Is your favorite NFL team's quarterback worth big money?

Jared Goff’s down the line contract decision epitomizes the deal with the devil of top-level quarterback money. (AP)
Jared Goff’s down the line contract decision epitomizes the deal with the devil of top-level quarterback money. (AP)

In fantasy football, the quarterback is the least valuable of all the major positions and is easily replaceable. The state of it is to the point where we commonly see owners stream different players and approach their starter on a “week-by-week” basis.

This phenomenon might be the most out of touch with reality as it gets in our little fake game.

No one needs to remind us that in the real-life NFL, the quarterback is far and away the most valuable position in the sport. The money supports that reality. We currently have 16 quarterbacks making over $20 million per year, six making north of $25 million and several more set to remake the market in the next few offseasons.

Recent years have brought us the understanding that the good young quarterback on a rookie contract is one of the biggest team-building edges in the game. We’ve watched as organizations like the Bears, Rams and Chiefs have stacked assets around their discounted starter. Yet, it was a January piece by The Ringer’s Kevin Clark that revealed the other side of that revelation: What a true burden the top-level quarterback contracts are when doled out to the wrong player.

Since reading that, quarterback contracts and the team-building implications they carry have been an obsession of mine. Every team will be faced with the eventual reality of handing out a top-level contract to their good quarterback (if they’re lucky enough to have one) when their deal runs out. Jimmy Garoppolo got one after five damn starts with his new team. Timing is everything and the market carries an inevitability.

[Pressing Offseason Fantasy Questions: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West]

As fun of an experiment as it would be, we should believe a team has the stones to willingly walk into quarterback wilderness when they have a proven above-average starter when we see it. The idea of a club like the Rams, with a pristine offensive ecosystem, cycling cheap rookie deal quarterbacks through without a commitment is a fun thought experiment, but seems unlikely in the business-driven NFL.

Pay the right guy the top-level contract, you’ll stay in contention and no one will ever question your decision.

Hand out that $25 million deal to a quarterback incapable of thriving outside of structure or elevating those around him, you’ll alter the course of your roster-building forever.

With the stakes in mind, let’s go through each NFL team’s quarterback and decide if they’re worthy of money inevitably handed out to starters at their position. This is all my opinion and judgement, so feel free to voice your disagreement to me on Twitter (@MattHarmon_BYB).

We’ll sort all 32 rosters’ loosely-defined current starter into three simple categories:

  • Worth it.

  • On the bubble (might have a lean but need more data).

  • Not worth it.

All salary data provided by OverTheCap.Com.

Arizona Cardinals

Starter: Josh Rosen

Current per year salary: $4.4 million (35th)

It’s hard to come out of Josh Rosen’s rookie season with too many positive takeaways. The rookie quarterback was placed in an arduous circumstance on an offense that lacked pass-catching depth, was hampered by poor coaching and featured the NFL’s worst pass protection, according to Pro Football Focus. Much like Jared Goff’s rookie season, it’s a challenge to get a true read on Rosen given the environment he operated in. Rosen obviously still has worlds to prove to earn consideration for a massive contract, but making a definitive statement coming out of his rookie season would be unwise.

Verdict: On the bubble.

Atlanta Falcons

Starter: Matt Ryan

Current per year salary: $30 million (2nd)

Throughout his career, Matt Ryan’s general stock has been a topic of debate. His MVP 2016 season catapulted him to the heights of the quarterback pantheon. Since then, he’s stabilized but has still been one of the best statistical passers in the NFL. Ryan’s combined adjusted yards per attempt (8.15) from 2017 to 2018 ranks seventh among quarterbacks. He’s done that despite a clear downgrade at the offensive coordinator spot and declining play on the line. The Falcons have plenty of work to do to get back into contention. They do not need to worry about their proven quarterback.

Verdict: Worth it.

[Pressing Offseason Fantasy Questions: NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West]

Baltimore Ravens

Starter: Lamar Jackson

Current per year salary: $2.4 million (44th)

As the final pick in the 2018 first round, Jackson will prove to be one of the better deals in the NFL at $2.4 million per year if he provides starter-level play. Despite the Ravens’ 6-1 run to the playoffs with him under center, there will be questions coming out of Jackson’s rookie season regarding his long-term viability. The Ravens were the most run-heavy team in the NFL with Jackson under center. He left plenty to be desired as an accurate passer, especially outside the numbers. His rushing ability shouldn’t be glossed over just because it was a known strength. Jackson is one of the most dazzling runners ever to grace the quarterback position. He’s rare.

We have much left to learn about Jackson. Clearly, he has the athletic ceiling to be something special at the position. If you liked Jackson coming out, you’re still hopeful he can get there despite some rocky moments as a rookie. If you didn’t, you’ve already seen your fears.

Verdict: On the bubble.

Buffalo Bills

Starter: Josh Allen

Current per year salary: $4.4 million (32nd)

Josh Allen was an undeniable spark-plug in the second-half of the season for the Buffalo Bills. On an offense that lacked talent at the skill-positions and fielded a below-average offensive line, Allen’s grit and playmaking ability brought something to watch. Nevertheless, Allen still offered the same flaws that made him a hard pass for some evaluators. The rookie completed just 52.8 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions than touchdowns. His rookie season was largely a Rorschach test; you’ll see what you want out of it.

The Bills need to get more from Allen before knowing for sure he’s a multi-year solution. The organization also must do much more to surround him with talent that can help stabilize his “hair on fire” playing style.

Verdict: On the bubble

Carolina Panthers

Starter: Cam Newton

Current per year salary: $20.8 million (15th)

The Panthers were pushing to be considered one of the top teams in the NFC and Cam Newton was enjoying, by far, the best season of his career as a passer. Things fell apart down the stretch as a shoulder injury robbed Newton of any arm strength. It’s been nothing but good news since he underwent an offseason procedure and he’s expected to be throwing by OTAs. Few quarterbacks have consistently proven they can elevate poor surrounding talent and thrive despite subpar coaching to the degree Newton has in his career.

If you’re ready to prepare an argument that Cam Newton is worth anything but a top-level contract, it’s an intellectually disingenuous one. As long as the Panthers protect him better this year, he should only continue building on a strong 2018 passing season.

Verdict: Worth it.

Chicago Bears

Starter: Mitchell Trubisky

Current per year salary: $7.3 million (26th)

The public is too hard on Mitchell Trubisky. There’s probably a decent amount of football observers and even respected analysts ready to slap him with the “not worth it” designation after just two seasons. It would be foolish to claim he was a steady plus-asset in 2018, which was not just his first full season as a starter but first in a progressive modern offense with passable skill position players. Yet, he showed the ability to offer big games and is a true playmaker on the ground.

Trubisky will get another year to progress in 2019. He’ll be asked to do more with the Bears defense statistically unlikely to maintain its blistering pace of last season. If this time next year he hasn’t developed any further, we will take him off the bubble.

Verdict: On the bubble.

Cincinnati Bengals

Starter: Andy Dalton

Current per year salary: $16 million (20th)

Andy Dalton is what he is. The ultimate trailer quarterback, Dalton can be dragged to quality seasons when surrounded by excellent weapons and in a prime system. When the conditions falter even to a slight degree, he’s proven over many years he’s simply not up to elevating what’s around him. If there’s any silver lining for the Bengals it’s that the contract they gave him five years ago seems like a bargain in today’s quarterback market. The Dalton era is surviving on borrowed time. The new staff may well ride it out with Dalton and try to maximize him in 2019, but they will need to start a new search soon.

Verdict: Not worth it.

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Cleveland Browns

Starter: Baker Mayfield

Current per year salary: $8.2 million (24th)

A potential hot take emerges. Baker Mayfield is the only rookie to climb above the “on the bubble” level. Let’s not waste any more time; we’ve seen enough. Mayfield did everything you want out of a franchise quarterback in Year 1. He thrived inside and outside of structure, elevated the players around him and made his team better. Mayfield’s record-breaking rookie season was not the work of simple game managing. He ranked sixth in deep passing yards, per PFF, despite not starting all 16 games. This is the prince that was long-promised in Cleveland.

The Browns will get the insane advantage of having a difference-maker at quarterback playing on a rookie contract for the next few years. And when the time comes, Freddie Kitchens and company will have no hesitation backing up the Brink’s truck as fast as they can for Mayfield.

Verdict: Worth it.

Dallas Cowboys

Starter: Dak Prescott

Current per year salary: $680,848 (69th)

Jerry Jones has long-telegraphed that his Cowboys will be signing Dak Prescott to a big deal when the time comes. The question is whether they’ll kick that can down the road one last time to evaluate Dak before his contract officially runs out at the end of this season. It might not be the worst idea. Since his stunningly efficient rookie season, Prescott has been perfectly average, ranking 21st in adjusted yards per attempt (7.03) and 20th in passer rating (91.9) over the last two years.

Segments of the football universe have pushed “Zeke is the key to unlocking Dak” and “Amari Cooper is the key to unlocking Dak” small-sample narratives each of the last two years. A “worth it” quarterback rarely needs one, much less two such things to reach peak play. Perhaps they can get away with bumping him into the high-teens among quarterback salaries. Paying north of $25 million per year feels unwise.

Verdict: Not worth it.

The Cowboys must decide if they want to hand out a roster-changing contract to Dak Prescott soon. (Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Cowboys must decide if they want to hand out a roster-changing contract to Dak Prescott soon. (Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Denver Broncos

Starter: Joe Flacco

Current per year salary: $22.1 million (10th)

The Broncos shipped off a fourth-round pick for the still-too-expensive Joe Flacco. The draft compensation should tell you all you need to know about where the veteran quarterback stands at this point in his career. He could string together a few solid games for Denver but he’s well beyond the point of a quarterback who can elevate what’s around him, if he ever was that. We should take the under on Flacco starting 16 games for the Broncos. John Elway should still select his hopeful quarterback of the future in the draft.

Verdict: Not worth it.

Detroit Lions

Starter: Matthew Stafford

Current per year salary: $27 million (5th)

Matthew Stafford is the perfect epitome of the deal with the devil nature of these top-level quarterback contracts. The 2009 first overall pick, Stafford has proven to be, without a shadow of a doubt, a fine NFL starting quarterback. Many teams would love to know for sure that they have one of those. Few teams would be inclined to pay $27 million per year for such a player who, to this point, has yet to do enough to elevate a Lions team to anything beyond the bare minimum of what their talent would suggest they’re capable of.

While the Lions have their starting quarterback secured well into the future, they’re paying for it beyond just his salary. You can get away with having a starter of Stafford’s quality when they’re on a rookie deal. When that player is taking up nearly $30 million in cap space, it becomes an anchor for the entire roster.

Verdict: Not worth it.

Green Bay Packers

Starter: Aaron Rodgers

Current per year salary: $33.5 million (1st)

Aaron Rodgers might be the most gifted thrower of the football to ever don an NFL uniform. The Packers spent too much of his prime squandering their window with a fossil coach running an outdated offense. Rodgers finally seemed to let too many bad habits creep into his game last season. He’s just long overdue for a refresh. Only a fool would argue he’s anything but well worth every penny the Packers are paying.

The new Green Bay brain trust led by Matt LaFleur will make it priority No. 1 to make this offense a vehicle designed around getting the most out of Rodgers. They’ll get to do it with a driver who can take cars further down the track than almost any other quarterback in the game.

Verdict: Worth it.

Houston Texans

Starter: Deshaun Watson

Current per year salary: $3.5 million (39th)

While some of his metrics from 2017 were bound to regress in his second season, Deshaun Watson has remained one of the most efficient passers in the game. Watson ranks top-five in touchdown rate (6.3) and adjusted yards per attempt (8.46) over the last two years. His work this year was marvelous considering he was saddled up behind one of the worst offensive lines assembled in recent memory. Despite playing just 22 games between 2017 and 2018, only three quarterbacks have taken more sacks than Watson.

Watson has proven to be a player who can thrive inside and outside of structure. Not only does he elevate his teammates, his playmaker mentality creates opportunities when they don’t appear at first glance. He’s the picture-perfect example of a franchise quarterback.

Verdict: Worth it.

Indianapolis Colts

Starter: Andrew Luck

Current per year salary: $24.6 million (8th)

Andrew Luck came back from missing the entire 2017 campaign to enjoy one of the best seasons of his career. His 98.7 passer rating was the best mark of his six-year career. Luck proved long ago he was more than capable of working his way out of bad spots when dropped into chaos. When the rest of the roster caught up to him in 2018, the Colts quickly became one of the best teams in the AFC. Luck remains one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the game.

Verdict: Worth it.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Starter: Blake Bortles

Current per year salary: $17.5 million (19th)

The Jaguars made the mistake of doubling down on the Blake Bortles era with a contract extension prior to the 2018 season. Jacksonville paid for it, as their offense was utterly uncompetitive and a slightly regressing defense couldn’t afford that margin for error. They should have known better but they forged on regardless.

The Jaguars will likely eat some dead money by getting rid of Bortles this offseason. After that, they’ll either attempt to sign coveted veteran Nick Foles or spend an early pick on a cheap rookie passer.

Verdict: Not worth it.

Kansas City Chiefs

Starter: Patrick Mahomes

Current per year salary: $4.1 million (36th)

Quarterback god himself. Patrick Mahomes is the type of player franchises would sell the farm, tractor and firstborn to acquire. The 2018 MVP took a highly efficient offense previously manned by Alex Smith and made it the most dangerous unit in the NFL. His sterling precision was outdone only by his layers of inhuman arm angle throws. If he’s not worth top-level quarterback money, no one is.

Still just 23 years old, Patrick Mahomes will be the figure that leads the NFL into the next generation. Expect him to do so with a record-breaking contract in tow a few years from now.

Verdict: Worth it.

Los Angeles Chargers

Starter: Philip Rivers

Current per year salary: $20.8 million (14th)

Somewhat quietly, Philip Rivers remains one of the most productive quarterbacks in the league. Rivers ranks top-five over the last two seasons in both touchdowns (60) and adjusted yards per attempt (8.34). The veteran passer has thrived in a variety of systems and with several different supporting cast members. When teams make quarterback draft picks, they can only hope they have the type of career Rivers has given the Chargers. He needs to get a ring before the sun sets on his time in the NFL.

Verdict: Worth it.

Los Angeles Rams

Starter: Jared Goff

Current per year salary: $7 million (27th)

Jared Goff enjoyed one of the most drastic turnarounds in NFL history, transforming after a hideous rookie season to become one of the most productive quarterbacks over the last two years. Yet, the way his 2018 season ended gave reason to why this debate is the most important for a franchise to settle. The Rams would happily dole out $30 million per year to the quarterback who sliced through the first half of the regular season and even made several clutch throws in the NFC Championship game. They should be terrified to do so for the version of Goff that was well below average in the closing weeks of 2018 and utterly wilted in the Super Bowl when the script got away from the Rams.

Los Angeles has built a powerhouse of a roster around Goff while he’s been on a rookie deal. Constructing such an all-in squad once he’s been paid will be impossible. The 2018 season fell just short of enough evidence that he’s the type of player who can elevate his team when the structure falters. The 2019 season will likely give the final verdict.

Verdict: On the bubble.

Miami Dolphins

Starter: Ryan Tannehill

Current per year salary: $19.3 million (17th)

Excuses and time have run out for Ryan Tannehill. The jury has long since casted its verdict of a mediocre designation for the one-time top-10 draft pick. Tannehill is capable of producing starter-caliber play in stretches but has never once shown to be a player who can be the reason his team wins. The Dolphins will eat what dead money they have to shed his contract as they rest their roster. Tannehill will then find a likely bridge starter gig waiting for him on the open market.

Verdict: Not worth it.

Minnesota Vikings

Starter: Kirk Cousins

Current per year salary: $28 million (3rd)

From a raw numbers perspective, Kirk Cousins has the resume you’re looking for. The current Vikings starter ranks sixth in both passing yards and touchdowns over the last two seasons. However, it was hard to watch this passing offense sputter to a 16th finish in DVOA and not throw a side-eye at their newly minted quarterback. For the most part, Cousins was the same player he’s always been. He’s a volatile week-to-week player, capable of hitting delectable hot games or going in the tanks for multiple quarters. Being a steady point guard just isn’t in the cards for Cousins. He’s one of the 12-to-14 best quarterbacks in the NFL and was on the market in an extremely rare situation. Cashing in was inevitable.

For now, we won’t let one year sway us on the idea that paying Cousins top-level money was some massive mistake. He’s still a plus asset who ranked third in the Next Gen Stats completion percentage above expectation metric.

Verdict: Worth it.

New England Patriots

Starter: Tom Brady

Current per year salary: $20.5 million (16th)

Tom Brady consistently taking team-friendly quarterback deals has always been one of the unsung reasons behind New England’s sustained dynasty. He’ll continue to be worth the money for as long as he wants this NFL ride to last. The Patriots will need to restock his wide receiver cupboard this offseason and may look to focus more on the run game coming off a year where Brady did show some signs of human flesh.

Verdict: Worth it.

New Orleans Saints

Starter: Drew Brees

Current per year salary: $25 million (7th)

Drew Brees enters the offseason coming off another strong season and an NFC South crown. The Saints are more than thrilled they retained him as his contract ran out this time last year. It’s worth mentioning his strangely slow close to 2018. Brees averaged a mere 214 yards per game and threw three touchdowns to three picks in his final four games of the regular season. There may have been some signs of decline but not enough to send New Orleans into a panic. Brees remains one of the best at the position and will keep the Saints competitive as the hourglass begins to run out of sand on his NFL career.

Verdict: Worth it.

New York Giants

Starter: Eli Manning

Current per year salary: $21 million (13th)

The Giants seem completely stuck in a bad romance with Eli Manning. Despite being able to save money on the cap by shedding his contract, the team still seems far too shy to move on after the backlash that came when Ben McAdoo committed the ultra-sin of benching him two years ago. Even if one believes Manning is a passable starter at this point, there is no case to be made of him being a player who can elevate his supporting cast. If the Giants roll him out as the starter once again, it will be with the hope that young phenoms Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham are lifting Manning beyond his mean range of outcomes, not the other way around.

Verdict: Not worth it.

New York Jets

Starter: Sam Darnold

Current per year salary: $7.6 million (25th)

Sam Darnold had his shaky moments mid-year as a rookie but posted a 64 percent completion rate, 8.1 adjusted yards per attempt and a 6:1 touchdown to interception ratio in December after returning from injury. On the whole, the Jets should feel comfortable with a confident projection of their young rookie quarterback. We aren’t at the point where we can say Darnold is the top-level contract worthy quarterback who can elevate his surroundings. It is not out of the range of possibilities that we will view him in that light soon. He has the arm talent and fearless style that a player of that ilk needs.

Verdict: On the bubble.

Oakland Raiders

Starter: Derek Carr

Current average salary: $25 million (6th)

Derek Carr is a fine quarterback but since signing his $125 million deal, he ranks 24th among quarterbacks with a 6.86 adjusted yards per attempt mark. He’s coming off a 2018 season that saw him post the lowest touchdown rate (3.4) of his career. You can make the supporting cast argument, and it would be a just one, but that is the point here. Carr has thrived in seasons when he’s granted pristine pass protection and had two high-end route runners in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. As the conditions have declined, Carr has looked more like a back-half of the league starting quarterback.

Verdict: Not worth it.

Philadelphia Eagles

Starter: Carson Wentz

Current per year salary: $6.7 million (28th)

Carson Wentz has not finished either of the last two seasons thanks to two separate injuries. When he’s been on the field, however, he’s been a clear elevating difference-maker. This time last year, most of the football world would have nodded along in agreement if you suggested Wentz was the most valuable asset in the league as a 25-year old quarterback coming off an MVP-caliber campaign. Wentz’s hour for a top-level contract is coming soon. The Eagles will not hesitate to deliver it his way.

Verdict: Worth it.

This time last year we would have all agreed Carson Wentz was one of the most valuable players in the NFL. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
This time last year we would have all agreed Carson Wentz was one of the most valuable players in the NFL. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Pittsburgh Steelers

Starter: Ben Roethlisberger

Current per year salary: $21.9 million (12th)

Ben Roethlisberger had some hiccups to start the year but rounded into form to lead the NFL’s most pass-heavy offense in 2018. He’s consistently played like a top-10 quarterback for a decade now and will moonwalk into Canton when his time comes. Never one to refuse a show, Roethlisberger has hinted at retirement only to brush those thoughts off at other moments. The reality of the Steelers’ rapidly closing window with the soon-to-be 37-year old quarterback is all too present. He’s worth the money spent on his deal as Pittsburgh tries to make one last Super Bowl run with No. 7 in the fold.

Verdict: Worth it.

San Francisco 49ers

Starter: Jimmy Garoppolo

Current per year salary: $27.5 million (4th)

The 49ers took a small leap of faith signing Jimmy Garoppolo to a mega-deal following a short but brilliant stint as their starter to close 2018. It wasn’t exactly rewarded by the cosmos, as Garoppolo lasted three games before tearing an ACL and exiting the stage for the remainder of the year. Nevertheless, almost every other moment where he’s offered us an extended glimpse of what he can do has been utterly enthralling. Garoppolo’s 5-0 run to end 2017 showed everything you desire in a quarterback. He brought the best out of every player in the offense and breathed life into a listless club. Judging off that player and provided that’s the one we see coming off an ACL repair, the 49ers would make this move again.

Verdict: Worth it.

Seattle Seahawks

Starter: Russell Wilson

Current per year salary: $21.9 million (11th)

The Seahawks were determined to return to the dark ages on offense and construct a run-heavy attack. They succeeded, leading all teams in run play percentage. Nevertheless, not a reasonable soul would debate that Seattle is as dangerous a team as they are thanks to anyone but Russell Wilson. The Pro Bowl quarterback finished 2018 with career-highs in touchdown rate (8.2) and passer rating (110.9). Seattle’s roster from a defensive standpoint was the weakest it’s been at any point during the Pete Carroll era. Wilson still made enough plays to will this team to an NFC playoff berth.

Verdict: Worth it.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Starter: Jameis Winston

Current per year salary: $6.3 million (29th)

If you search the archives deep enough, you’ll find metrics giving evidence to Jameis Winston’s good notes as a player. He’s been the best quarterback at converting third-and-longs since 2016, earning a first down on 40.1 percent of his third-and-seven-plus throws. Now paired with the ultra-aggressive Bruce Arians, Winston may have found a stylistic partner.

All of that is fine and perhaps we will get Winston’s best season to date in 2019, but this is still a deeply flawed player. Going off just what we know of him right now, offering Winston a top-level contract and not simply letting him play out the final year of his rookie deal would be a mistake. We should be much more willing to accept the “he is what he is” rather than Arians bringing about some great change.

Verdict: Not worth it.

Tennessee Titans

Starter: Marcus Mariota

Average per year salary: $6.1 million (30th)

Few quarterbacks exemplify the median of the league like Marcus Mariota does. From a pure passing efficiency standpoint, he’s actually been quite poor. Mariota ranks 28th in adjusted yards per attempt (6.64) and 32nd in passer rating (84.8) over the last two seasons combined. Last season was particularly troubling when you combine his play with persistent nerve injuries. It seemed that now-former offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur had to scrap his plans for a progressive offense in Tennessee like the one he left in Los Angeles when his quarterback wasn’t up to the task. Mariota is about the last quarterback any organization should want to dole out a top-level contract to.

Verdict: Not worth it.

Washington Redskins

Starter: Alex Smith

Current per year salary: $23.5 million (9th)

It’s impossible not to feel bad for Alex Smith. After a grisly knee injury and complications following surgery, Smith’s playing ability for 2019 and beyond are in grave doubt. His absence will leave Washington completely banged at the quarterback position. The team is on the hook for his cap hit this year and next, no matter his status. It doesn’t help matters that Smith wasn’t looking up to making his contract look like a wise investment even before the malady. Washington will have to piece together a quarterback room with a Tyrod Taylor-level free agent and possible Day 2 draft pick in 2019 while simply ignoring Smith’s albatross contract.

Verdict: Not worth it.

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