There is a good story in the Washington Post pointing out that some of the most expensive NFL quarterbacks will be missing the playoffs this year, replaced by some of the cheapest, and raising a major question about the NFL moving forward.
Does it still pay off to pay big for a quarterback?
The idea is this: There is a huge roster-building advantage in having a starting quarterback who is still playing on his rookie contract, like Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff and Mitch Trubisky are. It frees up a lot of money that can be spent on other parts of the team. This has always been true. What’s new is that the rules and strategies of football today make it easier to play quarterback than it used to be, devaluing the position and making it an even better move to build a team around a cheap, young quarterback who’s just good enough.
Last week, a factoid tweeted by the NFL’s research department spread around social media. Five of the six highest-paid NFL quarterbacks based on average annual value – Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Jimmy Garoppolo, Matthew Stafford and Derek Carr – are in line to miss the playoffs. And Kirk Cousins, the other member of the top six, has Minnesota clinging to the second wild-card spot.
The graphic was slightly disingenuous – Garoppolo tore his left ACL in Week 3, costing him the remainder of the season. It was also slightly arbitrary – Drew Brees, the seventh-highest paid quarterback, has led the New Orleans Saints to the best record in the NFC and may win the MVP.
The overall point was accurate. The NFL’s most valuable commodity is a capable quarterback on his rookie contract. It allows teams to build strong, deep rosters. More than ever, it does not force teams to pay a prohibitive penalty for not playing an elite player at the sport’s most important position.
This all depends on your definition of “capable,” obviously. Mahomes and Josh Allen are both on their rookie deals, but Mahomes is a good bit more “capable.” Same goes for Deshaun Watson (capable) and Sam Darnold (not capable), Jared Goff (capable) and Josh Rosen (not capable).
If you just look at the division leaders, you get the following list of quarterbacks:
- Drew Brees
- Mitch Trubisky
- Jared Goff
- Dak Prescott
- Deshaun Watson
- Ben Roethlisberger
- Patrick Mahomes/Phillip Rivers
- Tom Brady
The bottom quarterback rating among those players is 92.6, which belongs to Prescott, and at the top is the league leader Brees (120.8) followed by Mahomes (114.8) and Rivers (112.4).
Completion percentage and yards seem to matter. The lowest completion percentage among division-leading quarterbacks is Goff’s 64.5 (21st in the NFL) with the highest being Brees’ league-leading 75.7, and all of these quarterbacks except the running Trubisky are in the top half of the league in yards.
But the touchdown numbers are all over the place, as are the interceptions. Brees has only thrown four picks, while Roethlisberger has a league-leading 15.
So there does seem to be a baseline level of competence that can be cleared by a number of young, inexpensive quarterbacks. But the playoffs are also going to be well populated by old, expensive ones.
It’s probably easier to win a division with a young quarterback than it used to be, but it’s still pretty hard, and for the most part that quarterback still has to be pretty good.