Matthew Stafford will soon be the highest-paid player in NFL history, a testament that if you work hard, pay your dues, and enter a restricted labor market in the perfect window of CBA negotiations, you, too, can achieve the American dream.
Stafford and the Detroit Lions have agreed on a five-year extension worth over $27 million annually with an expected $92 million guaranteed that will make him the highest-paid player in the history of the National Football League, according to Adam Schefter and Michael Rothstein. This has been eight years in the making, as Stafford came into the league at the perfect time to earn the maximum amount of money possible. He was drafted first overall in 2009 at the height of rookie salary inflation, allowing him to sign a six-year, $72 million contract, which was the biggest rookie deal ever and the most guaranteed money ($41.7 million) in league history at the time, all before he ever stepped onto an NFL field. Two years later, after the NFL drastically altered the wage scale in the CBA, first overall pick Cam Newton signed a four-year, $22 million contract.
Stafford was a vaunted high school recruit who had Mel Kiper floating him as the no. 1 overall draft pick in high school, and after a productive college career at Georgia, he fulfilled that promise. In the NFL, Stafford has a career 61.5 percent completion percentage and an 86.8 career passer rating, and he hasn’t missed a game since 2010. But he has rarely shown himself to be a member of the league’s upper echelon at the position. He is consistently toward the top of the league in passing attempts, including leading the league twice in the category, but has cracked 30 touchdowns only twice. His per-16 game averages round out to 387 completions on 629 attempts (61.5 percent) for 4,448 yards and 27 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, which is upper-middle tier, but pretty underwhelming for the the richest man in the NFL. Stafford pulled off some fourth-quarter sorcery last season, and he has been the best quarterback Detroit has had in 50 years, but he’s earned this massive payday more out of griming than actually being the best quarterback.
This deal has much broader implications for the NFL. Stafford is the second quarterback to reset the market this year after Derek Carr’s five-year, $125 million deal put him among the highest-paid players in NFL history. Kirk Cousins is likely to hit the open market at the end of this season, and he’ll be the first healthy still-entering-his-prime potential franchise quarterback to hit unrestricted free agency ever. Cousins has been linked to a reunion with former Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, and if he does end up striking gold with the 49ers via a market-altering deal, it will be only the beginning of the gold rush. Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Drew Brees are all due for new contracts in 2018. Their agents will likely point to Carr’s, Stafford’s, and Cousins’s contracts, Venmo-request their respective teams $200 million, and leave the room. In a league where quarterbacks are more important than ever, we’re finally seeing a market correction that’s been long overdue.
And while quarterbacks are finally getting theirs, the Stafford deal highlights how underpaid everyone else in the NFL is. Quarterbacks may be getting less than their true value now, but that is the only position in football with negotiating leverage, and the price for QBs is skyrocketing even as other positions see only moderate gains. Aaron Donald is considered by many to be the best defensive player in the league, but he’s holding out with the Rams because he is due to make less than $9 million over the next two seasons. Odell Beckham Jr. was roundly mocked when he said he wants to be the highest paid player in the league, but he’s making just $1.8 million this year. How do you think Beckham feels when he drives by Madison Square Garden and remembers the Knicks just handed Tim Hardaway Jr. a $17.7 million-per-year deal? NFL owners are surely getting antsy about the rising quarterback market, but NFL players are looking at their NBA colleagues and realizing that the game is rigged. With the owners and NFLPA already jockeying for position for the 2020 CBA negotiations, which could result in a lockout, both sides are going to look for substantial concessions from one another.
The Lions made like House Lannister and paid their debts, because teams don’t worry about CBA negotiations when their franchise quarterback’s contract is expiring. Stafford’s timed entry into the league has made him unfathomably richer than his peers, but now by altering the quarterback market once again, he’s paying it forward.
This post was updated after publication with more information about Stafford’s deal.