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I’ve been thinking about writing this post for sometime now, but the news about Colin Kaepernick’s new contract just finally got me completely motivated.  For those of you that didn’t hear, Kaepernick just signed a 6 year $110m deal, roughly $18mm per year.  That makes Kaep the 6th highest paid QB in the league, after only 2 seasons as a starter.  While you could easily argue that Kaep is the 6th best QB in the league, the more pressing question is what should that 6th rated QB really get paid?  I mean, Kaep has been very successful from a wins/losses perspective in his 29 career starts, however how much of that success is due to the team that was assembled around him?  Let’s not forget that his new contract is a $17mm raise over what he was making last season; and in the NFL you can buy a lot of talent with $17mm.  So the question becomes, not if Kaep is fairly paid with respect to what QB’s make, but are QB’s in general just overpaid?

Let’s first establish a few facts to start this discussion:

  • The NFL Salary Cap is currently $133mm
  • The NFL Roster Limit is currently 53
  • The Average NFL Salary is $1.9m
  • The Average QB Salary (when taking into account all money) is about $8mm
  • The Highest Paid Average Annual QB Salary is $22mm (Aaron Rodgers)
  • The Lowest Paid Average Annual QB Salary is $550k (Russell Wilson)

Keeping these facts in mind you can see how disproportionately large the amount of the salary cap QB’s take up in comparison to the rest of the team.  Not that a great QB isn’t worth it, however, the question is how many QB’s are really great.  Elite, which is a term that is tossed around too casually, should refer to those QB’s who can win with almost any team.  An Elite QB may in fact be worth $20mm a year, or roughly 1/7 the total salary cap, because they don’t need a ton of talent around them to win.  However, how many Elite QB’s are there… really?

NFL-QB

In my opinion there are only 4 Elite QB’s in the NFL.  Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and maybe (maybe) Andrew Luck.  These are the 4-5 QB’s in the league that have proven that they can win, and win often, no matter what team is surrounding them.  Andrew Luck may be a little early in his career to make this assessment, however he has won at an extremely high level (65% of his games) since entering the league; this with the same team that won only 1 game the year before he was drafted.  In my opinion, every QB not among these 4-5, NEEDS a strong team around them in order to win football games.  This doesn’t mean that the other 27 starting QB’s are all the same, but what it does mean is that they are more dependent on having playmakers around them in order to have success.  The problem, however, is that QB salaries have been escalating based on the bar set by the Elite QB’s rather than in terms of relative value to a teams success.  Let’s Compare 5 QB’s and show what I mean

Comp %         TD/Int Ratio          QB Rat          Winning %       Salary (Ranking)

  • Peyton Manning           65.5             491/219                     97.2                  67%              $19.2 m (6)
  • Matt Stafford                  58.3             109/73                      83.1                  38%              $17.6 m (9)
  • Matt Ryan                       63.7              153/77                      90.6                  61%              $20.7 m (3)
  • Jay Cutler                        61.1               155/112                    84.6                  53%              $18.1 m (7)
  • Alex Smith                      59.5              104/70                     81.0                  55%              $8.7  m   (15)

Now, I picked these 5 QB’s because they represent a rather appropriate picture of how appropriately QB’s are paid.  Peyton Manning is an Elite QB, it’s inarguable, and is paid as such.  Our 4 Elite QB’s, about 15% of the total starting QB’s, are all either appropriately paid or iunderpaid (Tom Brady makes only $11mm average annual salary).  Alex Smith represents the average NFL QB – all of his stats and his salary are exactly the NFL average.  Now let’s look at Stafford, Ryan and Cutler.  Cutler and Stafford both make about double what Alex Smith makes and yet they have stats that are BARELY better than Alex Smith’s, and both have lower career winning percentages.  Ryan is the most intriguing of these 5 QB’s when you compare his stats to his salary.  Ryan is clearly a very talented QB, winning nearly 61% of his games with a 90+ QB Rating and a 2-1 td/int.  However, in order to win all these games, he’s needed to be surrounded by 2 of the top 10 receivers in the NFL (Roddy White and Julio Jones).  Ryan isn’t just paid like an Elite QB, but like one of the top 3 QB’s in the league.  However, is he really that good?  Are any of Stafford, Cutler or Ryan really worth their salary?

While Ryan’s contract can be defended slightly more than Cutler or Stafford’s, the question is whether they are really worth the $10+ million dollars more than a QB like Alex Smith?  I mean what can you buy with roughly $10m in cap space?  Well let me give you an example of 10 established players (not on Rookie Deals) you could add to your team if you had an extra $10mm in cap space:

  • Brand Marshal (10mm)
  • Desean Jackson (8mm)images
  • Reggie Wayne (5.8mm)
  • Jimmy Graham (7.0mm)
  • Rob Grokowski (6.9mm)
  • Cameron Wake (6.7mm)
  • Patrick Willis (10mm)
  • LeSean McCoy (9mm)
  • Marshawn Lynch (7.5mm)

While these are just a few of the more expensive examples of what you could buy with $10mm in cap space, it does a decent job showing how much value is out there to be had in the NFL if you have the money to spend.  In fact, our newest $100m man, Colin Kaepernick, and his soon to be $100m counterpart, Russell Wilson, have been the beneficiaries of just this type of strategy.  Both Kaepernick and Wilson made less than $1m last year.  This means SF and SEA each had roughly $17mm more to spend on talent than teams like Detroit or Chi and $7m more than teams like KC.  How much of an advantage is this extra spending ability?  How much can this added money (and added team talent) contribute towards actual win/loss records?  I mean it can’t be coincidence that before SF and SEA found their bargain QB’s they were laughing stocks of the NFL.  However, since they found affordable QB options and combined that with smart player personnel moves, they have been able to field two of the top teams in the league.  That’s not to say that Kaep and Wilson don’t deserve raises, they have clearly outperformed their contracts, but how much have they benefitted from their own bargain contract?

Over the past 10 years, there have been literally dozens of teams that have either appeared in or won the Super Bowl with average or a little above average QB play.  Jake Delhomme and the Pathers, Trent Dilfer and the Ravens, Rex Grossman and the Bears, Eli Manning and the Giants and the Ravens again with Joe Flacco are just a few examples.  However, let’s highlight Manning and Flacco for a second.  Both players won their first Super Bowl’s while on their rookie deals, making an average annual salary of about $10mm.  Not coincidentally, both of those Super Bowl winning teams relied not on their QB play, but instead on their staunch defenses.  Despite this fact, and extremely average career passing statistics, both players were rewarded with $100mm + contracts.  Immediately following signing these contracts, and thus having significantly less cap space, both teams had to go into supreme rebuilding mode.  Their new contracts supremely hamstrung their teams, and because neither QB is elite, it directly effect their Win/Loss records.  While Eli won another Super Bowl, it was again due to an amazingly high pressure defense, and his career passing stats are extremely questionable.

Russell WilsonCredit: Peter Yang

The overall point of this story is it’s time for a market correction with regard to QB salaries.  QB salaries have become absolutely disconnected from their relative value to the rest of the team.  It’s not that Alex Smith should be your franchise QB IF you can have a better QB, but it’s about how much more you pay for someone like Cutler and whether the marginal return is really there.  In a salary cap league, where players seem more expendible than ever, it’s not about whether Cutler is better than Smith, but is he $10mm better?  Is your team $10mm better off by having Cutler than Alex Smith + additional top tier players?  The only way to change this is to kind of have a league wide reset, or at least simply a market correction.  I realize that QB play is at a premium in this pass happy league, but that doesn’t mean that teams are completely unable to determine the real worth of a player.  Russell Wilson is the next QB up for a big pay day, and according to Adam Schefter it could be worth upwards of $25mm a year (1/5th of a teams total salary cap).  However, seriously, is a $24mm raise really smart?  When you watch Wilson does he jump out as a player that can’t be replaced at any cost and doesn’t need talent around him to win games?  I would argue no.  He’s a good QB, better than average, who benefits greatly from a phenomenal defense, strong supporting cast, and a playbook that just asks him not to make mistakes.  He’s really just a slightly better Alex Smith, so maybe a $12mm a year player.  However, Seattle will probably forget that their success was built largely on the combination of smart player moves across the field, and pay Wilson between $20-25mm.  The same thing goes for Colin Kaepernick’s new contract.  They are just out of line with what each player is truly worth.  Why are they paid so much?  Not because Wilson or Kaepernick are really $12-15mm more valuable than Alex Smith, BUT instead because the league has no idea how to value QBs.  You can get away with paying an Elite QB, “elite money”, but when you’re just throwing elite money at average players there is no way to build a winning franchise.

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