Over the last decade, we’ve seen quarterback contracts escalate dramatically. Even with that escalation, though, investing in a quarterback–relative to the other options–has still been a relatively wise use of resources.
Right now, Washington is debating just how much Kirk Cousins is worth. He could be franchised again for a one-year cost around $23 million, or signed to a longer term deal that would no doubt put him in the top five–temporarily–in annual cap expenditure. And while you can legitimately question that Cousins is not a top five quarterback, Washington is stuck with these competing questions: (1) if we don’t retain Kirk Cousins at quarterback, then who? and (2) if we don’t pay Kirk Cousins, then who do we pay?
The salary cap continues to rise. At the same time, the rookie wage scale artificially holds down the salaries of a large number of players, many in their prime and representing the best in the league. Last year, even with it being a selection that can be based on past accomplishments and reputation, over one-third of the pro bowlers were age 26 or under. That is a group that is, individually, largely outside the top 8 in a team’s salary cap charge allocation. Ezekiel Elliott, the fourth pick in last year’s draft, was the 9th-highest cap charge for Dallas a year ago. Dak Prescott was in the bottom 10 for the team as a mid-round pick.
So with all that savings by paying below market for a large chunk of the roster, and the escalating salary cap totals, teams have to spend somewhere. So far, quarterback spending has been one of the big recipients, but still hasn’t caught up with market value. If it had, we would see the teams that spend the most at the position have no greater advantages in wins and playoff appearances.
Using data at Spotrac for team allocation of cap space, here are the records of the top 4 teams each year, from 2013 to 2016, by spending at positions.
Quarterback is at the top of the list, so relatively speaking, teams that are spending the most at QB are getting more “bang for the buck” than other positions. This chart also is Exhibit A in why Ryan Grigson’s comments about Andrew Luck hurting his defense were so dumb. The recently fired executive was born on GM third base and couldn’t get home.
Quarterback is the only one where over half of the top four spenders have made the playoffs over the last four seasons. Compare that to running back, where only 2 out of 16 teams reached the postseason (there may be some correlation rather than causation here, with teams building with a philosophy that includes paying running backs having other logical flaws as well).
Now, there are two ways to get a quarterback. You can draft one and reap the rewards of a relatively cheap contract for four seasons, leaving plenty of cap space. Seattle is an extreme example with Russell Wilson, though there are plenty of counter-examples of teams going cheap and failing. There’s more risk here in terms of performance, as plenty of busts have been drafted with an eye toward being a starter in the last decade.
The other option is to pay a veteran, whether it’s your own on an extension, or signing someone else. Here’s a look at the results when we remove all teams who had a quarterback under a rookie contract as the top salary cap allocation at the position:
CAP CHARGE WITH VETERAN STARTER MORE THAN ONE STANDARD DEVIATION ABOVE AVERAGE: 9.1 Wins
CAP CHARGE WITH VETERAN STARTER ABOVE AVERAGE (LESS THAN ONE STANDARD DEVIATION): 8.2 Wins
CAP CHARGE WITH VETERAN STARTER BELOW AVERAGE (LESS THAN ONE STANDARD DEVIATION): 7.9 Wins
CAP CHARGE WITH VETERAN STARTER MORE THAN ONE STANDARD DEVIATION BELOW AVERAGE : 7.5 Wins
That shows a clear pattern that you get what you pay for, generally, when it comes to veteran quarterbacks. There are exceptions–New England is usually around the middle of the pack in quarterback cap charges for veterans–but so far, we haven’t hit equilibrium.
If the market was equal, the best quarterbacks would cost so much that teams would have as good a chance by paying a cheap veteran and spending all that money elsewhere. We are not there yet.
And that’s why someone like Kirk Cousins, who also has the additional bargaining chip of Washington having to use a higher franchise tag, can get big money. Teams still want to save every dollar they can, and you don’t want to pay a top 15 quarterback with top 5 money. On the other hand, the top of the market is underpaid, and you can’t let Cousins walk just because you think Aaron Rodgers should be getting a lot more money.