The contract of Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor has been a subject of interest since he first signed his incentive-laden, "prove it" deal this past offseason. With Taylor now having played enough snaps to void the last year of his deal, analysts are beginning to consider what a long-term extension with the Bills might look like.
Michael Ginnitti of Spotrac.com opened the discussion on Taylor's market value last Tuesday with a piece comparing him to quarterbacks of a similar age who signed contract extensions. The number they came up with was a four-year extension worth $82.8 million. Let's treat that piece as a discussion starter, particularly because there were a few oversights that make it a little unrealistic for Taylor's situation.
For one thing, the quarterbacks chosen for the comparison (Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, and Aaron Rodgers) seem like poor choices. True, Taylor is playing on a statistical level that puts him on par with where those quarterbacks were playing before signing new contracts. However, Taylor is currently 11 games into his career as a starter after joining the league near the tail end of the 2011 NFL Draft. When their extensions were signed, Wilson, Kaepernick, and Rodgers had all played in a Super Bowl and participated in several deep playoff runs. Newton already had some playoff experience, in addition to being the No. 1 overall pick.
When they signed their extensions, Wilson had 48 career regular season starts, Newton 62, and Kaepernick was the outlier at 23. Rodgers, of course, had already played five seasons at a lucrative contract extension before signing the new contract referenced in the article. The sample size of games played cannot be overlooked when discussing Taylor's contract, because Bills fans are all too familiar with the consequences of signing a player to an extension following a hot streak.
Also overlooked by Ginnitti is the structure of the contracts, including how they separate guaranteed and non-guaranteed money. Compare Wilson's and Kaepernick's contracts, for instance: Wilson signed a relatively straightforward extension with a $31 million signing bonus equally distributed across his current contract and the four years of his extension, and a salary that guarantees year-to-year as he plays. The large signing bonus makes cutting Wilson prohibitive, as Seattle would face more than $12 million of dead cap money until the last year of his deal. Overall, it's very likely that Wilson sees his $87 million contract fully paid out.
Kaepernick, on the other hand, is likely to see a much lower ratio of his six-year, $114 million contract. The $12.3 million signing bonus is the only element that could saddle San Francisco with dead cap money. His $12 million roster bonus, $2.5 million workout bonus, and per-game bonuses don't mean much if he isn't on the field (or the team, for that matter), and his salary also sees an annual $2 million de-escalator if he isn't named All-Pro.
Two players, similar annual value, but significant differences in guarantees. When we discuss Taylor's contract details, it's important to consider how the guarantees are structured, because they affect the amount of money he's likely to receive, as well as the amount of risk Buffalo would be taking on as a long-term investment.
There are other contracts that may work as a better template for Taylor. Tony Romo signed a six-year, $69 million contract extension back in 2007 after 18 games as a starter. Romo, like Taylor, began his career sitting behind established names like Drew Bledsoe. Also relevant is the six-year, $63 million contract Rodgers signed in 2008, his first season as the full-time starter. Both contracts carried medium-low amounts of guaranteed money, used multiple types of bonuses to manage the cap, and offered overall salaries that were near the top of market value for quarterbacks at the time.
One more contract that would be good to note is the small extension Nick Foles recently signed, as mentioned by Ginnitti. That two-year, $24.5 million extension is much more of a prove-it deal, offering a significant boost in salary, reducing the impact on the team if Foles doesn't work out, and allowing Foles to quickly renegotiate if he plays well. It represents a second type of extension the parties could work on if they don't come to terms with the long-term decision.
The $11 million average annual value of the Romo and Rodgers deals was soon eclipsed. By 2012, Romo's salary ranked 13th in the NFL, and Rodgers' 15th, although they measured very closely against the league-leading $13.5 million salary held by Carson Palmer in 2008. To compensate for those costs, we've adjusted the value of their contracts in the following table for the "inflation" of quarterback salaries in today's market.
Taylor is still inexperienced, but he's breaking franchise records in his first season as a Bills starter. That could merit a large raise, especially if he finishes the year hot. It doesn't seem likely that Taylor would opt for another "prove-it" deal of shorter length after entering into the one he's currently playing under, so the question is then about what it would cost to retain Taylor long-term.
Take a look at the numbers in the table above, and then take a few breaths. That annual salary would rank Taylor roughly 17th on the NFL's list of quarterback salaries, between Alex Smith and Palmer. It's the market value for a franchise quarterback. In fact, one could argue it undervalues Taylor, who has spent most of the year near the top of most passing categories, so don't be surprised if the eventual contract inflates by another $10 or $20 million.
While the overall number looks high, don't forget that the team can use guarantees to help soften the blow. Rodgers and Kaepernick both had low guarantees in their first extensions, operating off of limited samples, and it's likely that the Bills would do the same with Taylor. There may be a slight variation here and there; perhaps we see a five-year, $83.3 million extension rather than the full six years, and perhaps Taylor opts to adjust his salary in return for a higher percentage of guaranteed money. Still, this is the number that the Bills are likely targeting - somewhat lower than the $20 million salaries commanded by Wilson and Newton.
All of this projection is well and good, but ultimately it doesn't matter quite yet, because Taylor's contract doesn't expire until the end of the 2016 season. That's not to say he couldn't force Buffalo's hand; a hot finish to the regular season could up his value. The Bills definitely have their work cut out for them fitting Taylor into the salary cap. But right now, he only has 11 career starts, and it's still a bit too early to be slotting him into a new contract.