As offensive schemes evolve to fool defenses, the quarterback position has become even more important. The demand for an elite quarterback is so high that many quarterbacks with are borderline elite are starting to get paid more than proven NFL stars.
Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco showed glimpses of success and were quickly rewarded with healthy contracts. Jay Cutler and Tony Romo have proven that potential and a great arm or consistency can equate to money in the bank. In the cases of Matt Stafford and Sam Bradford, looking good in the regular season can pay dividends. Despite his inconsistent play and youth, Colin Kaepernick will be joining this list next year and Russell Wilson will be waiting in the wings.
Out of the seven names mentioned, only Flacco has a ring on his finger. The salaries might not be fair and just, but they do reflect the importance the NFL’s brass has placed on the quarterback position. After checking this list, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and even Alex Smith appear to be bargains.
20 T20. Matt Cassel (Vikings) and Chad Henne (Jaguars) / $5,750,000
Matt Cassel just signed a two year contract with the Vikings worth $10.5 million. Cassel had a magical season with the Patriots in 2008 and has been hard pressed to duplicate that effort. Critical mistakes and untimely injuries have derailed any progress Cassel seemed to have made. He had some good efforts in the six games he started last year, passing for 1,807 yards with 11 touchdowns. He even had a quarterback rating of 81.6, which was a huge improvement from his last season with the Chiefs. Cassel is hoping to hold down the fort in Minnesota, but the Vikings did draft Teddy Bridgewater and are sick of providing Adrian Peterson with very little relief.
Chad Henne has been in the league for six years and has the dubious distinction of not being able to finish a season with more touchdowns than interceptions. He passed for 3,241 yards last year, but had 14 interceptions and only 13 touchdown passes. Henne has not been horrible, but his quarterback ratings that are consistently in the 70s will not win many games in the NFL. Henne managed to get sacked 38 times last season and had trouble getting into any type of rhythm. He doesn’t cost much with his 2-year, $8 million contract, but must play better for a shaky team with Blake Bortles breathing down his back.
19 Robert Griffin III (Redskins) / $5,759,754
RG III will be entering the third year of his 4-year, $21.12 million rookie contract. Last year, Griffin battled injuries and the sophomore slump to throw for just 3,203 yards and an uncharacteristic 12 interceptions. His quarterback rating also took a hit, going from 102.4 his rookie year down to 82.2 last year. Despite missing four games, Griffin still has amassed over 7,700 yards in total offense the past two seasons.
When healthy, Griffin has proven to be worth more than what he is being paid. If he learns how to stay in games and avoid taking punishment, he could prove to be worth considerably more.
18 Andrew Luck (Colts) / $6,029,454
Andrew Luck has come into Indianapolis and done the unthinkable. Given the Colts fans renewed hope after the loss of Peyton Manning. Luck lost his favorite target, Reggie Wayne, and still guided the Colts to the playoffs and a 45-44 come from behind victory over the Chiefs. He has already passed for 8,196 yards and 46 touchdowns and has proven to be a strong leader while guiding the Colts to two consecutive playoff appearances.
The sky is the limit for this budding star. If Indianapolis can surround him with more weapons, he is destined to become an NFL superstar. He's an incredible value for now and his rookie contract only has two more years remaining.
17 Cam Newton (Panthers) / $7,008,113
Last season, Cam Newton led the Carolina Panthers to a 12-4 record and a first round bye in the playoffs while having a consistent season with a 61.7 completion percentage and 24 touchdown passes. Newton executed 584 plays with just 15 turnovers. He has had quarterback ratings of 84.5, 86.2 and 88.8 in his three years of NFL action. Newton recently lost one of his favorite targets, wide receiver Steve Smith, so his consistency and progress will be tested.
Despite the lack of elite weaponry surrounding him, Newton has improved each year he has been in the league. Without Smith, his value will be tested even more this coming season.
16 T15. Matt Schaub (Raiders) / $8,000,000
A change of scenery might improve Matt Schaub’s confidence that was decimated in 2013. Schaub has been no stranger to success, yet is known more for throwing a bunch of pick-sixs than any of his accomplishments. Throw out his 2013 season and Schaub has had a string of 5 straight seasons with a quarterback rating above 90 while passing for over 4,000 yards three times. He has also led the Texans to their only two playoff appearances in 2011 and 2012.
Schaub’s next step might be akin to a power pitcher who has lost juice on his fastball. If he can learn that his arm isn’t capable of beating good cornerbacks on out patterns, he could be a steal for the Raiders who could use stability at that position.
15 T15. Alex Smith (Chiefs) / $ 8,000,000
Alex Smith went from leading the 49ers to the NFC Championship game in 2011, to posting a 104.1 quarterback rating with the 49ers in 2012, to leading the 2-14 Chiefs to an 11-5 record and playoff appearance in 2013. Smith just seems to do what is necessary to win football games without worrying about gaudy stats. When pressed to do a little bit more when Jamaal Charles went down during the Chiefs wildcard loss to the Colts, Smith responded with 378 yards of passing and 4 touchdown passes.
Smith is accurate, makes few mistakes and can even run. Conservative play calling down the stretch might have put a damper on Smith’s playoff performance against the Colts, but the game serves as a reminder that Smith can do more than just manage a game.
14 Tony Romo (Cowboys) / $11,773,000
Tony Romo has been a model of consistency for most of his career with the Cowboys. Romo has not had a quarterback rating under 90 in the 8 years he has played in the league. Despite only turning the ball over 11 times last season, it seems like critical mistakes have plagued him for most of his career. On the bright side, Romo has a career 95.8 quarterback rating to go along with 208 touchdowns and only 101 interceptions. He has also passed for almost 30,000 yards already in his career.
On one hand, Romo’s stats stack up well against any of the league’s elite quarterbacks, but on the other hand, the Cowboys have had only one playoff win and three playoff appearances in Romo’s eight seasons at the helm.
13 Carson Palmer (Cardinals) / $12,000,000
Unable to find a consistent quarterback since Kurt Warner retired in 2010, the Cardinals have turned to Carson Palmer. Palmer stepped into a situation where six quarterbacks had attempted to fill Warner’s shoes during the three seasons since his retirement. In 2013, Palmer produced with 4,274 yards passing and 24 touchdowns, but he must reduce the 22 interceptions for the Cardinals to compete in the rugged NFC West.
If Palmer improves on his first season as a Cardinal, he has the weapons and defense to get the team over the top. If he is able to lead the Cardinals to the playoffs, there will be little doubt that the Cardinals got a good deal.
12 T11. Tom Brady (Patriots) / $14,800,000
To think that Tom Brady doesn’t crack the top ten of this list, only raises more questions about the contracts that some newcomers like Joe Flacco and now Colin Kaepernick have been awarded. Even Matthew Stafford, who has accomplished very little, makes more money than Brady. Brady lost most of his receivers in 2013 and still managed to pass for over 4,000 yards and lead the Patriots to the AFC Championship game. Tom Brady is without doubt, an elite NFL quarterback.
Brady, however, comes in at number 11 on this list due in large part to the modest 5-year, $70.6 million contract he signed in 2013. The Patriots have gotten an incredibly good deal.
11 T11. Joe Flacco (Ravens) / $14,800,000
Not your average Joe, Flacco led the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory against the 49ers in 2013 and promptly signed a new contract that paid him an average of over $20 million a year. Flacco did prove he could win the big game, but still hasn’t passed for over 4,000 yards in a season, a quarterback rating above 94 or more than 25 touchdown passes in a season. On top of that, last season made him look rather average and the Raven’s offense look meek.
It is hard to figure if Flacco is enough of an elite quarterback to overcome the loss of so many key players from their Super Bowl winning team. Injuries and the lack of a ground game certainly didn’t bode well for Flacco in 2013.
10 Matthew Stafford (Lions) / $15,820,000
Matthew Stafford has proven he can put up some big numbers, but the Lions have failed to improve on their 10-6 season from 2011 that included a playoff appearance. Stafford has passed for almost 15,000 yards and 90 touchdowns in his last three seasons combined, but the Lions have little to show for it. Stafford needs to make more critical plays and eliminate mistakes. Stafford threw 19 picks last year and has a total of 52 in his last three years.
Stafford just signed a contract extension that will give him three more years at $53 million. The Lions have plenty of talent, so it should be about time for a second playoff appearance to justify his elite quarterback money.
9 Philip Rivers (Chargers) / $16,666,666
Philip Rivers came back strong last season to lead the Chargers to the playoffs with two strong performances in a 27-10 win at Cincinnati and a tight 24-17 loss at Denver. Rivers has managed to fly under the radar a bit, despite four seasons with a quarterback rating above 100 and five seasons of passing for over 4,000 yards. For his career, Rivers has completed 64.4% of his passes and has thrown for 221 touchdowns versus only 104 interceptions.
Rivers has two years remaining on a 7-year, $95.4 million contract that he signed prior to the 2009 season. At his current salary, Rivers is a bargain for a young offense that can use his fiery leadership and grit.
8 T7. Matt Ryan (Falcons) / $17,500,000
Matt Ryan is in the second year of a 5-year, $103.75 million contract. In 2013, the Falcons and Ryan realized that it takes more than a quarterback to make it to the playoffs. The injury riddled Falcons fell to 4-12 after having expectations for a deep playoff run. Despite the troubles, Ryan has put together four solid seasons in a row and has a career quarterback rating that stands at 90.6. He has passed for over 4,500 yards in two consecutive seasons.
Ryan is a gritty competitor who knows how to lead a team, yet he has been unable to shake his reputation for not being able to win the big game. Critical losses in the playoffs and the 12 losses in 2013 do not present a strong case for Ryan’s elite quarterback salary.
7 T7. Peyton Manning (Broncos) / $17,500,000
Seldom would one consider a player who gets paid over $17 million a year to be a bargain, but Peyton Manning is not just any player. Erasing all doubts about his ability to come back from injury, Manning has passed for over 10,000 yards since making his comeback with the Broncos in 2012. Last year, Manning torched opponents with 5,477 yards, 55 touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 115.1.
The Broncos are in any football game as long as Peyton Manning is at the helm. Manning’s average salary of just under $20 million is a small price to pay for what he does for the team.
6 Aaron Rodgers (Packers) / $17,550,000
The highest paid quarterback in the league, based on average salary, is Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers battled injuries last year and still finished the season with a quarterback rating of 104.9, while also logging 2,536 passing yards in only 9 games. His quarterback rating has topped 100 for five consecutive seasons. As a six-year starter for the Packers, Rodgers has had a remarkable 187 touchdown passes and only 51 interceptions.
The Packers pretty much have Rodgers locked up till the end of 2019. Rodgers is an elite NFL quarterback, but a shaky offensive line is just one drawback to getting paid so much money.
5 Sam Bradford (Rams) / $17,610,000
Sam Bradford has two years left on his 6-year, $78 million rookie contract that he signed in 2010. The question still remains whether or not Bradford is worth the money he is currently getting paid. If Bradford can avoid injuries and string together two consecutive injury-free seasons, it might be easier to answer. Bradford has yet to pass for over 4,000 yards in four NFL seasons and has had 20 touchdown passes in a season just once in his young career.
Bradford will have to be more spectacular this upcoming season in order to prove his worth. After all, many elite NFL quarterbacks can eclipse Bradford’s 4-year career total of 59 touchdown passes in half the time.
4 Drew Brees (Saints) / $18,400,000
Drew Brees has managed to pass for over 50,000 yards during his 13 seasons in the league. He has passed for over 5,000 yards in three consecutive seasons while throwing 128 touchdown passes. Brees has also completed about 66% of his passes and has a quarterback rating of 95.3 for his career. He has also guided the Saints to six post-season victories and a Super Bowl win during the eight years he has been a member of the team.
Drew Brees is an elite quarterback and his salary reflects his status in the NFL. Brees has always been questioned about his arm strength and stature throughout his career, but having over 51,000 yards passing, 363 touchdowns and only 177 interceptions, helps make his case.
3 Jay Cutler (Bears) / $18,500,000
Jay Cutler has a big arm and the confidence to use it, but success with his team has eluded him. He has had just one post season experience in eight NFL seasons, despite playing on two pretty good teams (the Broncos and Bears). For starters, Cutler has not been able to play a complete 16 game season since 2009 and has only topped 4,000 yards passing in a season once in his career. To be elite, he needs to provide a little bit more than potential.
Despite this, Cutler still gets paid elite quarterback money. The Bears have some tools on offense and can’t keep waiting for that potential to arrive. This will be a big year for the Bears and Cutler.
2 Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers) / $18,895,000
Big Ben can still make all the NFL throws and keep the chains moving with his movement outside the pocket. He has been a model of consistency since he entered the league with a quarterback rating over 90 in eight of his ten NFL seasons. Last year he threw for 4,261 yards with 28 touchdowns after losing Mike Wallace and still smarting from the loss of Hines Ward a year earlier.
Roethlisberger will be a free agent after the 2015 season and has let it be known that he feels he is worth at least $20 million a year. He would like to have a good season in 2014 so the Steelers have more to consider than all his past accomplishments.
1 Eli Manning (Giants) / $20,400,000
Last year, Eli Manning experienced his most disappointing season as a pro. His 27 interceptions led the league, while he struggled to complete only 57.5% of his passes (6th worst in the league). Lost in this one season of despair is the fact that Manning has led the Giants to two Super Bowl wins so far in his career, while also passing for at least 3,800 yards five seasons in a row.
Following Manning’s less than stellar performance in 2013, questions still remain about his arm strength and ability to rebound from such a disastrous season. He will be an unrestricted free agent after 2015, but should still command elite quarterback money.