NFL Playoff Teams Find Winning Formula With Rookie-Contract QBs

The Eagles’ Jalen Hurts experiment started off a bit wobbly, but Philadelphia’s decision to draft the quarterback in the second round in 2020 has looked brilliant for the last four months.

Hurts struggled to find consistency in his first two NFL seasons. But this year, the 24-year-old signal-caller became the second-youngest quarterback in NFL history to win 14 games in a season, trailing Hall-of-Famer Dan Marino, who accomplished the feat with the Miami Dolphins at age 23 in 1984.

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And the top-seeded Eagles are getting good value from Hurts, who is in the third year of his rookie deal and making just over $1 million this season—well under star quarterback market value of roughly $40 million per season. The team-friendly contract allowed the club to bolster its roster and re-sign some of its best new additions, such as Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Brown and edge rusher Haason Reddick.

Hurts is one of eight starting quarterbacks on this season’s playoff teams still being paid on the league’s rookie wage scale, showing how the trend of owners and roster builders looking to capitalize on a young QB still on his rookie deal is stronger than ever. Thanks to the NFL’s wage scale, with its hard limits on earnings in a player’s first contract, teams have been incentivized to build around QBs who don’t take up a huge slice of the salary cap.

“It creates the ability to put highly talented players around the quarterback without sacrificing a quarter of your salary cap to one guy,” former Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley said in a phone interview. “It’s really about strength in numbers.”

Former New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum says being equipped with a strong quarterback still on a rookie contract allows you to compete with a “built-in savings.”

That, of course, is often wiped out when it’s time to start contract negotiations; recent long-term quarterback deals—such as those for the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes (10 years, $450 million) and the Cardinals' Kyler Murray (five year, $230 million)—have reset the market. But until it’s time for the owners to fork over the cash, rookie contracts offer a great opportunity for them to invest in other areas, such as scouting and free agency.

“It’s new that these young quarterbacks are coming in and playing right away at a playoff level,” Tannenbaum, founder of The 33rd Team, said in a phone interview. “It’s almost unprecedented.”

NFL super agent Leigh Steinberg points to the quicker development curve for QBs, part of a modern training system that allows well-groomed rising stars like the Chargers' Justin Herbert and the Bengals' Joe Burrow to come in early in their careers and make a notable impact.

“They’re [coming into the NFL] at a much higher level of productivity,” said Steinberg, who has represented eight former No. 1 overall draft picks. “That’s what allows the younger quarterback to advance like this, faster than their predecessors. Given the structure of the cap, if that young player can be productive, it gives a team a four-to-five-year window to make a commitment for a long-term contract.”

The growing number of precocious quarterbacks, boosted by college playbooks that mirror NFL schemes, has certainly contributed to the trend. But perhaps the biggest catalyst was the NFL introducing the rookie wage scale in 2011, which essentially bases a player’s pay rate on where they are drafted and leaves little room for negotiating.

Mahomes is the most recent quarterback to win the Super Bowl while on a rookie deal. After signing his huge extension, the team has had to reshuffle in certain spots to make the salary cap work. One of those cost-saving moves meant trading away wide receiver Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins; the team granted Hill a new $120 million deal.

The defending AFC champion Bengals, one of the lowest-valued NFL franchises with one of the lowest payrolls in the league, are attempting another title run with Burrow, their star quarterback still on his rookie deal.

Of all the playoff quarterbacks still on rookie deals, Baltimore's Lamar Jackson stands out. He’s by far the best paid, making $23 million this season, with his fifth year being exercised. The impending free agent hasn’t agreed to a new extension and likely finds himself as a candidate for a franchise tag. Or the team could move on from Jackson, letting him look elsewhere for the guaranteed mega deal he reportedly seeks.

With Jackson still out with an injury since Dec. 4, the Ravens have skidded into the postseason, losing their last three of four games, and Jackson’s leverage looks stronger, because he won’t be easy to replace. Moving on from cheap quarterbacks before they get expensive makes sense conceptually, except for one issue: There’s a dearth of elite NFL quarterbacks to choose from.

“The longer you’re sitting in that [GM] seat, the more you realize how much you need to have a bona fide quarterback in that position, or you have no chance,” former Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “Every general manager and team builder is judged on their ability to land a quarterback.”

And when you land a promising one, time is limited to get the most bang for your buck. Eight teams are looking to take advantage of the system as the postseason opens on Saturday. 

Hurts became eligible to sign an extension on Monday. But, for now, the bargain QB and the Eagles are focused on trying to win a Super Bowl.

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