Lets go back to 2010. At the time, if you were a high draft pick, you could cash in BIG. Top picks were getting contracts that were the market value for the best of their respective positions, and it was creating a problem. QB Sam Bradford, the number 1 pick of the 2010 NFL Draft, signed a 6-year, $78 million deal after being drafted. This deal made him the third highest paid QB in the NFL for the 2010 season (in terms of guaranteed money), all before he ever played a game.
Something had to give.
The outlandish sums NFL rookies were being paid was one of the issues that was to be addressed as the CBA between the NFL and NFLPA was set to expire following the 2010 season. A lengthy offseason lockout in 2011 ended on the eve of the NFL preseason, with only one game (the NFL Hall of Fame game) being cancelled in the process.
A component of the new CBA was a rookie wage scale. This scale pushed down salaries and guaranteed money for rookies, as well as limiting the length of their contracts to 4 years (with a fifth-year option that can be exercised by the team, but at a cost connected to the market value of top players at their position).
Cam Newton was the first number 1 overall pick to sign a contract under these parameters, signing with Carolina for 4 years and $22 million (all guaranteed), a drastically smaller sum compared to Sam Bradford.
This wage scale signaled a new era in the NFL.
The Seattle Model
The 2012 NFL postseason featured something quite unique compared to past history. Half of the QBs that started for their respective teams were drafted in 2011 and 2012, all being paid under the rookie wage scale.
Colin Kaepernick had the best run of the bunch, leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl (but unfortunately coming up just short). The 2011 second round pick had signed a rookie deal worth $5.12 million over 4 years, 2 years of which remained following the 2012 season.
Simply put, if you could find your franchise QB in the draft, and he quickly showed he could get into the postseason (and possibly make a deep run), you could allocate funds elsewhere, and go all-in.
Which is exactly what the Seattle Seahawks did following the 2012 season.
With 2012 third round pick Russell Wilson entering Year 2 of a 4-year contract worth just $2.99 million OVERALL, Seattle had it’s star QB under contract through 2015 for less than $1 million per season. With a team that had just reached the divisional round, and had it’s QB locked up for CHEAP, Seattle was able to spend a vast amount of money on other parts of the roster.
They went out and got Wilson a top WR by trading for Percy Harvin, and then signing him to a 6-year, $67 million deal. They also brought in pass rusher Michael Bennett, and gave safety Kam Chancellor an extension.
This retooled team went on to win Super Bowl XLVIII, and came seconds away from repeating in Super Bowl XLIX.
Although other players on cheap rookie deals aided Seattle’s postseason runs (see: Richard Sherman and Bobby Wagner), having a franchise QB locked up for such a small price was vital. It led to two Super Bowl appearances, but also confirmed that one model of winning was going all-in with a QB on a rookie contract.
Russell Wilson was more than worthy of a big payday, and Seattle obliged. In 2015, Wilson and Seattle agreed to a 4-year, $87.7 million deal, tearing up the last year of his old deal in the process. However, since that contract was signed, Seattle has only made the playoffs twice, and only won their division once. They are 2-2 in their 4 playoff games in this time, and missed out in 2017. This season, Seattle is 7-5, right in the thick of the race for a Wild Card spot.
Since Seattle has had to pay it’s QB (and other stars), they have not been as successful.
You might be asking: what were the supposed to do, let Wilson walk?
Of course not. Once you find franchise QB, you lock him up until the day he doesn’t have it (and maybe even after that). You need a QB to win in this league, and Seattle has one. However, the reality is that the last QB to lead his team to a Super Bowl on his second contract was Eli Manning. Joe Flacco was the QB of the next Super Bowl champion, and was on a rookie deal (signed under the old wage scale).
So once the day comes that you need to pay your young QB, is all hope lost? Well not exactly
The Veteran QB
QBs on rookie deals may have won Super Bowls in 2012 and 2013, but between 2014 and 2016, it was two veterans who won in all: Tom Brady (twice) and Peyton Manning.
So you might be asking why I put you all through reading about going all-in with a QB on a rookie deal, only to tell you that there’s an exception to that rule (and a pretty big one).
Well, my logic is that it is not an exception, but just another part of the type of QB you can win with in the NFL.
Since Eli Manning led the New York Giants, the QBs to lead their teams to a championship were either A) on a rookie deal, or B) 15+ year veterans.
2012: Joe Flacco (Year 5; rookie deal)
2013: Russell Wilson (Year 2; rookie deal)
2014: Tom Brady (Year 15)
2015: Peyton Manning (Year 18)
2016: Tom Brady (Year 17)
2017: Carson Wentz (Year 2; rookie deal)*
*Nick Foles was the starting QB for Super Bowl LII, but Wentz started the first 13 games of the season (11-2 record) before he tore his ACL
Maybe it’s just that Brady and Manning are legends, but Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Big Ben have a shot of joining this list this season, and Rodgers will be back in the fold starting next season. 2014-2016 (and the standings this season) show that the veteran QB that has gained wisdom over the years in the NFL can lead a team to a Super Bowl just as easily as the young QB on a rookie deal.
Also, the winners of the past 6 Super Bowls show that it has become almost impossible to immediately adjust to paying your QB on his second deal (due to the smaller salaries rookies have been paid since 2011), and thus having less money to spend on the remainder of the roster.
Prior to his payday, Russell Wilson only accounted for 0.5-0.6% of Seattle’s salary cap each season. However, since his payday, Wilson went up to accounting for 4.9% of Seattle’s cap in 2015, and the following seasons he accounted for the following percent of Seattle’s salary cap in that season: 11.9%, 8.8%, and 13.3% respectively.
Having to allocate an extra 10% to your QB following years of not doing so means you need to shave 10% of spending to the remainder of your roster. In 2018, the salary cap is $177.2 million, meaning 10% of that is $17.72 million. That’s the difference between having enough money to pay Percy Harvin and Michael Bennett in 2013, and paying your QB his full worth.
With the market value for QBs increasing each season, Seattle may have been lucky compared to what other teams may soon have to pay their young guns (see: Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles).
So at this moment, it seems like once you pay your young QB in Year 4 or 5, he may not have the perfect roster around him (or learn how to win with less) until Year 15.
Lets look at the starting QBs of the current playoff teams across the NFL
- Patrick Mahomes II (Year 2; rookie contract)
- Tom Brady (Year 19)
- Deshaun Watson (Year 2; rookie contract)
- Ben Roethlisberger (Year 15)
- Philip Rivers (Year 15)
- Joe Flacco* (Year 11)
- Jared Goff (Year 2; rookie contract)
- Drew Brees (Year 18)
- Mitch Trubisky (Year 2; rookie contract)
- Dak Prescott (Year 3; rookie contract)
- Russell Wilson (Year 7)
- Kirk Cousins (Year 7)
*Flacco has missed the past 3 games, and rookie Lamar Jackson is 3-0 in his place
Every division leader has a QB that is either on their rookie deal or that has played at least 15 seasons in the NFL, and after that, you begin to see the QBs that are in the middle of their careers (and making a LOT more).
Now lets look at the starting QBs of the teams looking in on the playoffs
- Ryan Tannehill (Year 7)
- Andrew Luck (Year 7)
- Case Keenum (Year 7)
- Marcus Mariota (Year 4; rookie contract)
- Jeff Driskel* (Year 3)
- Cam Newton (Year 8)
- Carson Wentz (Year 3; rookie deal)
- Mark Sanchez** (Year 10)
- Jameis Winston (Year 4)
- Aaron Rodgers (Year 14)
*Andy Dalton (Year 7) was put on IR following Week 12, and started every game for the Bengals prior to his injury
** Alex Smith (Year 14) started the first 9 games of the season for Washington, and he went 6-3; this was followed by 3 starts from Colt McCoy (0-3), and he was put on IR following Week 13
The only outliers on this list are Carson Wentz, Marcus Mariota, and Jameis Winston (Jeff Dirskel and Mark Sanchez accidentally ended up part of this exercise); Wentz and Mariota led their teams to the postseason in 2017, while Winston only has one winning season (9-7 in 2016). If you account for Dalton and Smith, the average cap hit for the remaining 7 QBs (who are in Years 7-14) is $17,853,809.43.
The Colts have not made the playoffs since 2014 (the third year of Andrew Luck’s rookie contract).
Ryan Tannehill has only led Miami to the playoffs once (2016; and he got hurt prior to the season ending), and it was during the second year of his contract extension.
Cincinnati has not made the playoffs since 2015 (the second year of Andy Dalton’s extension).
Denver has had a multiple starting QBs since Peyton Manning retired in 2015, and have not made the playoffs since.
Cam Newton reached the Super Bowl in the first year of his contract extension (cap hit of $13 million), but the Panthers have only made the postseason once since (a Wild Card loss to the Saints last season).
From the beginning of 2011 to the time of his injury, Alex Smith had the second best record of a starting QB in the NFL (75-35-1), however, he has a postseason record of 2-5. He got a payday in Kansas City and Washington, but those two seasons in San Francisco, he made $7.025 million per season, but was replaced for a cheaper and more dynamic Colin Kaepernick as a payday was approaching.
Aaron Rodgers won a Super Bowl in 2010 under his second contract (salary of $6.5 million that season), but has not made it back since.
7 full NFL seasons (with season 8 in progress) have taken place since the rookie wage scale was implemented, and the only season a starting QB led his team to a Super Bowl win that was not on their rookie contract nor a 15+ year veteran was 2011 (Eli Manning). Joe Flacco won a Super Bowl under a rookie contract in 2012, but it was signed under the old CBA (his salary was $6.76 million).
On one hand, teams that were previously bad have a path to instant success if they find the right QB, but it comes at the cost of having to pay that player their true value beginning in Years 4-6. If the past 7+ seasons have shown us anything, once you pay that young QB, your team’s performance takes a hit for several years, and it takes great QB play to just reach the Super Bowl.
Look at the losing Super Bowl starting QBs since 2012:
2012: Colin Kaepernick (Year 2; rookie contract)
2013: Peyton Manning (Year 16)
2014: Russell Wilson (Year 3; rookie contract)
2015: Cam Newton (Year 5)
2016: Matt Ryan (Year 9)
2017: Tom Brady (Year 18)
The only QBs on this list that were not on their rookie contract nor 15+ year veterans, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan, won the NFL MVP those seasons. So if you don’t have a QB falling under the given criteria, the only hope you even have of making a deep postseason run is if your franchise QB playing out of his mind.
I think it is important to talk about the Seattle model because it is gaining legitimacy yet again. In 2013 and 2014, no star QB came out of the draft (the best QB of those years is Teddy Brdigewater). In 2015, it was Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, but we know they have taken a long time to develop.
In 2016, we began to see QBs worth investing in emerge again with Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Dak Prescott. By using the Seattle model, Philly won a title, and Los Angeles is in position to win one. In 2017, Mitch Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson entered the league, and each of their teams are division leaders who look set to do well in the next few seasons. This year, five QBs were drafted in the first round. Baker Mayfield looks legit, and Cleveland has tons of cap space this offseason, and they will have a new head coach; Sam Darnold looks like he needs a solid coach to be legit, and the Jets also have tons of cap space.
The Seattle model is being used by Los Angeles and Philly, and the Jets and Browns could be in line to use it very shortly. With the path it gave Seattle and Philly to win, as well as San Francisco to compete, why not use it if you’re a team with a young QB and looking for an avenue to win?
As good as the Seattle model is in the short term, it does create setbacks for teams that use it, which (as the NFL probably enjoys) creates parity within the NFL.
Just look at the AFC North.
After winning in 2012 (and then paying Joe Flacco), the Baltimore Ravens have only made the playoffs once. Following the championship, Cincinnati won 2 division titles with young QB Andy Dalton, and Big Ben won one in 2014. As Dalton required a payday in 2015, the next season was when the Steelers (and veteran QB Big Ben) took over the division.
I think what you are seeing happen is the team with the QB on the rookie deal may win the division for a few years, but when they get paid, another young QB, or a veteran QB, will take over winning the division. Once a payday is required for the new QB, or the veteran retires, the cycle will continue, and the original young QB will soon become a veteran, vying for the division yet again (think Philip Rivers in the late 2000s, then never getting past Peyton Manning in 2012-2015, but now looking like he’s having a resurrection). This assumes the teams in the division are competent and can A) identify a young QB, or B) have a QB already that will age gracefully.
It will take truly elite QB play (like that of Newton and Ryan) from those who have received their second contract to cut through this model, because otherwise, the team with the young QB will have the competitive edge due to being able to allocate significantly more money to the rest of the roster, and the teams with the veteran QBs (Brady, Brees, Big Ben, Rivers) will have an edge due to learning how to play with what they have, as well as their team learning how to build around their bloated contracts.
Maybe it’s just my own crazy theory, but for the foreseeable future, the team with the QB on a rookie deal, or the team with a QB that has been in the league for at least 15 seasons, has a true competitive advantage over the rest of the NFL, and will continue to win Super Bowls moving forward.
Follow Nick on Twitter (@Nick_Collins14)