When Carson Wentz and Russell Wilson signed their extensions this offseason, we got to experience the annual offseason tradition of people saying quarterbacks are overpaid. The reality is that elite quarterbacks aren’t overpaid. In fact, they’re all underpaid.
This really should be common sense. Everybody recognizes that who you have at quarterback is one of the biggest determinants of how good your team will be. Even missing an elite pass rusher won’t effect your record as much as a decent, but not great, quarterback going down. WAR is a baseball term, meaning Wins Above Replacement. Which begs the question, how do you define replacement? If Aaron Rodgers goes down, he gets replaced by a guy who is (at least in theory) better than some guy off the practice squad.
So who do you compare the starter to?
The definition of a replacement level player is one that you can get off the street. Your QB room decides to get some St. Louis-style BBQ and now you need to find a new starter at QB this week. How much of a drop-off are you going to experience? The idea is that replacement level players are nearly infinite. The backup may not be a good starter, but he’s at least significantly better than a guy off the street. You actually have to pay them a bit of money to play for you. But you can pay replacement level players the minimum since they’re just happy to have a job.
This is easy in baseball, since generally if you have a player on the roster you know how much he’s going to play. Same for most non-quarterback positions in football. Very few players on the roster don’t play at all. Backups get rotated in and play special teams. From a GM’s perspective this makes it simple. You decide how much money you want to spend for each WAR they provide for the team, decide how much WAR the player is worth, and that’s how much you offer them.
But the backup quarterback doesn’t play in meaningful action unless the starter can’t go, which makes the whole WAR calculation a lot more complicated. If your starter plays the whole season it doesn’t matter how good your backup is, their WAR for that season was 0. But if your starter goes down early in the season your backup could have a high WAR even if they’re not that good.
The same quarterback is worth more as a starter than they are as a backup.
Ignoring players on rookie deals, the highest priced backup is Teddy Bridgewater, who makes $7.25 million. The cheapest starter, Andy Dalton, averages $16 million per year. Clearly NFL teams understand this logic. But is the gap in ability from the best backup and the worst starter really so big? Of course not, they’re just paid differently because of the difference in playing time.
Which brings up an interesting question. If you don’t have an elite QB, should you just sign a backup level guy to a backup level contract and spend the money elsewhere? For example, would you rather have Nick Foles as a starter on his $22 million per year contract, or Ryan Tannehill on his $7 million per year contract and spend the $15 million to better surround him with talent?
I would argue for the latter, and the Minnesota Vikings are a prime example.
In 2017 they had a crowded quarterback room. While none of their quarterbacks were particularly good, they were very cheap. Because of that extra money they surrounded their subpar quarterbacks with talent and made it to the NFC Championship Game, where they lost to another team with cheap quarterbacks. In 2018 the Vikings signed Kirk Cousins to a market rate deal. Few would argue Cousins wasn’t a huge upgrade in talent over the quarterbacks they had the previous year, but his contract was also much more expensive. Yet despite Cousins playing the full season, they got worse.
Thankfully the Chiefs won’t have to worry about trying to take advantage of this market inefficiency for a long time. Because of Mahomes, they get to take advantage of a different market inefficiency, the elite quarterback. As my tweet above shows, elite quarterbacks are wildly underpaid. Mahomes is worth at least 8 WAR (do you think the Chiefs would have won more than 4 games if Mahomes and Henne were both out?). Using the same math from above, his value should be 66% of the cap for a team aiming to go 12-4, which would be $132 million every year, far above the $37-$40 million per year he’s likely to get in reality. While our backup-as-starter strategy gets the team nearly a 50% discount, our elite quarterback costs less than a third of what he should be making.
Keep that in mind when the Chiefs give Mahomes a freight train full of money in a couple years. It could be even worse if teams were acting rationally.