Tracking the inflation of quarterback contracts

| March 18th, 2015

As I recently discussed when talking about Jay Cutler’s contract, quarterbacks are becoming very expensive in the NFL.  There are 17 quarterbacks with a cap hit of $14 million or more in 2015, a number that might increase as players like Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson look for extensions this offseason.  With a salary cap of $143 million, that means more than half the teams in the NFL have at least 10% of their salary cap devoted to their starting quarterback.

That seems like an awfully high number to me, so I want to look back and see how that has changed through the years.  The NFL salary cap started in 1994, but I was only able to find salary cap data back to 2000 online, so that’s how far this study goes.

The logistics

Since the NFL salary cap has risen from $62.2 million in 2000 to $143.3 million in 2015, using raw cap numbers obviously isn’t going to be feasible.  In order to adjust for salary cap inflation, I will be looking at the percent of the total cap quarterback cap hits use.

All salary cap data from 2000-2009 comes from the USA Today database.  All data since 2011 comes from Spotrac.  2010 was not included in the study for two reasons: that was an uncapped year, and I couldn’t find the necessary data.

I looked at the top 32 cap quarterback cap hits for each year from 2000 to 2015 (excluding 2010).  The 2015 data is included so as to show how the trends are continuing, but it should be noted that not all of the top 32 quarterback contracts have currently been signed.  That data set does not include any free agent contracts from 2015, and two rookie quarterbacks are likely to add to the mix as well.  This won’t impact the top 20 or 25 quarterback cap hits, but it might factor into the bottom part of the top 32.  Note the data was also compiled before Ben Roethlisberger’s recent contract extension, and does not include that.

The data

Overall, the average cap hit of the top 32 quarterbacks has increased from 5.6% in 2000 to 8.4% in 2015.  This number actually stayed fairly constant from 2000-2008, then it took a big jump in 2009, backed down slightly, and has been steadily rising since 2012.

qb cap average 2

The jump in 2009 was due to a combination of ridiculous rookie deals (Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, JaMarcus Russell, Carson Palmer, and Philip Rivers were all among the top 10 quarterback cap hits on their rookie deals) and big contracts for star veterans like Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre, and Tom Brady.  The other player among top 10 cap hits was Matt Cassel, who received a laughably large contract from Kansas City after they acquired him via trade.

As the rookie contracts expired and were replaced by rookie on reasonable deals, the average quarterback cap hits took a slight dip (though still higher than 2000-2008 levels) in 2010 and 2011.  Over the last 3 years, they have been rising very rapidly, and 2015 (which will end up slightly higher than 8.4% due to the reasons I stated above) makes it look like that trend will continue.

However, this has not been a case of all contracts being inflated evenly, as you can see when you spread out the data.  This is illustrated quite clearly by the graph below, which tracks the cap hits by year for the highest quarterback, 5th highest, 10th highest, and so on every 5.

QB cap breakdown

Here you can see that the growing gap in quarterback cap hits between the 15th and 20th highest paid quarterbacks.  The top 15 or so quarterbacks are all seeing their salaries skyrocket, while the rest are staying relatively constant, once you account for inflation.

Clear dropoff

Why the clear distinction?  Well, here is a list of the guys currently on big contracts ($15 million or higher average salary per year): Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Drew Brees, Colin Kaepernick, Jay Cutler, Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford, Alex Smith, Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, Andy Dalton, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Tom Brady.

The other 16 teams in the league either have quarterbacks on rookie deals or are looking at starting players like Chad Henne, Brian Hoyer, Josh McCown, Ryan Mallett, Ryan Fitzpatrick, or similar guys.  You get the idea.

This is why there’s a gap in average contract value (excluding rookie deals) from about $15 million a year to roughly $5 million a year (Josh McCown, Matt Cassel), with only Matt Schaub’s soon to be expired $7 million a year contract in the middle.

If you have one of the guys in the first group, you are ok at quarterback.  Sure, you could do better than many of them, but you could do a whole lot worse, and teams are putting a premium price on that reliable production, even if it is only reliably average.

Is it worth it?

Now we are presented with the (multi) million dollar question: is it worth paying the lowest guys in that solid group such significant money to be average?  Are players like Jay Cutler, Colin Kaepernick, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, Andy Dalton, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, and Matthew Stafford really worth committing more than 10% of your salary cap to?

Stay tuned for my next article in this series, when I will look at some recent trends around the NFL to see what the early results might suggest.

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