Inside the NFL’s $900 million quarterback spending spree

  • ESPN staff writer
  • Previously a college football reporter for
  • University of Florida graduate

After helping Matt Ryan become the NFL’s first $30 million per year player, agent Todd France was thrilled for Ryan but didn’t pop any corks around the Creative Artists Agency office in Atlanta.

France, who co-brokered the deal with Tom Condon that earned Ryan $150 million over five years with $100 million guaranteed in May 2018, went home to see his family, mentally celebrated the Ryans’ dreams realized, then it was onto the next one.

“You can’t celebrate too long,” said France, whose quarterback roster also includes Ryan Tannehill and Dak Prescott. “Those numbers can get passed quickly. As an agent, you hope they do as that’s how the market grows.”

Less than two years later, the game has seen a true market explosion at the quarterback position that could forever change the way teams pay top earners.

In the past 12 months alone, April to April, veteran quarterbacks racked up more than $900 million in extensions or deals with new teams. That’s more than double the total from the previous 12-month span.

The going rate for top quarterbacks has ballooned from around $20 million to $35 million per year since 2015. That’s 75% growth in that span, far exceeding an NFL salary cap that rose from $143.8 million to $198.2 million during the same time period.

“Holy… mackerel,” said one NFL general manager when asked about the current pace of pay, pausing between words for effect.

Russell Wilson started things off last April with a record-breaking four-year, $140 million deal, resetting a robust market for Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Tannehill and others. One of the best quarterback classes in NFL free-agent history, led by Tom Brady and Drew Brees, got in on the fun. The sheer volume of payouts during this span is not normal, and next year’s crop probably won’t exceed it. But Prescott, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson can push well beyond a half billion combined if their deals get done.

In fact, NFL owners were so concerned about quarterback earnings that they tried to squeeze a player salary cap — like the NBA’s max deals for superstars — into recent Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, according to sources. Owners broached the subject early in the process, but it died pretty quickly once players wouldn’t go for it.

Head coaches and general managers lament the struggles of building a 53-man team when one player occupies nearly 20% of their cap. And the anticipated boom of 2023 — when a 17-game regular season and gambling money will be in full bloom — could incentivize Prescott and others to do shorter-term deals and keep the power on their side.

“Everyone could see this storm coming,” said veteran agent Ryan Tollner, who did mega deals for Goff and Wentz worth a combined $262 million this past offseason. “More and more money coming into the league and the quarterback salaries were only going to go up.”

The recent boom is a confluence of timing and leverage. Quarterbacks were due.

The first half of the decade produced modest growth. Brees and Aaron Rodgers broke the $20 million per year threshold. But four years after Peyton Manning signed a five-year, $96 million deal with Denver in 2012, high-level quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton were still signing deals worth around $20 million per year because that was simply the ballpark for the top guys.

On the field, quarterbacks were strengthening their grip on the game, dictating pace of play with more sophisticated passing attacks. Ten of the 12 5,000-yard passing performances in NFL history have come in this decade.

In 2016, Andrew Luck coupled youth (26) and just enough “generational quarterback” cache to strike a six-year, $140-million deal at just over $23 million per year.

The timing was even better for Derek Carr, who played like a star in 2017 and was one year from free agency. So the Raiders locked him up at $25 million per year, which is all Matthew Stafford needed to get Detroit a few million over that per-year average later that summer. Stafford passed the baton to Jimmy Garoppolo ($27.5 million per year), who passed it to Ryan, and passers have gone deep into the pockets of owners ever since.

Almost all of these players were 30 or younger at the time of the deal.

“When you have a young quarterback, you do everything to keep him,” said Mike Tannenbaum, former New York Jets general manager and Miami Dolphins vice president who now serves as an ESPN front-office analyst. “It’s the quarterback and it’s everything else. You’d rather have the cost certainty now, so from a team-building standpoint, you’d rather lock up those numbers and plan around them accordingly.”

All of this was happening while the Kirk Cousins experiment in Washington catalyzed free agency. In April 2015, agent Mike McCartney called Cousins after the Redskins exercised the fifth-year option on Robert Griffin III. The option was guaranteed for injury only, which was great news for Cousins, McCartney reminded him. If the quarterback race was close in training camp, Cousins could win the job. Washington couldn’t afford to be on the hook for that roughly $16 million.

Things got awkward from there. Cousins played well enough to make the playoffs, and Washington either couldn’t afford Cousins or chose not to pay him. He played on two franchise tags worth a total of $44 million, and since a third tag would have cost $34 million, which Washington had no interest in paying, a productive starting quarterback in his prime hit free agency.

He turned the leverage into a three-year, $84-million fully guaranteed deal with Minnesota, which just re-upped him for two years and $66 million.

“Kirk and I always believed in his ability to be a starting quarterback,” McCartney said. “And then, just getting to the market is a rare thing for a starter. There was strong interest, and you can understand why.”

No team understands the current landscape more than the Tennessee Titans, who just gave $91 million in guaranteed money to a player who started 2019 as a backup to Marcus Mariota.

Tannehill parlayed a one-year, incentive-heavy deal with Tennessee into an NFL-leading 117.5 passer rating and an AFC championship game appearance. There aren’t many comps for that. That left general manager Jon Robinson with a decision last month: Dip into a quarterback market that won’t let you in the door for less than $27 million, or start over.

In recalling the decision, Robinson said Tannehill’s pedigree as a multi-year starter in Miami and his body of work in Tennessee gave the team comfort. From leadership to production, Tannehill “was a guy who earned it with us,” said Robinson, who added the Titans probably weren’t finding a unicorn with the 29th overall pick in this year’s draft.

The result: Both sides settled on a four-year deal worth $118 million, with the third year guaranteed for injury.

“You try to slot it so it’s beneficial for the team and does the most you can for the player so he feels compensated at a level to his peers,” Robinson said by phone. “There’s a lot of stuff that goes into that. There has to be some understanding on both sides of the deal, trying to do what’s best for the team, try to keep Ryan and trying to get that number down as much as possible but still compensating the player appropriately.”

Tannehill’s contract wasn’t the only deal to leave sticker shock for some in the NFL.

Goff and Wentz — the respective first and second overall picks in the 2016 draft — were two years from free agency before signing massive deals with the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles last offseason.

From Wentz’s MVP-caliber production in 2017 to Goff’s Super Bowl appearance, both players proved they belonged.

But Goff ($110 million) and Wentz ($107.87 million) now rank first and second in the league in guaranteed money. No numbers describe the power of the quarterback market more plainly.

As Tollner points out, the teams believed wholeheartedly that they had their guys. They also believed they were getting ahead of the market, which would offer a relative discount in the future. And they were able to weave those remaining two years into a de facto six-year deal.

Despite big cap hits for both — Goff’s $36.042 million leads all quarterbacks in 2020, while Wentz’s deal is heavy on roster bonuses, resulting in big cap numbers in later years — building around a player you just paid is “a problem every team would love to have,” Tollner said. That means you have an answer at the most important position in an era of a salary cap approaching $200 million.

(Important side note with these deals: Teams care more about cash than they do about the salary cap. It’s all about how much an owner is willing to spend. Teams easily bend the cap with contract restructures and player cuts.)

“As much as it sounds like it’s some daunting challenge to make it work, the reality is, go back and look at the times when Peyton Manning was the highest paid quarterback in the league — it wasn’t like they were surrounded by terrible skill players and offensive linemen,” said Tollner, referring to Manning playing on a $98 million deal in the 2000s with Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James, Reggie Wayne and others also on the roster. “There is a way to make it work. The teams need to be aggressive about winning, and now there is plenty of cap room to do it. … You’re taking on risk of injury in order make a statement to the caliber of player that you’re ready to make a run at a championship.”

Finding the right role players around your quarterback is perhaps the biggest step, Robinson said.

“As a roster builder, you have to understand the importance of that position and do a really good job of finding players who can fill roles who may not be the Pro Bowl level but they are pretty dang good and can win you football games,” Robinson said. “It forces you to be conscious of your spending, knowing that cap figure looms and putting the best team you can on the field.”

Paying a veteran quarterback in his prime hasn’t translated to Super Bowl wins of late. The last 10 quarterbacks to receive massive extensions have a combined zero championships since signing them. Recent Super Bowl winners include a quarterback who notoriously took discounts to help his team (Tom Brady), a backup (Nick Foles), a star on a rookie contract (Patrick Mahomes) and a 39-year-old (Manning).

The Seahawks won Super Bowl XXLVIII with Wilson playing on a salary of $526,207, the slotted amount for the third-round pick’s rookie deal. Nowadays, coach Pete Carroll knows what he must consider with every roster decision in Seattle: Wilson’s cap hit of $31 million in 2020, a number that balloons to $39 million three years from now.

Carroll wouldn’t have it any other way — having a top-tier quarterback worthy of that money makes winning on Sundays that much easier. But there are precautions Seattle must take as a result.

“It’s a challenge,” Carroll said. “It affects you, first, in free agency — to be real active in this early part is a real challenge. You have to do really well with all your draft picks. We try to get as many as we can because we feel that that competitiveness in our camp will help us.”

Relying heavily on draft picks — the Seahawks have eight of them in this month’s draft, including two second-rounders — means Seattle can carry only a few bigger veteran contracts. That’s why Carroll is glad he has linebacker Bobby Wagner, he says — he’s an easy guy to pay big money ($54 million over three years) because he’s considered the best at his position and the team believes that. But the Seahawks won’t take many swings beyond that. It hopes to re-sign pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, but won’t go wild.

“The league is designed to knock you back down and have teams work their way up — that’s how it’s always been,” Carroll said. “We take great pride in staying on that path, on the level of the thing with all the circumstances we deal with. You have to hit right in all aspects of free agency and do a good job when players become available.

“Every single step of the way we have to be on it to fortify competitiveness on the roster.”

Bill O’Brien has a luxury Carroll doesn’t — at least for a few months.

The Houston Texans coach has had three years to build around Watson while the Pro Bowler is on a rookie contract. Watson’s $4.408 million cap hit in 2020 ranks 32nd in the NFL — a clearance-rack bargain for a high-caliber signal-caller.

This reality probably gave O’Brien a good $30-40 million in additional spending for the past two years, but if the team does a Watson extension this offseason — which some around the league expect — the team must plan ahead. That might explain why DeAndre Hopkins, who wants a new contract among the league’s highest paid, according to ESPN reports, was traded to Arizona. But he switched out Hopkins’ $12.5 million cap hit with running back David Johnson’s $11.25 million charge.

O’Brien says it’s up to him and his staff to creatively complement around a “great young quarterback” such as Watson.

“Everyone knows, and Deshaun would be the first to tell you, it’s not about one player,” said O’Brien, whose Texans have $36.641 million in cap space as of this week. “It’s about a lot of players. It’s a process that takes a lot of time, a lot of good communication. That’s part of our daily routine.”

The allure of having a high-level quarterback on a cheap rookie deal makes teams want to draft one every year, whether you have an established signal-caller or not, multiple execs said. But that depends largely on the draft class, and this year’s crop is low on sure bets.

“Someone is going to stretch and draft Jordan Love high for this very reason,” said one high-level exec. “There just aren’t a lot of great ones out there.”

That’s why Prescott, despite constant morning-show debates about his place in the quarterback pantheon, will undoubtedly rank among the highest paid whenever he reaches a deal with Dallas. His team has averaged 10 wins per season, and he threw for close to 5,000 yards in 2019.

That’s also why Mahomes, after an MVP and a Super Bowl in his first two years as a starter, can probably ask for whatever he wants. The Chiefs would be smart to do a deal now for the 2017 draft pick, just to keep the money within the $40 million per year threshold.

“What are they going to say? No?” that same exec said about the Chiefs. “They have no choice.”

And he could do even more damage if he somehow got to free agency, which won’t happen. But no doubt these realities are on the mind of Prescott as he thinks about his next deal:

  • Between 2021-23, the NFL will enact the 17-game regular season as agreed upon in the collective bargaining agreement. That means more revenue, and an expansive salary cap.

  • Players and owners could also pocket billions from future gambling revenue. Players will share revenues generated “by the operation of gambling-related businesses located in or physically attached to an NFL stadium,” according to language in the new collective bargaining agreement. Revenue is available through “gambling on any aspect of NFL games, any performance of NFL players in NFL games or in any other NFL/club-related activity,” the CBA states.

“I believe it’s just the beginning, just the tip, [for growth],” France said of the quarterback market. “That’s why you see players at a lot of positions trying to strike shorter-term deals.”

Therein lies the power struggle: Many teams prefer long-term deals so they can assess cost over five-year projections.

That can be an issue for elite players such as Stafford, who occupied well above 15% of the Lions’ salary cap in earlier parts of his contract but this year sits at 12.1%. You could argue Stafford, on a $135 million deal and a $21.3 million cap hit, is underpaid.

Since the NFL doesn’t fully guarantee contracts like the NBA, agents have tried to find a work-around with quarterback deals: Tying yearly money to the percentage of the cap.

It’s something that can be negotiated between the agents and teams, just like signing bonuses and injury-related guarantees. Agents have proposed scenarios like this: Make sure my player, over the next five years, makes at least 15% of the league’s cap limit for each team.

But teams haven’t gone for it — at least not yet.

Four NFL teams — the Cowboys, Seahawks, Rams and Colts — allocate at least 15% of their 2020 salary cap on quarterbacks. Prescott’s projected $28.7 million franchise tag gets Dallas there, and Indianapolis (the highest, at 22.06 percent) has money invested in two veteran quarterbacks, Philip Rivers and Jacoby Brissett.

“I think that’s where this is going,” said one prominent agent who has done big quarterback contracts but spoke on condition of anonymity. “Guaranteeing more money might actually save teams a few million. Some players might actually take a little bit less if it guarantees more.”

The pace of rising salaries hardly suggests discounts are coming. The owners knew this, which is why some wanted a player-specific salary cap for the top earners. That the idea was left on the cutting-room floor of negotiations was considered a concession in the minds of some owners.

For at least the next decade, quarterbacks largely dictate when the NFL sees the first $200 million dollar player.

Robinson said he has “no idea” where all of this is going. But he knows the position is only growing in importance.

“Those guys who have done it, there’s a reason that they are rare,” Robinson said.

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