Don't Expect the Arms Race to Slow: Teams That Pay Quarterbacks the Most Still Win More than Others

Don't Expect the Arms Race to Slow: Teams That Pay Quarterbacks the Most Still Win More than Others

NFL

Don't Expect the Arms Race to Slow: Teams That Pay Quarterbacks the Most Still Win More than Others

Matthew Stafford is the latest quarterback contract to cause folks to shake their head. Stafford, a former first overall pick, has had a solid career but has not been one of the elite quarterbacks in the game.

Here’s the argument, though, for locking him up. First, he’s still entering his prime, at age 29. You are basically buying up the age 29 to 33 years. When you look around the league, there’s a good chance that over a third of the current franchise quarterbacks will be aged out during that time. Look at the list of guys between ages 27 and 31 and see who has established themselves.

You have Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, and Andrew Luck, the only three projected starters under the age of 32 who have ever won a playoff game.

Then you have Stafford, Kirk Cousins, Andy Dalton, and Sam Bradford.

Below that age group you have Derek Carr and all the young quarterbacks we are watching to see who will emerge.

Where would you project Stafford to be in three years among quarterbacks (When Brady and Brees are in their 40’s and lots of others in their late 30’s)? I’d say top 8. And this contract will soon be passed by others.

Back in February, I wrote about why teams pay QBs top dollar. We haven’t hit the point where it, on average, provides negative or neutral return. I’m reprinting that article here:

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.

QB Salary Cap Allocations

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.

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