2023 Quarterback Salaries are outrageous
The table below shows that the NFL finds itself in a period in which the top quarterback salary is escalating dramatically (numbers are from Spotrac.com and team records are from ProFootballReference.com).
Forget about inflation, just look at who has the highest salary and what percentage it represents compared to the NFL cap allowance for that season. The last time the quarterback with the highest cap charge won the Super Bowl was ten seasons ago. Peyton Manning was getting 15 percent of the 2012 NFL salary cap allowance that season, and the Broncos won it all.
Manning was actually falling apart physically that year, and they really won it on defense, but nevertheless, they did win while paying a huge salary-cap charge to their quarterback. Since then, the top quarterback cap hit in the NFL has usually been incurred by a team with a losing record.
From an analytics point of view, this business of escalating salaries for quarterbacks makes no sense. The salary cap is real, and recent history teaches that if the team pays too much for a quarterback in a given year, the rest of the roster usually cannot make up for it and the team does not win the Super Bowl that year.
Cleveland, of course, is adding fuel to the fire. The Browns might win the Super Bowl in 2022, but if they do it won’t be because they made a huge investment in DeShaun Watson. His salary cap charge is huge for 2023, 2024, and 2025, but the Browns get a discount in 2022.
His cap charge this upcoming season is only $10.0 million, or 4.8 percent of the $208.2 million cap allowance that all NFL teams get this season. Estimating that the 2023 cap allowance will be about $225 million, DeShaun Watson’s cap charge will be $55 million, or an amazing 24.4 percent.
Next highest is Ryan Tannehill’s 2022 deal, for which the Titans’ cap hit is $38.5 million, or 18.5 percent of the cap allowance. Prior to Covid, in 2020 it was Dak Prescott at $31.4 million or 15.8 percent.
So, if you connect the dots, the historical max has been about 15 percent of the team salary cap; Tannehill is punching through this year at 18.5 percent and Watson is setting a new bar at 24.4 percent thereafter.
Other quarterbacks, specifically Kirk Cousins, Patrick Mahomes, and Jared Goff are north of 15 percent of the cap allowance this season. Teams that spend that high of a percentage of their payroll on one player usually do not win the Super Bowl or come close.
Mahomes, for example, was not getting paid top dollar in terms of salary cap charges when he was going to the Super Bowl. Remember, extensions and bonus money are deferred till later. So, when Mahomes was going to the Super Bowl, his cap charge was actually lower than Baker Mayfield’s.
Similarly, Tom Brady doesn’t ask for top dollar. Instead, he signs for an average amount of money and gets management to promise to use the extra cap space to sign a few key players for him, like Antonio Brown.
In the past, the highest-paid quarterback has often been one who has led his team to the Super Bowl in previous years, including the Mannings, Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson, and Drew Brees. However, Peyton Manning (2012) was the only quarterback to win while having the highest cap charge among NFL quarterbacks in the same year he won it.
From the looks of things, a new contract extension would kick in major dollars in 2023 or 2024. The league is now suffering from sticker shock since the Browns set a new standard with Deshaun Watson. Ryan Glasspiegel of the New York Post quoted Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti as follows:
"“I don’t know that he should’ve been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract. To me, that’s something that is groundbreaking, and it’ll make negotiations harder with others.” — Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti on Deshaun Watson’s contract with the Cleveland Browns."
Year Team Player Salary, NFL Cap W L T Playoffs? SB?
$M $M Pct
2023 Browns Deshaun Watson $55.0 $225.0 24.4% TBD TBD TBD TBD TBD
2022 Titans Ryan Tannehill $38.6 $208.2 18.5% TBD TBD TBD TBD TBD
2021 Seahawks Russell Wilson $32.0 $182.5 17.5% 7 10 No No
2020 Cowboys Dak Prescott $31.4 $198.2 15.8% 6 10 No No
2019 Lions Matt Stafford $30.7 $188.2 16.3% 3 12 1 No No
2018 Lions Matt Stafford $26.5 $177.2 15.0% 6 10 No No
2017 Ravens Joe Flacco $24.6 $167.0 14.7% 9 7 No No
2016 Giants Eli Manning $24.2 $155.3 15.6% 11 5 Yes No
2015 Saints Drew Brees $23.8 $143.3 16.6% 7 9 No No
2014 Giants Eli Manning $20.4 $133.0 15.3% 6 10 No No
2013 Giants Eli Manning $20.9 $123.6 16.9% 7 9 No No
2012 Broncos Peyton Manning $18.0 $120.6 14.9% 13 3 Yes Yes
The takeaway from the table is that it is probably not smart to be the GM that gets stuck with the highest salary-cap charge for a quarterback in the NFL in a given year.
Usually, NFL teams plan to take a discount on the cap and “win right now,” and take the salary cap hit later on. What you see in this table is usually what happens when “later on” actually happens, and the reality of the salary cap damages the rest of the team.
Overpaying the quarterback is okay if there is a discount for the first year, and you are willing to go through a rebuilding phase thereafter with an overpaid quarterback on the books. Is that what Eric DeCosta wants to do, and would Sashi Brown approve that plan? That does not sound like the Sashi Brown we got to know in Cleveland.
This is especially true because the Ravens may have encountered another dynamic young quarterback in Tyler Huntley. He is not a superstar runner like Jackson, but he is very mobile and actually was intercepted less frequently than Jackson last season.
DeCosta and Brown will have to decide whether they would rather have Jackson or go with Huntley plus about four starting players worth of salary money.