As the NFL has recognized the overwhelming importance that quarterbacks play in winning games, it’s a mundane observation to also point out that their salaries are rising.
Naturally, all salaries are rising because the salary cap has risen dramatically. In 2000, the NFL salary cap was $62 million. Just 17 years later, the cap has risen to $167 million, nearly three times that amount.
The chart above demonstrates how explosively the salary cap has risen for the NFL, and also includes inflation as a comparator. The NFL cap began jumping in 1998 when a new eight-year TV deal kicked in and again in 2006 when, as you can imagine, a new TV deal kicked in. The 2010 cap number is an average of the 2009 and 2011 seasons, as 2010 was an uncapped year.
Thanks to Spotrac, we have quarterback salary data going back to 2000, so we can look at what percentage of the cap quarterbacks took up each year. That way, we have a way of accounting for rising cap numbers while evaluating how critical teams think quarterbacks are.
Below are the cap percentage numbers for quarterbacks, with the average of the top-five, top-10, top-20 and top-32 cap hits represented.
There are limitations to this approach; the top-five quarterbacks in salary cap average are generally not the five “best” quarterbacks but the five who are both good and recently negotiated a contract.
For example, the five largest cap hits among quarterbacks in 2016 were Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford. The glaring absences of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers as well as the likelihood that there are a good half-dozen quarterbacks generally considered better than Flacco, Manning and/or Stafford means we aren’t calculating true value.
Not only that, rookie contracts have been artificially depressed — well, more artificially depressed than what a salary cap already tends to cause in the first place — since the implementation of the rookie salary cap from the 2011 CBA.
Still, it gives us some idea of how quarterbacks are valued in the market.
Seeing quarterback prices go up the board, even after accounting for the salary cap, is not particularly surprising. What is surprising is how close the top-20 and top-five salaries are getting.
Sixteen years ago, the average of quarterbacks in the top-five of cap liability made twice as much as the average of quarterbacks in the top-20. This year, they only make 20 percent more.
At some level, we understand this — Brock Osweiler signed an enormous contract with the Texans last year, and both Tyrod Taylor and Mike Glennon signed contracts worth approximately $15 million per year. There are no quarterback contracts that average between $7 million and $14 million.
There are a number of reasons for why quarterback contracts are converging, the primary one being difficult to avoid: top quarterbacks don’t hit the free agency market. Beyond that, average quarterbacks seem more likely to hit the free agency market or leverage their market advantage than before — Sam Bradford, off a down (contract) year, signed an $18 million contract days before free agency with the Eagles.
Kirk Cousins has been able to ply his imagined market into multiple (expensive) franchise tags, and even as Washington continues to lowball him, he should do well in the final accounting.
In addition to Taylor, Glennon, Osweiler and Cousins are the number of extensions built off of the scary possibility of having no quarterback — the Andy Dalton and Ryan Tannehill contracts are great examples.
The fact that top QBs don’t hit the market probably doesn’t explain everything, but the increased recognition of the importance of quarterbacks may fill in the gaps. Teams that previously may not have felt desperate to sign or retain a signal-caller may now feel more pressure.
Recognizing the importance of a good passer may not have as much of an impact on top-level quarterbacks, however, because the salary cap creates more downward pressure on high earners more than it does middle-range earners.
The issue for the Vikings here is twofold.
The first is that they must consider whether or not they feel comfortable offering Teddy Bridgewater a fifth-year option. For picks outside of the top-10, fifth-year options are worth the average of salaries between the third- and 25th-highest paid players at the position.
Back when they drafted him in 2014, a fifth-year option would only incur a contract worth 8.4 percent of the cap, at $11.3 million. In 2018, it will be as least as large as the 2017 number, and likely larger — around $18 million, or 10.7 percent of the cap.
At the same time, Bradford is once again in a position where he can negotiate with massive leverage, which is in some ways the story of his earnings career. He’s going to enter the market with the best season he’s ever put together at a time when teams are paranoid about not having quarterbacks, even if they’re only marginal passers.
Even if Bradford only earns a small raise from the contract he signed in 2015, it could be worth $20 million.
And of course, $38 million is an enormous contract liability for a team to carry at any position, even quarterback. The largest cap allocation for quarterbacks in the NFL currently belongs to the Arizona Cardinals, at $28.7 million.
Having a cap cost worth $10 million more than the next-highest quarterback payroll is untenable. Even at an incredibly generous (and unlikely) total cap number of $190 million, that’s 20 percent of the cap, a big jump from other NFL teams. That doesn’t even account for the cost of the third quarterback, which might be something like Case Keenum’s $2 million.
UPDATE: After talking with cap expert Jason Fitzgerald (of overthecap.com) on Twitter about cap accounting, it’s important to note that my estimated tag numbers may be as much as $4M off.
— Jason_OTC (@Jason_OTC) April 4, 2017
That changes the graph below, but it still means the Vikings would lead the league in QB Cap liability by 0.7 percent instead of by 2.8 percent.
In fairness, the Vikings currently have the third-most 2018 cap space in the NFL, but also very few players under contract through 2018. The 2018 free agency landscape doesn’t look too bad for the Vikings, however.
In addition to Bradford and Bridgewater, they will want to look into a fifth-year option for Anthony Barr, as well as long-term contracts for Xavier Rhodes, Jerick McKinnon, Kai Forbath, Jeremiah Sirles and possibly Sharrif Floyd or Datone Jones. There’s every possibility they only walk away from 2018 re-signings with only three of those non-quarterback players and remain happy.
Should the Vikings treat 2018 as a competition year for Bradford and Bridgewater — presuming the latter’s fitness — while trading away the “loser” of the competition, they may end up with the same haul as the Rams did when trading away Bradford (or the same haul as the Eagles did for the same).
It doesn’t have to be Bradford specifically (though in 2019, he’ll be 31 while Bridgewater will be 26) but it does represent a significant return for the Vikings while probably giving them a franchise-quality quarterback.
The changing nature of the quarterback market will make things difficult for all teams, but uniquely difficult for the Vikings. It won’t be pretty to see how they manage it.