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Forget Kirk Cousins: Underpaid Quarterbacks Will Define the NFL Offseason

Teams around the league are finally starting to learn the lesson of the Super Bowl–winning Seahawks: If you’re lucky enough to have a great quarterback on a rookie contract, it’s time to go all in

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Quarterback contracts will be the defining stories in every offseason until the sun kills the earth in 5 billion years. This offseason, there’s already Kirk Cousins signing an $86 million guaranteed deal, Case Keenum cashing in after a great season, and Sam Bradford somehow continuing to find gainful employment. But if you’re looking for the story that will matter most come fall, it’s about the teams with cheap quarterbacks and what they’re doing with the rest of the roster.

An elite quarterback on a cheap rookie deal is the best team-building gift in the history of football. The second-best is an elite quarterback who will play at a discount, like Tom Brady. The third-best is an elite quarterback at the market rate. All of these options are, of course, better than having a bad quarterback. But the inflating cap has made this first group—the cheapest quarterbacks who still win games—more important than ever. The salary cap has been rising by nearly $10 million each year since 2013, but rookie quarterbacks have remained cheap since the 2011 CBA changed the rookie pay scale. Sam Bradford, the last quarterback on the old pay scale, received a $78 million deal with $50 million guaranteed in 2010, while last year’s top quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky, signed a four-year, fully-guaranteed $29 million deal.

As NFL analytics guru Warren Sharp pointed out, three of the past six Super Bowls were won by teams who had quarterbacks on their rookie contracts. This is somewhat surprising given how older veterans at the position (Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Ben Roethlisberger among others) have rewritten record books over that span. This does not mean a team cannot win with a pricey veteran quarterback; the Saints and Falcons have built good teams while paying their quarterback plenty. No, it just means that when you have a good quarterback under a rookie contract, you can stack so much talent that your chances for competing will basically never be higher than before your signal-caller signs his second contract.

Think of the Seahawks, who never paid a single player more than 8.6 percent of the salary cap from 2012 to 2015, while Russell Wilson was on his rookie deal. Wilson is one of the best passers in the game, and he could absolutely lead another team to the Super Bowl even at his current salary ($23.7 million against the cap), but it certainly hampers Seattle’s ability to build a talented roster around him when he’s accounting for 14.9 percent of the cap, like he is this year. No team whose top two players account for more than 21.5 percent of the cap has won the Super Bowl.

Look at some of the big moves by teams in the situation the Seahawks used to be in, and you’ll see teams attempting to maximize their windows while they have cheap quarterbacks.

Start with the defending champs. The Eagles’ cap was almost stunningly well-managed. No player accounted for more than 6.23 percent of the salary cap. With Carson Wentz playing like an MVP while still on his rookie deal, they used that extra money to either extend or sign veterans. The 2016 preseason trade of a pricey Sam Bradford to the Vikings left a huge hole in the cap, space that general manager Howie Roseman used to sign wideout Alshon Jeffery, who’s now one of the team’s best players.

Elsewhere, the Los Angeles Rams are building an all-world secondary by trading for both Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters this offseason, and they’re able to do so because of Jared Goff’s 199th-ranked salary-cap hit among all NFL players. (Wentz is 209th.) In January, I wrote about the rising cap’s massive impact on team-building. In short, any team can find a way to fit nearly anyone under the cap because there’s so much money being pumped into the cap every year due to rising revenues across the league. One of the most interesting quotes came from Rams general manager Les Snead:

“Nowadays, I don’t ever remember thinking, ‘Uh-oh, we’re up against the books here.’ Now, it’s more of a strategy. ‘If we keep this guy, what does it keep us from doing?’ It’s not, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta do some things just to get legal.’ I think that’s what has allowed you to make, let’s call it ‘strategic football decisions.’”

The cap and Goff’s contract have allowed the Rams to assemble a collection of players on the defensive side of the ball that could be the league’s best unit. The combination of factors have also led to an arms race across the league. The Eagles, still reaping the rewards of their cheap quarterback deal, have added Michael Bennett. The Tennessee Titans, who have Marcus Mariota on his rookie deal, have added Malcolm Butler and have Ndamukong Suh coming in for a visit.

The Chicago Bears have, apparently, also learned that they might have a short window. Over the past week, they have assembled a nice group of weapons for Trubisky—including Allen Robinson (perhaps the top wide receiver available in free agency), Taylor Gabriel (a speedy wideout), and Trey Burton (an under-the-radar athlete at tight end). There’s no guarantee all of these moves will work or that Trubisky is the guy to make them work. But there is no downside to bringing Robinson in, as Trubisky won’t count more than $10 million against the cap until 2021 at the earliest. The worst-case scenario—that Trubisky never puts it together, and these weapons are wasted—isn’t even that bad. Teams structure deals so that they can get out of them after two years and the next GM can retool the team. If Trubisky can play, then the Bears have begun to maximize their window.

The Chiefs are another example. With 2017 first-rounder Patrick Mahomes II about to take over for the traded Alex Smith, they added Sammy Watkins at a massive $48 million price tag.

If you have a cheap quarterback, there is no reason not to go all in if you feel the right players are available, since the cap allows for plenty of mistakes. Patience is for teams without a passer.

It would not, on the surface, even be such a terrible idea to spend $20 million to $30 million on three quarterbacks, as the Jets may do if they draft a quarterback in the first round and match him up with the already-signed Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater. It’s essentially the same as paying an already-established quarterback, but you’ve tripled your chances of finding great production in a given year. However, there’s a structural problem: There are simply not enough practice reps to go around. It’s the same issue the Eagles faced with backup Nick Foles, until they got to the playoffs, earned a bye week, and essentially ran another weeklong training camp before the divisional round.

Quarterbacks deserve to get paid, and they do. Cousins revealed Thursday that he’s been talking to his agent about achieving a fully guaranteed deal for more than two years. There will likely never be a time a team walks away from a great quarterback in favor of keeping quarterback costs low; paying for quality at that position is simply the cost of doing business. But while you have an inexpensive quarterback, there’s no excuse for not taking advantage of the extra roster-building resources. One way or another, you’ll eventually pay the price.