Kyler Murray: Baseball or Football?

by Justis Mosqueda

On Wednesday night, Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle broke the news that Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, who was a first-round pick of the MLB's Oakland Athletics in 2018, is expected to enter the 2019 NFL draft. It will be a non-starter for NFL teams to consider taking a quarterback who is splitting time between sports, meaning that a big decision will be coming for Murray between now and late April: baseball or football?

If he chooses to play football, Murray will enter at least his 17th season. While to some baseball or football is a simple decision between a non-collision sport and a collision sport, Murray has decided long ago that a non-collision sport is not a prerequisite for his professional aspirations. Murray even played football for free at Oklahoma this year, winning the Heisman Trophy Award in his one year as a college starter, despite already having signed a $4.7 million contract to play baseball.

If you really want to understand the decision that Murray will be making, you have to understand that he has already played football for 16 years. This isn't a high school freshman asking his parents to play football for the first time. Rather than the non-collision sport vs collision sport rut that most of the media will discuss over the next few months, I urge you to educate yourself on something that will likely be the most influential factor for this decision: the money.

You're going to hear a lot about how baseball players make more money than football players. In general, this is true. In general, football players aren't quarterbacks.

Here's a breakdown of the top-20 active quarterbacks in the NFL by career earnings (through 2018) juxtaposed to the career earnings of MLB players (labeled "MLB Rank") and outfielders (labeled "Outfielder Rank"), the position Murray plays in the sport, through the 2019 season:

While baseball players generally make more than football players, quarterbacks are the big exceptions. At quarterback, the opportunity for massive contracts is relatively on par with outfielders over their careers. Quarterbacks even have a higher upside. New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning has made about $70 million more over his career than the highest-ranked outfielder in baseball (Matt Holliday, the 10th-ranked MLB player overall in career earnings). Drew Brees, a second-round quarterback who didn't receive a massive first contract under the previous collective bargaining agreement (CBA), has made about $60 million more over his career than Holliday.

To say that "baseball players make more than football players" ignores one of the biggest truths about the sport: it, and the money around it, revolve around the quarterback position. The NFL cap is gradually moving up about $10 million per year, relatively slow compared to the end of the last CBA, which will only increase the earning potential at the quarterback position during Murray's projected NFL career. There is also a possibility that the next CBA (2021, before Murray's projected second NFL contract) will raise the salary cap at a pre-2011 CBA level. From 2005 to 2009, the NFL salary cap grew roughly 50 percent before an uncapped year in 2010 and a new CBA in 2011. If players can negotiate that type of level of growth in the next CBA (assuming a roughly $10 million increase per year through 2020), the cap could jump from $177 million in 2018 to north of $300 million in 2025.

If someone tries to tell you that baseball players make more than football players, that's a perfectly fine statement. When it comes to this debate, though, it's a question about outfielders and quarterbacks. In terms of the money, starting quarterbacks have higher earning potential.

The next step to this conversation is understanding the likelihood of this top earning potential. In a 32-team NFL, there are 32 starting quarterback spots. In a 30-team MLB, there are 90 starting outfielder spots. Comparing #1 vs #1 and #5 vs #5 in career earnings across positions with 32 starters and 90 starters is comparing apples to oranges.

If you compare slots available relative to career earnings, the comparisons become even starker. The 16th-ranked (half of 32) quarterback (Minnesota's Kirk Cousins) in career earnings has made $72.6 million over his career. The 45th-ranked (half of 90) outfielder has made $14.3 million over his career. If we are to assume that this is the perceived median expected career earnings for starters at the positions, the median starting quarterback will make five times the career earnings of the median starting outfielder. Only 19% of the top-90 outfielders in career earnings (theoretically players "paid to be starters") have career earnings north of $72.6 million while half of the NFL's quarterbacks "paid to be starters" hit that number.

It should also be noted that quarterback #16 (Cousins) will make $130.6 million by the end of his fully-guaranteed contract, which would rank sixth among outfielders and would place him in the top-20 earners in baseball. With the knowledge available, even turning down an average starting quarterback career for an average starting outfielder career would mean leaving tons of money on the table.

Another factor to all of this is the difference between MLB draft picks and NFL draft picks. Current NFL director of data and analytics Michael Lopez, before he joined the NFL in that role, wrote an article in 2017 that claimed that while the MLB's draft efficiency has consistently risen since the 1970s, it is still less efficient than the NFL's draft, at least among early selections.

On top of that, first-round picks in baseball aren't given the same opportunities for playing time, or immediate earnings, as quarterbacks. In the NFL, first-round quarterbacks are expected to be starters within two years. The opportunity for playing time could begin for Murray in September. In baseball, he would be catching buses to play minor league ball for a few years while he works up the system. That has massive ramifications for what stage Murray would play on and what type of money he would make early on in his professional career.

To put baseball's draft and early career process into perspective, only 10 of the 33 first-round picks in the 2011 MLB draft (the same year quarterback Cam Newton was drafted first overall in the NFL under their new CBA) made $1 million or more in cash in 2018. Only five made more than $5 million. Only two made more than $10 million.

The top-10 earners among the 2011 first-rounders combined for salaries worth $57.2 million in 2018, less than the career earnings of Cam Newton after he signed his second signing bonus in 2015. Making it to the majors is no promise, even for first-round picks in baseball. In football, a first-round quarterback will be given every opportunity to keep a starting job until he convinces a team otherwise. The exposure, improved travel and early money in the sport reflects that.

Now comes the big question: Just how high in the NFL draft would Murray have to be drafted to never swing a baseball bat again?

Well, he already signed a $4.7 million baseball contract, so a good starting point would be exceeding that in immediate money from football. Here's a breakdown of how much money the first-round quarterbacks made in the 2018 draft class:

Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma's quarterback before Murray, was drafted first overall in last year's draft class and made $22.3 million in 2018 (before taxes, of course), about 4.5 times what Murray's initial baseball contract is worth. The last pick in the first round was used on Lamar Jackson, another quarterback, who made $5.4 million in 2018, still more than Murray's baseball contract. The difference between a first-round pick and a second-round pick is pretty significant, though, as the 33rd overall pick (Austin Corbett) made $4.1 million, less than Murray's deal.

Everything points to a really simple pivot point: being a first-round quarterback. First-round picks are given more money in their first year than in Murray's current baseball contract. First-round quarterbacks are given opportunities to start early. Quarterbacks are much higher median earners on the starting level than outfielders. Quarterbacks have higher potential career earnings than outfielders.

From a financial perspective, all an NFL team would have to do to leave no doubt in Murray's mind about which sport is a better financial option for him, short-term or long-term, would be to take him somewhere in the first round.

One of the most interesting factors in all of this is the newly named head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, Kliff Kingsbury. Kingsbury recruited Murray for Texas A&M, where Murray would play in 2015, before the then offensive coordinator took over as the head coach of Texas Tech. A month ago, when Kingsbury was still at Tech, he stated: "I would take [Murray] with the first pick in the draft if I could."

Lucky for him, his Cardinals hold the first pick in the upcoming NFL draft. It should also be noted that they hold the first pick in the second round of a draft, a perfect position to move up into the first round from. Under the current CBA, it is beneficial for teams to move from the second round of the draft to late in the first round to select a quarterback because first-round picks have a "fifth-year option", essentially a cost-cutting mechanism that avoids the potential for having to use a franchise tag. In 2018, the franchise tag for quarterbacks was $23.2 million, whereas a running back's number was $9.6 million. You can imagine why the tag, which is based on the average of top salaries per position, would be something you would want to avoid at a position as costly as quarterback.

At the same time, teams moving down to the 33rd overall pick would save a few million dollars on a rookie contract for a non-quarterback. Typically in the late first-round to the early second-round range, non-quarterbacks are perceived to be roughly in the same "tier" of talent as prospects, with preference and team need, not clear-cut talent, being the reason for most selections.

Could Kingsbury take Murray first overall? Could Kingsbury move up from #33 into the first round to select Murray? Could the pressure of Kingsbury holding pick #33 make another team jump into the first round to select Murray? There are plenty of ways that Kingsbury's addition to the NFL could apply the pressure needed to make Murray worth a selection that would make his path to pro football much more realistic than before.

The elephant in the room is Josh Rosen, Arizona's first-round quarterback from the 2018 draft class. Rosen had bad stats in 2018, but the entire history of rookie first-rounders says to throw out their first year, meaning that his perceived value as an NFL starter should not have altered much over the last year. To trade Rosen, the Cardinals would have to eat $14.4 million in cap space. That is a cap hit of roughly $10 million more than Arizona is slated for by keeping Rosen on his contract in 2019. In 2018, the Cleveland Browns ate $16 million in cap space for what amounted to a swap of a second- or third-round pick in value during the trade of Brock Osweiler.

The general manager who drafted Rosen, Steve Keim, is still in Arizona. Keim traded a mid-first-round pick, third-round pick and fifth-round pick to the Oakland Raiders for the 10th pick overall, which was used to take Rosen. Acknowledging Rosen's dead cap and assuming that Rosen's value in Keim's eyes is still equal to what it was a year ago, one would have to assume that a (mid) first-round pick and second-round pick would have to be the starting point on a trade of Rosen in what scouts are considering a weak quarterback class.

If Rosen can fetch that, there is no telling how high Kingsbury could consider selecting Murray. Chip Kelly tried to mortgage the Philadelphia Eagles when his former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota was draft eligible. In 1989, Jimmy Johnson famously took his former Miami quarterback Steve Walsh with a first-round pick in the supplemental draft after drafting quarterback Troy Aikman, a quarterback he recruited at Oklahoma State, first overall in the standard draft. College-turned-pro coaches often seek out quarterbacks they have relationships with and there is nothing, other than breaking even on Rosen, limiting Kingsbury from chasing Murray.

Sources tell Optimum Scouting that there is a feeling in the league that some have Murray graded as a first-round pick. Be it the Cardinals or one of the other 31 NFL teams, that should be enough to get Murray to postpone his baseball career.