Is the NFL in a QB salary bubble? As the most important position in sports becomes more expensive, teams have to decide when it makes sense to pay their quarterback big money, and when it’s time to move on. On Wednesday, The Ringer examines the decisions a team faces as its rookie quarterback approaches free agency, how a $30 million QB has become a bargain, and what the next big-money deal might look like.
In the spring of 2018, the Atlanta Falcons signed Matt Ryan to a long-term extension that made him the first NFL player to average $30 million per season. It was a milestone salary for a quarterback—the top end of the market had been set at around $25 million for much of the decade. (Ryan was also the first to receive $100 million in guaranteed money.) Once the $30 million threshold had been crossed, it started to be crossed a lot. Ryan’s deal has since been surpassed by deals for Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, and Ben Roethlisberger, with more likely to follow, including Dak Prescott. Ryan’s deal established the cost of doing business with productive veteran quarterbacks. In a conversation with Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, I mentioned that because quarterback pay is always rising, any good quarterback under contract becomes a bargain so quickly that in a few years … ah, wait.
“How many years did you say?” Dimitroff said with a slight chuckle.
“Well, maybe now,” I said.
“You may be looking at it right now, honestly,” Dimitroff said.
I’ve written plenty about what teams can do if they have a cheap quarterback. I’ve talked to the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs this month, specifically, about their timetables to build around Baker Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes, respectively, while they’re on their rookie contracts. It’s sort of a sandcastle: nice but temporary. A good, cheap quarterback becomes expensive overnight, and so those plans have an expiration date. Dimitroff has an interesting perspective on how to negotiate with a quarterback: He’s paid Ryan three times, including a first-round rookie deal (back when those were far more expensive), plus two lucrative extensions. Only Pittsburgh’s front office, with Roethlisberger, has been intact long enough to go through each of those negotiations with one quarterback. This experience leads Dimitroff to bring up a semi-popular thought experiment that arises in the football world every few months: What if a team never signed a quarterback to an extension and simply kept finding cheap quarterbacks forever?
“I was literally moved to say ‘That’s asinine,’” Dimitroff said of the first time he heard of it. “I understand the idea. But when you’re sitting on this side of the desk, and you think about the precariousness of churning a quarterback out like that, going through a few years, and saying, ‘OK, go, time to find the next one.’ You want to talk about unnerving and unsettling and staying up all night? That’s what a lot of people do who don’t have a quarterback in this league.”
Dimitroff has a quarterback, one he drafted with the third overall pick in 2008, and he makes it clear that he enjoys having him. The Falcons had a disappointing season last year, partly due to injuries, and partly due to an offensive line that Dimitroff addressed in this year’s draft. But it was through no fault of Ryan’s: The Falcons ranked fifth in the NFL in yards per play with 6.2, and scored on 43 percent of their drives, fourth best in the league.
With the 34-year-old Ryan under contract through 2023, Dimitroff is locking into place the pieces around him. The team re-signed linebacker Deion Jones to a four-year extension worth $57 million and inked defensive lineman Grady Jarrett to a four-year, $68 million deal. The Falcons are also discussing an extension with receiver Julio Jones just one year after renegotiating his contract. “Yes, of course, you need the proper backups and rounded talent, but I truly believe you win with pillar players,” Dimitroff said. “If you are not taking care of your pillar players, there’s a degradation of your organization, not only on the field, but off the field. So I, humbly, believe we’ve picked our players well, and they are legitimate leaders for us. We’ll look at those players who are our pillar players, and will be dedicated, financially, to taking care of them.”
Investing heavily in “pillar players” is made easier by the rising salary cap, which has gone up about $10 million each year, with a total rise of $65 million, since 2013. Ryan and Julio Jones combined for nearly 25 percent of the Falcons’ cap in 2016, a season in which they were just a quarter-and-a-half away from winning the Super Bowl. That would have been by far the highest percentage for the two highest-paid players on a title team since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. Most successful teams resemble the Eagles, whose top salary on their Super Bowl–winning team in 2017 accounted for 6 percent of their cap. Luckily for the Falcons, it’s become easier to build a team around a rich quarterback: Ryan accounts for just 8.3 percent of the cap this year. He’s making $44 million in salary this season, the most in his career, but his long-term deal allows the Falcons to lower his cap number to a reasonable $15.8 million.
“There has never been one person in this organization—at least to me—I’ve never heard moaning about the payment of Matt Ryan and how it affects not paying other people. Everyone realizes the benefits of having an upper-echelon quarterback,” he said.
“There were people out there who said ‘Oh, you can get him for 29-and-a-quarter.’ And I just simply said, ‘What are we doing here?’” Dimitroff said. “He’s going to be the top-paid quarterback, and before you know it, he’s not going to be the top-paid quarterback because that’s the way it goes.”
That last part is quite important. I wrote earlier this year about the phenomenon of overpaying bad quarterbacks. It’s easy to think about there being two groups: cheap quarterbacks and expensive ones. Notably, a third group has developed: quarterbacks with mega-extensions whose deals became cheap as time elapsed. Before his retirement, Andrew Luck, who signed a record-setting deal in 2016, had an average annual salary of $24.6 million—far behind every major quarterback who signed after him, including Wilson ($35 million), Roethlisberger ($34 million), and Rodgers ($33.5 million). Ryan has made $179 million in his career. By the time his contract is due to expire in 2023, he’ll have eclipsed $300 million—it will not have been an overpay.
Dimitroff loves athleticism. He believes, along with Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, that “if you’re 10 pounds lighter than most players, but you have a badass persona, you can thrive in this league,” which is true for athletic defenders like Deion Jones. When Dimitroff got the job in 2008, and was facing his first big decision, he wondered whether he should value that in a quarterback, too. “I thought ‘Do I build a quarterback on what I really love? Athleticism?’” he said. Then he thought back to his days in the personnel department in New England. “I grew up in this league being around Tom Brady. How could you want anything different?” That, he said, is why he decided to commit to Ryan, the prototypical passer. He mentions having respect for Bill Polian’s team-building model with the Colts, which basically consisted of getting a franchise player, Peyton Manning, and building everything around him. (Dimitroff jokes that he knows this is heretical coming from a former Patriots employee.)
After watching DeSean Jackson destroy the Falcons early in Ryan’s career, Dimitroff told me he realized he needed to find a similar offensive weapon for his quarterback. In 2011, he traded a haul of draft picks to acquire Julio Jones, and is committed to keeping the All-Pro receiver. Jones is the NFL’s all-time leader in career receiving yards per game with 96.7, and will be paid like it soon.
“You go as your quarterback goes. I’ve seen the ups and downs of franchises who banked on a quarterback and it not working. I’ve seen the deleterious effects across the organization—not just the offensive side, but the defensive side, the morale of the organization,” he said. “It is so important to build through your quarterback.”
The Falcons are doing that, and at $30 million, they think it is a bargain.