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High-end quarterbacks should be clamoring to set the bar higher

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Four years ago, when Saints quarterback Drew Brees became the first quarterback with a $20 million annual salary, the salary cap allowed for $120.6 million in spending per year. That meant Brees consumed 1/6th of the full cap by himself.

Under that same standard, Brees should be making $25.87 million this year. While his cap number is $30 million (because the cap numbers in his 2012 deal were backloaded), he’ll earn the final $20 million of his five-year, $100 million deal, absent an extension.

But with quarterbacks at the top of the market not willing or able to become the new “highest paid player” in the game (possibly because one of the best quarterbacks of the past generation consistently refuses to insist on a title he deserves by taking grossly below-market deals), second-tier quarterbacks are now crowding the first-tier market, with franchise and non-franchise quarterbacks alike now crammed into the range of $18 million to $22 million per year.

Less than two weeks ago, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco set a new high-water mark with a contract that pays out $20.8 million per year from signing, and that also has a record high new-money amount of $22.13 million. Brees, according to agent Tom Condon, will soon commence talks with the Saints that should result in something higher than Flacco’s amounts -- especially since by all rights Brees should now be at $25 million per year.

Most believe that the first player to get to that level will be Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who enters the final year of his rookie deal. But other quarterbacks with years remaining on current deals should be banging on the table for more money in the bank, given the 25 percent growth in the cap since most of the deals were done.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who previously held the new-money mark of $22 million per year, will make $11.5 million in base salary this year, plus another $600,000 in per-game roster bonuses and a $500,000 workout bonus. That’s a mere $12.6 million for the player many believe is still the best quarterback in the game.

Sure, Rodgers has four years left on his current deal. But he can persuasively argue that circumstances have changed, dramatically, since he signed his most recent extension.

All other quarterbacks clustered near the top of the market also are under contract through 2019: Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson ($21.9 million in new money); Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger ($21.85 million in new money); Giants quarterback Eli Manning ($21 million in new money); and Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers ($20.812 million in new money).

The deal signed by Panthers quarterback Cam Newton last year pays out $20.76 million in new money, and it runs through 2020. Newton got only a whisker more in new money than Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who is signed through 2018 at $20.75 million in new money.

That $10,000 annual difference represents a thin line of demarcation between the first and second tier, and that second tier continues to squeeze up against the top one. Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins will make $19.95 million on a one-year deal. Ryan Tannehill has a new-money average of $19.25 million on a deal that runs through 2020. Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler will earn $18 million per year on a new four-year deal. Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford, despite inaccurate initial reports of $18 million per year that continue to stick, will actually make $17.5 million per year on a two-year contract.

Woven within that cluster of tier-two quarterbacks are a trio of guys who, like some of the ones at the top of the stack, should be having buyer’s remorse, given the spike in the cap. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is making $18.1 million per year on a deal that runs through 2020. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo earns $18 million per year on a contract that expires after 2019.

Perhaps of all quarterback, the one who has the best claim for an adjustment is Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who is signed through 2017 at a deal that pays out $17.66 million per year.

Meanwhile, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith ($17 million per year), Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer ($16.5 million per year through 2018), and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton ($16 million per year through 2020) have to be wondering whether they’re being fairly compensated.

Then there’s Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, whose latest new contract pays out $14.5 million from signing but who has a new-money average of $17.5 million. And new-money average is perhaps the only thing Brady and Bradford will ever have in common.

Unless more teams become willing to rip up existing deals with three or more years remaining (the Ravens did it with three left, but only because Flacco’s cap number was unwieldy), there’s nothing any of the relatively underpaid quarterbacks can do for now. Unless, of course, they come together and collectively cry foul, perhaps even threatening to boycott offseason workouts until their teams properly adjust their contracts to reflect a spiking of the salary cap that, before the process began with the 2014 league year, multiple owners were saying would never happen.

The problem is that fans and media will have little sympathy for the very rich trying to get very richer, especially when every extra dollar that goes to a quarterback is one less dollar that will be available for the rest of the roster. It’s one of the reasons why, for example, Eli Manning was shouted down from becoming the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL last year, even though a looming franchise tag of $23 million in 2016 based on his 2015 cap number gave him the leverage to do it easily.

So what’s the solution to protect against ongoing spikes in the cap as Luck, Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, and Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota eventually become eligible for new deals? It’s the device PFT suggested earlier this week: Tying compensation to cap percentage.

One league source told PFT in the aftermath of that suggestion that efforts have been made on behalf of at least one quarterback to secure such a term. While it hasn’t happened yet, one quarterback getting that protection could be the first domino in a process that allows all of them to do it.

All except Tom Brady, whose refusal to get every dollar he deserves has helped keep the rubber band being stretched as far as it could be or should be in the quarterback market.