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Quarterbacks, the salary cap and winning

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Does paying your franchise QB after his rookie deal keep you from putting together a winning team?

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick Mahomes just received the largest contract in NFL history (and arguably the largest in professional sports history). While the Chiefs will not be hamstrung by his contract in 2020 since Mahomes will only have a cap hit of 5.3 million, they will quickly feel the pain as his cap number goes to 24.9 million in 2021 and 31.5 million in 2022.

In this study I am going to try to answer a simple question: Does paying a QB an oversized chunk of your teams cap hurt your chances of winning? In other words, if you spend too much on your QB you will not be able to spend money to retain other key members of team or have the money to sign top free agents. Of course, you could think about the “Peyton Manning effect” where top free agents will take below market-value contracts to get a legitimate shot at a ring.

So let’s look at some data first. This will help put Mahome’s contract in perspective. This is plot of the team maximum cash spend (NFL salary cap) by year - 2010 was an uncapped year. Data presented in this article are from overthecap.com and www.pro-football-reference.com

Over the entire history of the NFL salary cap, the cap has been going up by six million per year, but if you focus on the the years 2013-2020, the cap has been going up by eleven million per year. So if the cap goes up by eleven million per year (which is dubious at this point), we can estimate what the cap will be in 2021 and beyond.

Year predicted cap
2021 209.0
2022 219.9
2023 230.8
2024 241.7
2025 252.6
2026 263.5
2027 274.4

So we can now look at Mahomes contract and predict which percentage of the team cap his salary will be by year.

Year predicted cap Mahomes cap $ in millions % of team cap
2021 209.0 $24.8 11.9%
2022 219.9 $31.5 14.3%
2023 230.8 $42.5 18.4%
2024 241.7 $40.0 16.5%
2025 252.6 $42.0 16.6%
2026 263.5 $42.0 15.9%
2027 274.4 $60.0 21.8%

So if the salary cap continues to increase at the rate that it has since 2013, Mahomes’ percentage of the Chief’s cap will only be 21.8% at it’s highest point (in 2027). His percentage should go down after that as his cap hit is scheduled to ease after that.

In looking at recent NFL history, the highest percentage of the team’s cap that a QB has consumed in one year was 2015 Drew Brees. His salary accounted for 16.4 percent of the Saint’s salary cap that year. So Mahome’s cap hit will be five percent higher (on an absolute basis in terms of percentage of the team salary cap) than any QB in modern NFL history.

So let’s look at recent franchise QBs who have gotten large contracts. In 2018 I did a study to see if there was any correlation between the percentage of the team cap that a team spends on any position group and winning percentage; there was no correlation. The highest positive correlation for any position group spend to winning percentage was 47% on the safety position in 2017.

The takeaway from this study is that you can win even if you skimp on a position group - at least from a salary cap perspective. Generally you need to invest draft capital into that position group though. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the QB position.

The Broncos invested heavily in the QB position with the signing of Peyton Manning prior to the 2012 season. After that the Broncos chose to go “cheap” on the QB, investing draft capital (Paxton Lynch) and starting Trevor Siemian in 2016 and 2017. Other teams have had much success when they have gotten it “right” in the draft at QB since QBs on their rookie contracts are significantly cheaper than FA QBs. So I looked at sixteen “franchise” QBs and plotted what percentage of the salary cap they consumed on the y-axis and their winning percentage on the X-axis to see if teams have a harder time winning once they pay their drafted franchise QBs. I apologize to those who are color blind - also note that Brady is the red square with an “X” while Mahomes is the red square with a “t”.

What this chart tells us is that you can win an expensive QB (the upper right-hand portion) AND you can win with a cheap “rookie-contract” QB (the upper left-hand corner). This is by no means comprehensive as there are many other QB who could have been included in this chart. If there is a QB who you wish to see that is not included, you can find these cap percentages at overthecap.com.

Let us focus on a few of the recent big contracts that were paid to QBs after they finished their rookie deals.

Russell Wilson

The Seahawks went a combined 36-12 (75% winning) with Wilson when he was cheap before they signed him to an extension in his fourth year. They have gone 50-29 (63%) with him at QB since then. It’s possible that some of that is due to Wilson eating up a much larger portion of the team cap over the last five seasons.

Matt Stafford

Stafford is an interesting case because he has never been able to elevate the team to consistent playoff status. During his first four years in the league he was 17-28 as a starter. Since they Lions signed him to a long-term deal, they have gone 52-51. So it would appear that the Lions actually improved once they signed Stafford to his long-terms deal, but there are many more factors in play here than Stafford.

Ben Roethlisberger

Big Ben got his pay raise in his fifth season. The Steelers won 71% (39-16) of his starts during his first four seasons and have won 66% (105-55) of his starts since. That is only a small drop in winning percentage. The investment in Ben appears to have been wise for the Steelers.

Aaron Rodgers

Rodgers is an interesting case. He did not start until his rookie deal was essentially over. His first year as a starter was his 4th season at which point the Packers had already signed him to a big contract. He ate up 12.4 percent of their salary cap in 2008 which was his first season as a starter. So we don’t know what he could have done when he was “cheap” because he didn’t play when he was still cheap.

Matt Ryan

Matt Ryan has eaten up a fairly large chunk of the Falcon’s cap for his entire career. He accounted for 5.7 percent as a rookie and has taken up as much as 15 percent during his career. During his first four seasons the Falcons went 43-19 in his starts (69%) and since then they have gone 66-61 (52%). So the case of Matt Ryan would speak to the dangers of putting too much many into the QB position, but again there are plenty of factors at play besides how much the Falcons have paid Ryan.

Tom Brady

Brady is an interesting case for two reasons. First the success of the Patriots has generally been tied to the play of the entire team and not just the QB and second Brady took less money up front to “help” the team. Brady did not start a game as a rookie, but then led the team to an 11 and 3 record in his starts in his second year. Brady first got paid in his fourth season when he accounted for 4.4 percent of the team cap. That has gone as high as roughly 15 or 16 percent (2010 which was uncapped, but when Brady earned 17.4 million). In the three years when Brady made less than 5% of the team cap, the Patriots went a combined 34-12 in his starts (74%). In the years since then they have gone 185-52 (78%). So it would appear that the money that the Pats spent on Brady did not hinder their ability to win and may have actually improved it.

Drew Brees

Brees is a case similar to Brady in that he did not start a single game as a rookie and then became the starter in his second season. Brees first got “paid” in his fifth season when his salary accounted for 9.4 percent of the Chargers cap. During his starts in his first three seasons his team went 21-21 (50%). Since then his team has gone 142-90 in his starts (61%). So for Drew Brees, it would appear that the money has team has paid him has not hurt the ability of the team to win games.

Philip Rivers

Rivers did not start in his first or second year in the league (because of Drew Brees), but then led the Chargers to a 14-2 record in his first year as a starter. He was rewarded with a big contract after that year and he went from eating up 5 percent of the team cap to 10 percent. Since he was only a starter for one “cheap” year, we have to count him with Rodgers in that it is really hard to judge the team performance during his rookie contract relative to after. FWIW the Chargers went a combined 109-99 in his starts after his first year as a starter.

Conclusion

There are three QBs on the chart who have just gotten “paid” after playing through their rookie deals: Carson Wentz, Jared Goff and Dak Prescott. The percentage cap hit for Wentz and Goff will triple or quadruple in the next year or two relative to what it was. Prescott will go from accounting for less than one half of one percent to 14 percent of the Cowboy’s cap.

Why is the relevant to the Broncos?

First it gives us some insight into whether or not Mahomes contract might to start to hurt the Chiefs (if it does) and secondly it tells us about what to expect with Drew Lock, if he truly is a franchise QB. Our window to maximize him is in the next three years when he is still cheap and we can afford to have our highest paid players on the defense. As a second round pick Lock is only under contract for three more seasons. First round draft picks can be controlled for five years while players taken after that only have four year rookie contracts.