereafter.

Super Bowl losing QBs have a higher average cap hit than the winners, but that’s mainly because Matt Ryan made $23.75 million (15.3% of the cap) while blowing a 28-3 lead to the Patriots and Peyton Manning made $21.2 million (17.24% of the cap) when he lost to the Saints. Still, their salaries average out to below 8%.

Other QBs who have substantial contracts and haven’t made it to the Super Bowl include Cousins, Carson Wentz (he has a ring but didn’t play due to injury), Matt Stafford, and Derek Carr. All of their current salaries take up more than 9% of the NFL salary cap for the 2021 NFL season.

2021 Quarterbacks Making More than 8% of Cap: 11

  • Russell Wilson (Seahawks, $32M)
  • Kirk Cousins (Vikings, $31M)
  • Aaron Rodgers (Packers, $27.57M)
  • Matt Ryan (Falcons, $26.91M)
  • Jimmy Garoppolo (49ers, $26.40M)
  • Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers, $25.91M)
  • Derek Carr (Raiders, $22.13M)
  • Carson Wentz (Colts, $21.31M)
  • Matt Stafford (Rams, $20M)
  • Dak Prescott (Cowboys, $17.20M)
  • Deshaun Watson (Texans, $15.94M)

There are a select few quarterbacks who are worth over-paying for, but for the most part, if an NFL team has an average or above average QB, they shouldn’t pay him more than 8% of the NFL salary cap. Of the 11 quarterbacks that possess a higher cap hit, six are in the playoffs. If they’re confident their quarterback is one of the GOATs like Peyton Manning or Brady, then take the risk of paying 12% or higher, which would be $21.9 million for 2021. Of the seven QBs that are higher than that, only four are in the NFL playoffs.

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