The conversation about whether or not teams should find “discounts” at quarterback in order to win a Super Bowl is not new. It’s old. It’s about as old as free agency. The conversation got louder at the 2011 CBA that started a rookie pay scale, beginning with Cam Newton in that draft (one year after the St. Louis Rams had to sign Sam Bradford to a six-year, $86 million contract before he ever played an NFL snap) and continuing through recent picks like Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence.
But this is not a new discussion. It’s just back again this year, as usual, because Patrick Mahomes is considered the only “expensive” quarterback of the four remaining. Today is yet another great lesson in selective narratives.
The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin probably started the talk on Sunday with his article about how Joe Burrow is a great example of why you should never pay too much for a quarterback and that a rookie contract is the best value in the NFL.
But this year’s playoffs certainly raise the question of whether it’s better to keep drafting a quarterback every few years and spend the money elsewhere. That tactic is especially persuasive for teams that have good but not elite quarterbacks.
“I think we are starting to see the impact of the big-money QB on the long-term planning for teams,” said Jason Fitzgerald of OverTheCap.com. “With the contracts getting larger and shorter in term for many of the players, teams are having to cut corners elsewhere.”
Sure, that makes sense. It also largely ignores a lot of counterpoints that would at least make the argument seem difficult to achieve.
Like the fact that Burrow is only one example—of many—out of all the rookie contract quarterbacks who are not in a conference championship game. Others, like Trey Lance or Zach Wilson or even Tua Tagovailoa, become rather expensive players to pay to not play. And then you’ve got the risky picks who are maybe a little too good to leave leave (Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Kyler Murray) and then the franchise overpays them considerably on their second contract.
But then there’s yet another side to it, which is that the Chiefs are not the only team left alive in the playoffs paying a lot to their quarterback position. The 49ers were fortunate to be able to lower Jimmy Garoppolo’s salary because nobody wanted to trade for him as a starter, but they’re still eighth in total spending at the position between him and Lance. Brock Purdy being a “value” right now doesn’t do anything to take money away from Garoppolo and Lance’s salaries for not playing in the last two months. Which Volin does point out (Yes, I read your article, Ben, please don’t destroy me on Twitter):
Still, even looking just at the salary cap, spending big on a quarterback doesn’t seem to preclude teams from succeeding. The Chiefs are No. 2 in QB salary-cap spending this season ($38.6 million), and the 49ers are No. 8 ($22.46 million), thanks mostly to Garoppolo and Trey Lance. But it certainly is a huge advantage to have a successful quarterback on a rookie contract. The Bengals are No. 22 in QB cap spending ($11.1 million) and the Eagles are No. 31 ($5 million).
Having a cheap quarterback has allowed the Eagles to spend big at receiver, offensive line, defensive line, and cornerback. The 49ers spend their extra money at linebacker, edge rusher, and offensive line. The Bengals beefed up their offensive line and secondary. Conversely, the Chiefs are still able to spend big on offense, but commit relatively few resources to linebacker, cornerback, and safety.
Feel pretty confident that at least 95 percent of the people commenting here didn’t read the article— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) January 29, 2023
As you say, 50-percent of the remaining teams in the playoffs are not “cheap” at quarterback.
But go a step further. The Eagles paid $33.8 million in DEAD CAP for Carson Wentz in 2021, a total waste of money, and that didn’t stop them from reaching this point in 2023. Philadelphia was able to survive that without losing Fletcher Cox, Lane Johnson, Darius Slay, Javon Hargrave, Jason Kelce, Jordan Mailata, Dallas Goedert, and so on. The Eagles thought maybe Wentz could be his own Burrow—surely a player most people agree should be paid accordingly in 2023—and that was the risk they took by extending him.
It didn’t stop their success. Nor did the waste of money on Jimmy Garoppolo, as the 49ers could reach the Super Bowl for the second time since 2019. And as pointed out many times, Mahomes is an unstoppable force in the AFC despite having the second-biggest cap hit of any quarterback in 2022.
The Vikings won 13 games despite Kirk Cousins, yes Kirk Cousins, having the third-biggest. The Lions nearly reached the playoffs despite Jared Goff making $31 million.
And then there’s last year’s Super Bowl champions. Oh you mean, the Rams, who “only” paid Matthew Stafford $20 million? Well, yes, Stafford had the ninth-biggest cap hit in 2021 and won the Super Bowl. But that was still almost $5 million less than what L.A. had to count against the salary cap for Goff to not be on the Rams.
In 2021 the Rams' adjusted cap number was $201,937,725. Jared Goff's dead money was $24.7M (12.23%). Matthew Stafford's cap number for the Rams was $20M (9.9%). The $44.7M total took up 22.14% of the Rams' adjusted cap number. Yet we for the most part only see Stafford's %— Miguel Benzan Patriots Cap Space Equals 34,248,070 (@patscap) January 29, 2023
As @patscap notes, the Rams only had 77% of their cap space remaining after paying out quarterbacks. And they still had Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Leonard Floyd, Von Miller, Robert Woods, Andrew Whitworth, and Odell Beckham, Jr..
And also, it only matters to save cap space if the team is able to spend their savings wisely. The Texans ranked 32nd in QB spending last year. So what? The Falcons ranked 29th, the Patriots were 28th, the Bears were 27th, the Saints were 26th, the Steelers were 25th.
Good value is good value. The position doesn’t matter. Mahomes is a good value because he elevates cheap players into being valuable players. His net positive makes up for a lot of net negatives. But because people are so hyper focused on quarterbacks, the conversation of savings ONLY circulates around quarterback contracts.
The Vikings and Seahawks reached the playoffs while ranking in the bottom-five in offensive line spending because they found values at tackle in the draft. The Ravens ranked 32nd in wide receiver spending (perhaps that did show). The Chiefs ranked 30th in linebacker spending and the Eagles ranked 28th. Kansas City was 31st in cornerback spending.
The Colts spent the fifth most of any team on their entire defense, and the Rams spent the seventh most. The Washington Commanders had the most expensive offense in the NFL!
The Jets had the fifth-most expensive!
So yes, there is a relatively good outcome if you happen to draft a good quarterback and he plays well right away. This has NEVER not been the case. Why? Because good quarterbacks help teams, whether they’re cheap, mid-range, or expensive. Any team would rather have Mahomes at $50 million than Ryan Tannehill at $25 million or Mac Jones at $8 million.
The Rams basically saved over $25 million at quarterback in 2022 compared to 2021. Which season was better?