NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The easiest decision in the NFL is forking over the big bucks to sign Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Drew Brees to long-term deals. Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton recently signed multi-million dollar contracts from teams trying to lock down their franchise quarterback.
Most clubs still are searching for a quarterback worthy of such money. This season, 19 teams will pay their projected starting quarterbacks less than $3.5 million, or one-fifth of the $17.5 million Jay Cutler will make from the Bears in base salary.
While teams without $15 million quarterbacks have more money to spend on defense, other offensive weapons and depth, most NFL general managers say they would love to have the “problem” of paying a star quarterback.
“If you’ve got a good quarterback, you’ve got to pay him,” Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley says. “Now if you don’t have a good quarterback, then you’re going to try to keep trying to find that quarterback. And teams like the Indianapolis Colts, the Seattle Seahawks and hopefully us, we’ve got cheap, cheap versions of it only because of the salary cap structure and the CBA.”
Cheap doesn’t mean inferior. Andrew Luck has taken the Colts to the playoffs in each of his two seasons, and Russell Wilson has already won a championship with the Seahawks in just two years. With both on rookie contracts, their teams can afford to surround them with better players.
The early success of Luck, Wilson, Kaepernick and others has persuaded many teams to use the draft to find a quarterback who can start quickly. And some teams are more willing than ever to cut an established, but not elite starter, and go fishing for another third-round steal like Wilson.
The Titans are hoping Jake Locker, drafted in 2011, still can be their guy. But they declined to pick up his 2015 option because Locker has missed 14 of 32 games since being named the starter, and they drafted Zach Mettenberger in the sixth round for some protection. Titans general manager Ruston Webster said finding a franchise quarterback solidifies a team in a way no other position can, making it an easy decision to pay up, if you have found the right guy.
“Yeah, we all would like to be able to do that,” Webster said. “While you’re searching or developing a quarterback, though, I think the thing teams are doing — and rightfully so — is build everything else around it and make it as good as you can be. Then let the quarterback take it from there.”
The Seahawks can’t extend Wilson until 2015, so he will make a salary of $662,434 in his third season. That’s about 4 percent of what Chicago is paying Cutler.
“It’s a big deal for us,” general manager John Schneider said. “We’ve been able to acquire other players, and they were definitely players we were able to acquire that helped us get over the top this year.”
But Schneider and vice president of football administration Matt Thomas know it won’t last. They project their salary cap up to three years, and they are preparing for a big hit once they have to pay Wilson an eight-digit salary.
San Francisco and Cincinnati have signed their young quarterbacks to lucrative extensions, but the Bengals front-loaded Dalton’s contract enough to protect themselves if the quarterback who’s 30-18 overall isn’t the answer long-term considering his 0-3 postseason record.
Teams still saving money with young quarterbacks include the Jets with Geno Smith going into his second year, though Michael Vick is an expensive insurance policy. Rookie Johnny Manziel is pushing Brian Hoyer in Cleveland. E.J. Manuel is going into his second season in Buffalo where the Bills’ quarterback search has been ongoing since Jim Kelly retired after the 1996 season.
Houston traded Matt Schaub to Oakland and signed journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick in March after Tennessee cut him. Tampa Bay brought in Josh McCown to start ahead of second-year Mike Glennon.
Jacksonville and Minnesota believed they had drafted franchise quarterbacks in 2011 with Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder only to go back to the draft this year to pick Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater. The Vikings are going with veteran Matt Cassel now, but the money saved on quarterbacks has allowed them to spend big in free agency at cornerback, defensive line and at wide receiver while keeping some of their own players with new deals.
Buffalo invested in its defensive line, and the Bills wound up with three Pro Bowl selections last season while ranking second in the NFL with 57 sacks. The Titans have invested heavily in their offensive line by signing left guard Andy Levitre and right tackle Michael Oher and drafting right guard Chance Warmack and left tackle Taylor Lewan the last two years.
In the meantime, teams wait, watch and hope their young quarterbacks will force them to pay up.
“It’s a nice problem to have, and hopefully we’ve got it,” Whaley said.
For those trying to earn that big deal, Nick Foles of the Eagles has a suggestion. He’s due $615,000 this season and said worrying about numbers puts quarterbacks at risk of making mistakes when the key is trying to win.
“There’s no dollar sign on me when I’m throwing a ball,” Foles said.