The Impact Quarterback Inflation Has on the NFL Salary Cap

Paul Thelen@@ThePaulLenContributor IIApril 5, 2013

Aaron Roders has reason to smile, as he is on the verge of receiving a massive contract extension.
Aaron Roders has reason to smile, as he is on the verge of receiving a massive contract extension.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Is NFL salary cap adjusting to the inflation of quarterback contracts? 

The NFL's most important position is being paid accordingly. This offseason quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Tony Romo have especially cashed in with contract extensions of $120 million and $119.5 million, respectively. These enormous contacts further the trend of quarterback contracts accelerating both in total value and in guaranteed payout. 

Since its inception in 1994, the NFL’s salary cap has steadily risen each year. The first cap was set at $34.6 million, and for 2013 the cap has been set at $123 million. But upon seeing the eye-popping size of recent quarterback contracts, the question that is begging to be asked is whether or not the growth in quarterback salaries parallels the growth in cap space teams are able to spend.

Since we’re looking at inflating monetary value of both contracts and the salary cap, the best way to quantify the growth is through the percentage of the NFL team’s cap space that a quarterback is absorbing. Further, we’re going to observe the five highest paid quarterbacks for a given year, as well as the 10th and 20th highest, to fully illustrate the quarterback landscape.

For a baseline, let’s observe the 2000 season.

Player Cap Hit (In Millions % Of Team's Cap Space
1) Drew Bledsoe $8.5 13.7 %
2) Mark Brunell $7.2 11.6 %
3) Peyton Manning $6.7 10.8 %
4) Chris Chandler $6.2 10%
5) Jake Plummer $5.9 9.5 %
10) Steve McNair $4.1 6.6 %
20) Donavan McNabb   $2.2 3.5 %

Now fast-forward to 2006, when the NFL raised the salary cap by $17 million, the largest annual increase ever, from the 2005 amount.

Player Cap Hit (In Millions  % Of Team's Cap Space
1) Tom Brady $13.8 13.5 %
2)  Mike Vick $13 12.7 %
3) Cason Palmer  $13 12.7 %
4) Brett Favre $12.6 12.3 %
5) Peyton Manning  $10.5 10.2 %
10) Jake Plummer $7.3  7.1 %
20) Jake Delhomme  $4.5 4.4 %

Comparing the two illuminates slight growth. The ceiling remains similar, as Brady in 2006 actually accounts for .2 percent less than Bledsoe in 2000. The difference largely lies in the No. 2-5 scale. Carson Palmer in 2006 accounted for 1.9 percent more than fellow third-ranked contract in 2000 Peyton Manning.

Still, even though 1.9 percent equates to just under $2 million in cap space in 2006, the rise of quarterback contracts don’t seem to be crippling teams. In fact, it would appear that given the dramatic rise in the salary cap, the rising quarterback contracts played a factor in the rise itself. 

Then there is 2013.

Player Cap Hit (In Millions % Of Team's Cap Space
1) Eli Manning $20.8 16.9 %
2) Matt Stafford $20.8 16.9 %
3) Peyton Manning $20 16.2 %
4) Drew Brees $17.4 14.1 %
5) Philip Rivers $17.1 13.9 %
10) Mike Vick $12.2 9.9 %
20) Cam Newton $6 4.87 %

We have a problem. At the top we have a 3.4 percent growth from 2006, which equates to a whopping $4.1 million in cap space. The fifth-highest paid quarterback in 2013 accounts for more of team's salary than the highest paid in 2006. Further, look at the tenth most valued contracts. Vick in 2013 accounts for 3.3 percent more than Steve McNair in 2006. That equates to $4 million in cap space. 

For context, free-agent players that signed in 2013 who will inflict $4 million against the cap are: defensive end Michael Bennentt, offensive tackle Philip Loadholdt, guard Adam Levitre, cornerback Greg Toler and tight end Jared Cook. These are all players that are expected to start with their new teams.

Fans of Detroit, New Orleans, the New York Giants and San Diego, how much would you have loved to see your team sign any one of these players? Something you might have been able to do had you not had to pay the inflated price for your quarterback. 

Of course, team’s that suffer a high cap hit for quarterback, by result, typically have a strong quarterback. Strong quarterback play is essential in today’s game, so it’s more than reasonable to argue that quarterbacks are worth their ascending price. 

But after 2013 price of quarterbacks will inflate significantly. The trend for recent quarterback extensions has been to back load the contracts as far as cap repercussions, while piling up the first years with signing bonuses and low cap numbers. This allows the team flexibility at the time extension.

It’s for this reason that the Cowboys and Patriots actually freed up current cap space by extending Tony Romo and Tom Brady. But what will happen when we reach the end of these contracts? 

Tony Romo will account for $21.14 million in 2014 and $25.15 million in 2015; Drew Brees will cost $26.4 million against the New Orleans cap in 2015; and when Joe Flacco’s mammoth sized contract kicks in during the 2016 and 2017 seasons he will account for $28.5 million and $31 million of the team’s cap space respectively.

Where it might seem apparent that team's will simply restructure or release these quarterbacks when they hit their contract heights, keep in mind the that the quarterback position suffers the greatest drop off by replacements.

Philip Rivers production doesn't match his cap number, but the Chargers can't possibly release him because of the drop-off from Rivers to their backup, and because Arizona, New York Jets, Jacksonville and others would line up to overpay Rivers.

Where a team can release a cornerback who inflicts a major cap hit, think Antoine Winfield, because of the confidence in replacing said player with a cheaper younger player, team's can't employ this strategy with quarterbacks.    

The way NFL teams are signing quarterbacks it appears they are banking on the league’s cap number to increase. This would be good and well except for the speed of quarterback inflation is outgrowing the increase in the salary cap.

The NFL salary cap has only risen by $3 million since 2009. If it remains at that growth rate, Joe Flacco will account for 24.8 percent of his team’s salary cap when his contract hits its peek.

Whether or not the NFL raises the salary cap in conjunction with the inflation remains to be seen. If it doesn’t, expect to see the salaries of non-quarterback players to plummet so that team’s can afford to field a roster.

The only precedent to this inflation the NFL has experienced was how they handled rookie contracts during the most recent CBA. As the price for high draft picks continued to inflate the affects of the lucrative deals were rearing their nasty head, as teams that were saddled with high picks that didn’t perform were suffering team wide salary cap repercussions—think Detroit and St. Louis.

By result, the inflation of these rookie contracts angered both the NFL owners who were stuck paying the high price and the current NFL players who were finding themselves as cap casualties so that NFL teams could stay under the salary cap.

During the CBA, the two sides agreed that rookie contracts should be capped. But how will the negotiations play out when the two sides that are angry are the NFL owners, who will be stuck paying quarterbacks incredibly large checks for a competent quarterback, something teams will have to do in order to compete in today’s NFL, and the non-quarterback playing players, who by result of the inflation of quarterbacks will see their own salaries plummet?

Regardless of what happens, the inflation of quarterbacks is going to impact both the salary cap and the way teams conduct business in the coming years.

All contract numbers via USA Today and Spotrac.com.