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How to Pay Your Franchise Quarterback

To the Raiders, Derek Carr is the most valuable player in the NFL. Will they pay him as such?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

At the NFL combine, Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio was asked if he’d learned anything from the 2016 season. His reply: “Don’t lose your quarterback.”

The Raiders went 11–3 over their first 14 games, but when Derek Carr, the then-MVP candidate, broke his fibula in Week 16, the team’s Super Bowl aspirations went out the window. With Carr on the shelf, the Raiders limped into the playoffs before losing to the Texans in the wild-card round.

Everyone in Oakland should keep that collapse in mind this summer as GM Reggie McKenzie, his team, and Carr work on a long-term contract extension. Despite pledges by both sides to make the 26-year-old signal-caller a “Raider for life,” negotiations have reportedly grown tense over the past few weeks as the final year of Carr’s rookie deal quickly approaches.

In response to the lack of progress, Carr issued a deadline for a new deal on Tuesday, telling reporters that if a new contract isn’t agreed upon by the start of training camp, all talks will be tabled until after the season. To lock in their presumed franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future, Oakland and Carr must come to an agreement on one difficult question: How much is the star passer worth?

The discussion starts with the numbers, and Carr’s agent, Tim Younger, will have plenty of evidence to bring to the negotiating table. Carr overcame 29 dropped passes by his receivers (second most in the NFL) in 2016 — including a league-worst nine from Michael Crabtree — to finish in the top 10 in several key passing categories. He threw 28 touchdowns, tied with Tom Brady and Jameis Winston for seventh in the league, and tossed just six picks on 560 pass attempts, a 1.1 percent interception rate that edged out Aaron Rodgers for fifth best among QBs with more than 200 pass attempts. Carr logged a 96.7 passer rating, eighth best, finished seventh in Football Outsiders DYAR (overall value) and sixth in DVOA (value per play), and graded out as the sixth-best quarterback in the league, per Pro Football Focus.

Carr also showed poise and leadership on and off the field. He proved to be a clutch performer late in games by engineering seven fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives last year — both second only to Matt Stafford. And there’s the only number that really matters: He led team to a 11–3 record before breaking his leg, all without a ton of help from the 20th-ranked scoring defense. Add in the fact that Carr is already the face of a team that’s moving to Las Vegas in 2019, and he has a very strong negotiating position.

With all of those factors, in addition to an ever-growing salary cap that’s expected to eclipse $166 million in 2017, Younger will almost surely set his sights on making his client the highest-paid player in the NFL. The benchmark will be the deal that Andrew Luck signed last year, a five-year extension worth $122.9 million, with $44 million fully guaranteed and $32 million up front as a signing bonus. Luck’s contract sets the bar with an NFL-best $24.6 million average annual value.

While Luck and Carr have disparate pedigrees (Luck was the first-overall pick and labeled by many as the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning, while Carr was a second-round pick and is still often mixed up with his epic bust of a brother) and varied experience levels (Luck had started 61 games from 2012 to 2015, including six playoff games, when he got his new contract; Carr has just 47 starts and zero playoff minutes on his résumé), the numbers still line up favorably for Carr. If you narrow the scope to the three years leading up to Luck’s record contract, his stats look like this: 44 starts, 12,005 yards, 87 touchdowns to 48 interceptions, a 59.6 percent completion rate, an 86.8 rating, and 7.12 yards per pass attempt. Carr’s last three years look like this: 47 starts, 11,194 yards, 81 touchdowns to 31 interceptions, a 60.9 percent completion rate, an 87.9 passer rating, and 6.46 yards per attempt. Luck comes out well ahead in yards and has thrown six more touchdowns in three fewer games, but Carr eclipses the Colts star in completion percentage and passer rating, and has thrown 17 fewer interceptions.

The Raiders will do what they can to counter these demands — Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole recently reported that Oakland doesn’t want to “reset the market” and hand out the biggest deal ever — and they’ll have a few cards to play in an attempt to keep Carr’s cost down. Instead of comparing Carr to Luck, they’ll likely aim to land closer to deals handed out to Russell Wilson and Cam Newton in 2015. Wilson’s four-year, $87.6 million extension came with $31.7 million fully guaranteed and averaged $21.9 million per year, while Newton’s pact pays him $103.8 million over five years, has $31 million fully guaranteed, and averages $20.7 million in annual value.

They’ll also point to a few areas in which Carr is still a work in progress. While he was one of the most efficient deep passers in 2016, he did not challenge defenses deep nearly enough. He benefited from a catch-and-run system, ending the year 19th in yards per attempt (7.0), tied for 27th in average depth of target (8.2 yards), and 33rd among all passers with a 6.37-yard average air yards per attempt (i.e., the average distance the ball flew downfield) per NFL Research. Carr relied heavily on yards after the catch by his receiving corps, finishing, among passers with 100 attempts, 31st in aerial yardage rate (55 percent of his passing yardage coming after the catch), ahead of only Alex Smith, Stafford, Ben Roethlisberger, and Colin Kaepernick.

Additionally, while Carr and the Raiders offense finished seventh in points per game, it left plenty of meat on the bone with struggles in two key areas: third downs and the red zone. On the season, Carr threw for a first down on just 37.4 percent of his third-down throws, putting him outside the top 20 leaguewide. Meanwhile, he ranked 19th in red-zone passer rating (91.9), and the offense finished 14th in touchdowns per red-zone trip. To justify giving Carr the biggest contract in NFL history, the team may argue, he should’ve been more aggressive passing downfield, better on third downs, and more consistent in the red zone — particularly behind the most expensive and best pass-protecting offensive line in the NFL.

Right or wrong, the Raiders will also likely attempt to appeal to Carr’s willingness to sacrifice for the good of the team. For the moment, Carr gets priority over Khalil Mack, Oakland’s first-round pick from 2014 who is also going into his fourth season — but that’s because Mack has a fifth-year team option that allows Oakland to wait another season before needing to dole out another mega-deal. But the Raiders still need to budget enough money to retain Mack, one of the most explosive pass rushers in the league and another player who could reset the market at his position. Carr will likely get his deal first, but the Raiders are a year away from the potential to become the first team in the league to pay two players more than $20 million per year. That’s not even factoring in a deal for guard Gabe Jackson, who is in line for a new contract as well.

So, when all these chips get thrown onto the table over the next seven-odd weeks, will a deal get done? It comes down to the balance of power in the negotiation: Long term, Carr has all the leverage. He’s one of the rarest commodities on earth — a young, ascending franchise quarterback — and if Oakland can’t or won’t pay him what he wants, he should get it from some other team once he hits the open market. But in the short term, the Raiders hold significant leverage as well, because they can just franchise-tag him until 2020, at least.

But “it’s always cheaper to re-sign a great player sooner rather than later,” as former agent and CBS cap expert Joel Corry noted, and all public comments point to the Raiders viewing Carr as a great player who’s only going to get better. Barring a catastrophic regression in 2017, Oakland will never lock up its franchise quarterback for less than what he’ll demand now, and a deal that looks enormous today should end up looking like a bargain in a few years anyway as the cap continues to rise. Plus, neither side wants to get into a seemingly endless and drama-filled Kirk Cousins franchise-tag situation, so compromise is likely going to be the outcome. Still, it may come down to the wire: Deadlines spur action, as it did with Wilson, who signed July 31, 2015, the first day of training camp.

In the end, how much will Carr get paid? He is one of the best young quarterbacks in the league, is worth more to Oakland than he is to anyone else, and is up for a new deal at a time when the league’s salary cap is growing every year — so don’t be surprised if he does end up with a contract that will pay him more than Luck. Even if he doesn’t set that new bar, there’s little doubt he’s still going to be right there among the league’s highest-paid players.

But for Raiders fans stressing over the potential loss of the team’s most important player, the odds are slim to none that we’ll see the talented passer in anything but silver and black for a very long time. They already got to see what it was like last season to not have Carr; there’s just no way that McKenzie or Del Rio will risk losing their quarterback again.