Who Will Be the NFL's First $200 Million Quarterback?February 19, 2019
Someday very soon there may be a $200 million quarterback in the NFL.
Maybe it will be Patrick Mahomes. Just before the Chiefs' playoff loss to the Patriots in mid-January, ESPN's Adam Schefter floated the idea of Mahomes earning a $200 million contract extension when he becomes eligible for negotiations next offseason.
Maybe it will be Dak Prescott. Unlike Mahomes, Prescott is in the final year of his rookie contract and up for renegotiation right now. K.D. Drummond of Cowboys Wire wrote a detailed explanation last week of why and how Prescott could become the NFL's first $200 million man.
Perhaps it will be Russell Wilson, an established franchise quarterback and Super Bowl champion who is due for an extension this year. Or Jared Goff, who just took the Rams to the Super Bowl. Or Carson Wentz, who led the Eagles most of the way to the Super Bowl last year. Or maybe we will have to wait for Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray or Tua Tagovailoa.
The first $200 million quarterback, whoever he may be, will set a historic milestone and become the league's most scrutinized player. Will that $200 million deal just be a sign of the times in the never-ending boom market for NFL quarterbacks? Or will it be a contract that breaks the market and cripples a team's budget?
Important facts and figures
To keep this article from turning into a graduate-level accounting class, let's start by focusing on a handful of important, easy-to-understand parameters.
$33.5 million: Aaron Rodgers' average annual compensation, per his August contract extension. It's the highest annual salary in the NFL, making it a useful benchmark for discussing future quarterback contracts. Mahomes and others will be starting their negotiations at around $33.5 million per year.
3-5 years: The fashionable length of quarterback contracts and extensions. Rodgers' August extension was a four-year deal. Other major recent contracts and extensions (including the Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo and Matt Ryan contracts) were three- to five-year deals. Longer contracts such as the ones Joe Flacco and Jay Cutler signed in 2013 and 2014 are out of vogue.
According to simple division, a $200 million contract would entail an average of $40 million per year for five years (not that much more than Rodgers' compensation), $50 million annually over four years (huge but comprehensible), $67 million annually over three years (whoa) or the return of the six- or seven-year contract.
2021: That's the year the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the players association ends. The contract landscape will probably look very different in three years: new revenue-sharing and salary-cap calculations, different franchise-tag rules, a thoroughly revised rookie wage scale, etc.
We'll take some guesses in this article about what the expiration of the CBA might mean as some teams try to push bonuses past the 2021 barrier while some players gamble they'll get an even bigger share of the pie if they hit the market in a few years.
(We should note some facts and figures that might be nearly meaningless: quarterback stats and recent history. Sure, Goff could throw 30 interceptions or Wentz could tear another ACL. But barring catastrophe, the next round of quarterback contracts will have nothing to do with Goff's ugly Super Bowl, Wentz's getting upstaged by Nick Foles every January, Prescott's next slump or whether Mahomes eats too much ketchup.
Cousins and Garoppolo are among the NFL's highest-paid quarterbacks, after all. Huge contracts are more about timing and potential than touchdown passes or playoff victories.)
Top candidates' chances to hit $200 million
Let's look at some of the eligible quarterbacks to determine just how good their chances are and whether they will be worth all that dough.
It's fun to speculate that the Rams, skittish about Goff after he got tilted in the Super Bowl, will draft a low-cost successor and let Sean McVay work his mojo on him. But that's not how teams operate or make decisions.
The Rams will almost certainly exercise the fifth-year option in Goff's rookie contract in the spring. That will keep Goff under contract through 2020, with a base salary of at least $21 million in the final year.
If anything, the Super Bowl letdown, coupled with a tight cap situation, will keep the Rams from rushing too quickly into contract extension talks before they see how Goff bounces back. That means Goff could be one of the last quarterbacks on this list to get a new contract. And when it comes to big-money quarterback deals, batting order matters.
Chance of being the first $200 million man: 25 percent. If Prescott, Wilson and Wentz all get extensions before Goff does, he could reach the $200 million threshold by hopping up the steppingstones.
But is he worth the money? Goff is the most likely candidate on this list to be the quarterback we point to in three years and say: "Yeah, he's good, but his contract makes it hard for the Rams to surround him with the pieces he needs to be successful." Still, there are plenty of teams that would love to worry about whether the quarterback who got them to the Super Bowl is good enough to get them a little further.
Mahomes is the most exciting and (probably) the best quarterback on this list, but he's also the lowest-priority, contractwise.
The Chiefs have two affordable years and a fifth-year option left on Mahomes' rookie contract. They're not even allowed to open negotiations until next offseason. With a tight budget this year and over $139 million in expenditures already on the books for 2020, the Chiefs will milk every moment of Mahomes' two seasons of underpayment.
Mahomes' first hypothetical free-agent year is 2022, which means the Chiefs don't have to do anything until after the next CBA. By then, the cap could grow so much that a four-year, $50 million-per-year contract could make perfect financial sense.
Chance of being the first $200 million man: 20 percent. There are many scenarios in which someone beats Mahomes to the landmark deal, but he's probably the most likely single quarterback to get one eventually.
But is he worth the money? Sure. Pay him $6 billion, just so long as we can keep watching no-look passes and games with 51-45 final scores.
But seriously: Mahomes contract talks are so far in the future that they are basically science fiction. Heck, if one or more quarterbacks on this list reaches $200 million first and the post-CBA cap goes through the roof, we could be talking about Mahomes as the first $250 million quarterback!
Prescott may be the weakest quarterback on this list, but he has two major factors working in his favor:
- There's no fifth-year option in Prescott's contract, meaning the Cowboys have to sign him to an extension soon or risk losing him in free agency or playing Cousins tag with him.
- Jerry Jones likes blasting money at his top players through a fire hose and worrying about the fiscal consequences later.
For once, Jerrah also has a reasonable amount of upfront cap space to work with, so he doesn't need to back-load contracts and spread bonuses across 30-year mortgages with balloon payments like he did with Tony Romo. That's good news for Prescott (he gets real upfront dough instead of make-believe future dough) and the Cowboys (less revolving debt) but bad news for anyone waiting to see a $200 million quarterback take the field.
Chance of being the first $200 million man: 15 percent. A five-year, $150 million Prescott contract (think Garoppolo plus a few million) would make the most sense for a quarterback likely to be the first to market (and therefore most affordable). But a six-year, $200 million "LOOK HOW RICH AND GENEROUS I AM" deal would be very, very Jerrah.
But is he worth the money? Prescott's low salary has been one of his most attractive attributes for the last three years, and the buyer's remorse will be extreme if he's still Mr. 22 Touchdowns Guy in a few years. He's like Goff but with weaker stats and without the option year to give his team some extra evaluation time and wiggle room.
Wentz, like Goff, will have his 2020 option picked up sometime this spring, plays for a cap-strapped contender, and has reached just the right accomplishment level to earn a whopping contract and make his employers a teensy bit nervous about handing him one.
Historically, the Eagles have been willing to spend a lot of money to keep their core veterans in the fold. They also tend to offer big contracts well before their players can come close to testing free agency: a golden handcuffs tactic that trades upfront money for future negotiating leverage.
The Eagles are cap-strapped for the next two seasons, so look for them to try to extend Wentz before his 2020 option year so they can:
- Keep Wentz in Philly for a long time.
- Convert any 2020 money into a big bonus that the team can prorate for a little cap relief.
- Get to the market before Goff or Mahomes can blow salaries into the stratosphere. (Cap issues will make it hard for the Eagles to sign Wentz before Jerrah runs Prescott over with a money bus.)
Chance of being the first $200 million man: 20 percent. The Eagles will need to prorate bonuses for cap reasons, which means extra contract years. So a five-year deal with a $40 million average (with lots of cash stashed in the post-CBA future) is a real possibility.
But is he worth the money? When playing at his peak, Wentz is more like Mahomes than Goff or Prescott, making him more likely to pay dividends on a whopping deal than to leave the Eagles wishing they could afford someone to protect him or catch his passes.
Wentz also has the most troubling health history of the players on this list. Injury guarantees will be a major component of his next contract.
Wilson was the pioneer of the short contract extension when he signed a four-year deal in August 2015.
His $87.6 million pact looked small and team-friendly at the time, but Wilson gambled that he would see every dime of the deal (contracts then contained lots of phony-baloney money in the final years) and then hit a much more lucrative quarterback market while still in his prime.
Everything went precisely as Wilson expected, and he's now looking for the big payday he bought himself with that shrewd 2015 contract. The Seahawks must pay him or play chicken with the franchise tag next year, which would be a terrible idea for many, many reasons.
Chance of being the first $200 million man: 10 percent. Based on his last deal, Wilson is likely to demand a three-year, $120 million-type contract that will allow him to hit the market again before he turns 34 years old and after the new CBA potentially brings a radical new salary structure. But the Seahawks may want to push money and cap issues past 2021, which means they would offer a longer deal that's more likely to reach that $200 million plateau.
But is he worth the money? The Seahawks would be the Arizona Cardinals without Wilson, so they need to pay the living heck out of him. But they are also still rebuilding the roster beneath him and need to maintain some fiscal flexibility.
A bigger, longer contract that pays Wilson more down the road (but makes it easier to sign players in 2019 and 2020) may make more football sense than a short, front-loaded deal that keeps the Seahawks in wild-card purgatory. And Wilson's extension could come before anyone else's, creating a ripple effect across the rest of the market.
Maybe Deshaun Watson or Mitchell Trubisky will throw 75 touchdowns next year. Maybe the next round of extensions will be a bunch of three-year deals, leaving it to Mayfield or Sam Darnold to someday break the $200 million barrier. Maybe Rodgers will stamp his feet about having to learn a new offense and get an extension tacked onto his extension. Anything is possible when it comes to future quarterback contracts.
Chance of being the first $200 million man: 10 percent. The probability that everyone from Wilson through Mahomes opts for short, guarantee-laden deals is pretty high. We may see four-year, $160 million or even three-year, $150 million contracts before we see a $200 million deal of any length.
But are they worth the money? Shorter contracts with genuine guarantees are almost always better for the players (they get more chances to negotiate in their primes) and teams (less salary-cap tomfoolery, fewer late-contract regrets). That's why seven-year contracts are now so rare.
A number like $200 million may capture the imagination, but it's less meaningful than a quarterback's annual salary and how that quarterback's performance and compensation match up with his team's budget, roster and expectations.
And no matter who becomes the first $200 million quarterback, all it will really mean is that the next guy due for an extension will demand, and get, $210 million or more.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.