NFL teams allocate anywhere between 1% and 18% toward quarterback investment, making these players important factors in salary cap management and roster construction, not just on the field. Dave Archibald separates the quarterbacks into four groups based on their average cap hit to see how teams are investing in the position.
No player on the football field touches the ball as often as the quarterback, and no player’s performance factors more heavily into wins and losses. Accordingly, teams often invest heavily in the position. While there are typically only two or three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, teams dedicate more than 10% of their cap space to the position on average, with many teams spending 15% or more. The teams that don’t spend significant money often throw high draft picks at the position.
The chart below shows the amount of money and draft value expended on the quarterback position. Money is measured by average cap hit. This is not a perfect measure, as it can be inflated by “funny money”, or non-guaranteed years tacked on to the end of the long-term deals, but it serves as a rough indicator. Draft value is measured by cumulative Draft Trade Value Chart figures through the last four years, plus 2011 first-rounders (more on that methodology):
These figures represent players currently rostered, not “dead” money or draft value spent on QBs no longer with the team. They also do not incorporate traded picks or players. There are four groups according to spending pattern.
Extensions for fifth-year guys (high money, high draft value)
Teams have a fifth-year option on first-rounders drafted in 2011, but it is rare to see quarterbacks play under that fifth-year. Both the team and player want more long-term security, as we’ve seen with Carolina’s Cam Newton and Miami’s Ryan Tannehill, both of whom inked deals in the 2015 offseason. Indianapolis (Andrew Luck) will undoubtedly move into this quadrant next season.
It’s only money (high money, low draft value)
The most common group by far, with 18 of 32 teams falling in this bucket. Teams don’t want to let competent signal-callers leave, and the franchise tag means they don’t have to. More money doesn’t always mean more performance, as the chart below shows, plotting Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt against Average Salary for the 20 quarterbacks with above-average contracts:
What is striking about this group is how flat it is. Aaron Rodgers of the Packers is a two-time MVP, but he doesn’t make much more than Matt Ryan of the Falcons or Jay Cutler of the Bears, and he makes less than Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, who has never made even second-team All-Pro. Seven-time First-Team All-Pro Peyton Manning is only the 16th-highest paid quarterback, while reigning Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady is just 20th. The rising salary cap means the most recent extensions are bigger – Newton (3rd), Wilson (4th), Tannehill (5th), and Rivers (7th) all signed their contracts this offseason.
Investment through the draft (low money, high draft value)
Teams that don’t spend big money on their quarterbacks typically throw high draft picks at the position. Jacksonville (Blake Bortles), Tennessee (Marcus Mariota), Indianapolis (Luck), Washington (Robert Griffin III), and Tampa Bay (Jameis Winston) all used top-three picks on a QB, and Buffalo used a later first-round pick on E.J. Manuel. With Griffin and Manuel relegated to the bench, Washington and the Bills are not getting much value out of those high picks. Minnesota and Cleveland have expended enough draft capital to be in this group, but since Christian Ponder and Brandon Weeden are no longer on their respective rosters, they fall into the fourth quadrant.
Doing it cheap (low money, low draft value)
These are teams on the quarterback merry-go-round, having eschewed both large contracts and high draft picks. Cleveland (Johnny Manziel), Minnesota (Teddy Bridgewater), the Jets (Geno Smith), and Oakland (Derek Carr) are all attempting to fill the position with late-first-round picks or second-rounders. As for St. Louis and Houston, well …
The Rams have invested modestly in Nick Foles, who had some success in Philadelphia and was effective in Week 1 versus Seattle. The Texans are trying to make do with a pair of former New England backups (Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett). Both teams figure to have decent defenses, which may prevent them from picking high enough in 2016 to address their holes at QB.
There are a variety of circumstances here. Griffin, Manuel, and Manziel are former first-round picks that their teams expected to be starting. Sanchez and Stanton play behind starters with significant injury histories. Fitzpatrick, Hill, Hasselbeck, and Moore are veteran backups to young starters. Osweiler, Garoppolo, and Grayson are young backups to veteran starters, and possibly future starters. Playoff teams Indianapolis, Arizona, Denver, New England, Denver are represented here, while the other playoff squads are not, suggesting it is difficult to draw conclusions about the merits of spending on backups.
As mentioned, the above analysis does not factor in value added or subtracted in trade. While trades are rare, there are some notable deals for quarterbacks:
2012: Washington trades the #6 and #39 picks, plus 2013 and 2014 first-rounders for the #2 pick, where they selected Robert Griffin III. In the analysis above, Griffin has a draft value of 2600, representing 31% of Washington’s total draft value. If we count instead the value of the picks Washington traded, Griffin had a draft value of a whopping 5490, 49% of Washington’s draft value.
2013: Kansas City trades the #34 pick plus a conditional 2014 pick (ultimately, #56) for Alex Smith. That’s a draft value of 900, or about 9% of the Chiefs’ draft capital during this time.
2015: The Rams trade Sam Bradford, pick #145, and a 2016 second-round pick for Nick Foles, pick #119, and a 2016 conditional pick. Not a ton of draft value changed hands here, depending on where the future picks end up, but the deal is notable for being a rare player-for-player exchange.
There are many other low-level deals for quarterbacks, whether a trade of a late pick to move up a few spots in the draft (e.g., Vikings and Browns for Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel in 2014) or dealing a late-rounder for a veteran backup (e.g., Buffalo’s trade for Matt Cassel this offseason), but these do not significantly affect our analysis.
The Dead Should Still Be With Us
The initial charts did not include “dead money” or “dead draft value.” The following players are not on the investing team’s roster but still account for 1% or more of draft capital:
Locker, Gabbert, and Ponder were top-12 picks in 2011, but all flopped, with neither Locker nor Ponder currently on an NFL roster. Cleveland gave up on Weeden after only two seasons. Foles is a special case as the Eagles were able to deal him for Sam Bradford.
The list of “dead money” allocated to quarterbacks is short but interesting. Only three teams have dedicated more than 1% of their cap in 2015 to a player no longer with them… and in two cases, it’s the same player:
That’s right: both the Cowboys and Bills are taking cap hits this year from the now-retired Kyle Orton. Orton’s large contract with Dallas was suspect when he was a highly-paid backup; now that he’s still being paid handsomely in his second season and no longer with the team, it looks even more dubious.
It’s no surprise that teams invest quite a bit in quarterbacks given the critical role they play on nearly every offensive snap. Almost every team is spending 10% of their cap or 10% of their draft resources on signal-callers, and those that aren’t are typically in dire straits at the position. Beyond this, however, there’s surprisingly little variation in how much teams do invest, whether they have a true superstar or just a competent veteran. That’s a great deal for teams that already have a star passer, but makes it difficult for teams lacking at QB to address their deficiency. Teams lacking a star quarterback need to find a better way to distribute their resources at the game’s most valuable position, or they will continue to struggle to compete.
Follow Dave on Twitter @.