QBs: Only Invest in Young and Capable, or Well Above Average
The rest, can take a hike.
Some teams make their quarterbacks a franchise QB based on the big contract and subsequent extensions that come after playing out their rookie deal. Lamar Jackson has played eight games in his NFL career. He’s got a bright future. But for now he’s got a rookie contract that he’ll play under at pennies on the dollar compared to some veterans in the league. Just because the Ravens are going forward with the polarizing Jackson, doesn’t mean he is the franchise quarterback. They have plenty of time to asses this situation before tagging him as such if they choose.
Recent history is showing us that young quarterbacks are figuring this game out at record paces. More on that to come. For now, I’m going to group every quarterback in the NFL, and we’ll see how the Ravens are going to be in an advantageous position with Lamar Jackson under cheap control for three more years.
One could argue that in the long run, the Ravens were the losers in the Joe Flacco franchise quarterback deal. I’ll say that I’ll take the Super Bowl if it meant sacrificing a few good years to follow. Flacco earned six years at $120.6M. Structured in a way that it would be crippling to the teams salary cap situation if they didn’t address Flacco with an extension after three of those six years. Sure enough they extended him like clockwork. A three year extension on the deal worth $66.4M in order to restructure the money and make it comparable to the other top paid quarterbacks in the NFL. Essentially, a six-year deal was given with complete intention of it being a nine-year deal. Ravens brass wanted Joe Flacco for life, fourteen years total. Eleven though is nothing to sneeze at as Flacco will suit up somewhere else next year.
Of course we know that Joe Flacco’s first five years that cost the Ravens $23.8M in cap dollars combined, went far better than his last five, call it six years now costing the Ravens $108M in cap dollars in the process. Not counting $16M in dead money the Ravens will carry if/when they cut/trade Flacco this offseason.
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Luckily for the Ravens, they don’t have to think about a long term commitment to Lamar Jackson for three to four more years. Instead of spreading out the dead money from Flacco over the next two years, they should put it all against the 2019 cap and get past it A.S.A.P. Jackson is in a prime position cap wise with a select group of quarterbacks and if Flacco is off the books in 2020, that year’s salary cap looks a lot more promising for the Ravens with controlled cost, value, at the most important position.
This is what I call the “best bang for your buck” group. These are guys exceeding expectations while still counting very little against the salary cap due to their rookie contracts.
Of these nine men, seven of them led their teams to the playoffs, and Baker Mayfield coming on after a few games, and without coach Hue Jackson holding them back, has the Browns on the rise. With these guys costing so little against the salary cap, teams have room to add talent in free agency, or retain top talent elsewhere on the roster.
This is small set of young quarterbacks that are basically in flux. Rookie seasons that raised some questions. New coaching staffs coming in. Whether they are considered value, isn’t quite clear yet.
The next group contains what I’m calling, “prove it guys”. Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota both have had their fifth year options exercised as first round picks and will play with a cap hit north of $20.9M for 2019.. In Joe Flacco’s “prove it” year, his cap hit was $8M, and he proved it all right. All the way to a championship, Super Bowl MVP, and the biggest contract in the NFL at the time.
The other in the group is Jimmy Garoppolo who is a special case. As Tom Brady’s understudy, he was traded to the 49ers who extended him with a big, but front loaded rather than back loaded deal like the Ravens gave Joe Flacco back in the day. San Francisco wanted to pay Garoppolo for what they expected to get from him now. Interesting deal carrying a massive 2018 cap hit of $37M. But that gets nearly cut in half, down to $19.35M in 2019. Coming off an ACL injury, he’ll have 2019 to show the 49ers he can recover and regain his ability. If not, San Fran can get out of that deal comfortably after 2019 if they desire, with only $4.2M in dead money while if they keep him past 2019, the cap hit climbs back up into the range with other franchise QBs at $26M+.
None of these young guys listed so far are franchise quarterbacks yet though. When you talk franchise quarterback, you are wanting someone to without question lead your team until the day they retire. You want them leading your team for the next decade, even plan on them doing it past their 35th birthday. Some teams have gotten that, and continue to get that. Others look like they have made smart investments on guys who are well on their way as they reach or have cleared age 30. These are “franchise quarterbacks” that teams can’t be too upset about investing heavily in over the years.
My final group I’ll call, “in hindsight…” because you wonder if teams really wish they didn’t tie up so much in the player, despite it being a sound decision at the time based on nothing more than precedent. Players getting what the market dictated. This is a group of guys that got paid based on one season, a couple seasons. “Fantasy points” rather than winning consistently. Or maybe they didn’t hold up their end of their big money deals after showing a lot of upside as a youngster. They have cashed in big, maybe have peaked in their careers, and you don’t really feel great one way or another about them today. All contracts are built differently, but if the option is equal output for fractions of their salary, you’d rather have any of the nine guys from the first table, than the nine guys in this group.
Notice out of this group of nine, middle aged, past their rookie contract players, none made the playoffs except Joe Flacco, who had the Ravens at 4-5, played about average, before the team switched over to Lamar Jackson. Almost all of the names on this list carry a 2019 estimated percentage of the cap hit in line with the more elite names in the franchise category.
If history teaches us anything, it’s that when teams are faced with the decision of making their young star a franchise quarterback, or investing big dollars on a guy who flashed a few times rather than carried the team often, only half of those teams are reaping the rewards of that decision. Half of the teams are left holding the bag and suffer because of it.
That best bang for your buck list has some great young names on it. But don’t be surprised if only four of those nine guys are living up to their next contract in 2021, 2022, 2023 and beyond. Self-assessment of the quarterback position should top every teams list of priorities. The last place you want to be is saying “in hindsight…” while under-performers take up massive amounts of your salary cap space, not allowing you to retain other key players, or be active in free agency.
Large allocations of salary to the quarterback position should only be given to those proven they can carry a team and make players around them better. The three guys in their “prove it” campaign, Winston, Mariota, Garoppolo, I wouldn’t give big dollars to any of them, and I’d take a serious look for a quarterback in the upcoming draft that could be developed for 2020. Not some sixth round flier either. We know who the guys are who can take any team and carry it. Winston, Mariota, and Garoppolo are not those guys. Those guys profiles look closer to the ones in the “in hindsight…” group than the ones in the “franchise” group.
However, if Tampa, Tennessee, and San Francisco want to act in line with precedent, playing it safe and locking up a mediocre established pro even longer, knock yourself out. I would be looking at discount prices, investing draft stock to land the next Pat Mahomes, Jared Goff, even Mitch Trubisky or Deshaun Watson who are better than Winston, Mariota, and Garoppolo. They are soon to be no longer young and capable, and they aren’t well above average either. They are where you don’t want be throwing franchise quarterback money.