Daniel Jones, Derek Carr, and Geno Smith Showcase Rising Middle-Class Quarterback Salaries

Daniel Jones, Derek Carr, and Geno Smith have signed deals that demonstrate the changing realities at the quarterback position.

The New York Giants have signed Daniel Jones to a long-term deal, allowing them to avoid the franchise tag decision as they approached the NFL’s deadline. The deal is worth $160 million over four years, according to Ian Rapaport at NFL Network. Unsurprisingly, it’s an incentive-laden deal that can add another $35 million on top of that $160 million figure.

That $40 million average value stands in contrast with the deals provided to Derek Carr and Geno Smith, which average out to $37.5 million and $35 million a year, respectively. Contracts are much more than just the average annual value, and things like cash flow, bonus structure, and incentives all play a big role, and the amount of money guaranteed in a contract matters a good deal more.

The Middle-Class Quarterback Market Is Hard To Build Around

Still, it provides a window into what was understood to be a fairly equivalent market. In fact, public perception and eventual contract value for the three passers didn’t quite line up.

Though unscientific, it’s demonstrative that more respondents thought that Carr would earn the highest average value of the three passers and that Jones earned less than half the votes, even when excluding Jimmy Garoppolo from the results.

These quarterbacks — players who have more to prove before they can be considered franchise starters — have substantially impacted the market at the position for those with less to prove and more to guarantee any prospective employer.

This will make it difficult for teams to pursue a strategy of building around a manageable contract at quarterback and crafting an elite team around them. A bog-standard starter is now going to take up 18 percent of the cap. With another nine percent taken up by the 20 or so players at or near the veteran minimum, that means about 70 percent of the cap can be devoted to impact starters.

A high-level receiver and high-level edge defender by themselves would consume about 10 percent of the cap, leaving just half the cap to fill the roles of about 15 extremely good starters whose job it will be to make up for the average quarterback that they help carry.

The Quarterback Market Is Unique to the 2020s

A decade ago, this middle-class quarterback market wasn’t quite as robust. The non-franchise, non-elite quarterback value was worth less than half as much, while the cap itself was almost exactly half what it is today.

Teams dealing with a total salary cap of $123 million in 2013 would pay out quarterbacks like Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford, Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer, Michael Vick, and Alex Smith anywhere between $8 million and $13 million a year — 6.5% to 10.5% of the cap value.

Part of this has to do with decreasing values at other positions, like nose tackle and running back. Some of this has to do with the salary-depressive effects of the rookie salary system introduced in 2011 — as teams find that drafting a receiver is easier and cheaper than signing one in free agency, some of those mid-tier contracts went down in value — but most of it has to do with the importance of the quarterback position increasing.

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Even the sort-of franchise quality quarterbacks that were paid less than elites, like Matt Schaub and Eli Manning, commanded contracts of $15.5 and $16.3 million. That’s still just 13% of the 2013 cap.

Jay Cutler and Andy Dalton earned extensions in 2014 worth $16-18 million, or 12-13.5% of the 2014 cap. The environment then was just substantially different.

Now, the surplus value of a rookie quarterback contract has skyrocketed, as teams might be able to get the same value from Carr or Jones in the draft while paying $7 million in cap space instead of $37 million. There’s a great deal of uncertainty there, but a lot of teams could use another $30 million of cap space room.

Middle-Class Quarterback Contracts Impact All Quarterbacks

This will have an impact on other contracts outside of that sphere, too. The Vikings, for example, will have to make another decision on Kirk Cousins sooner rather than later. His current contract pays him $35 million on average, but he’s likely worth more than the cohort of Carr, Smith, and Jones.

As Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, and Tua Tagovailoa come up on their contracts, they’ll be able to point to these “middle-class” quarterback values as redlines in their contract negotiations — those values aren’t even floors; they’re springboards to getting to their real value.

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As those values go up, the $50 million mark doesn’t seem unreasonable. Right now, only Aaron Rodgers has a contract value worth over $50 million a year, and he’s only just above that line. Soon, we should see that class of quarterbacks use the $40 million mark as a reason to hit $60 million in their own contracts.

They will be able to better make the argument that they can make up for the lack of high-level veteran talent around them. Though Patrick Mahomes wasn’t bereft of talent — he threw to Travis Kelce while benefiting from a defense that had Chris Jones and Frank Clark — the Chiefs were still forced to roster an almost entirely rookie secondary and traded away his best weapon in Tyreek Hill in order to get under the cap. That, of course, was worth it.

In this way, a rising tide lifts all boats. Jones, Smith, and Carr are doing all quarterbacks a solid when they establish a market norm, and every passer reaps the benefits.

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