What’s valuable in the NFL? A great quarterback? Always—unless you’re the Eagles and can win with a backup. A great running back? Not usually—unless you’re the Rams and have Todd Gurley. A treasure chest of future second-round picks? Now you’re speaking Bill Belichick’s language. Welcome to Value Week, when we’ll be looking at what moves the needle for NFL teams—and what doesn’t.
Each year, the title of NFL MVP is awarded to the athlete that most positively affects his team on the field. Over the past few years, the trophy has gone to the likes of Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, and Aaron Rodgers. That’s all fine and good—all of those players were very deserving—but this week, The Ringer is looking at value a little differently: specifically, as it relates to the NFL’s salary cap. In this thought experiment, we asked our staff: Who is the most valuable player in the league on their current contract? Is it a running back on a rookie deal? An up-and-coming quarterback? A wide receiver who may have a bigger cap hit but whose production is unmatched? Here are our answers:
Zach Kram: Here’s a list of the cap hits of 120 NFL quarterbacks in 2018. Start at the bottom and work your way up until you find the first starter. Unless you think Nathan Peterman will actually be under center consistently in Buffalo this year, the first name you’ll encounter is Dak Prescott, who’s costing his team just $725,848 against the cap this season—less than a dozen fullbacks, most kickers and punters, and 64 other QBs. You could construct a whole two-deep QB depth chart for every team in the league with players earning more than Prescott this year.
Now, keep going through that list until you find the next starting QB; it’ll take a while. No other starter will cost less than $3 million this season, which means Prescott makes all the other ostensible bargains at the most important position in sports look relatively pricey. Deshaun Watson? He’ll make 4.3 times as much as Prescott. Carson Wentz? 10 times. Aaron Rodgers? 28.3 times. Even Rodgers isn’t 28 times as good as Prescott, and all those extra savings could yield massive upgrades elsewhere on a roster.
Production-wise, even as he underwent a sophomore slump in 2017, Prescott was still the fourth-most-effective QB in the league according to QBR, right behind Tom Brady. That’s in large part thanks to his skills as a rusher. Most broad-based quarterback statistics still underrate mobile quarterbacks, but not my hypothetical 2018 roster. The Seahawks won one Super Bowl and nearly a second because of how they allocated their cap savings from starting a mobile quarterback picked in the middle rounds of the draft; the real-life Cowboys might not be able to generate such positive returns in 2018, but my team will gladly adopt that proven model.
Craig Horlbeck: Had a freak injury not derailed the final three games of his season, Wentz was on his way to winning MVP in just his second year in the league. The former second overall pick is currently the 28th-highest-paid quarterback in the NFL, and this year he’ll make less money than Josh McCown, Blake Bortles, and even his own backup, Nick Foles. Last season confirmed that the best way to win in the NFL right now is with a cheap, young quarterback. A discount on a generational talent like Wentz gives a team the flexibility to construct a championship-level roster like the 2017 Eagles. Wentz is under contract through 2019 with a club option in 2020, and will most likely be the highest-paid quarterback in the league at some point. But until then, the Eagles are essentially paying $10 for the best steak dinner in town.
Danny Heifetz: It would be easy to pick a quarterback here, but if the Browns, Jets, and Bills could find competent quarterbacks this offseason, I won’t fret. Instead, give me Tony Toe Tap. I don’t care that he’s 30, or that, after this season, his cap hit averages out to $20 million. He’s not the best bargain in the world, but you can’t put a price on culture.
And of course, the much anticipated arrival of Antonio Brown pic.twitter.com/AnrP2h6gC4— Jaime Baker (@JBaker_WTOV) July 27, 2017
Brown has become famous for Drake music video cameos, Madden covers, and wild haircuts, but he’s also among the small handful of players that can seriously claim to be the hardest-working man in the NFL. As Aditi Kinkhabwala wrote for NFL.com in 2016, “He’ll run ladders for hours after practice has ended. ... He goes to a Gold’s Gym at night, when most of his teammates are headed to bed, and James Harrison, the NFL’s noted workout master, said if on a scale of 1-10, his own commitment is a 10+, ‘Antonio is right there with me.’”
Even in this fake team-building exercise, I want my best player to create a culture of winning. And also, to take helicopters to training camp. Fly me to the moon, Tony.
Danny Kelly: Yeah, I know that seven games is a small sample size. I just don’t care. In Deshaun Watson’s injury-shortened rookie year, he showed us a few important things: First, that the NFL game isn’t too advanced for him; second, that he’s not afraid of anyone (ask Earl Thomas); third, that he’s as dynamic a player as they come, able to make plays with both his arm and his legs; and fourth, that he completely changes the complexion of any offense he’s running. At the helm of a uniquely designed hybrid offense, a healthy Watson made the Texans look like a playoff-caliber squad, leading Houston to wins over the Bengals, Titans, and Browns while narrowly losing barnburners to the Chiefs, Seahawks, and Patriots (the latter two in hostile road environments). Watson’s set to count just $3.1 million against the cap in 2018, which ranks 40th … among quarterbacks. With all that extra cap space, it’d be easier to build a balanced, complete team around the young signal-caller.
Riley McAtee: If I have to build a team around one player for one season, I’m picking the best quarterback I can get my hands on, contract be damned. Even though he’s coming off a collarbone injury that caused him to miss nine games last year, I believe Rodgers is that guy. There’s a good case to be made for Tom Brady here, too—the dude did just win MVP, after all—but if I can’t take Bill Belichick along with Brady, then I’d rather have Rodgers. Before he got injured last year, he was on pace for 4,300 passing yards, 42 touchdowns, and fewer than 10 interceptions. Plus, he’s good for a few hundred yards on the ground, too. Rodgers carries a $20.6 million cap hit into 2018, just 14th among quarterbacks, and I’d happily pay $10 million more than that for his level of play.
Ryan O’Hanlon: On the one hand, running is dead. We’ve been over this. Last season, there were 80 rushing plays that went for 35 yards or more. Guess how many passes went that long: three-hundred-and-ninety-freaking-three. If you’re a franchise that is still trying to establish the run, or if “ground and pound” has value to you as anything other than a meat-tenderizing technique, you’re about to get passed by (or you just got a 10-year, $100 million deal to be the head coach of the Oakland Raiders). The NBA has finally learned that three is more than two, and the NFL has finally figured out that the air is more efficient than the ground.
On the other hand, land transportation doesn’t take much effort if you never have to leave first gear:
In addition to the team-wide numbers we cite on this website every week of the NFL season, Football Outsiders also calculates DVOA for individual offensive players. Among starters last season, Alvin Kamara was better, on a per play basis, than any other running back, wide receiver, or quarterback in the league. And since he did all of that as a rookie—a third-round draft pick, no less—he’s currently carrying a sub-$1 million cap hit into this season. Almost every franchise has a competent quarterback now. But only one team has an Alvin Kamara.