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When news of Aaron Rodgers’ monster five-year, $180 million extension dropped on Wednesday afternoon, I couldn’t help but reflect on how rapidly quarterback contracts have ballooned.
This past March, Kirk Cousins – a perfectly solid NFL starting quarterback who might not be better than Alex Smith (at least in the Redskins‘ eyes) – commanded a three-year, $84 million deal from the Minnesota Vikings that was, gasp, fully guaranteed.
That’s called securing the bag, as the kids like to say, and in May, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan did the same by signing a five-year, $150 million extension that reset the market, only to have Rodgers come along and top his deal just four months later. Neither one of those deals were fully guaranteed, but it hardly mattered, since Ryan surpassed Cousins’ guarantees by $16 million and Rodgers surpassed Cousins’ by $19 million.
All of which got to me to thinking: If Rodgers got $30 million more than Ryan, and the next quarterback gets $30 million more than Rodgers … we’re not that far away from a future where the NFL will have its first $200 million man.*
(And, no, folks, commissioner Roger Goodell does not count. Goodell’s five-year, $200 million extension last December was a Joker-style heist straight out of “The Dark Knight” that inspired less enthusiasm on social media than Ne-Yo’s last album.)
This milestone, however, is less impressive when you consider that Major League Baseball had its first $200 million man (Alex Rodriguez) 18 years ago, while Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry became the first NBA player to meet that benchmark with a massive five-year, $200 million extension last summer.
In many ways, the fact we’re still waiting on a player from the NFL – the purveyors of the country’s favorite sport – to crack this mark is an indication of the league’s old-guard mentality, one in which the owners consistently have the upper hand in its dealing with players, many of whom are seen as disposable due to the large 53-man rosters, wealth of available talent and active way the league often stifles the individuality that would potentially allow players to enhance their brand beyond the uniform they wear for three hours every Sunday.
Largely because of the time it has taken for football salaries to reach this point, it’s fascinating to ponder which player could be the NFL’s version of A-Rod or Steph. And after polling some friends around the league, I came up with some criteria to narrow down the candidates:
Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is a badass football player, but even an immensely disruptive player like him – who plays a position that traditionally doesn’t offer much pass-rush value, no less – isn’t as valuable as a quarterback.
Here are the facts: Quarterbacks touch the ball just about every play in a league that is increasingly geared toward offense, and elite quarterbacks make everyone else around them on offense play better. Quarterbacks are also the face of the franchise, and the one player fans watch at the start of every single play from scrimmage. They matter, and they’ll always be valued greater than every other position, which is why the NFL’s first $200 million man will be a quarterback.
Age also matters
This list does not include some of the old stalwarts like Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning and Drew Brees, largely because each are at least 36 years old, making them more likely to opt for hefty short-term deals that approach Rodgers on a per-year basis, but not in sum. Also, a team won’t commit Rodgers-type money to a guy who is too old. Rodgers, 34, is right on the edge.
On the flip side, there are some across the league who believe there’s a chance the quarterback market plateaus now that Rodgers has gotten his money. That’s a possibility, by the way, considering none of the quality, veteran quarterbacks still young enough to get paid big bucks – Seattle’s Russell Wilson (29), Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck (28), Detroit’s Matthew Stafford (30), etc. – currently has a résumé good enough to warrant exceeding Rodgers’ deal.
Has the player been paid yet?
It’s a heck of a lot easier to ask for a five-year, $200 million deal in a few years if you’re already operating on a massive extension making, say, $20 million-plus per year like Wilson and Luck, as opposed to, say, talented Steelers 2018 third-rounder Mason Rudolph, who will make only $1.2 million in the fourth year of his rookie deal in 2021. However, all hope is certainly not lost for the rookies. Quite the contrary, especially if …
You’re a talented, recent first-round QB with a big fifth-year option
In that case, you might hit the jackpot. Teams can exercise hefty fifth-year options on first-round quarterbacks, raising their cap numbers from something like $7 million to the average of the top 10 players at their position, which will be massive – something around $30 million – for quarterbacks.
At that point, their teams would be wise to hammer out an extension that will not give the club some initial cap relief by lowering their initial cap number, but also lock in a talented player at a premium position for the foreseeable future.
So without further ado, here’s one man’s opinion on the NFL quarterbacks who are the best bets to secure the bag down the road:
5. (tie) Baker Mayfield, Cleveland; Sam Darnold, New York; and Josh Rosen, Arizona
I gave these three 2018 first-round quarterbacks the nod over the two other 2018 first-round quarterbacks, Lamar Jackson of Baltimore and Josh Allen of Buffalo, largely because Mayfield, Darnold and Rosen were generally regarded as more pro-ready than the other two. Regardless, all five are gifted passers who are capable of receiving lucrative fifth-year options in 2022, thus opening the door for big-money extensions.
One thing to keep in mind; if the quarterback market stalls, as some forecast, it’s possible the NFL’s first $200 million QB isn’t even in the league yet.
4. (tie) Deshaun Watson, Houston; and Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City
Watson, the No. 12 overall pick in last year’s draft, is a star in the making, and he showed it during his seven-game audition as a rookie before he suffered a season-ending injury. Watson completed nearly 62 percent of his passes for 1,699 yards, 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions while showing off his legendary cool and knack for coming up big when it counts. He has some outstanding receiving targets as well, meaning the 22-year-old could be an MVP-type candidate sooner rather than later, though the Texans can’t extend him until after the 2019 season at the earliest due to NFL rules.
Same goes for Mahomes, the No. 10 pick in the 2017 draft. They both get the nod over the man who went above them – Chicago’s Mitch Trubisky – due to their ability to color outside the lines and create when things break down. I like Trubisky’s support system in Chicago – Coach Matt Nagy will craft an offense that takes advantage of his skills – but folks in Kansas City rave about the rifle-armed Mahomes, whose on-field creativity and gunslinger mentality had led many within the organization to quietly hint that the 22-year-old has All-Pro potential. Like Watson, the Chiefs can’t extend Mahomes before the 2019 season. But if he grows into the Chiefs’ first homegrown star at quarterback, there’s no way they’ll tempt fate when it comes to his next deal.
3. (tie) Andrew Luck, Indianapolis and Russell Wilson, Seattle
Neither one of these picks are sexy, per se, but it would be foolish to forget about either. Wilson is a safer bet of the two; he’s already won a Super Bowl and been to four Pro Bowls. Plus, he’s slated to be an unrestricted free agent in 2020. To surpass Rodgers’ deal, however, he’ll need to win an MVP, something that could be difficult, considering the Seahawks’ porous offensive line and unproven weapons outside of Doug Baldwin.
Luck, meanwhile, has to prove he can stay healthy after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury. That’s not a given. When he’s right, he’s an elite quarterback on a deal that will look like something of a bargain through 2022, when his cap hit averages approximately $25 million per season, compared to nearly $35 million per season for Rodgers.
2. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia
Wentz, the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft, was on the way to winning the MVP before a season-ending injury shelved that possibility last December. The Eagles have to make a decision on Wentz’s fifth-year option for 2020 in April. Given their propensity to extend players early, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them try to hammer something out with their prized quarterback as soon as he accrues his third year.
But for Wentz’s sake, he might be better off holding off until after the 2019 season, when he’ll presumably be healthy enough to start all 16 games (unlike this season) and claim the MVP award he missed out on last season. Provided he does that and leads the Eagles to the Super Bowl, he might then have the leverage needed to say he’s worthy of exceeding Rodgers’ deal.
1. Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco
Oh Jimmy, did you come along at the right time. Garoppolo is only 26, and just last year, he signed a five-year, $132 million extension with the 49ers that was a whopper at the time. But guess what? Garoppolo will be only 30 or so in the last year of his deal, which makes him young enough to command a whopper of a contract, provided he lives up to this one. Like Wentz, winning an MVP and/or a Super Bowl should land him a megadeal, provided his stats don’t regress like Carolina star Cam Newton’s have the past two years after winning the MVP in 2015.
Honorable mention: Derek Carr, Oakland; Kirk Cousins, Minnesota; Cam Newton, Carolina; Matthew Stafford, Detroit.
Carr and Cousins need to prove they can elevate the play of their teammates the same way elite quarterbacks do. Newton needs to get back to his 2015 MVP-level form, while Stafford needs to lead the Lions to the playoffs and actually win some games.
Also considered: Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams; Marcus Mariota, Tennessee; Dak Prescott, Dallas, Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay.
Mariota, Prescott and Goff need to improve their individual play, while Winston needs to stay out of trouble.
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