It’ll be a quarterback, but which one?
It’s all about the quarterback this week at SB Nation. We’re talking past, present, future at the league’s most important position. If you’d like to check out the entire series, we’ve got everything related to our NFL quarterbacks week all in one place.
You don’t have to be an elite NFL quarterback to become the highest-paid player in league history. You just have to be pretty good — and fairly young.
Over the past decade, players like Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Derek Carr have all cashed the richest paychecks the league has ever seen. Their reigns atop the NFL’s salary pyramid never lasted long, however. Each year sees a new spate of megadeals that reward franchise quarterbacks while redefining the cost of competent-to-stellar passing.
In 2011, the NFL’s top salaries belonged to Peyton Manning and Tom Brady at $18 million each. Just eight years later, the league’s most valuable annual paycheck belongs to Russell Wilson at $35 million. The NFL’s biggest overall contract is Matt Ryan’s $150 million deal. Both are worthy recipients, but they’re likely to see their titles usurped in short order.
Four years from now will represent the 2019’s crop of rookie passers chance to grab that brass ring. So who will be in line for the NFL’s heftiest contract by the time 2023 rolls around?
The next decade will be lucrative for young NFL quarterbacks
Wilson and Ryan have laid a gold-plated path to the top of the income tax bracket for the quarterbacks who’ve entered the league behind them. And although this year’s financial ranks are led by two of the game’s most accomplished passers — a Super Bowl champion and an NFL MVP, respectively — that’s not always the case.
Since 2011 only one player, Aaron Rodgers, has won MVP while earning the league’s highest salary (set up by a previous MVP award in a season when 38 players had bigger average paychecks than he did). Patrick Mahomes made less than 406 other players as he shredded opposing defenses in his MVP 2018 season.
Instead, being the highest-paid player takes one of two things. Namely:
a) being a quarterback who has yet to hit his ceiling and is eligible to leave in free agency soon, or
b) being an established quarterback in his early 30s who has typically won a Super Bowl or an MVP award in the past and whose DNA is already weaved into the foundation of his team.
The first group gave us massive deals for players like Garoppolo and Stafford. The second produced Ryan and Wilson, along with other mid-30s stars like Rodgers and Peyton Manning. So, knowing what we know, who are the candidates to climb up their team’s cap sheets and secure the bag into the late 2020s?
The second contract superstars
There are several quarterbacks whose status will flip from “amazing bargain” to “cap space vacuum” as they reach the end of their rookie contracts. Mahomes provided something close to $35 million in production for the Chiefs in his first year as a starter while counting just $3.7 million against the salary cap. Kansas City can count on bargain prices for its franchise QB through 2019 and 2020 before a more expensive — but still pretty cheap! — team option pops up in 2021 for something around $22 million.
It seems unlikely the Chiefs would allow Mahomes to play a snap in ‘21 without a new contract. Most high-level young quarterbacks get new contracts before free agency can even appear on the horizon.
The Eagles did so this spring when they signed Carson Wentz to a four-year, $128 million extension. Andrew Luck had his fifth-year option exercised by the Colts, but came to terms on a five-year, $123 million extension in 2016 before the regular season could begin. Each was locked in to his team with a full season before he could even test the open market.
We’re pushing toward an NFL where Mahomes will almost certainly be its highest-paid player, but that contract is likely to come in 2021 or earlier. Will his future megadeal hold up as the league’s biggest heading into the 2023 season?
Probably not, thanks to this cache of rising stars, presented in no particular order:
Baker Mayfield, Browns
The most likely in this group is Mayfield, the first quarterback to win six games as a starter for the Browns since Brian Hoyer in 2014. His rookie contract can run through the 2022 season, and since Cleveland will have a host of other young players in need of raises by then — Myles Garrett in particular — it’s possible the Browns’ braintrust waits until after 2021 to offer Mayfield the megadeal for which he’d be primed.
Mayfield has brought a new sense of optimism to Cleveland, and breaking the same ol’ Browns cycle of depression could be worth more than $40 million annually.
Sam Darnold, Jets
Darnold had a roller coaster of a debut season for an undermanned Jets team, but the presence of Le’Veon Bell and an improved defense led by C.J. Mosley and Jamal Adams should lead to more success in 2019. The question is whether he’ll be good enough to justify his place in the top five of the 2018 draft, or if he’ll be left to twist in the wind like Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston — two other uneven first-rounders currently playing out their rookie deals without an obvious extension on the horizon.
Josh Allen, Bills
No, Allen was not particularly good as a passer in his rookie year. He wasn’t particularly accurate in college, either. But he’s got the build of a franchise quarterback and the athleticism to extend plays while confusing defenders. Allen has a long way to go leading an aerial attack, but if he’s able to push Buffalo back to the postseason and win the franchise’s first playoff game since 1995, he’ll be handsomely compensated.
Lamar Jackson, Ravens
As a rookie, Jackson guided Baltimore to a 6-1 record in relief of Joe Flacco, usurping the veteran’s spot atop the Ravens’ depth chart and planting his flag as the team’s entrenched starter. He’ll still have to answer questions about his arm after completing only 58 percent of his passes last year, and he’ll have to stay healthy after averaging 17 carries per game.
If he can, it’ll pay off; Baltimore rewarded Flacco with a huge deal after his career peaked with a Super Bowl MVP performance in 2013. He failed to live up to that contract in the following six underwhelming years, but that seems unlikely to affect negotiations too harshly given the escalating state of QB pay.
Kyler Murray, Cardinals
The 2018 Heisman winner could be Arizona’s first homegrown Pro Bowl quarterback since Neil Lomax in the ‘80s. Or he could get shunted off in an afterthought trade once head coach Kliff Kingsbury gets distracted by another QB prospect (it happened to Josh Rosen, after all). If Murray can make good on his potential, he’d be ready to sign a market-resetting extension before his team option fifth year would come due in the fall of 2023.
Daniel Jones, Giants
You can’t rule anything out with the Giants. If Dave Gettleman was willing to draft Jones at No. 6 overall thanks to his Senior Bowl performance, he’s got to be thrilled with his rookie quarterback showing out in another exhibition game.
Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Jake Fromm, K.J. Costello
These are the college stars projected to headline the NFL’s draft class of 2020. If these quarterbacks can live up to expectations, they could ink contract extensions in advance of their fourth seasons on the field.
The already-established veterans who’d hammer out big extensions
The league’s top-paid player could also be a staid veteran who’s working toward the end of his second (or third) NFL contract. This would likely be someone in his early 30s, since players 35 and older typically agree to shorter deals — think Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger, for example. With that criteria in mind, here are 2023’s veteran contenders.
Russell Wilson, Seahawks
Wilson will be heading into the final year of his 2019 extension in the summer of 2023. He’ll also be 34 years old, but his durability bodes well for his future. The Seattle star wants to play until he’s 45 and hasn’t missed a start in his seven-year pro career. There’s good reason to believe he could climb back to the NFL salary mountaintop four years from now.
Andrew Luck, Colts
Luck doesn’t have the durability Wilson does, but like his Seattle colleague he’s also graced the top of the league’s payroll leaderboard. He’ll only be 33 years old in the summer of 2023, though his current contract comes up after the 2021 season. With only $6.4 million left in guarantees after 2019, he could be due for a renegotiation even sooner.
If he or the Colts opt for a shorter deal in 2020 or one with less extensive guarantees in the near future, 2023 could provide another window for a third extension.
Cam Newton, Panthers
The once-indestructible Newton played through injury in 2018 and with a depleted receiving corps, but still posted a career-high 67.9 percent completion rate and had a 94.9 passer rating — the second-highest mark of his career behind his 2015 MVP season. While he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in 2021, Newton, like Luck, may be compelled to take a shorter-term extension that leads to a renegotiation sometime around 2023. A mid-30s return to peak form would pave the way for Newton to out-earn his counterparts.
We can’t pinpoint exactly who the NFL’s highest-paid player will be in 2023, but we do know it will be a quarterback. We also know he’ll be under the age of 35 and, more likely, under the age of 30. It’s one hell of an accomplishment to set the record for the league’s biggest contract, but it’s not one a player can expect to hold for long. In fact, multiple players on this list could wind up earning the distinction at different points four years from now.
So who will have the NFL’s top salary in 2023? That’s a question which could have more than one correct answer.
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