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The Imaginary Quarterback Market

Here’s the thing about Derek Carr’s record-breaking contract: We still have no idea how much a franchise signal-caller is worth

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

Do not try to understand NFL quarterback salaries. There is no pattern. Once the quarterback passes a baseline of competence, merit goes out the door. Comparing numbers between, say, Aaron Rodgers and Ryan Tannehill is a dangerous exercise. You know the Joker? He studied quarterback salaries before he decided to paint his face and ransack a city. If you stare into the abyss of NFL quarterback contracts, the abyss stares back. And then the abyss tells you there are a handful of countries with a lower GDP than Sam Bradford’s career cash earnings.

Quarterback salaries are in an upward free fall, and despite being the most important position in the sport by a long shot, we still don’t know the true worth of signal-callers. There’s no max salary in the NFL, but the best players at the position almost never hit free agency, so a true market never gets set and Rodgers ends up being the seventh-highest-paid quarterback in the league. Despite, you know, being Aaron Rodgers.

We’re trying to understand quarterback money once again after Derek Carr signed the biggest deal in history on Thursday: a five-year contract paying the Raiders star $25 million a year. At first blush, that may seem like a lot. Except, it’s not. Whatever the value of a franchise quarterback, it’s a hell of a lot higher than $25 million.

The price of the quarterback has risen right along with the value of the quarterback on the actual football field. Long considered the most important position in sports, it has somehow become even more important — almost comically so — as scheme changes made passers better and rule changes have made it harder than ever to play defense. Fifteen of the top 17 passing yardage seasons by individual quarterbacks have occurred since 2011. From the league’s founding in 1920 until 2008, only one quarterback threw for more yards in a season than Kirk Cousins did last year. Andy Dalton has thrown for 4,000 yards more times than John Elway and Joe Montana combined. In 2017, any player with any talent at all can chuck it down the field and produce some value.

Before Carr, Andrew Luck broke the contract record when he signed his deal last year. And it’s likely that Matthew Stafford tops Carr’s number when he re-ups with the Lions before his contract expires in 2018. At this point, you should be offended if you’re a starting-caliber quarterback and you are not signing a deal that makes you the highest-paid player in league history.

Top quarterbacks are, at the moment, ludicrously underpaid, and these salaries will keep rising until quarterbacks get their fair value. Having a good quarterback is the barrier for entry for competing in the NFL, full stop. They’ve always touched the football on every snap, but now they throw it on basically every snap, too. Teams have identified this and are adjusting the economics accordingly: They’re paying out huge money to throwers and, as CBS Sports pointed out, giving devalued players like running backs harsh contract terms.

What’s happening now with the salaries is that they’ve entered an almost-absurd cycle: teams sign a quarterback to big money, the cap goes up in the ensuing years, and the player looks like a bargain almost immediately as some other quarterback of similar ability gets an even bigger deal due to the rising cap. The 2017 cap jumped $12 million from 2016, marking the fourth straight year the cap has jumped more than $10 million.

Eventually, we will look back on this era and see it as a time when teams were clueless when it came to establishing the value of a quarterback. The position’s stranglehold on the list of top-paid players in the league is a new phenomenon, but it will likely become the norm, barring some drastic changes to the sport.

This is the end result of a dramatic market correction. As recently as 2012, quarterbacks were rarely among the game’s highest-paid stars. According to Spotrac, only one quarterback, Peyton Manning, was in the top six cap hits that season. Patrick Willis, an inside linebacker, was the fifth-highest-paid player. Five years later, Luke Kuechly, the highest-paid inside linebacker, is the 48th-highest-paid player in the NFL. Over the same stretch, quarterbacks became basically the only players in the league who were making the biggest bucks: The top 15 salary cap hits in 2016 were all quarterbacks.

While we know quarterbacks are the most valuable players in the league, we still don’t actually know their true market value. No healthy superstar quarterback has ever reached free agency in the modern era. In recent years, the closest we’ve come is Brock Osweiler, who was not only not a superstar but barely starter level. (Despite what the 2015 tape shows, it’s possible that he actually never played football before this past season.) He signed a four-year deal with the Texans and then got traded to the Browns, where he’ll make $16 million this year. And it’s unlikely we’ll see someone much better than Osweiler hit the open market anytime soon. This past offseason, Mike Glennon, a career backup, signed the most lucrative deal among backup QBs and is taking home $14 million this year.

Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson could’ve forced their way to free agency and started a bidding war, but obviously the Colts and Seahawks had no interest in letting that happen, so they locked up their franchise signal-callers for the long term while there was still time remaining on their rookie deals. They each took the deals because they seemed big at the time and because there’s comfort in long-term security, but if one of these players did reach true free agency, they would command a salary in a bidding war ($35 million? $40 million?) that would reset the market for the foreseeable future. Dak Prescott is the next potential star quarterback still on his rookie deal, but if he keeps performing, there’s no way Dallas lets him sniff free agency, either. Of course, it’s in every NFL team’s best interest that this scenario never plays out. So far, so good for them.

The easiest solution for quarterbacks to get their worth is to tie a quarterback’s salary to the salary cap. In essence, instead of a fixed-dollar amount, players would get a percentage of the cap, so their salaries would rise as the cap does. This idea has been floated around the league for years but, as Pro Football Talk points out, has yet to ever find a place in an NFL contract. According to PFT, it’s understood that the league’s management council discourages such deals (which means they are a good idea for players). This would eliminate the contracts that age as poorly for the player as Entourage references do. The old excuse from teams was that it would hurt their ability to have cost certainty and thus hamper cap flexibility. Teams love quarterback salaries that are locked in place while the cap rises, as it protects them against a quarterback chewing up too much of the cap in the latter years of the contract. But it also hurts players like Rodgers, who signed his deal four years ago and should be making about $10 million more than any passer not named Brady.

In general, the salary cap is no longer an obstacle to paying quarterbacks. Simply put, if you’re capped out in this era, that’s not a function of the system; it’s a function of reckless spending. All teams should be able to afford an elite passer if they are lucky enough to have one, and they should pay up. There were 23 teams last season that had at least $5 million in cap space; only 13 had that much in 2014. Big salaries are not the albatrosses they once were. Joe Flacco’s salary seems like a team-building obstacle, but the bigger obstacle is “having Joe Flacco at quarterback.” The Dallas Cowboys carried a $20.8 million cap hit for their backup last season and seemed to do all right because, uh, they had a good quarterback as a starter. Quarterback salaries are exploding, but so is QB production. One day we’ll look at Carr’s salary — just 15 percent of the salary cap — and wonder how these guys were ever paid so little.