The most tenuous distinction in sports over the past year has been the highest-paid player in NFL history. Since June 22, 2017, five men have held that title, based on the average annual values of their massive new contracts. It started with Oakland quarterback Derek Carr, who inked a five-year, $125 million deal that made him the first player ever to crack $25 million per season. Two months later, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford topped him with a five-year contract worth $27 million per year. Stafford’s reign lasted until the week after the Super Bowl, when the 49ers handed Jimmy Garoppolo $500,000 more per season than Stafford is set to earn from Detroit. Jimmy G would later surrender his perch to Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins ($28 million), only for Atlanta’s Matt Ryan ($30 million) to knock Cousins from the top spot within a span of two months. Sense the pattern here. No one holds onto this belt for very long.
The era of the massive quarterback contract has arrived, and with it comes complications for any team willing to pay top dollar to secure its man. As the Eagles made clear with February’s Super Bowl win and the Rams have confirmed with their offseason spending spree, the most valuable commodity in today’s NFL is a solid quarterback on his rookie deal. This season, Carson Wentz will carry a cap hit of $7.3 million. That’s a cool $27.9 million less than the 49ers will pay Garoppolo. For the price of one Jimmy G, the Eagles will be able to afford Wentz, center Jason Kelce, defensive end Michael Bennett, offensive tackle Lane Johnson, tight end Zach Ertz, and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery … with about $3 million to spare.
That comparison to Garoppolo is by no means a dig at the Niners, though. The way Garoppolo performed down the stretch in 2017 all but guaranteed him a deal at or near the top of the market. San Francisco’s decision was relatively simple: pay Garoppolo a startling amount of money or face the dark, frightening forest that is uncertainty under center. It’s the same sort of dilemma that each of the teams mentioned above has faced, and while some decisions may now seem more prudent than others (if Carr is worth $25 million, Ryan at $30 million is easy to stomach), it’s not difficult to trace the rationale of these contracts. As more of them are about to come down the pipeline (namely, for Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson), it’s worth exploring the tangible effects of these megadeals and the ways teams have tried to mitigate their financial limitations.
Let’s start with Carr and the Raiders, who set off this chain reaction. Oakland awarded Carr that deal on the heels of its resurgent 12–4 campaign in 2016, during which the Raiders averaged 26 points per game and Carr threw for nearly 4,000 yards while completing 63.8 percent of his passes. Despite embracing a relatively conservative style of play, Carr was widely considered at the forefront of the league’s next QB generation, and the Raiders’ decision to lock him up long-term felt like a way to maintain their momentum. A year later, that plan feels significantly less stable.
Some of the strategies that helped make the Raiders a pleasant surprise two years ago are now hampering their flexibility. Oakland will pay offensive linemen Donald Penn, Kelechi Osemele, and Gabe Jackson a combined $29.4 million in 2018. Only the Cowboys and Falcons are set to pay their offensive lines a higher percentage of the cap. When the Raiders were keeping Carr clean and mauling defenses left and right, that resource allocation felt wise. But as scheme changes have devalued the line’s strengths, Carr has regressed, and wide receiver Amari Cooper’s production has fallen off a cliff, the Raiders’ pricey offensive line is no longer seen as a luxury; it’s a roster-building impediment.
The money Oakland has tied up in its offense has limited the franchise’s ability to add talent to a defense in desperate need of upgrades. With a marginal amount of cap space entering free agency — an issue exacerbated by the choice to give 33-year-old wideout Jordy Nelson $7.4 million this season — the Raiders’ moves on that side of the ball were restricted to slight overpays for uninspiring names (Tahir Whitehead) and bargain deals for Derrick Johnson and Emmanuel Lamur. Oakland’s best hope for making a defensive leap lies with its rookie class, which was heavily focused up front. The Raiders grabbed nose tackle P.J. Hall in the second round, pass rusher Arden Key in the third, and defensive tackle Maurice Hurst in the fifth.
Relying on rookie deals in other areas of the roster has proved to be an effective way to stem the setback of a huge quarterback contract, and no team has demonstrated that more than the Falcons. Atlanta will spend only $61.1 million on its defense in 2018, a total that equates to 36.4 percent of the cap. Only the Colts are set to spend less on defensive talent this season. Just two players in the Falcons’ group, cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, are slated to make more than $5 million. That distribution of resources is necessary, considering the amount of money that Atlanta has tied up in Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, and the offense.
Atlanta has been able to maintain its contender status while financially skimping on defense only because of how often it’s struck gold with draft picks. Linebacker Deion Jones, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, and safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal are set to make a combined $9.1 million in 2018. That’s a remarkable level of production for a ridiculously small price tag. The Falcons ranked 19th in Football Outsiders’ weighted defensive DVOA last season and should improve upon that finish this fall if Vic Beasley returns to form, Takk McKinley continues to ascend, and the rest of the defense remains on its current trajectory. Winning with this formula requires a front office to locate young, cheap, and dependable production; the Falcons’ middle-of-the-road defense for the second-smallest payroll in the league is the very definition of value.
The issue with counting on rookie-contract production to mitigate a huge QB bill is that players don’t stay on rookie deals forever. Allen is entering the final year of his contract in 2018, and rumors are swirling that Atlanta hopes to extend him. Jarrett will become a free agent next spring and will look to cash in. Left tackle Jake Matthews and running back Tevin Coleman are in the last seasons of their rookie deals, too. Ryan’s extension came with a $17.7 million cap hit in 2018 that will take considerable jumps over the next few years. Those increases, coupled with the growing list of young players who are due to get paid, shows just how short the championship windows can be for teams paying quarterbacks the market sticker price.
With Cousins’s contract now on the books, the Vikings find themselves in a similar spot. Minnesota boasts one of the most complete rosters in football, especially on defense. But as the bills start to come due, it will be increasingly difficult for the Vikings to maintain that nearly flawless collection of talent. Minnesota is slated to have about $32 in million cap space in 2019, according to Over the Cap, and that’s before knowing the full details of defensive end Danielle Hunter’s freshly signed five-year, $72 million deal. If Hunter were the only pending free agent the Vikings had to take care of, that’d be one thing. But linebacker Anthony Barr and wide receiver Stefon Diggs are also set to hit the market next spring. Minnesota’s remaining cap space starts to dwindle quickly when taking potential deals into account. The Vikings’ move to sign Cousins this spring was thought to be the finishing stroke on a Super Bowl–caliber roster. Yet with his fully guaranteed $84 million on the books over the next three seasons, that roster may not stay intact for a sustained stretch.
Most monster QB paydays happen on a timeline like that of the Vikings. Teams shell out big money for an elite passer when the rest of their roster is ready to compete. That’s what makes the 49ers’ situation with Garoppolo so unique. Rebuilding teams with huge reserves of cap space typically aren’t in the market for a high-end quarterback, in many cases because they’ve just drafted one. By passing up a QB in the 2017 draft and then trading for Garoppolo midseason, the Niners took a drastically different approach.
By giving Garoppolo $37 million in 2018 while the franchise still has ample cap space, the 49ers assured they’ll retain ample flexibility moving forward. Even with Jimmy G’s deal on the books, San Francisco has more than $45 million in cap space remaining this season. After rolling much of that over, San Francisco could have upward of $75 million in room come 2019, when it’ll pay Garoppolo just $20 million. The Niners attempted to pay their franchise QB what he’s worth while maintaining the ability to retool the rest of their roster in the years to come. There’s no guarantee that free-agent money will fill out a roster set to enter 2018 with glaring weaknesses. Still, San Francisco will have the necessary resources at its disposal.
Compared with the approach taken by the Eagles, Rams, and others, the salary-cap gymnastics necessary for teams like the Niners and Falcons aren’t easy. Franchises can win while employing the highest-paid player in NFL history; when it comes to roster construction, though, they’re left with zero margin for error.