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How Should NFL Teams Build Around the $30 Million Quarterback?

As mega QB contracts have become the norm, two primary team-building strategies have emerged: paying everyone and having no wiggle room, or stripping the roster down to the studs. The Cowboys and Seahawks will put those philosophies to the test this season, and their results could shape NFL roster construction going forward.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At first glance, the Seahawks and the Cowboys seem to be at similar points in their franchise timelines. The two teams played each other in last season’s wild-card playoff round (which ended in a 24-22 Dallas win). Next spring, both are expected to have upward of 40 players hitting free agency and around $80 million in cap space to reshape their rosters. But look deeper and there are several key differences in their team-building approaches. Namely, the fact that the Seahawks have already signed their quarterback to a top-of-the-market deal worth more than $30 million per season, while the Cowboys have not.

Before Russell Wilson signed his extension last month, there was much debate around the league over whether it was prudent to devote that percentage of the salary cap—around 17 percent in 2020—to a single player, even a top-five QB. That concern (rightly) didn’t stop the Seahawks—who locked up one of the league’s most valuable players long term—and it likely won’t stop the Cowboys from giving Dak Prescott a similar contract. The Cowboys’ brass hasn’t been shy about its intentions to reward Prescott with a sizable payday this summer before he hits free agency in 2020, and that willingness to keep him, even on an expensive deal, is indicative of the direction the league has moved in recent years.

The types of trap-door deals with modest guarantees that provided teams with early outs (like the ones given to Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick in 2014) have given way to two basic types of QB contracts: the monster deals handed out to veterans, and rookie deals. There are currently 10 QBs with an average annual value of at least $24.6 million per year in the NFL, and that number will likely hit 12 before next season as Prescott and Philip Rivers get extensions. (On the other end of the spectrum, 14 teams will have clear-cut starters on rookie deals this season.) With so many teams choosing the pricey QB route, the central question about contracts at the position has shifted from whether teams should hand out massive deals at all, to how teams should build around them. And that’s where the Seahawks’ and Cowboys’ paths diverge.

Even after including Prescott’s projected new salary in the mix, the Cowboys would still likely have between $50 million and $60 million in cap space next season (without factoring in any other extensions). The problem for Dallas is that Prescott’s is far from the only high-profile contract decision on the horizon. Cornerback Byron Jones, wide receiver Amari Cooper, linebacker Jaylon Smith, and offensive linemen La’el Collins are all entering the final year of their deals, and word is the Cowboys would like to retain as much of that core as possible. And though Ezekiel Elliott won’t hit free agency until 2021, an extension is inevitable, and the team could choose to get that done before next season to bring down his 2020 cap number. Take all those contracts into account, and that cap space disappears in a hurry. If the Cowboys do retain Cooper, Jones, Elliott, and either Smith or Collins, they’ll probably already be tight against the cap in the first or second year of Prescott’s deal, with around eight players counting for at least $10 million in 2020 (including Prescott and recently extended DeMarcus Lawrence, who’ll be checking in at more than twice that much).

A few teams have followed similar paths in the past couple of years, and they’ve been faced with tough decisions and risky team-building strategies as a result. The Vikings—who signed Kirk Cousins to a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million deal last spring—had to cut ties with veterans like guard Mike Remmers and safety Andrew Sendejo this offseason to generate some cap relief. Minnesota has also reportedly shopped starting cornerback Trae Waynes (who’s set to count for $9.1 million against the cap this year) and may soon be looking into deals for longtime tight end Kyle Rudolph ($7.6 million). Defensive end Everson Griffen also took a $3 million pay cut, and on Tuesday, the team had to restructure linebacker Eric Kendricks’s contract to create enough space to fit first-round pick Garrett Bradbury under the salary cap. Those are the types of belt-tightening moves that a loaded team with an expensive quarterback is forced to make—even a team like the Vikings, who have been earmarking QB money for years and have superstars like Danielle Hunter and Adam Thielen making drastically less than they should.

Minnesota has also had to supplement Cousins’s contract by getting players on rookie deals into action as soon as possible. Bradbury, for example, will step in immediately as the team’s starting center simply because the Vikings don’t have another choice. And Rudolph has been seen as increasingly expendable after Minnesota took Alabama tight end Irv Smith Jr. in the second round. The Falcons—who are navigating around the $150 million extension Matt Ryan signed last spring—are in a similarly cash-strapped position and may also rely heavily on rookie starters. After nabbing guard Chris Lindstrom with the no. 14 pick, Atlanta traded the no. 45 and 79 picks to the Rams to move up to get Washington tackle Kaleb McGary with the 31st pick. McGary—who started 47 games for the Huskies—profiles as the Falcons’ starting right tackle, a vacancy that was only left open after Atlanta had to cut starter Ryan Schraeder to save money.

Throughout Dan Quinn’s tenure as head coach, the Falcons have been able to rely on several cheap, productive young players to offset the cost of Matt Ryan and other expensive stars (like Julio Jones and Alex Mack). But those days will soon come to an end. Former fifth-round pick Grady Jarrett is set to make $15.2 million on the franchise tag in 2019. Starting linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell will be free agents after this season. Jones, especially, is in line for a huge payday from the Falcons, who felt his absence in a big way last season when he missed 10 games with a foot injury. Atlanta would surely like to keep both Jones and Jarrett long term, but handing out two sizable deals will get even more complicated next year when Ryan’s cap hit will jump to $33.5 million (he’ll count for only $15.8 million this season, after restructuring $8.8 million to create cap space).

The Cowboys’ situation should follow a similar trajectory to Atlanta’s. Dallas was the youngest team in the NFL last season by snap-adjusted age, and the franchise has done an excellent job of finding quality young players who have outperformed their rookie deals. But eventually, the bills come due, and next season Dallas will face the cap gymnastics of paying a quarterback north of $30 million per season. It’s a similar hurdle to the one the Eagles and Rams will likely have to clear a little further down the road if and when Carson Wentz and Jared Goff get their second contracts. Those teams have three of the more stacked rosters in all of football, and maintaining that depth while siphoning off a large portion of the cap is never easy.

That’s what makes the Seahawks’ approach with Wilson so fascinating. Seattle has purged almost all of its expensive veterans in favor of cheap contracts and players on rookie deals. As of right now, Pete Carroll’s team is set to have 44 free agents in 2020, including star linebacker Bobby Wagner. Only the Panthers (52) and Raiders (49) are on track to have more. Only five players currently on the roster are slated to make more than $5.4 million next season. Only nine will make more than $3 million (and one of them is a kicker). Some of that turnover happened without much influence from the team: Both Kam Chancellor and Doug Baldwin retired this offseason due to medical issues; the pair was set to make more than $25 million combined on their current deals. But the Seahawks made plenty of moves that showed they had a clear plan in place.

Rather than attempting to retain players like safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Justin Coleman, Seattle moved on. A month after letting both defensive backs walk, general manager John Schneider traded franchise-tagged defensive end Frank Clark to the Chiefs for a 2019 first-round pick, a 2020 second-rounder, and a 2019 third-rounder. Along with getting the extra picks from Kansas City, the Seahawks traded down so many times in this year’s draft that they went from having a league-low four picks to having 11 selections by the time the draft was over. According to ESPN’s Seth Walder, all of Schneider’s wheeling and dealing netted Seattle the draft capital equivalent of a top-10 pick. Plus, the team chose to keep its wallet relatively closed in free agency; the Seahawks are projected to get third- and fourth-round compensatory 2020 picks because of it.

With Wilson set to count $26.3 million against the cap in 2019, the Seahawks have systematically gotten as young and cheap as possible. According to Over the Cap, of the 40 players Seattle currently has under contract for 2020, a staggering 15 of them are rookies. Rather than attempting to keep its foundation together after spending on a QB, the Seahawks are remaking their entire roster with a goal of keeping flexibility.

The key to an approach like Seattle’s, of course, is for those draft picks to turn into a championship-caliber roster around Wilson. Hitting on that talent is a prerequisite to this plan working. Just ask the Colts. Like Seattle, Indianapolis also decided to tear its roster down to the screws around Andrew Luck. The Colts have two—count ’em, two—veterans on sizable deals that were signed before GM Chris Ballard took over in 2017 (wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo). Aside from those contracts, Indianapolis has a roster filled with young players, several of whom have been home runs. Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard, and Braden Smith all stepped in as Day 1 starters and were excellent. Ballard’s drafting prowess allowed the Colts to make the playoffs last season and enter free agency in 2019 with more than $100 million in cap room. Therein lies the benefit of building around an expensive quarterback the way the Seahawks and Colts have: Front offices still have the ability to shape—and reshape—their rosters however they see fit.

The Cowboys’ argument, surely, is that both Seattle and Indianapolis are trying to build the type of roster that Dallas already has. The goal of the draft is to find players who produce to the point that they deserve second (and third) contracts, and the Cowboys obviously think that Smith, Jones, Collins, and Cooper have done just that. But by inking those deals—along with Prescott’s huge extension—the Cowboys will be locked into the same scenario both the Vikings and Falcons currently find themselves in: Rather than making the moves they want to, they’ll be forced to make the moves they have to.

Up to this point in the age of the QB megadeal, there’s not much proof that one type of approach is more effective than the other. But the results from teams like the Seahawks and Cowboys—who couldn’t be on more disparate tracks—should provide plenty of evidence in the coming years.