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The modern championship blueprint: Quarterbacks and rookie contracts

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In the modern NFL, having a quarterback on his rookie contract pays huge dividends

2018 NFL Draft Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The NFL first instituted a hard salary cap for the 1994 season. The first overall pick of the 1994 NFL Draft, defensive tackle Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson, signed a six-year contract worth a total of $14.4 million, which translates to a value of $24.8 million in today’s terms. By the time the 2009 NFL Draft rolled around, the top overall choice, quarterback Sam Bradford, signed a contract that equaled Wilkinson’s in length, but was worth much more in overall value. Bradford’s first contract was a six-year deal worth $78 million, $50 million of which was guaranteed.

This growth in rookie contracts was one of the main issues in the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement that was in place for the 2011 NFL season. In that agreement, the league and the NFLPA agreed to a rookie wage scale, which slotted certain picks with certain financial values, from the first overall pick to the “Mr. Irrelevant” choice at No. 256 overall.

The top overall draft choice in 2011, quarterback Cam Newton, signed a four-year contract worth a total of $22 million. That contract also included a fifth-year option, which has become the standard among all contracts signed by first-round picks since that bargaining agreement. The league had turned back the clock in terms of rookie salaries, which meant that teams could change their approach to building their championship-level teams.

Suddenly, having a quarterback on his rookie contract was a desirable commodity in roster building. In the nine Super Bowls to be played since the collective bargaining agreement establishing a rookie wage scale, seven of the 18 participants in the Super Bowl have had a quarterback on his rookie contract as the starter. Of those seven teams, three have won the big game, although one of those victories (the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles) comes with an asterisk, as the quarterback on his rookie contract (Carson Wentz) did not play in the game.

Below is a list of every Super Bowl team since 2011, with the winners and teams with quarterbacks on their rookie contracts denoted.

SB Teams w/QB on Rookie Contract since 2011

YEAR AFC TEAM NFC TEAM
YEAR AFC TEAM NFC TEAM
2011 Patriots Giants
2012 Ravens 49ers
2013 Broncos Seahawks
2014 Patriots Seahawks
2015 Broncos Panthers
2016 Patriots Falcons
2017 Patriots Eagles
2018 Patriots Rams
2019 Chiefs 49ers
KEY
Winner
Team with QB
on rookie contract
With the advent of the new CBA, quarterbacks on rookie contracts have provided an advantage

The new CBA began paying dividends almost immediately, as the San Francisco 49ers rode Colin Kaepernick to a Super Bowl berth in 2012. The Seattle Seahawks would have won two consecutive Super Bowls with Russell Wilson at the helm had head coach Pete Carroll just handed Marshawn Lynch the ball on second-and-goal. Instead, they had to settle for a win in 2013 and a loss in 2014.

Newton signed a contract extension in the summer of 2015, but the deal added to his existing rookie contract, so he technically fits here. In 2017, Wentz had the Eagles at 10-2 before tearing his ACL in December. His backup, Nick Foles, went on to lead the Eagles to victory over the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. In 2018, Jared Goff led the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl, and this year, Patrick Mahomes helped the Kansas City Chiefs win their first Super Bowl since the game’s fourth iteration all the way back in 1970.

Essentially, if you’re not a team with a quarterback playing on his rookie contract, there’s only been one other good way to ensure a Super Bowl appearance over the last nine years: make sure your last name is Brady or Manning. Seven of the 18 quarterbacks were playing on their rookie contracts, but Tom Brady (five), Peyton Manning (two), and Eli Manning (one) make up eight of the other 11 total names. Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Jimmy Garoppolo are the other Super Bowl quarterbacks since the 2011 CBA’s inception.

So, what does it mean to a team to have a quarterback on his rookie contract? It means that squad can spend its salary cap resources to build up other areas of the team. The Seahawks had a stellar defense with a sweet nickname—the “Legion of Boom”—to back up Wilson. The Eagles maintained a strong defense as well, thanks to Wentz’s rookie contract. The Rams went all-in with Goff, spending financial resources and draft capital to surround Goff with tremendous talent. The Chiefs have been able to retain Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, Tyreek Hill, Frank Clark, and Chris Jones for well over $10 million each while their best player—Mahomes—is set to count a touch over $5 million on the salary cap. The puts him between teammates Damien Wilson and Daniel Sorensen in Kansas City’s salary cap table.

When looking at team like the Buffalo Bills, it’s fair to see why general manager Brandon Beane has made some “all-in” style moves this offseason. You can trade for Stefon Diggs when your quarterback is only slated to count just under $6 million against the salary cap (yes, Allen will count $500,000 more than Mahomes this season). You can sign veterans like Mario Addison and Josh Norman to big-money, short-term deals. Perhaps the team will even explore adding another player, like Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette or even mega-talented free agent defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

While neither move might make complete fiscal sense, the Bills have the flexibility to consider such moves thanks to the rookie wage scale. With Josh Allen entering the third year of his deal, the window to make such moves is closing rapidly. Buffalo has added plenty of talent, and within the next year, they’ll be able to use some of the payroll flexibility afforded by Allen’s wage-controlled rookie deal to retain such talent, as home-grown talents like Tre’Davious White, Matt Milano, and Dion Dawkins will be up for contract extensions. Retaining those players will help Buffalo to continue their upward trajectory in the Sean McDermott era.

One need only to look at the changes to those Super Bowl teams after their quarterback’s rookie contract ended. The 49ers were 23-8-1 with Kaepernick playing under the terms of his rookie contract; once he signed a six-year, $126 million pact in 2014, they dropped to 8-8, 5-11, and 2-14 over the next three seasons with Kaepernick (and his huge salary cap figure) on the roster.

The Panthers went 15-1 in Newton’s fifth season, which the quarterback played under an extension that included his fifth-year option. Since Newton inked his five-year, $103 million contract, Carolina is 29-35. The Rams loaded up on talent before Goff signed his four-year, $134 million extension, but they have had to jettison plenty of talent as a result of that new contract for their quarterback. That contract was signed in September 2019, seven months after his team made the Super Bowl. Los Angeles was 9-7 last year, missing the playoffs. The Eagles made the playoffs last year at 9-7, the first season where Wentz played under his new extension, which he signed in June 2019. The contract is worth $128 million over four years.

The Seahawks were 46-18 while Wilson played under the terms of his rookie deal, including two Super Bowl appearances. They are 40-23-1 since Wilson signed his first major extension, a four-year pact worth $87.6 million, with no Super Bowl appearances. While they have maintained their success better than the other teams whose quarterbacks led them to a Super Bowl on his rookie contract, it hasn’t come without the loss of plenty of star power, especially on that defense. The jury is still out on the Chiefs and Mahomes, who enters year four of his rookie deal in 2020.

If the last nine Super Bowls have taught us anything, it’s that there are two solid ways to build a roster around your quarterback: Either make sure that he’s on his rookie contract, or make sure that he’s married to a supermodel who makes enough money that it will keep him from asking for a tremendous contract.