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Study on the QB market

Background Information

The NFL market seems to be developing faster than ever, mostly due to the fact that the NFL’s TV deal reels in $255 million for each team, annually. This is in addition to ticket, jersey and parking sales. So, all things considered, money seems not to be a problem for NFL teams.

What seems to be the problem nowadays is how that money is allocated throughout the team, especially regarding the QB position. As the most important position in sports, teams tend to latch onto a good QB, since they only seem to come every once in a blue moon.

OK, this is when the math starts to get intense. First of all, I want you guys to get a grasp of how rapidly the money in the NFL is increasing. The blue line is the year-to-year salary cap (per team), going from 2011 to 2019. The red line, on the other hand, represents the standard inflation (3.9%) from 2011 salary cap of $120 million. So, clearly, there seems to be a growing amount of capital in the NFL, most of which goes either to the players (47%) or into the owners pockets (53%).

Now, of this new money that is being generated, a lot of it is going to QBs. No surprise there. The fascinating thing is how much is truly going into the position. For example, Rodgers will make $66.9 million dollars in 2018 (due to the signing bonus in his new deal), while in 2000, the salary cap per team was only $62.172 million. That means in 2000, Rodgers would require 107.6% of a team’s salary cap.

Now, to have a truly strong argument, you’d have to take the opposition’s strongest point and prove it wrong. In this case, that’s the idea that NFL QB salaries actually comprise the same amount of the cap, percentage wise, and as the salary cap grows, so do the QB’s salaries.

This is, in fact, correct, and I ran my own statistical calculations that prove so, as you can see below. In 1994, QBs, on average, commanded 6.9% of the cap. Now, looking at the graph, you can tell that from 2013-2019, that percentage has stayed around the 7-9% range, with 2019 being the highest point at 10.26%.

What most league-wide analysts forget to tell you is that the rookie salaries are very heavily skewing the data. In reality, if you are paying a QB after their rookie deal, it’s going to cost you.

A lot.

Let’s take a look at 2013. As you can see below, the teams that spend most of their money on the QB position have elite, veteran players, while those who don’t spend as much tend to have either “bridge” QBs or rookies. Now, the league average QB salary in 2013 was $9.8 million. If you take out the rookie contracts, what is that average? $14.5 million.

Let’s do the same thing for 2019. The league average is now $19.3 million allotted to the QB position on average. One thing we notice, however, is that “bridge” QBs or serviceable QBs (those around the 18-28 range), have become much more expensive. However, we will talk about that later. One important factor that people will bring up is that, while the average QB salary had gone up $10 million dollars in just 6 years, the percentage of cap money spent on QBs in 2019 (10.26%) is not that much more than that spent on 2013 (7.96%). But again, the rookies skew the data. Take out the rookies again, and what are you left with? An average of $25.93.

For those keeping count at home, that’s an increase in salary of 178.83% from 2013 to 2019 while the cap only increased 153.01%.

Finally, as the QB market has developed, a new tier of QBs has arisen. There used to be the high paid elite QBs, the “bridge” QBs and the rookie QBs. However, as time progressed and salaries have gone up, a new, highly paid, rank which I call the “treading water” or “unsure” group has emerged. This are the QBs that franchises don’t really know if they have something or not ( the Mariotas, Garoppolos, Winstons, Bortles of the world). Furthermore, the stock in the “bridge” QB market has really skyrocketed, with Case Keenum, Alex Smith and the likes reeling in upwards of $20 million a year.

What does that mean for the Colts?

The whole point of this article was for me to answer the question: How much are we going to have to pay Luck in 2022 when his contract is up? This is where the lines get blurry, the math gets ugly and the predictions are just rough estimations.

First of all, it took the top 5 QB salaries from 2011-2019 to create a model that would display the QB yearly salary trends. This is where we meet our first fork in the road, because there are two schools of thought: The first states that the salary of QBs increases linearly, while the second states that the salary grows exponentially. I personally believe that QB salaries can be represented by a logistic graph; however, for the sake of this article, let’s say that it grows exponentially.

My reason to believe that the top 5 salaries for NFL QBs are growing exponentially is the fact that between 2011-2016, the average salary of this “elite” tier of QBs was increasing linearly with an average annual increase of $1.35 million. From 2017-2019, what has that growth rate been? An annual increase of $3.93 million.

So, taking the average of every top 5 earning NFL QB from 2011-2019, I devised their average income.

And with these points I devised the equation 15.21144729*1.08198937^x where x represents how many years from 2010 (x=1 is 2011, x=2 is 2012, etc). The Colts signed Luck in 2016, which, in retrospect, was a genius move as it was right before the exponential curve starts to point upward.

(This also show my model is pretty accurate. According to the model, Luck’s per year salary should be $24.407. In reality it was $24.594)

Problem is that Luck is due to re-sign in the 2022 off-season, which would net him a yearly salary of $39.16 million. One can clearly see the risk involved in signing a 33 year old with an injury history to a deal this massive. I still think the Colts do it with very little hesitation, but it makes one think about who the team might be unable to resign because of it. Also, this is almost certainly the primary reason Ballard is saving up.

In conclusion, while my graph is accurate for the 2011-2019 time period, who knows were things might go after this season? The big questions are, first, how will the CBA be renewed and will it make more money accessible for players? Next, it is rare to see TV deals regress as time goes on, but how much money will truly be pumped into the NFL when the new TV deal is signed?

Another thing to take into account is that only 4 teams have ever won a SB when their QB accounts for more than 11% of the cap. So for Luck and his yearly salary of $39.16 million to be 11%, the cap would have to be $356 million (!). Last year it was $188.2 million.

The main concern that Colts fans should have with, theoretically, giving Luck $39.16 million a year is that they may not have enough money to pay him. These are players that the Colts have to sign in the next few years:

  • Ryan Kelly
  • Anthony Castonzo
  • Braden Smith
  • Marlon Mack
  • Quenton Nelson
  • TY Hilton
  • Darius Leonard
  • Malik Hooker
  • Quincy Wilson

About half of these players will demand top of the line money, so who knows how much will be left when Luck’s turn is up?

The most important thing to take away from this article is that the QB market is expensive, unpredictable, and punishing. It’s important that the Colts keep doing what they’re doing, or they could be forced to make some untimely decisions.

So, after researching all of this, my recommendation to Colts fans is:

  • Hope Ballard keeps playing FA safe and saving up cash
  • The cap space consistently increases
  • Sign Luck early, maybe in 2021, when, according to my model, he will only ask for $36.19 million a year

Finally, there were extra statistics, graphs and charts I was unable to integrate into this piece. So, in an attempt to keep those from going to waste, I’ll embed a tweet of mine with the link to a spreadsheet where I did most of the math.