Lamar Jackson, for the next two seasons, is on perhaps the most valuable contract in the National Football League.
Jackson, the league’s reigning MVP, is two seasons away from his fifth-year option kicking in. He’ll make just 1.3, then 1.4 percent of the Ravens’ cap in the next two seasons before a fifth-year option. Then, he’ll likely be handed the keys to the Ravens’ kingdom.
After that, though, he’s due a large payday. And that doesn’t mean the Ravens should be concerned, it just means they'll have to adjust.
The success of young quarterbacks across the NFL of late has led to the belief that teams can only win a Super Bowl with a quarterback on a rookie deal. Or, at the very least, they can’t pay a quarterback top dollar, as it will cripple the general manager’s ability to build a competitive team.
That’s not necessarily the case.
Of course, it’s much easier to compete in the NFL with a quarterback outplaying the value of his contract. Cheap, productive quarterbacks put teams at a decided advantage in a sport that requires strong quarterback play above all else.
Quarterbacks in the NFL account for four of the top five highest-paid contracts, in terms of contract value, and nine of the top 11 across the league. That can lead to some weird comparisons when evaluating contracts.
Highest cap hits from 2014-19:— Paul Hembekides (@PaulHembo) May 12, 2020
Matthew Stafford ($130M)
Ben Roethlisberger ($128M)
Aaron Rodgers ($126M)
Drew Brees ($125M)
Eli Manning ($124M)
Matt Ryan ($118M)
Philip Rivers ($117M)
Joe Flacco ($106M)
Cam Newton ($104M)
None won the Super Bowl during that time.
Derek Carr’s contract ($125 million) costs more than Von Milller’s ($114.1 million). Jared Goff and Carson Wentz ($134 million and $128 million) each make about $35 million more than wide receiver Michael Thomas ($96.25 million).
But that’s the going rate for a good quarterback. A deeper dive into that list, however, begins to make the theory fall apart.
Aaron Rodgers has been to two NFC Championship games since 2014. Cam Newton played in a Super Bowl. Matt Ryan played in a Super Bowl. Drew Brees was a horrifically blown call away from playing in a Super Bowl.
If you flipped a few close plays, that entire list would be moot.
It's hard to win a Super Bowl with an expensive quarterback, but it's even harder to win a Super Bowl without a good quarterback.— Robert Mays (@robertmays) May 12, 2020
Sure, winning a Super Bowl while playing with one of the league’s most expensive players is naturally a difficult task. But refusing to pay a quarterback that could elevate your team from good to great is even riskier.
Since 2010, 15 different quarterbacks have played in a Super Bowl. Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning have played in multiple. And 12 of those 15 quarterbacks weren’t drastically underpaid.
In that timeframe, three quarterbacks have won the Super Bowl on rookie deals. That number does not include the 2017 Eagles, who had second-year quarterback Carson Wentz at the helm for a majority of the regular season before Nick Foles, who made $1 million in base salary, took over after a Wentz injury.
Wentz’s contract took up just 3.6 percent of the Eagles’ cap space in 2018. That’s nearly five percent less than the average of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks over the last decade. On average, the last 10 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks have accounted for 8.4 percent of a team’s salary cap, according to overthecap.com.
Super Bowl winners since 2010, with cap percentage:
2020: Patrick Mahomes: 2.4% (Rookie)
2019: Tom Brady: 12.4%
2018: Nick Foles: 1.0% — Carson Wentz 3.6% (Rookie)
2017: Tom Brady: 8.9%
2016: Peyton Manning: 12.2%
2015: Tom Brady: 11.1%
2014: Russell Wilson: 0.6% (Rookie)
2013: Joe Flacco: 6.6% (Rookie)
2012: Eli Manning: 11.7%
2011: Aaron Rodgers: Uncapped season
2010: Drew Brees: 8.7%
That average number can be a bit skewed, considering Brady could have easily demanded more money than what he received from the Patriots for his entire career. Still, while he took a discount, his contract in New England was always around 12 percent of the team’s cap.
He’s played in five of the last 10 Super Bowls and has made less than 10 percent of his team’s salary cap twice in those years. The Patriots are 1-1 in those Super Bowls. Other years, he’s on par with some of the league’s highest paid quarterbacks.
For the 2020 season, there are obvious bargains at the position who have yet to reach payday: Mahomes, Jackson and Deshaun Watson are all expected to see exponential increases in their salary in the coming years. But the highest paid quarterbacks haven’t exactly crippled their team’s ability to compete for a Super Bowl, at least in the public’s eye.
Mahomes, the reigning Super Bowl MVP with a league MVP already under his belt, will eat away 2.7 percent of the Chiefs’ cap space in 2020. In 2021, it will jump to 11.6 percent before an explosion in 2022.
All three of those quarterbacks will deserve the contracts they earn. The Chiefs, Ravens and Texans won’t be wrong to hand out, essentially, blank checks either.
In terms of salary cap value, the 10 highest paid quarterbacks in the 2020 season will make anywhere from 15.9 percent to 10.9 percent of a team’s cap space.
Top 10 2020 quarterback contracts:
-Dak Prescott ($31,509,000): 15.9%
-Russell Wilson ($31,000,000): 15.6%
-Jared Goff ($28,842,682): 14.6%
-Jimmy Garoppolo ($26,600,000): 13.4%
-Philip Rivers ($25,000,000): 12.6%
-Tom Brady ($25,000,000): 12.6%
-Ben Roethlisberger ($23,750,000): 12.0%
-Drew Brees ($23,650,000): 11.9%
-Ryan Tannehill ($22,500,000): 11.4%
-Aaron Rodgers ($21,642,000): 10.9%
Of those teams: the Cowboys, Seahawks, Rams, 49ers, Colts, Buccaneers, Steelers, Saints, Titans and Packers, nearly all are certainly thought of as playoff contenders. Some even Super Bowl contenders.
The Saints and 49ers' over/under for wins in 2020 is listed at 10.5, third and fourth best in the NFL behind the Ravens and Chiefs. The Cowboys are fifth-best at 9.5, as are the Seahawks and Buccaneers. The Packers follow with nine.
So while paying a quarterback big money restricts cap flexibility, it isn’t necessarily a death knell, though it clearly takes away a team’s wiggle room. When compared with the Super Bowl winning quarterbacks of the last 10 seasons, the salary cap percentage for 2020 quarterbacks, and even Super Bowl-losing quarterbacks, isn’t far off.
Super Bowl losing quarterbacks
2020: Jimmy G: 10.6%
2019: Jared Goff: 4.3%
2018: Tom Brady: 8.4%
2017: Matt Ryan: 15.3%
2016: Cam Newton: 9.1%
2015: Russell Wilson: 0.6% (Rookie)
2014: Peyton Manning: 14.2%
2013: Colin Kaepernick: 1.0% (Rookie)
2012: Tom Brady: 11.0%
2011: Ben Roethlisberger: Uncapped season
2010: Peyton Manning: 17.2%
If Ryan’s Falcons didn’t blow a 28-3 lead, or if Manning’s Colts held on to a fourth-quarter lead, they both would have raised the Lombardi Trophy. Ryan’s cap percentage of 15.3 would’ve put him third in the 2020 quarterback list. Manning’s would’ve put him first.
And of teams that handed out big money contracts on this list, very few regretted their decision. The Seahawks wouldn’t take back their contract with Wilson, nor the Steelers with Roethlisberger, nor the Falcons with Ryan.
Wilson is consistently one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Roethlisberger is a sure-fire Hall of Famer and Ryan was one horrific quarter away from claiming a Super Bowl title and perhaps game MVP.
The fact of the matter is once a team finds the right quarterback, it makes more sense to pay him whatever it takes and figure the rest out later.
The lesson here is clear: You need a good quarterback to compete for a Super Bowl much more than you need a cheap quarterback. And it’s OK to overpay for a quarterback that will give you elite, great, or even good, production.
Teams had just better be sure that their particular quarterbacks can provide it.
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