31 NFL Teams Are Overpaying Their Quarterback

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Tony Sommer suggests every team in the NFL should give up and just sign a backup quarterback. Not really, but kinda.

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.

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“Its True”

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.

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“About that…”

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.

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07/01/2019 10:58 pm

What would a roster getting 33% of the salary cap to surround Mahomes on $132 million look like? $1.3 million per player. It would be almost exclusively rookies, UDFAs, and vet min guys.

By halftime of week 1 you would have a Replacement Level QB playing after the OL got Mahomes killed.

07/01/2019 2:43 pm

I wonder the success rate of Quarterbacks after signing mega deals, as in Super Bowl wins. Does their win % rate go down after these long term deals.
Also thoughts on what the Cowboys might do with Prescott?

Reply to  Tony Sommer
07/01/2019 2:52 pm

Yes I remember the Bradford deal. Thanks for the reply, I’ll ponder this for awhile.

Reply to  Tony Sommer
07/01/2019 3:04 pm

Taking less than he’s worth on the cap. If rumors be true, he’s got side deals going with the team that compensate him beyond that – and his wife’s wealthy in her own right, IIRC. That moves him from being an outlier to being an extreme outlier, IMO.

07/01/2019 2:04 pm

The issue to me is we haven’t seen a QB yet who is making $25 million+ win a Super Bowl. People think the math will work out, but it hasn’t been proven yet.

Reply to  Tony Sommer
07/01/2019 2:20 pm

Generalized extension off Tony’s comment:

And it’s also worth noting that under the current contract a number of glaring issues regarding pay have reared their ugly heads. Mostly on the bottom of the pay scale, IMO, but not entirely so. And ownership’s position on compensation is a part of this problem, as well.

So don’t place too much faith in the existing pay scale. It’s too flawed for that.

Reply to  Tony Sommer
07/01/2019 3:01 pm

Hadn’t thought of it that way about the vets, but it wouldn’t surprise me, at least as an insta-reaction. It makes economic sense, since by largely locking the rookies out of cap growth, they slowly but surely have been pricing themselves out of the market. Victims of their own success. Auto workers’ unions went through something similar, back in the day.

Reply to  Tony Sommer
07/01/2019 3:08 pm

And that’s exactly the problem. When crafting their side of the contract, the vets back then didn’t look very far into the future. Came back to bite them, too.

Something more fair to the rookies would’ve prevented the problem, and while I still think that the rookie contract system under the previous contract had gotten out of control, this contract has been an over-correction. Not unusual, as such things go.

Reply to  BleedingRedAndGold
07/01/2019 4:41 pm

Same thing with public school teachers’ salaries, too. There’s a regimented pay scale, so an experienced teacher can’t accept below their “market value.”

My mom discovered the downside of that when she went looking to get re-hired after taking time off to birth and raise my brother. Public schools only wanted to hire rookie teachers, so that they’d have enough money left to buy books. Mom spent several years as basically a professional substitute teacher before she went to the darkside and became a principal.

Reply to  ArrowheadRed
07/01/2019 2:14 pm

Is that adjusted for inflation and normalized to percentage of a salary cap? If the NFL continues as it has been doing, the time will come when a backup will be making $25M and still be on a backup salary, comparatively.

And as for my own take here, IMO this article isn’t saying that we should be paying Mahomes half the salary cap annually, or even anything remotely like that. It’s saying that if we pay Pattycakes the best QB salary in the NFL, we’ll still be getting excellent value respective to the money spent. JMHO

A Lunar Ting
07/01/2019 1:53 pm

Inside joke szn

Reply to  Tony Sommer
07/01/2019 3:09 pm

I would bet that would be (to you) the “other” Tony

Reply to  Tony Sommer
07/01/2019 3:11 pm

I believe that Helen Waite is our official stenographer, so if you want to complain about the headline, you can go to her. 😉

Anthony Stratton
Reply to  Tony Sommer
07/01/2019 6:57 pm

You’re welcome.

Reply to  Tony Sommer
07/01/2019 10:53 pm

Were you responsible for the effect/affect debacle in the second paragraph? Isn’t BRAG supposed to be the copy editor?

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