Pass Protection: The New QB Market
Updated: Jun 19, 2021
Quarterbacks are the centerpiece of football teams. Historically, we revere the quarterbacks that have won the most Super Bowls, those that were the best leaders, and those that have won a greater number of Most Valuable Player Awards. It’s no coincidence that nine of the last ten, and 17 of the last 20, MVP award winners have been quarterbacks. When looking at how rebuilding franchises use their draft picks, the quarterback shines as the most sought-after asset in that endeavor, with 15 of the last 20 first overall NFL draft picks being promising young QBs.
Then there nare teams that are trying to “win-now;” those that are well positioned to win their respective division and go on to compete for the championship. Teams that have recently been in the championship conversation year in and year out include the Packers, Saints, Chiefs, and Steelers; teams that are led by some of the premier quarterbacks in the league today. Tom Brady leaving for Tampa Bay last off-season was the main difference in both the Patriots going from being a perennial championship contender to missing the playoffs entirely, and the Buccaneers turning into a championship caliber team. Such influence in the game seems to be strong evidence that the NFL is a QB focused league. The question for the franchise owners then becomes, how do we protect that asset and be competitive in the future? The current market suggests two answers: trade up or sign big.
Prior to this current offseason, trades involving quarterbacks to move into starting roles were relatively scarce, with only three coming in the last six years (the Eagles swapping Nick Foles for Sam Bradford from the Rams in 2015, Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers in 2017, and Ryan Tannehill to the Titans in 2019). These moves had mixed results. Sam Bradford would only start for a season for the Eagles, before they moved on to Carson Wentz, who in 2017 would lead them to the Super Bowl in which Nick Foles notoriously returned and helped them win the championship. “Jimmy G” would lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2020 in a losing effort, and Ryan Tannehill led the Titans to a division championship in the 2020 season. While the Eagles seemingly tried to undo their trade by re-signing Foles, the other trades have been successful for their franchises.
It might be these recent success stories that have led to a more robust trade rumor mill in this 2021 offseason. There is no shortage of quarterbacks that either want a trade, or their team is at least open to hearing offers, from the likes of Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, and Sam Darnold, to name a few. This leaves those teams, along with a few others such as the Broncos and Washington Football Team, looking to upgrade, or at least transfer, their passers. There is also evidence that the players may have an increased power over where they end up in this current market. Deshaun Watson, for one, has been very vocal about his desire to be traded, going so far as to tell the Texans’ newly hired Head Coach that he does not intend on playing for the team again.
Then there are the trades that have already been completed this offseason: the Stafford-Goff exchange and Carson Wentz going to the Colts. The trade between the Lions and the Rams for their respective former quarterbacks, Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff, was a blockbuster of a deal, with the Lions getting not only former NFC Champion QB Goff, but also a third round draft pick in 2021, along with two first round picks in 2022 and 2023. Subsequent to that, the Eagles sent their own Carson Wentz to the Colts in exchange for a third round draft pick in 2021, and a conditional second rounder that could turn into a first round pick in 2022. With the Stafford trade setting a new bar in the market, teams looking to make a deal will now be in a new range created by these two deals, which will likely set the tone for an active offseason.
Some teams are focused not on signing new talent, but on locking up the players they think will be their franchise star for the future. However, new deals are pushing the upper bound of the market way up, creating a new standard for what the NFL’s biggest stars are looking to get in terms of salary.
Russell Wilson’s new deal in 2019, where he signed a contract extension valued at $140 million over 4 years, for an average annual value of $35 million, was a record at the time. This would be outdone the next year, when Deshaun Watson signed his own extension for an average annual base salary of $39 million. Later in 2020, another contractual record would be set when Patrick Mahomes signed a 10 year extension , which will see him get an average base salary of $45 million a year, and carries a total value of $450 million (the largest contract by far). The latest big money contract to be signed came this offseason, when Dak Prescott agreed to a new deal for 4 years at a total of $160 million, placing him neatly among this echelon of quarterbacks at $40 million in average annual salary.
So there lies the new market for quarterback signings, with the low thirty millions looking like a distant memory, and the forties becoming the new normal. Interestingly enough, the question arises: are these deals worth their value? With two of these four players being associated with the trade rumors, perhaps the financial investment was not enough for these teams to keep their most vital asset content. Additionally, players like Prescott and Watson have not translated their value into success the way that Wilson and Mahomes have, with those two making multiple Super Bowl appearances each.
A final consideration is the amount of capital that such big contracts absorb, taking away the ability to build a well-rounded team that can translate into championship wins. Notably, Mahomes salary increase will not take effect until 2022, when his hit against the cap will jump from $7.43 million per year, to $35.79 million. In effect, the Chiefs team has not dealt with that sizable contract over the last two seasons, in which they made two trips to the Super Bowl. Whether such investments in quarter backs will continue to see such positive returns remains to be seen.
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