Joe Burrow is the present and future of the Cincinnati Bengals. When a young quarterback of his caliber headlines a roster, the only correct choice is working out a contract extension to keep him around.
Right now, he's a third-year player who's posted a couple of 4,400-yard, 35-touchdown campaigns. Cincinnati has two more seasons of control from his rookie contract because of a fifth-year option in 2024.
Neither statement is unexpected. Really, they are obvious thoughts.
Exactly how much and when he'll cost the Bengals, however, are both immensely intriguing.
This is an enviable dilemma in Cincinnati—which, unlike many NFL teams, has its franchise QB in place. The challenge is for a notoriously cost-conscious franchise to avoid straining a potentially iconic relationship.
Cincinnati is not required to offer an extension this offseason, but the negotiation window opened in January. There is plenty of precedent, too. Over the past three years, the Kansas City Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes), Buffalo Bills (Josh Allen) and Arizona Cardinals (Kyler Murray) have all hammered out deals for young quarterbacks.
Burrow's turn should be near.
Kansas City, Buffalo and Arizona each exercised their QB's fifth-year option and stacked the extension on top of it. That process, in theory, would help Cincy mitigate Burrow's cap hit through the 2024 season.
As a result, the Bengals should be able to keep Burrow at—relative to his position—a less expensive rate. That is particularly valuable because, most likely, Cincinnati will never have a higher percentage of cap available for the rest of the roster after his next contract is signed.
Every year, a new wave of hefty QB contracts flood the market. Last offseason alone, Aaron Rodgers signed a deal worth $50.3 million annually. Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray and Deshaun Watson all landed $46-plus million per season, and Watson—despite being the subject of 24 lawsuits filed by women accusing him of sexual assault or misconduct at the time and facing a significant league suspension—even signed a fully guaranteed five-year contract.
It's tough to envision Burrow signing for anything less than Watson's $46 million—or however much now-Baltimore Ravens star Lamar Jackson commands this spring.
Cincinnati has never been close to a financial commitment of this level. Former quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton didn't touch $100 million on their extensions, but Burrow should reach it by Year 3.
Yet if that discomfort causes the Bengals to delay the seemingly inevitable, his agreement will only get pricier.
That is, barring a team-friendly agreement.
Brown, the Bengals owner, is publicly hoping for the oft-elusive hometown discount—something which Tom Brady was known for repeatedly taking. Brown's desire comes as no surprise, especially given his long-held reputation for, uh, let's call it economic frugality.
"There is the fact that when you don't have to pay the quarterback some extraordinary amount, that leaves room to pay other players more and, therefore, you can keep more players that are good players," Brown told the team's radio broadcast before Cincinnati's recent Wild Card Round win over the Ravens.
Brown, for the record, is not incorrect.
The current roster has an impressive group of skill-position players around Burrow, and a top-dollar contract jeopardizes that high-end talent. For example, the deals of star wideouts Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase expire after the 2023 and 2025 seasons, respectively.
Cincinnati can find the space for Higgins, Burrow and Chase, specifically. But if the Bengals do, they can't keep everyone else. Costs must be cut elsewhere. Is that to an offensive line that's already shaky? Or a sturdy defense that has upside but could steadily lose it?
But Brown might not be reasonable, either.
Managing the books is not Burrow's responsibility. He's an elite QB who understands the power of that stature, saying recently that the Bengals' championship window "is my whole career."
In other words: I'm here. Figure the rest out around me. It's equal parts confident, cocky and legitimate.
"Keep drafting well" and "sign good free agents" are painless to suggest on a keyboard and difficult to execute in reality, yet those are foundational bullet points on a front-office job description. Draft, develop, hopefully re-sign—and if the latter isn't possible, then sign, develop, hopefully re-sign the next player, and so on.
Place them around a talent like Burrow, and the best-case scenario is he elevates them to a Super Bowl-worthy level. It's not guaranteed to work, but Burrow should give most rosters a shot.
This is a complex, complicated, desirable mess.
Burrow can reasonably expect a long-term commitment from a franchise he's already led to a Super Bowl trip. Cincinnati, for the sake of its long-term aspirations, must come through.
Sure, the team's long-term finances will become delicate with Burrow's next contract. He's worth many, many millions, and the Bengals will recognize that in negotiations while trying to protect any dollar possible.
The inherent risk is frustrating Burrow with low-ball offers or a timeline that doesn't match the precedent of Mahomes or Allen.
An annoyed QB probably isn't one who is eager to offer a hometown discount, and, again, an extension next offseason will presumably be more expensive than today's rate. Baltimore's current predicament with Jackson is a point-in-case example for Cincinnati to dodge, as well.
The only way the Bengals can mess this up would be mangling negotiations and eventually watching Burrow leave town—or force his way out. While assembling a team around an expensive quarterback can be tricky, it's a reality the Bengals should be thrilled to embrace in 2024.
But that journey starts with an extension for Burrow this offseason.