The NFL's Need for Middle-Class Quarterback Contracts

by Justis Mosqueda

Enough is enough. After this season, there is no reason why the NFL needs to be dishing out high-end contracts for middle-class quarterbacks.

Tell me if this makes sense: The difference between Aaron Rodgers’ ($20.9 million) cap hit and Blake Bortles’ ($10 million) cap hit is roughly the same as the difference between Bortles cap hit and Brian Hoyer’s ($0.9 million) cap hit. Did Bortles, who has been benched for the last two games by the Jacksonville Jaguars, ever really have that much more value over a guy like Hoyer? When you look at it from an Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANY/A) perspective, it is not even a conversation. Rodgers’ career ANY/A of 7.39 is about two yards per play better than Bortles’ career average (5.41), but Hoyer’s career numbers (5.99) are actually better than Bortles’!

Paying Bortles was paying for yards left on the field relative to the NFL average. Next year, he is slated to lead the Jaguars, who are almost $13 million over the cap, with a $21 million cap hit. They can release him for cap savings of less than $5 million, not enough to sign another competent passer. This means that to get into the free agency mix, the team will have to gut their defense of players, who make more of a positive difference on Sundays than Bortles, to even free up the cap space to have an at bat in the free agency market.

Enough is enough.

Under the NFL’s current cap system, teams are strongly dissuaded to not dish out guaranteed money because of how it punishes them if something goes wrong. For example, if a player signs a five-year deal with a $50 million signing bonus (let’s say it’s from 2018 to 2022) all of that $50 million is not accounted for in 2018, but is split evenly over the length of the contract. This is calling prorating, which is how signing bonuses work in this league. The issue? When a player is released, the bonus money not yet to hit the cap but already paid out to the player “accelerates”. In the example of the $50 million signing bonus for a five-year contract, the cap hits would be split into $10 million increments over all five season, but if you want to release the player one year into his deal, you would have to bite the bullet and eat $40 million of this “accelerated” money PLUS any remaining guaranteed salary on his contract. Dead cap (cost to cut), not talent, is what marries some of these middle class to lower-middle class quarterbacks to teams.

NFL ownership has purposely created this feedback loop to ensure that the league does not invest too much guaranteed money, in their minds, into players. It is built so that only the top players are really worth multi-year investments with big guaranteed money. At the moment, the league's decision makers are largely ignoring this feedback loop completely when it comes to the quarterback position...and it shows.

I want to preface this next part by saying that Alex Smith is a real-life person with a real-life family. He has real-life emotions and feelings and is going through multiple surgeries to recover through a gruesome injury, but it is worth bringing up his contract up as an example of what can go wrong because the $55 million guaranteed he signed for is the sixth-most of any player in the NFL. This is not to his fault or blame at all. He and his agent negotiated for the best deal possible for him, which is how players should act in this league.

Here are the cap savings that Washington would get by releasing Smith immediately, without any triggers for injury guarantees, by year:

2019: -$21.6 million

2020: $5.2 million

2021: $13.6 million

2022: $21 million

Remember, Smith will be owed that money no matter if he can or cannot physically play football moving forward. A recent example of not having to physically be in a football uniform to count against the dead cap would be Tony Romo, who counted on the Dallas Cowboys’ 2017 cap even though he was broadcasting games in a CBS booth that year.

Washington has basically put themselves in a position where the cap savings on a Smith release would not be able to directly pay for another “starting-caliber veteran quarterback” as the NFL sees them today until 2022, three-and-a-half seasons away. They could release him in 2020 or 2021, for marginal cap relief, but to re-enter in the veteran quarterback market the cap space would have to come from somewhere else (i.e.: money not used to sign free agents, money not used to re-sign their own players, money not used to extend their own players and/or money saved by releasing/trading their own players.)

To put the cap savings of $5.2 million (2020) and $13.6 million (2021) into perspective, here are the top veteran quarterbacks with 2018 cap hits at or under $13.6 million this year, excluding heavy re-structures (whose contracts do not act like what would be available on the free agent market): 

Nick Foles, $13.6 million

Josh McCown, $10 million

Matt Schaub, $4.5 million

Chase Daniel, $4 million

15 months from now, the cap savings of releasing Smith would only be enough to sign a Schaub or Daniel. 27 months from now, the cap savings of releasing Smith would only be enough to sign a Foles or McCown. When this is the upside for what Washington’s plan for a veteran quarterback could look like between now and the new league year in 2022, it is understandable why fans might ask: “Is it really fair that the team cannot just buy out a contract without it holding weight on their team-building for years and years?” But this is the feedback loop that NFL ownership chose for the sake of branded parity, which at this point really means parity outside of the quarterback position.

Enough is enough.

The 2019 offseason could be pivotable for embracing the middle class (or lower-middle class) quarterback contract, which really does not exist (outside of Foles and McCown). Potentially, quarterbacks like Eli Manning, Derek Carr, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Tyrod Taylor, Case Keenum, Foles, Bortles, Ryan Tannehill, Teddy Bridgewater and Ryan Fitzpatrick could all become available. At the moment, the teams with potential quarterback needs, the New York Giants, Oakland Raiders, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins, would all only be in the veteran quarterback market after releasing/trading their own veteran quarterback under contract, meaning that another veteran quarterback would be added to the talent pool.

There is finally enough of a supply of at least serviceable quarterbacks who would be projected to immediately play better than rookie passers. This could end the trend of handing mid-level quarterbacks, who were never expected to be more than average, contracts worth north of $16 million a year, which at the same time have the potential to decimate a team’s cap situation. Instead of getting into a bidding war over a Carr, Bridgewater or Fitzpatrick next offseason, teams should actively be using the leverage of the fact that there are only 32 starting quarterback jobs in the NFL to bring down the middle-class quarterback market to match reality. There are benefits to being the last seat filled.

Look at the Kirk Cousins, Smith and Keenum swaps that happened last offseason. None of those quarterbacks are clearly the answer for the team they just signed with, but Denver’s signing of Keenum may be the best out of the three options because of how quickly they can realize he is not “the guy” and make other options available to them. Here are the 2019 dead caps for last offseason’s biggest free agent quarterbacks:

Cousins: $59 million

Smith: $42 million (without any triggers injury guarantees)

Keenum: $10 million

Is Cousins better than Keenum? Probably. Is Cousins almost six times the amount of future cap space tied up better than Keenum? No. It seems clear enough when you look at the NFL landscape that:

  1. Teams are drastically overpaying for middle class to lower-middle class quarterbacks who hurt their team more than they help.
  2. The NFL’s cap structure is built in a way to punish these type of signings.
  3. The supply of these middle class to lower-middle class quarterbacks is finally plentiful enough, possibly because of careers being extended due to the rules protecting quarterbacks, to the point that no team has to come out of the first few waves of free agency in 2019 without a veteran who could be projected to post numbers better than the average rookie first-rounder immediately.

We have been living in a world where if a team had a top-32 quarterback, they would give him the world. This method clearly is not working. The system is not built in a way that this process should not work. With the safety that this upcoming veteran quarterback market brings, teams should finally be more secure in allowing quarterbacks to move around at the benefit of not tying up years of guaranteed money that is handcuffed to almost any salary cap decision that a franchise makes.

While there is almost certainly a benefit for quarterbacks having familiarity in their systems, offensive coordinators move around constantly and we have seen play-callers like Freddie Kitchens and Byron Leftwich install new midseason systems for rookie quarterbacks, who have performed better since the change. To ensure that every team in “quarterback purgatory” is not potentially in cap hell for two or three seasons, the NFL needs to embrace the middle-class quarterback contract, which will almost certainly involve more movement at the position. All of the mechanisms are in place for this plan of action to finally start to be actionable, but we will have to see if moving forward that NFL decision-makers will finally value flexibility over comfortability.

Enough is enough.