You’re perfectly average at your job. You don’t excel at it, nowhere close to the upper echelon, but you get the job done and you tend not to screw things up very often. Because of this, you are given a $71 million contract.
Nowhere does this happen except if you’re an NFL quarterback. The position has often been called the most important one in sports, which holds merit, but in the past few years the price for the position, even if they are simply just adequate, has been inflating exponentially.
The 15 highest paid players last season were all quarterbacks with Derek Carr, who finished the season with 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions which is good, not great, being the highest paid at $25 million on the season. In the past two months, Jimmy Grappolo, who has seven career starts, signed an extension with the 49ers for $137.5 million with nearly $90 million guaranteed and Alex Smith signed a $94 million extension with Washington after being traded there with $71 million guaranteed.
So teams are willing to dish out a huge portion of their salary cap to unproven players like Grappolo based on potential and Smith, who was previously alluded to as a perfectly average, based on fear of the unknown. It is this same fear that will likely make Kirk Cousins, who was Washington’s previous starting quarterback, the highest paid NFL player ever in free agency.
The asking price for a quarterback isn’t just dollars. If a team wants to make a move for a quarterback in the draft, they will have to mortgage a chunk of their future for it. In 2016, the Los Angeles Rams traded two second-round picks, a third-round pick and the next year’s first and second-round picks just to swap picks with the Titans for the first overall selection. One spot ahead of them, the Browns traded out of the second overall selection with Philadelphia for a bundle of picks including their first and second round picks the next year.
Both the Eagles and the Rams did so because they thought the two top quarterbacks in the draft were their long-term answers, a gamble that seems to have a paid off. Perhaps no better team has realized the dangers of when these financial or trade gambles fail than the Houston Texans.
Houston was on the cusp of making a deep playoff run for much of this decade but their constant carousel of quarterbacks was the last hurdle they couldn’t seem to clear. In the 2016 offseason, they decided free agent Brock Osweiler was their solution and signed him to a $72 million contract with $37 million guaranteed.
The Osweiler experiment failed and he was traded after just one season with them. How did they get a team to take on such a massive contract? The Cleveland Browns had money to spend and wanted a draft pick so they took on the contract but only if the Texans included their second-round pick in the upcoming 2017 draft.
With questions still remaining at quarterback, Houston traded their first-round selection in this year’s draft to swap picks with, you guessed it, Cleveland to get Deshaun Watson.
While it was looking like that gamble was finally paying off before Watson, it’s worth noting what it cost Houston to get to this point: a first round pick that would end up being fourth overall and a $72 million contract they were really lucky to get off their books.
So the price of all of these quarterbacks both in the draft and financially are substantial and they are only going to keep going up. These gambles have serious future implications and oftentimes determines whether the coaching staff and general manager will keep their jobs. So the question remains: is it worth it?
The short answer is yes. Teams like the Colts, Texans and Packers all showed promise when their starting quarterbacks were playing but as soon as they went down, their season collapsed. The Colts and Texans finished in the bottom five of the league and the Packers had their first season with a losing record since 2008.
So the Packers’ starting quarterback goes down and they have their first truly bad season in a decade? What is the one constant in that decade? Their quarterback Aaron Rodgers. In 2008, if the Packers had traded a couple of mid-round picks with a future first-round pick, I think Packers fans would be happy with it now.
Meanwhile, teams like the Jets and Dolphins who have been lacking a quarterback in recent years like the Jets and Browns have constantly found themselves at or near the bottom of the league. This can be blamed on a lack of overall talent but Andrew Luck took the Colts to an AFC Championship and without him this year, they finished 4-12. So clearly a good quarterback can elevate bad talent.
Trading a large number of draft picks can be problematic for teams but the Eagles were able to bolster their roster elsewhere via trades and free agency to make up for it and they just won the Super Bowl. So sacrificing developmental mid-round talent for a franchise quarterback is a move a team can recover from.
Blake Bortles is not a very good quarterback yet he was a game away from playing in the Super Bowl so that proves that if a team is pursuing a quarterback in free agency believes a player like Kirk Cousins is good enough, even if it isn’t great, then that’s likely worth it as well.
Of course, the one point that always refutes the question of if giving up so much for one player is: what if they don’t work out? Take the Bears for example. They banked on Jay Cutler after the 2013 season signing him to a seven-year deal for $126 million with $54 million guaranteed.
After Chicago struggled for the next three seasons, Cutler and the Bears agreed to a buyout clause. Now the Bears have their hopeful franchise quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky.
If the quarterback a team drafted busts, that’s even easier to move on from because there is no long-term significant financial responsibility invested in them. So yes, committing to a quarterback in the long term can set teams back but it’s not a commitment that can derail a team in the long-term if it has competent management.
As the price in terms of both dollars and draft picks continues to rise, maybe the day will come where the cost is too high to pay but the fact remains the benefits of having a franchise quarterback is worth the potential pitfalls and obstacles. With this year’s free agency and draft class full of serviceable quarterbacks, it’s a key offseason for a number of teams to decide if they want to take the gamble.
Tad Desai covers sports and education for The Sealy News. He can be reached at 979-885-3562 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.