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Are NFL Teams Paying Too Much For Non-Quarterbacks?

Image licensed from USA Today Sports

NFL teams have been throwing around money by the truckload this offseason, beginning with San Francisco inking Jimmy Garoppolo to a five-year deal worth $137.5 million back in February. Since then, we’ve seen the money train continue to roll along and make stops to a variety of players over the last six months. Matt Ryan signed a five-year deal worth $150 million in May to become the first player to average $30 million a season. He became the highest paid player in the league at that point, having surpassed Kirk Cousins, who had passed Garoppolo. Cousins signed a three-year deal worth a fully guaranteed $84 million with the Vikings back in March.

You’d think Ryan was still the highest paid player in the league, but you’d be wrong. Aaron Rodgers signed a four-year extension August 29, that, when coupled with the two remaining years on his current deal, has some mindblowing numbers attached to it. The extension comes with $67 million in guaranteed money by the end of 2018. That number rises to over $80 million by St. Patrick’s Day 2019 and overall, he’s set to receive at least $103 million guaranteed. All told, he’ll make between $176 and $180 million over the next six years. The four-year extension is reportedly worth $134 million, or an average of $33.5 million per season.

Not Just QBs Cashing In

It’s not just the quarterback position that is cashing in with monster contracts or extensions. We usually see high eight and nine-figure deals being thrown around in free agency as teams try to pick up talent from other teams. In this case, we’re seeing guys sign contracts to stay with a franchise. Brandin Cooks, after being dealt from the Patriots to the Rams, signed a five-year deal worth $81 million. Sammy Watkins, after going from the Rams to the Chiefs, inked a three-year deal worth $48 million. Jarvis Landry signed a five year deal with the Browns worth $75.5 million after being traded from Miami earlier in the offseason.

Perhaps the most significant signing from the receiver group this offseason was the extension that Odell Beckham Jr. signed with the Giants in late August. Coming off an injury-plagued season that saw him play just four games last season, where he caught 25 passes for 302 yards with three touchdowns, there was talk he could be traded. Instead, Beckham Jr. signed a five-year deal worth $90 million with $65 million of that guaranteed. It’s a calculated risk for the Giants as he clearly is a dynamic playmaker when he’s healthy but with a murky QB situation going forward, it’s going to be interesting to see how things play out for him and the contract.

Even offensive linemen have gotten some big dollars of late. Nate Solder signed a four-year deal worth $64 million to protect Eli Manning’s blind side for the Giants after leaving New England. Weston Richburg left New York and signed a five year deal worth $47.5 million with San Francisco. He’s a center: Ryan Jensen, who played on a $1.797 million tender with the Ravens last year, got a four-year deal worth $42 million with $22 million guaranteed, to play for Tampa Bay. That’s big money for a guy in the trenches.

Defensive Players Raking in the Bucks

Two years ago, Von Miller of the Broncos signed a six-year deal worth $114.1 million that made him the highest paid defensive player in the league. That didn’t last as in late August, Aaron Donald blew past that when he ended his holdout and signed a new deal with the Rams. He signed a six-year deal worth $135 million with $87 million guaranteed. Sadly, that benchmark didn’t last a week as Khalil Mack, who was holding out from the Raiders, was dealt to the Bears last weekend. Shortly after striking the deal to be moved to the Windy City, Mack signed a six-year deal of his own. The compensation figure is reportedly $141.5 million with $90 million guaranteed, pushing him past Donald for the biggest contract for a defensive player.

Guys in the secondary aren’t lacking for pocket change either. Trumaine Johnson, after playing on franchise tags the last two years with the Rams, went east and signed a five-year deal worth $72.5 million with the Jets. He reportedly received $45 million guaranteed and is the second highest paid corner in the league behind Washington’s Josh Norman, who signed a five year, $75 million deal in 2016. Xavier Rhodes (five years, $70.1 million with Minnesota in 2017), Patrick Peterson (five years, $70.05 million in 2014 with Arizona) and Kyle Fuller (four years, $56 million with Chicago in March after Green Bay tendered an offer) round out the top five.

Do Non-QBs Deserve the Big Contracts We’ve Seen?

The big buzz surrounding these hefty contracts we’ve seen handed out of late has stirred up debate. All along the sports talk radio waves, in print and on the web, people are questioning the dollar figures being handed out to guys that don’t necessarily impact a team’s chances to win as much as a guy that handles the ball on every play for one side of the ball. Of course, we’re talking about the quarterback position. Do non-quarterbacks deserve the massive deals we’ve seen handed out in recent months or is it foolhardy to throw that kind of cash around?

It’s a tough road to determine as to which way to look at things. As it stands, Mack has an annual average salary that is more than all but eight QBs in the league: he is tied with Washington’s Alex Smith. Donald makes more than all but the top nine QBs and Mack, meaning he’s the 11th highest paid guy in the league. That seems like a ton of money to throw at a defensive tackle. To be fair, it’s a ton of money to throw at an edge rusher like Mack as well. With Beckham Jr., the receiver position has more of a track record with getting big money: 13 receivers are scheduled to average at least $14 million a year in contracts. Seven of those 13, including Beckham Jr. have those deals start this season.

Potential Reasons Why Non-QBs ARE Worth The Money

It can be a challenge to find big-time playmakers at certain skill positions. That leads to positional scarcity and with that comes bigger contracts. Teams are always going to pass for a guy that can get after the quarterback. Mack has racked up 40.5 sacks in his four years since coming into the league. He’s been named a First Team All-Pro twice, made the Pro Bowl three times and was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016. Mack has three seasons with double-digit sacks in his four-year career, including 10.5 last season.

Donald has been a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the defensive line for the Rams. He’s missed just two games in his four years in the league and makes life tough for opposing run games by plugging the middle. Donald has made the Pro Bowl all four seasons, named First Team All-Pro three times and was ranked #7 on the NFL’s Top 100 list this season. Also, he was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2017. Last season, he rolled up 41 tackles (32 solo), 11 sacks and five forced fumbles. He has 39 sacks in his career with a pair of double-digit sack seasons while forcing nine fumbles.

Beckham Jr. is as dynamic and explosive a receiver as there is in the league when he’s healthy. He broke the 1,000-yard plateau in receiving yards in his first three seasons in the league. Also, he scored double-digit touchdowns in each of his first three years while reeling in at least 91 passes in each of those seasons. Beckham Jr. has been named to three Pro Bowls and was Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2014. In addition, he was named to the All-Rookie Team that season. Beckham Jr. has three top-10 seasons in receiving yards and is second all-time in receiving yards per game with 94.1 per contest.

Potential Reasons to NOT Throw Around the Cash

While there are solid reasons why Mack, Donald, and Beckham could conceivably be worth the money that has been handed out, there are compelling reasons why the money could be better invested elsewhere. There are plenty of potentially viable options that are out there who might have come in at a lower price tag while being able to put together competent production for the Giants, Bears, and Rams. Let’s take a little more in-depth rationale as to why it doesn’t make sense to pay these guys the hefty contracts that they received.

For starters, we’ll tackle Mack and Donald as a duo since they both play on the defensive side of the ball. You can be an elite player on the defense, but the fact remains that you’re only one of 11 guys on the field. That means your ability to stymie an opposing offense is limited. Even if Mack or Donald is in perfect position on every snap, ten other guys have to do their job. Bruce Smith is the most prolific sack man in NFL history, but teams would run the ball at him, roll the QB away from him and use multiple blockers to try and contain him. You need more than one or two guys on defense to have success on that side of the ball. Mack is a prime example: despite his stellar play, the Raiders ranked 21st, 22nd, 26th, and 23rd in total defense. It can be challenging to put together an elite defense when you’re handing out a big contract to one player. The Rams bolstered their defense with a bunch of big names like Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, Ndamukong Suh, and Lamarcus Joyner, who is playing on the franchise tag. The problem is, it’s a narrow window before more money has to be paid to some of these guys, which could lead to the breaking up of the unit.

With Beckham Jr., you have to deal with the injury factor. He missed four games as a rookie with a hamstring injury. Last season, he missed the season opener with an ankle injury and then suffered a fractured ankle in week 5. Beckham Jr. also is a bit of an instigator as he’s been fined ten times in his four years in the league. In addition, he was suspended for one game for unsportsmanlike conduct after going back and forth with Josh Norman in 2015. Factor in the drafting of Saquon Barkley at #2 overall to provide the run game and an aging Manning coupled with the lack of a solid QB on the depth chart below him and there are a lot more questions than answers. Seeing that Beckham Jr. is under contract until 2024, who will be throwing him the ball at that point?

Our Take

While the trio of Mack, Donald and Beckham Jr. are incredibly talented and among the best at their respective positions, it’s hard to justify handing out the kind of contracts that they’ve received. Mack and Donald have to rely on the play of the ten other guys on their respective defenses. One player can look great defensively, but that doesn’t mean that the team is going to be overly successful in the grand scheme of things. Mack can get after the passer, but he doesn’t make a ton of plays in the passing game otherwise. If he’s not disrupting the passer, it knocks his value down a bit. There are other edge rushers that don’t command that kind of money, which will make him a lightning rod if things go wrong in Chicago. For Donald, he may be overshadowed this season with Suh, Talib, and Peters all on the team. If the Rams don’t make a Super Bowl run here, one has to wonder how well they can try to fit all the pieces under the cap going forward.

With Beckham Jr., he can make big plays in the passing game. The problem is, to do that, he has to have a capable QB with some accuracy throwing the ball to him. For that to happen, there has to be a decent offensive line to block and create time for that quarterback to throw. Beckham Jr. has Manning to throw the ball this season but what of the next several years? After all, he’s not a free agent until 2024. With the Giants investing the #2 pick in Barkley to bring the potential of a solid run game to the team, you have to think perhaps Manning will be able to cut down on his dropbacks this season. After all, he’s thrown at least 551 passes in each of the last five seasons.

Despite the talent that Mack, Donald and Beckham Jr. bring to the table, it seems that there are less expensive options teams could invest in at these positions. There is no shortage of capable receiving targets around the league. You can find talented receivers around the league, some of which are buried on the depth charts around the league. With that said, especially with the questionable situation at QB in the future for the Giants, it might make sense to get cheaper options. With Donald and Mack, they’re only as good as the rest of the defensive unit. There will be plenty of grumblings from executives around the league when it comes to negotiating with their own free agents going forward because of these deals.

If you were in the front office of an NFL franchise, would you have backed up the armored truck and signed these deals or would you have looked for a better offer elsewhere?

 

Chris Kubala

Christopher Kubala has been crunching stats and following sports for over 30 years. His in depth analysis and passion for sports have led him to writing books about sports, regularly being featured on sports talk radio and as the go-to person for any obscure trivia. He keeps an eye on transactions and statistics like a hawk, especially when it comes to football, both the NFL and college, the NHL, the NBA and college basketball and MLB.

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