Do NFL QBs really deserve their contracts? (2014)

Every year that passes proves that the game of American football is becoming more and more of a quarterback’s game. They have always been the clear leader on the offense (and sometimes the whole team), but quarterbacks have become more and more important to a team’s success and production. Teams are recognizing that and paying their quarterbacks accordingly though. The point is, it’s getting out of control.

This is my second annual installment of the “do quarterbacks deserve their contracts” series that I hope to continue as long as I’m writing. For those that didn’t read my 2013 version, I will be looking at the cap hits of the QBs in the NFL and determining whether or not they deserve their contracts.

Since it’s hard to determine ahead of time all 32 starters in the NFL, the QB that I’ll be analyzing per team is the team’s highest paid QB in terms of cap hit. An example from last year was the 49ers. Even though it was clear that Colin Kaepernick was going to be the starter quarterback for the 49ers, Colt McCoy was actually the highest paid QB on the team with a cap hit of $1.5 million. I used McCoy as my example of the QB when talking about San Francisco because he would have the most effect on the team’s salary cap. In some situations though, I will mention both the highest paid QB and the starter if it’s important.

Many big name QBs signed new contracts prior to the 2013 season, making it more of a pressing issue that QBs were being overpaid, but a number of guys also received big deals after this past season in preparation for the 2014 season. In my 2013 edition, I explained all the various reasons why QBs are getting these insane deals and the details of how the teams make them work. You can look at the entire 2013 post here for reference.

I will do a brief recap here though. Basically, players know that they can be hurt at any time and be out of the NFL for their whole career, meaning they’re all trying to get as much money as possible before they’re forced to retire. I don’t blame them at all. If I were in their situation, I’d want the same thing. It’s not being greedy, it’s being practical. Plus, if big contracts for QBs is the norm and teams are willing to shell out triple digit million dollar contracts to their “star” QB, then why not take it?

Teams know how to distribute the money so that the contract works for them though. They give players massive signing bonuses that the players receive up front, which are then prorated through their cap hit to help ease the effect of the contract on the books. This is a very smart maneuver and there’s nothing illegal about it. Teams also have been known to restructure contracts of their QBs (already, even after a couple years into their new huge deal) in order to save them cap space. This is also completely legal, although I think it’s unfair that it’s this easy to get away with things like that. So it’s unwise to completely freak out when looking at the yearly breakdown of a QB’s deal before taking a moment to realize that he probably won’t play out that full contract just the way it is.

One thing that people also need to take into account is that sometimes a QB gets a huge deal because the team has no other options. Not in the idea that they’re forced to give one specific player a huge contract, but meaning that they don’t have another QB that deserves to start, and they want to formally commit to the guy they have as the starter. This makes sense in a way, but sometimes the amount of money these guys get is outrageous. Pressure from the player and other players’ contracts around the league also have a big effect on what the next guy will make though, so sometimes the GM really does appear to have no choice if he wants to keep the player.

As I mentioned last year, there are four main ways to judge a QB (in my opinion): stats, regular season wins, postseason wins, and Super Bowl rings. Some players have one or more of these categories, and some have none. Some guys have all of them. If a player has all of them, then he basically deserves the maximum amount of money because he’s an elite QB. If a QB doesn’t have any of them, he deserves the minimum amount of money and probably shouldn’t be the team’s highest paid QB in the first place. But things happen and people get overpaid for one reason or another, and sometimes it’s essentially impossible to get rid of a player, forcing them to let him play out his contract.

The concept that each new player has to be the “highest paid player in history” at his position still exists and probably always will. The salary cap will continue to go up at a staggering rate until a new CBA agreement is made, so it makes sense that QBs should see a slight raise every year. But the problem is that many QBs are making over the amount that they deserve regardless of the salary cap. And each guy that gets a new contract is likely to receive some sort of massive deal that screams confidence in the player, but also a bit of insanity in the team.

The new fad this past offseason in terms of big QB deals is a step in the right direction though. Teams are giving players what seem like insane contracts with large guaranteed money numbers, but there’s a catch. There’s a difference between “guaranteed money” and “actual guaranteed money.” Actual guaranteed money is what the player will receive no matter what happens the rest of his career. If he dropped off the face of the Earth tomorrow, he’d technically be owed that amount of actual guaranteed money. But then there’s the guaranteed money amount that the media plays up, which always seems like a massive amount and bloats the contract’s value.

The “guaranteed money” number is the amount of money that the player would receive if he reached all of the goals that the contract sets out for the player. In other words, the player has incentives to earn “extra money” beyond the “actual guaranteed money.” This “extra money” is included in the player’s total contract already, but would technically be subtracted and not allocated to the player if he doesn’t live up to the goals. For example, a player’s cap hit one season might be $10 million, but he gets another $1 million if he makes the Pro Bowl. He might get another $1 million if he makes the playoffs, and another $3 million if he makes the Super Bowl. These are all hypothetical numbers, but it shows how a player can go from earning $10 million to $15 million in a season just because he met the goals of his contract.

This system is an excellent way for everyone involved. Ok, well it’s not the ideal thing for the player since he isn’t just given the money straight up, but it makes the most sense. It allows teams to say, “hey, I think you’re a great player, and I’ll give you a lot of money, but you have to earn it.” So, if the player gets the total amount of the huge contract he signed, it meant he was probably a pretty darn good player, and likely in the elite category. This is best case scenario for the team because it also eliminates the “content” factor that I talked about last year in which players might become less motivated to try after receiving a new big contract with lots of guaranteed money. With most of the guaranteed money coming from performance incentives, the only way the player will receive all the money is if he plays great.

Now, here is a look at some overall stats in terms of all 32 teams’ highest paid QB. Eight players have contracts that were originally over $100 million, an astounding amount. There are 16 QBs that have total contracts over $50 million, which is half the league. That’s a lot of money devoted to just one position. The average total money for a QB contract in the NFL (remember, just looking at the highest paid QB per team) is $51.4 million, and the averaged actual guaranteed money is $21.0 million. I also looked at average salary per year of their contracts and took the average of that, which is $10.6 million.

Last year, the average cash value for the 2013 salary of the 32 QBs was $10.5 million while the average cap hit was just $8.9 million. Both of those are pretty significant numbers. This year, the numbers seemed switched. The average cash value for their 2014 salaries is $8.7 million while the average cap hit was $10.3 million. The reason for this change is that last year, a lot of players were in the first year of their new, massive contract, and therefore received a high signing bonus that was paid in terms of cash up front. That also meant their cap hits were a bit lower; but, with the next year into their contract, the large cash values were lessened and the cap hits were higher. The average cap hit should be higher for all players regardless of position though because of the rising salary cap, although a raise of $1.5 million in average cap hit over just one year is a lot.

Comparing the list of guys on each of these lists, 23 of the teams have the same highest paid QB on their team, and three other guys are still on the 2014 list despite changing teams. So there are only six new names on this year’s list. The average NFL starts per QB in last year’s list was just over 70 games, which close to 4.5 full seasons. The average starts per QB in this year’s list is almost 82 games, which is just over 5 full seasons. So, because a lot of the same guys remained on this list, it both makes sense that the average starts per QB is higher and that the average cap hit is higher, because the increased experience means they should likely deserve more money. Also, even though another year has passed, the average Super Bowl rings per player has not changed (which is a slight spoiler).

Now, let’s start looking at some individual players to determine whether or not they deserve their contract. I think the best example to start with is Jay Cutler, QB for the Bears. Cutler’s cap hit and cash earnings more than doubled from the year before. He has the highest cap hit among QBs in the league at $22.5 million. This honestly doesn’t make any sense at all. Once again, Cutler was unable to finish a season after getting injured and missing 5 games. He was just 5-6 in the games that he played in with 19 TDs and 12 INTs. Those are pretty sub-par stats for a guy getting the most money in the league for his position. The Bears were in a good spot to make the playoffs last year, but Cutler lost two of the last three games of the season and the Bears were eliminated from playoff contention. That leaves Cutler with still just one playoff win. Verdict: he does not deserve his contract.

The second highest paid QB this year (and the only other one getting a $20+ million paycheck) is Eli Manning of the Giants. Sure, there was definitely a time when Manning was a great QB; he had three 4,000+ yard seasons in a row, including one that was almost 5,000 yards, and won two Super Bowls. That’s a pretty successful career I’d say. Only four other QBs have more playoff wins. But both times the Giants won the Super Bowl under Manning, they were a wild card team, meaning they needed to win four games per year to win it all. Manning only has eight total playoff wins. He may have gotten it done then, but he’s either all wins or nothing. Manning led the league in INTs last year as well with 27, a career high. Manning’s career projection in the next year or two is fighting for a starting job for the Raiders…basically he’s done. Verdict: he does not deserve his contract.

That rounds out the small list of QBs getting $20 million or more, but there are still a lot of guys getting in the high teens in millions who don’t deserve it. The first of these is Sam Bradford. It’s definitely a shame that he tore his ACL for the second year in a row and will miss the entire season, but it’s time the Rams move on from him anyway. His cap hit is $17.61 million this year, which is definitely one of the higher totals in the league. He was actually having a very solid season last year with 14 TDs and 4 INTs in 7 games until he got hurt. This would’ve been just his fifth year in the league, and he’s already making serious bucks though. Is he really worth it? While some of these guys have the curse of winning just one playoff game, Bradford has never even been to a playoff game. So what exactly is he getting paid for then? Bradford actually has one of the worst contracts in the position because of how much his contract is guaranteed (64.1%). The only guys with higher guaranteed percentages of their contract are either under one year deals or rookie contracts (and one other guy I’ll mention later). Verdict: he does not deserve his contract.

Matt Ryan is a tricky one. He always provides the yards and a lot of TDs, and until last year, relatively few INTs. Last season I don’t know if he had both Roddy White and Julio Jones on the field at the same time (and healthy) for a single game, which is not fair to him. Their injuries were one of the biggest problems for Atlanta last year. But Matty Ice has not exactly been rock solid in the playoffs. He’s made the postseason four times and has a combined one playoff win. That’s not really what a team is looking for in a franchise QB. I expect his regular season to improve this year with White and Jones back, but will his playoff record also improve? Probably not enough to deserve $17.5 million, his cap hit this year. Sorry, Matt. Verdict: he does not deserve his contract.

If there’s any QB that definitely has the stats aspect of QB greatness, it’s Matthew Stafford. He threw the ball a whole lot less last year and they still struggled. I guess his 19 INTs didn’t help much either. Now, he seems to have overcome his injury problems after playing his third full season in a row last year, all of which he accumulated over 4,500 passing yards. Well, like Bradford, he hasn’t won a single playoff game in his five years in the league. He’s been to one, but that’s not enough to justify his $15.82 million cap hit this year. But what’s worse than Bradford is his contract details; his guaranteed money is the highest among people not under one year deals or rookie contracts (78.3% of his contract is guaranteed). How does the franchise benefit if there’s no incentive for the QB to perform well to get his money? Plus, Stafford has the best receiver in the league in Calvin Johnson…anyone can throw to him. Stafford is overrated and likely won’t accomplish anything in the playoffs, if he ever gets there again. Verdict: he doesn’t deserve his contract.

Joe Flacco is one of the most consistent QBs in the league. He’s never missed a game in his career and has almost always thrown between 3,600 and 3,900 yards in a season. He throws an average of 20 TDs per season and, until last year, about 11 picks per season. Consistency is usually good because you know what’s expected. He has an excellent playoff record and has already won a Super Bowl ring. But the thing about Flacco is very similar to Manning: they don’t do much in the regular season, but explode in the postseason. This isn’t a terrible thing because Super Bowls should be a team effort, but Flacco really doesn’t do enough good to be considered a top QB. Yet when he signed his new deal before last year, it made him the highest-paid QB in NFL history. What? Flacco is not a bad QB to have at all, but there’s no way he deserves that kind of money. Plus, he threw 22 INTs last year and only 19 TDs. That’s awful, and it was his first year under his new contract. His cap hit this year is $14.8 million. He has what I call contract complacency, which is a franchise’s worst nightmare. Good luck figuring him out, Baltimore. Verdict: he doesn’t deserve his contract.

A QB knows that when he ends up in Oakland as the starter, his career is pretty much over. Matt Schaub has that title this year as he enters his first year with the team. He’s had ten seasons in the league already, so he’s already done a lot. Well…sort of. He had a few really good seasons, but he was a backup for the first three years of his career and completely dropped off in his 10 games with Houston last year. Somehow though, the Raiders are willing to pay him $14.13 million this year. He’s only won one playoff game in his entire career and had a trio of 4,000+ yard seasons. Other than that, he hasn’t done much. He’s way overpaid and will continue the long list of Oakland QBs that have gone there to see their career die. Verdict: he doesn’t deserve his contract.

Continuing on the trend of QBs getting over $10 million this year, it brings me to Carson Palmer. Somehow, Palmer ended up having a good season on another team after a stint with the Raiders, something that I can’t remember ever happening in NFL history (that may be a slight exaggeration, but you get the point). Well, I guess “good” is a relative term. He threw for over 4,000 yards and almost helped bring them to the playoffs, but they just missed despite being 10-6. The catch to this good season was that he threw 24 TDs and 22 INTs…that’s way too many INTs for a team to have to deal with. Palmer is a solid option at QB even with the picks, but he’s not worth $12 million in one year. He’s still never won a playoff game despite playing in the league for 10 years. He’s starter material, but not big money material. Verdict: he doesn’t deserve his contract.

Many people would disagree with this selection, but I’m going with it anyway. Ben Roethlisberger has moved into the overpaid section. He’s still a great QB and had a very good season last year, managing to play in all 16 games for just the second time in his career. He has an excellent winning percentage in the playoffs and has won two Super Bowls. Only a few guys in the league have better credentials than he does. But, I wouldn’t quite call him elite anymore. He doesn’t put up stats to the level of the other obvious elite guys and hasn’t won a playoff game since 2010. He definitely deserves a lot of money, but he has the third highest cap hit among QBs in the league. While he’s actually better than the two guys who are getting more money, he’s not good enough to deserve a paycheck that large. Verdict: he doesn’t quite deserve his contract.

While this list of guys sums up the people who are overpaid and getting a ton of money, there are also guys who aren’t starters (or who shouldn’t be starters) who are getting overpaid. The first person I want to mention is Alex Smith of the Chiefs. He’s had eight seasons in the NFL and eclipsed the 3,000 yard mark for just his second time last year. While he’s only had two seasons where he started every single game (and one year where he missed the entire year due to injury), he seems to be much more reliable nowadays. Now, “reliable” and “franchise QB” are two totally different things. Smith is the perfect QB to have for a team that has a great defense and running game, much like what Flacco was to the Ravens when they won the Super Bowl. But just because he happens to be the QB on a team that’s always very successful doesn’t mean he deserves big money. He’s already getting $8 million this year and wants a new big contract for the future. For a guy that does as little for the offense as he does, it doesn’t make sense to give him a massive contract. He’s a good player to have as a starter, but he’s too old to just be declared a franchise QB. Verdict: he doesn’t deserve his contract.

Ryan Tannehill is going to be the starting QB in Miami, yet he’s not the highest paid QB on the roster this year; it’s Matt Moore. Tannehill is still on his rookie contract, and Moore is going into this season with a $5.5 million cap hit. And he’s a backup. Last year he played just a small portion of one game and managed to throw two picks and fumble. That’s atrocious. He’s only had one season in his career as a starting QB and he was average at best. Last year he threw for 53 yards…total. What part of this performance suggests him being work that much money? This is one of the most baffling contracts for QBs and the highest among backups going into this season. Verdict: he doesn’t deserve his contract.

Another backup getting overpaid is Michael Vick, this time on the Jets. Anyone who tries to say that Vick is still good enough to start and win is clueless. He was awful whenever he played for the Eagles last year and won’t be any better in an offense that is essentially devoid of offensive weapons. Plus, Geno Smith figures to be the starter this year and probably will stay that way all season unless he gets hurt. Vick is just insurance as a backup, that’s it. So why is he getting $4 million this year? Beats me. It may not be that much money in the grand scheme of things, but for what he’s going to do, it’s too much. Verdict: he doesn’t deserve his contract.

I debated putting guys like Chad Henne and Matt Cassel in this list, but they’ve both been recently named the starters and are getting about what a sub-par starter should get, which is what they are. They’re both getting $5.75 million this year and have combined for just one playoff game (a loss of course). Clearly this would be way too much money if they were strictly backups, but I expect both to start a fair amount of games this year despite rookies knocking on their doorstep. Next year both of these guys could be out, but for now, I’ll let their contracts slide. Verdict: as long as they’re starters, they deserve their contracts.

There’s one person in this group of 32 QBs who I really don’t know how to classify. Philip Rivers has pretty much anything one could ask for: the stats, the demeanor, and the playoff experience. But the one thing he doesn’t have is a Super Bowl ring, which is what sets him apart from the other elite QBs. His cap hit this year is $16.7 million which is pretty high in terms of the other guys, but I think he’s definitely a top 10 QB and maybe even the fifth guy on the list. He threw 32 TDs and just 11 INTs which is a nice ratio. It seems like a lot of money for a guy that’s never won a ring, but I think he will continue to maintain this greatness. Verdict: he does deserve his contract

Now, while this wraps up the list of QBs that don’t deserve their contracts, there are plenty of QBs that clearly deserve their contracts regardless of the size of it. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers—the “big four” as I call them—deserve any amount of money they want because of how much they’ve accomplished and still are accomplishing. It’s surprising to see that none of them is making $20+ million in either cash or cap hit because if anyone, these are the guys that should be getting the big bucks, not Cutler and Eli. As long as these guys continue to dominate the QB position across the league, they can make whatever amount of money and I’d say they deserve it. They’re that good.

That isn’t to say that they’re the only guys that deserve the amount of money they’re getting. There are many QBs that are receiving just around the amount that they deserve. The guys I’d include on that list are Andy Dalton ($9.06 million), E.J. Manuel ($2.02 million), Josh McCown ($4.75 million), Andrew Luck ($6.03 million), Tony Romo ($11.8 million), Cam Newton ($7.01 million), Robert Griffin III ($5.76 million), Ryan Fitzpatrick ($3.38 million) and Jake Locker ($4.00 million). While a couple of these guys might be getting a raise soon, I believe that they deserve their contracts just at where they are. I think Luck and Newton could certainly deserve a raise in the near future if they continue to get better. Dalton is also on the first year of his brand new contract, which he’ll have to live up to if he wants to earn it all since only 17.7% of it is actually guaranteed.

There’s also a small list of starters in this group who are getting underpaid for their performance. And when I say small list, I mean it’s just one person: Colin Kaepernick. The genius thing about his contract is that he will probably never be overpaid in his career. He just signed a new contract this offseason for $114 million. My first reaction was that that was absolutely ridiculous. But then I looked at the details and noticed that just under $13 million of that was completely guaranteed no matter what, which was a very small percentage of the total amount. As I mentioned much earlier, his contract is one that is full of incentives and requirements for him to earn the money. So if he starts making $15+ million a year, it probably means that he’s a Pro Bowl QB taking his team to the playoffs every year. This seems to be the new trend, and it was a great move by the 49ers.

I’ve now discussed 29 of the 32 teams, so who is left? For some reason, there are three guys that are backups that are actually getting paid more than the starter going into this season. Johnny Manziel is the first of those, who was drafted this past offseason by the Browns. He battled with Bryan Hoyer in the preseason for the starting job, but Hoyer won it for now. Manziel will have a cap hit of $1.50 million this year. The next guy is Mark Sanchez, the backup for the Eagles. Nick Foles is the obvious starter going into this season, but he’s making a very small amount of money because he’s still on his rookie deal. Sanchez was brought in on a one year contract for a fair amount of money and has looked very good in the preseason. He’s one of the best backups in the league now in my opinion. The final guy is Tarvaris Jackson of the Seahawks. In case you were wondering why Russell Wilson wasn’t mentioned at all in this whole piece, that’s why. Jackson is making just $1.25 million this year and is still the highest paid QB on the roster, higher than Wilson. Wilson will soon be getting a whole lot more than that, but for now, Jackson is the highest paid QB in Seattle for the second year in a row.

Going into last year, the rate that QB contracts were increasing was insane. But there has been some improvement with the lessening of actual guaranteed money and the bigger stress on incentives such as with Dalton and Kaepernick. Guys like Newton, Luck, and Wilson are all in line for massive deals in the near future, but I expect them to be more like the aforementioned guys. It makes the most sense, even with the salary cap rising the way it is. But that hasn’t stopped teams from overpaying guys anyway. Not every QB can be elite, but not every QB should be receiving a ridiculous amount of money. This offseason was a step in the right direction, but the situation will have to continue to improve if teams want to have money for other guys. My guess is they’ll figure it out. Time will tell.

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