As soon as the clock expired on the NFL draft, the race against time sped up on the Jets and Giants.
The clichéd patient approach to rebuilding — “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Giants general manager Dave Gettleman often says — is at odds with the reality tied to Sam Darnold and Daniel Jones: Both franchises face mounting pressure to win soon and not waste the salary-cap flexibility afforded by quarterbacks playing on their four-year rookie contract.
“Having a good, cheap quarterback is the biggest advantage in the sport,” said Zack Moore, author of “Caponomics: How NFL Champions Are Built and Dynasties Are Destroyed,” analyzing the salary cap. “This concept is why the Chiefs and Ravens are the biggest Super Bowl favorites.”
The Jets’ situation is more urgent than the Giants’ because Darnold is entering his third season and is eligible for a contract extension for the first time in 2021. But Jones enters his second season following in Darnold’s footsteps — introduced to a new head coach and new playbook, risking a setback on some of the strides he made as a rookie.
“There’s a feeling of necessity to get a lot of veteran [extensions] done during that time,” former Packers vice president of player finance Andrew Brandt said. “In those first three years, load up on core players so you can balance and flatten out your spending and have it all set up when you are going to renegotiate the quarterback’s bonus-heavy deal.”
Since the rookie wage scale was implemented in 2011, the 49ers, Seahawks, Rams, Eagles and Chiefs reached the Super Bowl before handing out mega money to their signal-callers. In each case — whether a superb defense, a trusted backup quarterback or extra offensive firepower — redirected spending allowed another area of the roster to flourish.
GMs with a margin for error were emboldened to take more draft risks or stretch to secure a missing piece.
“You can make more mistakes,” ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said. “When you decide to pay the quarterback, you have to answer the question: Is this guy good enough to overcome the three or four other guys who allow him to play better that we will not be able to sign because of the money we have allocated to the quarterback?”
An NFL player’s first four years of salary are predetermined based on draft slot. The No. 3 pick (Darnold) or No. 6 pick (Jones) gets the same contract regardless of position — no fair-market value weighted toward quarterbacks.
Extensions cannot be negotiated until after three seasons, and first-rounders are subject to a fifth-year team option, so it’s really a five-year advantage (not four) for drafting a rookie quarterback, right?
“There are some myths there,” former Redskins and Texans GM Charley Casserly said. “It’s not a five-year window unless this guy is an All-Pro as a rookie. And you might never see the [cheap] fifth year.”
Russell Wilson, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz all counted $8 million or less against the cap during Super Bowl seasons but each will count at least $31 million in 2021, after signing big extensions before Year 5 to be kept out of free agency. Patrick Mahomes could become the NFL’s first $40 million per year on his looming extension.
What happens when quarterbacks begin chewing up disproportionate chunks of cap space? The pursuit of a championship becomes more difficult because teams lack depth, as recently spelled out by Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones on the drawn-out negotiations with Dak Prescott.
The 26 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks of the salary-cap era (since 1994) have accounted for an average of 6.83 percent of their team’s space, according to OverTheCap.com.
Only all-time greats Steve Young, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and Tom Brady accounted for more than 10 percent. Eighteen quarterbacks count for more than 7 percent ($13.8 million) of their team’s cap space in 2020 — Darnold counts 4.2 percent ($8.3 million) and Jones counts 3 percent ($5.9 million).
Eli ate 11.7 percent of the Giants’ cap during the 2011 championship season but he was surrounded by eight bargain starters on their rookie contracts.
“If your general manager drafts well, you have your culture in place and you are not revolving doors at head coach, you can still win a Super Bowl with a quarterback who has been paid,” Orlovsky said.
“But he has to be a top-five guy. He has to transcend everything. That’s the greatest challenge when these organizations make their decision because a lot of the guys are good and you can say, ‘He deserves his money.’ ”
It is no wonder the Jets and Giants operated this offseason with their prized assets in mind.
The Jets added four new offensive line starters and two new receivers, using their top two draft picks on one of each. The Giants prioritized fixing the offensive line by adding three draft picks and a free agent (two new starters) for Jones after Manning’s final years were lost to inadequate protection.
“They had an objective to get the offensive line better over everything else,” Casserly said. “I think that was the right thing to do.”
NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said the Giants would’ve been wiser to invest $16 million to $18 million in offensive playmakers with fewer question marks rather than on defensive tackle Leonard Williams’ franchise-tag salary.
“Where are the resources around Jones?” Baldinger said. “I don’t think they are taking advantage of it.”
Fourteen other teams have quarterbacks on rookie contracts in 2020, so it’s not like the Jets and Giants are alone in their blueprint.
The Rams emerged this offseason as a cautionary tale for the importance of gaining an accurate assessment within the first four seasons. They traded away premium draft capital to make a Super Bowl run behind two-time Pro Bowler Goff, who regressed in his first year of a four-year, $134 million extension.
Suddenly, the cap dictated goodbyes to stars Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks and Cory Littleton, with limited resources to quickly restock.
“It’s almost like the amount they are paying these quarterbacks is so far out of whack right now that you really can’t put together a very good team around him,” Baldinger said. “We are at the crescendo, I think.
“Who is going to be the guy who has seen this — maybe it’s Bill Belichick — and says, ‘Wait, do I really want to pay this guy $25 million? Can we win if I go with a couple younger guys and fortify the ranks with better players around him?’ ”
Before the rookie wage scale, negotiations between first-round picks, especially quarterbacks, and teams were testy. They started with demands to be paid higher than everyone drafted in a lower spot as well as the previous year’s pick in the same spot. Holdouts, like Philip Rivers in 2004 and JaMarcus Russell in 2007, were more common.
“He’s your highest-paid player and he’s not ready to play,” Casserly said, “and you have a bad team.”
The wage scale eliminated those problems but sped up rebuilds and introduced a new issue.
“If you line up who the best quarterbacks are and who the highest paid are, they aren’t equal,” Casserly said. “In the old days, once you got to the extension part of it, they all fell in line. The agent negotiates off the franchise tag and you have to make your guy the highest-paid quarterback. Does he deserve to be? No. But you have no alternative.”
The Jets’ and Giants’ long-term hope is for Darnold and Jones to develop into a stud who justifies his huge salary-cap hit by hiding a team’s flaws — like Wilson, Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees. Plan B is to catch lightning in a bottle like the Falcons and 49ers, who reached the Super Bowl after paying second-tier quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Jimmy Garoppolo, respectively.
In the short term, it’s win now — or rue wasting a built-in advantage.
“If I have less allocated there, I don’t have to buy the generic brand here,” Orlovsky said. “All these teams right now, rightfully so, are chasing what’s been successful in the NFL recently.”
A look at some recent QBs whose teams have been among the NFL’s best while on rookie contracts:
Colin Kaepernick, 49ers | 2nd round, 2011
Went to Super Bowl on a four-year, $5.1 million contract. Signed a six-year, $114 million extension but exercised opt-out clause with four years remaining.
Russell Wilson, Seahawks | 3rd round, 2012
Went to two Super Bowls (won one) on a four-year, $2.9 million contract. Signed through 2023, at which time his career on-field earnings will surpass $231 million.
Jared Goff, Rams | 1st round, 2016
Went to Super Bowl on a four-year, $27.9 million contract. Signed a four-year, $134 million extension.
Carson Wentz, Eagles | 1st round, 2016
Played at MVP level until season-ending injury (during Super Bowl-winning 2018) on a four-year, $26.6 million contract. Signed a four-year, $128 million extension.
Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs | 1st round, 2017
Won 2018 NFL MVP and Super Bowl LIV MVP honors on a four-year, $16.4 million contract. Could soon receive the NFL’s first $200 million extension.
Lamar Jackson, Ravens | 1st round, 2018
Won 2019 NFL MVP and is 19-3 as a starter on a four-year, $9.4 million contract. Not eligible for an extension until after the 2020 season.