Capitalizing on a Quarterback’s Rookie Contract

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Dallas Cowboys QB Rayne Dakota Prescott is set to be a rich man within the next calendar year or so. How rich exactly is anyone’s guess, but the 2016 4th round pick out of Mississippi State is eligible for a contract extension after the 2018 season and may look to cash in.

Prescott has been one of the league’s most valuable assets in the NFL the last two seasons. The soon to be third year veteran has accounted for cap hits of $545,848 and $635,848 in 2016 and 2017, respectively, according to Spotrac. He’s set to count for $725,848 against the salary cap in 2018 – which makes Prescott the most economical starting QB in the NFL and remarkably ranks him 61st in cap hits across all QBs.

Good QBs on a rookie contract, like Prescott, are extremely valuable to their franchise as they play on cost-controlled fixed deals for their first four to five seasons in the NFL. This allows franchises a nice window of opportunity to surround the young QB with a talented arsenal of weapons on offense and a strong defense on the opposite side of the ball before the QB commands a potential record shattering extension.

Yet, despite Prescott’s bargain of a contract, Dallas has been unable to add high impact talent to their roster through free agency or trade because of poor salary cap management in prior seasons. Much of that has to do with the amount of dead money the Cowboys are paying to players no longer suiting up for the team. Dallas currently owes a total of $22.8 million in dead money, with Tony Romo and Dez Bryant accounting for a combined $16.9 million of that sum.

In spite of having a good core roster due to excellent drafts in recent seasons, Dallas isn’t the prime example of what to do when a good young QB on a rookie contract falls into your lap. Better models to attempt to reproduce are the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams who boast two of the best young QBs in the NFL in Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, respectively.

The two franchises are currently in an arms race for who can surround their cost-controlled QB with the most talent before the window of economical years of Wentz and Goff’s early careers close. Using the trade and free agency markets the Eagles and Rams have acquired a myriad of talent on both sides of the ball and are early favorites to represent the NFC in next year’s Super Bowl along with the conference rival Minnesota Vikings.

Of course, the Eagles already have one Lombardi trophy under their belt, but Howie Roseman has constructed a roster that’s made to win multiple Super Bowl championships. Roseman built an Eagles roster that was deep enough to withstand their MVP caliber QB going down with an ACL injury late in the season. Wentz’ replacement, Nick Foles, looked only adequate in his first couple starts down the stretch, but played exceptionally well during the playoffs. A lot of that had to do with Doug Pederson’s QB friendly scheme, but it also helped to have great talent in the pass and run game to take pressure off Foles. It’s also key to remember that the Eagles not only lost their starting QB for the season, but their star left tackle, Jason Peters, as well. That just further emphasizes the depth on their roster and the collectiveness among the Eagles coaching staff and front office to devise a game plan to maximize what personnel is available.

As Zack Moore explains in Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions:

“You want to develop a level of competence on offense running and passing the ball with the defensive ability to decrease your opponent’s competence in those two, plus a special teams unit that can outperform your opponents. This kind of team-wide spread versatility is made possible through hiring the right head coach, general manager, and front office personnel to develop a system based on the first principles of the sport while using the salary cap to ensure your roster the opportunity to maximize your system’s efficiency, versatility, and consistency.”

Obtaining team-wide versatility is not possible when overpaying for a QB with a finite amount of resources to allocate. It’s also not an optimal winning strategy unless the QB employed is fit to single-handedly win games. This is why QBs on a rookie contract are extremely valuable assets. It allows front office executives to sign a strong offensive line, pass rush unit and shutdown cornerbacks.

Let’s look at some of the successful front office practices by teams who have built their rosters with a QB on a rookie contract and how teams like the Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Arizona Cardinals can replicate their success now having a rookie QB of their own.

Infuse Talent and Competition in the QB Room Early with Risk Averse Options

In year one of a rookie QBs contract it’s beneficial to have a veteran presence to not only guide the rookie QB in the right direction, but also play should the rookie QB need more seasoning. It’s seemingly become common practice for teams to double up on the QB position through free agency and the NFL Draft at the start of a new regime to infuse talent and create competition in training camp.

Prior to drafting Wentz, the Eagles signed Sam Bradford to a two year, $36 million contract with $22 million guaranteed and Chase Daniel to a three year $21 million contract. These contracts were risk-averse having been structured and worded to protect the Eagles should either QB not fit the team’s future plans. When Wentz looked ready to take the starting role out of the gate and Minnesota lost Teddy Bridgewater for the season Roseman saw an opportunity to exchange Bradford’s contract, which was essentially a one year deal, for a 1st round pick – recovering an asset lost in the trade up with the Browns for Wentz.

Somewhat similarly in 2017, Ryan Pace and the Chicago Bears doubled up signing Mike Glennon and drafting Mitchell Trubisky. Glennon was signed in free agency to a three year $45 million contract, but the deal included two team options for 2018 and 2019 essentially making it a series of one year deals depending on how Glennon performed.

The QB needy teams in the 2018 NFL Draft also put this strategy to work as all four teams that selected QBs in the top 10 signed or traded for a veteran QB during the free agency period. Cleveland traded for Tyrod Taylor, New York re-signed Josh McCown and signed Bridgewater, Buffalo signed A.J. McCarron and Arizona signed Sam Bradford and Mike Glennon. All the veteran QBs mentioned are either playing on one year deals or are basically playing on one year deals with the team having the flexibility to get out of the contract with limited dead money involved.

This is perhaps most important for the Jets and Bills as Sam Darnold and Josh Allen need the most seasoning out of the rookie class.

Protect the QB

If an inexperienced QB is thrown into the fire without time to throw he’ll likely never develop into the player the team expects him to become. Building a strong pass blocking unit can afford the young QB time to go through his reads and adapt to the speed of the NFL game early in his career. It’s later in a QB’s career when he’s earning a higher percentage of the team’s cap that less resources can go into the offensive line and that QB should be able to process coverages quickly and possess the mobility to avoid the rush.

Russell Wilson is an excellent example of a QB that was afforded time to develop early, but needed to accept a more significant role when he was given a contract extension later in his career. When Wilson and his teammates like Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Michael Bennett, etc. commanded raises the team elected to go cheap on the offensive line and utilize Wilson’s mobility to make plays out of structure.

This is not possible for some franchises, however, as most QBs aren’t capable of taking that leap to carry the offensive on their own.

While still developing, Dak Prescott looked like a drastically different player when key members of his offensive line moved on in free agency, as in the case of LG Ronald Leary, or were lost for weeks at a time due to injury, as in the case of LT Tyron Smith. Struggles from a clean pocket was something evaluators noted coming out of college, as Prescott didn’t have great pass protection at Mississippi State. In his second year in Dallas, Prescott struggled mightily when the entire left side of his line from 2016 was absent in comparison to his excellent rookie season, when Smith and Leary manned the left tackle and left guard positions, respectively.

Dallas took notice and used the cap space they had to sign Cameron Fleming, a veteran swing tackle, to insure Prescott has a competent tackle protecting him should Smith miss time due to the nagging back injuries that have plagued him in recent seasons. The team also upgraded the LG position via the draft, selecting Texas OL Connor Williams in the 2nd round.

Run the Ball Effectively

Effectively running the ball takes a ton of pressure off a young QB. Having a strong rushing attack can force defenses to put more defenders in the box, allowing more throwing lanes to open on pass plays. It also allows teams to not force a developing QB to do too much early on in his career. Meaning that late in a game the QB can hand the ball off on and control the clock to finish off games instead of having to convert 1st downs through the air.

Wilson was fortunate to have Marshawn Lynch toting the rock early in his career before he grew into the QB he is today who can carry the entire offense nearly by himself. Carson Wentz, Jared Goff and Dak Prescott all benefited from very good offensive line play in combination with strong backfields at some point in their first two years in the NFL.

To quote Moore from Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, once again:

“Successful organizations build their roster by using their franchise quarterback’s rookie contract to build a roster that can overcome the youth and inexperience of the player, while carrying him along to his future of being that franchise guy when he can be the caliber of quarterback who can bring the team to a Conference Championship Game when he’s making over 10% of the salary cap or 15.42% like Big Ben made in 2016 when he took Pittsburgh to one. The Seahawks built their roster around Russell Wilson before he was drafted and leading into the 2013 Super Bowl, then made the salary cap adjustments as he, and the other core players, reached his second contract.”

Accumulate Defensive Linemen and CBs

Another way to ensure success, aside from adding offensive supplements to aid an inexperienced QB early in his career, is to build a capable defense on the opposite side of the ball. The simplest way to impact a game defensively is to excel at the pass rush and defending the pass. Thus it’s important to stock your team with defensive line talent and strong players on the back end.

Seattle was able to build a team prior to Wilson being drafted with Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril rushing the passer and Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, Byron Maxwell, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor in the secondary. Having three CBs who can line up and out physical any of an opposing team’s WRs on the field at one time, plus safeties who could match up with TEs and take away the middle of the field made, Seattle one of the toughest teams to score on from 2012-2016. It helped Wilson and Seattle’s offense stay competitive in virtually every game during his rookie contract as the Seahawks had a streak of 71 games – including the playoffs – of holding a lead, an NFL record.

Today we have the Eagles stockpiling pass rushers in free agency, the draft, and through trades. Philadelphia added Michael Bennett, Haloti Ngata, Josh Sweat, and Joe Ostman to an already lethal arsenal of defensive linemen including Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Chris Long, and Fletcher Cox.

Meanwhile, the Rams were busy adding CB Marcus Peters, CB Aqib Talib, DT Ndamukong Suh and WR Brandin Cooks. Peters and Talib form a very good CB tandem and having Suh teamed up with Aaron Donald is a nightmare for opposing offenses of any style. Goff’s contract should also allow the team to sign Donald to an extension when the time comes.

These all seem like givens to building a winning team, but constructing a deep roster is not an easy task for a general manager to carry out when the team owes their QB 12-15% of the cap space in a single season. The Eagles and Rams are at the head of the league in terms of capitalizing on this advantage given to them by the most recent CBA. However, teams like the Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, and New York Jets are next in line to replicate the successes if they manage their cap responsibly.

Check out more of his work here, including a look at Baker Mayfield’s Touch and Torque, how to mask deficiencies along an offensive line

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