The 2020 Ravens look a lot like the 2019 Chiefs. The fighting Harbaughs are coming off a stinging playoff defeat with a reigning MVP quarterback entering his third season. There isn’t a bigger organizational advantage than a superstar quarterback on a rookie contract, and now’s the time for Baltimore general manager Eric DeCosta to capitalize like Kansas City did.
Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson feel like unicorns, but productive quarterbacks on rookie deals are becoming more common. The phenomenon made me think about which quarterbacks beyond those two have the most value on their current deals. To sum up this thought exercise in a single sentence:
Considering talent, production, age and contract, which QB would you most want to have under your team’s control moving forward?
While the rankings below attempting to answer that question are incredibly subjective, I tried to use a few guiding principles …
Production is still more important than projection. Simply put, it’s more valuable to have a top-10 quarterback than a guy you hope may get there someday. Money and age mattered in this exercise, but I’d take a quality starter at an expensive price over a question mark on the cheap.
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Also, there’s a fine line between thinking long-term and overrating the future. The next 2-3 years in any NFL cycle are always the most important years because the league changes so quickly and nearly every GM is a bad year or two away from getting fired. With that said, ties went to the young guys below. Players like Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray who have already produced have extra value because they are on their rookie deals. A high-caliber starter like Carson Wentz gets an edge over Matt Ryan because there’s a longer career runway ahead. But in a league where it doesn’t pay to aim for the middle of the standings, high-ceiling elder statesmen like Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger still have value compared with some of their younger, highly paid middle-class counterparts.
Lastly, free agents like Cam Newton and Jameis Winston aren’t eligible, since they currently lack one of the critical ingredients in this judgment stew: a contract. And I capped the rankings at 35 quarterbacks because that was a natural cutoff point in terms of genuine intrigue.
Let’s go. No arguing!
NOTE: Unless otherwise cited, salary-cap figures in this piece were found on Over The Cap.
The easiest player to rank on this list. It isn’t a problem that Mahomes may ask for $50 million per season because he’s worth it and all great quarterbacks remain underpaid relative to their value. Not since Dan Marino has a QB put together two consciousness-expanding seasons to start a career like this. There’s every reason to believe Mahomes can get better.
DeCosta knows what a unique opportunity the Ravens have. The draft will be key in buttressing Jackson’s supporting cast, and his rookie salary is partly why the Ravens can afford six players with a cap figure over $10 million. How Jackson follows up his MVP season will be one of the stories of 2020. He’s already proven to be an expert problem solver.
I was tempted to rank Wilson second, despite being so much older and more costly than Jackson. Still just 31, though, Wilson offers the ideal combination of reliability and upside. There’s comfort in knowing Wilson will have the Seahawks in contention whether his defense is historic or middling, whether his running game is led by Marshawn Lynch in his prime or Marshawn Lynch at 33, whether his offensive line is bad or really bad. The $35 million average annual salary on his most recent extension will look like a bargain well before the deal ends in 2024.
Watson’s rapid rebound from his torn ACL has been nothing short of remarkable. He’s the quintessential quarterback for the next decade because of his athleticism, decision-making and leadership traits. It remains unclear if he’ll get his big contract this offseason or next, but it’s coming. My top four on this exercise were set in stone; now it gets complicated …
It’s easy to pick nits about Wentz’s accuracy and occasional streakiness. It’s also easy for the Eagles to feel comfortable with a 27-year-old established top-10 quarterback under contract for five more seasons at an average cap number under $30 million per. The Eagles signed Wentz at a modest discount coming off an injury, which gives him an edge over other options in the top 10.
If there’s nothing more valuable to a team than a star quarterback on a rookie deal, then the Cardinals have it made. Murray checked every box in his first season to foster belief that he’ll join the ranks of the players above. He’ll enter his second season with a cap figure less than Marcus Mariota and virtually the same as Ryan Fitzpatrick. General manager Steve Keim knows he shouldn’t wait to maximize the first window of the Murray era and he showed it with the acquisition of DeAndre Hopkins. Combinations like Murray and coach Kliff Kingsbury are where the NFL is headed.
Dak’s impending massive contract looks like far less of a risk after the most mature season of his career. He’d be ranked far lower if this list had been made a year ago, but his erratic 2018 season now looks like a career anomaly in hindsight. Cowboys offenses have ranked in the top three of Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric twice in his four-year career and in the top 10 another time. He’s not going anywhere.
Wondering where Rodgers currently fits in the quarterback firmament helped inspire this column. It’s probable that his best days are behind him; in fact, there are plenty of numbers to say that’s been true for years. Rodgers’ age (36) and a contract that lacks flexibility are increasing concerns, but he remains the Packers’ ride-or-die leader for the foreseeable future. Rodgers has shown he’s still capable of carrying a team, but he’s also capable of caving on occasion, like in his two games against the 49ers last season.
I fear that Matt Ryan will remain underrated in perpetuity, a Ken Anderson would-be Hall of Famer overshadowed by flashier peers. With players like Tom Brady and Drew Brees rewriting the rules for career arcs, Ryan, 34, should still be able to play at a championship level for at least 2-4 more years for under $30 million per season. And the next 2-4 more years are still the most important years, no matter how much youth intoxicates.
Perhaps the toughest quarterback to evaluate on this list. I debated Baker going as high as No. 6 and as low as No. 15. Settling in here came down to one factor above all: The skill set he possessed as a rookie hasn’t crumbled into dust. Expectations, disastrous coaching, indecision and regrettable ad campaigns left the impression that Mayfield’s second season was a disaster, but the numbers and tape don’t agree. He snuck into the top 20 in Pro Football Focus’ grading, as well as QBR. He made way more impressive throws than you remember. His lack of on-field clarity was jarring, but Browns fans should still be encouraged to have a young quarterback this productive and this accurate on a rookie contract.
A top-10 finisher in my year-end QB Index in two of his last three completed seasons, Stafford was playing perhaps the best football of his career last fall before a injuring his back. Considering he hadn’t missed a game since 2010, he gets the benefit of the doubt when it comes to durability. Under team control for three more years at an average cap hit of $26.8 million, he’s still a major asset.
The Vikings know what they have in Cousins and gave him a sensible two-year extension this offseason worth $66 million. He may not often be the reason the Vikes win, but he will be the reason they lose even less often.
It’s acceptable not to have a hot take on every quarterback. That Jimmy G’s first full season as a starter ended one quarter shy of a title yet was considered a letdown shows how playing for Kyle Shanahan is a blessing and a curse. Garoppolo’s 2019 campaign must be considered a success for a guy with the same amount of career starts as Sam Darnold, yet it’s also fair to expect more from Garoppolo in the years ahead. Shanahan will.
This is where the list gets real tricky. Would you rather have 1-2 years of Brees or a young unknown indefinitely? I believe the players above can be plus starters for a while, so they have the edge in this exercise over any quarterback close to wrapping it up. Anyone below Brees is murkier. While it’s fair to note Brees’ last two seasons have petered out down the stretch, it’s impossible to ignore that he’s otherwise been a top-five quarterback. New Orleans is a city that lives in the now, and that’s never been truer about the Saints.
Goff is the best of a certain class of quarterback: The mid-level option who’s paid like a superstar. Still just 25 years old with higher highs than the rest of his brethren in this tier ( Derek Carr, Ryan Tannehill), Goff’s contract isn’t quite the albatross it’s made out to be.
Brady can still play. But asking him to break all previous boundaries for a soon-to-be 43-year-old quarterback and then do it again at 44 with a second guaranteed year isn’t a formula for value. In a best-case scenario, Brady could be a borderline top-10 quarterback in the short term. The worst-case scenario is uglier than the current Bucs uniforms.
Joe Burrow being six months older than Sam Darnold is this draft season’s " Ryan Fitzpatrick went to Harvard." It also points out how tricky Darnold is to evaluate. The circumstances around the Jets QB have obviously been brutal. His skills are equally transparent, but his pocket presence and decision-making are not. Few NFL quarterbacks have developed into greats after two seasons with numbers as poor as Darnold. He may prove to be an exception and his ceiling remains high, but the organizational obstacles in his way don’t appear to be changing.
Only my undying faith in Big Ben as a big difference-maker keeps him this high, seeing how he’s a 38-year-old passer coming off major elbow surgery. An onerous contract — he has a $41.3 million cap hit due next year! — doesn’t help either in this exercise. (Which is something, incidentally, that Roethlisberger insists he’s still doing.)
Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said in February that he doesn’t believe you can teach pocket presence, which still feels like Carr’s biggest negative. Even coming off a nice bounce-back season, Carr can be frustrating to watch because he has the raw tools of a poor man’s Aaron Rodgers but a playing style closer to Alex Smith. Carr’s contract could be tradeable next offseason if the Raiders decide to go in a different direction.
The Titans had to see if Tannehill could build on his sensational play in the 2019 regular season, although committing $91 million guaranteed if he’s still on the team next year ended his days as a bargain. Whereas Carr’s contract is far more flexible and team-friendly, the Raiders’ QB also feels like a safe option to stay in this no-man’s land of the rankings. For Tannehill, it feels equally possible he will rocket higher or crash in the next two years.
Frank Reich could be wrong. I could be wrong. But Rivers can still make all the throws if he’s protected, which he should be in Indianapolis. Even considering Rivers’ one-year, $25 million contract, I’d rather have a chance at catching lightning in a bottle than rolling with a younger, cheaper player who is less likely to be an asset.
If you take away his draft profile and judge Minshew purely on his tape, he looks like a better prospect than Josh Allen and Daniel Jones. He could be the next Jeff Garcia or the next Case Keenum, both of which are good outcomes for a sixth-round pick due less than $2.5 million total over the next three years.
Decision-making, accuracy and athleticism are the three traits I value highest in quarterbacks. While Allen made significant progress in his second season, I fear that he’ll always fail to check two of those three boxes. With the soon-to-be 24-year-old supported by a sneakily strong roster in Buffalo, this is a massive year for Allen’s future. So far, he’s looked closer to Blake Bortles or Mitchell Trubisky than Cam Newton, as an overstuffed box of tools that don’t quite all work together. Allen may never look more promising than after Year 2 in the NFL. If I’m wrong, I’ll take that L from Bills Mafia will aplomb.
Jones’ rookie season probably confirmed your priors. If you were a believer, he showed enough to latch on to. If not, his 68 combined fumbles, interceptions and sacks taken made him look like a poor man’s Jameis Winston. I didn’t have any priors, so this ranking is my way of saying I don’t know and want to see more.
The best-case scenario for Bridgewater is a career arc like Alex Smith’s, a player he’s always reminded me of. Halfway through his career, Smith landed with the perfect coaches for his skill set to become a mid-level starter for winning teams. Bridgewater may just have found the right situation with new Panthers coach Matt Rhule — and the contract is the smallest long-term deal for any veteran starter in the league.
Haskins delivers the type of anticipatory throws downfield that make scouts fall in love and he improved as his rookie season wore on. If Kyle Allen truly is competing to start with him, however, Haskins may have already found a coaching staff with doubts.
The allure of upside, of finally finding a young solution at quarterback is strong. It’s why John Elway once offered a top-shelf deal to Brock Osweiler and why the Broncos are apparently all-in on Lock after five dramatic starts that were uneven, if promising for a rookie. The Broncos would be crazy not to look into signing Cam Newton, Andy Dalton or Jameis Winston as a Plan B.
It was surprising that the Bears gave up a fourth-round pick to take on Foles’ contract, even if it was adjusted. Still, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported this week that the former Super Bowl MVP will get $21 fully guaranteed on what amounts to a two-year deal, which isn’t terrible for someone with Foles’ familiarity in Matt Nagy’s scheme. We’ve seen what Foles can do at his best and it’s a lot better than Trubisky’s offerings.
Dalton is a great example of how the quarterback position is deeper than ever. The prime meridian of starting quarterbacks for much of his career, the Red Rifle proves how what we consider an average starter these days has changed. With that said, he’s a better player than this ranking indicates. The placement is more a reflection that he’s 32 years old and has one year and $17.7 million left on a contract signed back in 2014. That deal no longer makes sense for the Bengals or anyone else.
There is a strong case to be made that Fitz was the best quarterback in the AFC East in the first season of a two-year, $11 million contract with Miami. History indicates that Year 2 won’t go as swimmingly.
Brissett’s 2019 season fell apart after he sprained his MCL, and now he’s one of the highest paid backups in NFL history at $15.9 million. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brissett have a Fitzpatrick-like 15-year career as a backup and fill-in starter.
Stidham was always a stronger candidate to be Tom Brady’s successor than the outside realized. If he was drafted in the first or second round, like many expected entering his senior year at Auburn, this wouldn’t seem so shocking. Projecting Stidham’s future based off glowing practice reports and a nice preseason is foolish, but it’s a good sign that Bill Belichick is a fan. He gets an edge over known mediocrities because he’s so cheap and easy to replace.
A serviceable starting quarterback playing for just $5 million on the final year of his contract is great value for the Chargers, no matter how you feel about Taylor. He is likely to be competing with a first-round youngster — like he’s done previously, with EJ Manuel in Buffalo and Baker Mayfield in Cleveland.
If Mariota were to overtake Carr as the Raiders starter, general manager Mike Mayock could keep Mariota for a second year at a relatively low cost. Don’t rule out a resurgence at some point during the second phase of the former No. 2 overall pick’s career, with Las Vegas a beautiful place for reinvention.
It wasn’t that long ago that Bears fans complained if Trubisky only ranked as a borderline top-20 starter. Now he looks unlikely to start in Chicago this season if his battle against Nick Foles is a fair fight. Finding a quality starter on a rookie deal can be personnel nirvana, but picking the wrong guy at No. 2 overall will set a team back in any era.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.
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