Two-and-a-half months ago, without much fanfare, Cincinnati Bengals owner and general manager Mike Brown detailed the dilemma his team is facing this offseason.
Cincy could sign Andy Dalton, who has started all 51 games of his NFL career heading into the final season of his rookie contract, to an extension and settle the quarterback question that so many other clubs scuffle to answer. Or the Bengals could dive into 2014 without a new deal for Dalton, giving them added flexibility to keep a loaded young core together -- but leaving them vulnerable at the most important position on the field.
"With a fixed cap, there is a certain amount of money and no more. You allocate that on a quarterback, you have less to hand out to everybody else," Brown said then, to a couple of Cincinnati reporters. "It can cause attrition. We are going through a difficult time right now because we are trying to work through a deal with Andy and trying to hold back enough money in the cap to do that, yet we don't know what that is.
"What do we do? Do we sign guys, then find out we don't have enough to do him? Or do we risk and hold back enough to make sure we can get him done and maybe lose a guy or two?"
As quarterback economics continue to push upward, Dalton and Kansas City's Alex Smith, who is also entering a contract season, represent fascinating test cases. The two have a combined record of 61-32-1 since 2011, and each has three playoff starts under his belt. Yet, the decisions facing the Bengals and Chiefs about whether to move forward with those two, and pay them accordingly, are complicated ones.
The problem: In the time since the new collective bargaining agreement went into effect in 2011, the concept of a second-tier quarterback contract has effectively vanished.
The nine highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL by average salary per year (APY), all of whom were signed to their current deals over the past 27 months, are each making in excess of $17.5 million annually, according to NFL Players Association records. The next three signal-callers on the list -- starting with Eli Manning at No. 10 and followed by Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger -- are on deals that, though they're five or six years old, were market-setting at the time they were struck. Sam Bradford, who was the last rookie quarterback to land a mega-deal under the old CBA, is at No. 13, while Tom Brady -- whose team-friendly pact, which was signed in 2013 and dropped his once-top-of-market APY, has to be considered an aberration -- is at No. 14.
Next on the list after the fortunate 14? Carson Palmer at $8.5 million per year, followed by Smith at $8 million annually. Which means that, setting aside Eli, Rivers, Roethlisberger, Bradford and Brady, the lowest-money deal of the top tier of quarterbacks to have signed since 2012 is more than $9 million clear of the next tier, led by Palmer.
Therein lies the issue in the cases of Dalton and Smith. While they are clearly in a stronger place than Palmer was when he signed his contract with the Arizona Cardinals last year, they might have trouble convincing their teams that they belong on the edges of the $20 million club.
"It's supply and demand," one NFC executive said. "There aren't enough good starting quarterbacks. It's not as if you can send a guy to the market and someone won't pay them. Someone will. And the quarterbacks know that. There's no one who's the alternative, and no one wants to be the alternative. Had some of these guys gotten to free agency, it would've been interesting. (Matthew) Stafford, (Jay) Cutler, they may not be worth the dollars, but they'd get them. There's always someone lined up."
Limited options for Bengals, Chiefs
In some ways, Kaepernick's deal does represent a compromise. If Kaepernick makes it to the Super Bowl or is first- or second-team AP All-Pro this year and stays healthy going forward, he'll be paid at a premium rate. He also gets a big raise this year.
"If he does nothing past this year, and they cut him, who's the idiot?" the NFC exec said. "Is it Kaepernick or the Niners, who paid him $13 million when they could've paid him one (million)?"
On the flip side, San Francisco can bail pretty much whenever it wants, which differentiates this deal from the others near the top of the pay scale and gives the Niners a safety net as they invest in a player with just 23 regular-season starts on his ledger.
To turn it around again, there are a lot of qualifiers to consider.
"If you're paying a quarterback in that neighborhood, you're not gonna have the same depth -- that's the price of two star-quality players at other positions," an NFC personnel director said. "So now he's gotta make others around him better, as opposed to others around him making him better. You can only cut the pie so many ways. Or you just have to be a great drafting team, and not miss any."
Is it a coincidence that the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan and the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco missed the playoffs (in Flacco's case, for the first time in his career) in the first season after breaking the bank? Or that the Green Bay Packers looked rudderless when Aaron Rodgers was injured last year?
That brings us back to Dalton and Smith, and the reasons that mid-level quarterback deals don't exist anymore. Earlier this decade, such contracts were awarded to Ryan Fitzpatrickand Kevin Kolb in Buffalo and Arizona, respectively, and they ended inoutright failure. Those cases serve as cautionary tales for clubs trying to patch the position together.
The problem for the Bengals and Chiefs is that they have quarterbacks they can win with -- there's incredibly clear and recent evidence of that -- who might need to become more than that if they're handed franchise-altering deals. As for the leverage for the quarterbacks, it's simple to find and can be summed up in five words: "If not me, then what?"
The alternative to getting something done now would be to let the quarterbacks play the year out, which is the tack the Ravens took with Flacco in 2012 after trying to forge a mid-level deal in the $14 million range. Baltimore, of course, wound up winning the Super Bowl, a result no one in the organization was disappointed in -- and it ended up costing the Ravens around $6 million per year.
Applying the franchise tag, which is expected to sit at about $17 million for quarterbacks next year, would be one option for the Bengals or Chiefs if Dalton or Smith were to finish 2014 without a new deal. The other would be to let the player go to market, which would be the only way to test his true value.
"It's supply and demand," said an AFC personnel exec, who expressed that if he were the Bengals, he'd set the ceiling for Dalton at $15 million per year. "If Dalton goes to free agency, he's gonna make good money."
A radical alternative?
There's another route clubs in this predicament could take, as well, but it's one that would require considerable fortitude.
Here's how the NFC personnel director says it: "Someone's gonna buck the trend at some point."
He's explaining what others in the NFL have been talking about for some time now -- the idea that a team could churn through quarterbacks the way it would players at another position.
Sound crazy? Sure. But consider that the past two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were on their rookie deals, and four of the past five to win it all were on contracts that were clearly short of the top of the market. Consequently, their clubs had the flexibility to build around them, which they obviously did at a very high level.
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The Bengals and Chiefs have rosters loaded with players worth paying, and each also drafted aquarterback in May. Spinning things forward, the Seattle Seahawks have taken full advantage of having a signal-caller at a bargain rate. None of those three teams found their current starter by completely selling out for him. And each would be in a sturdy position to try what would be a pretty radical strategy that, again, would take an incredible stomach to go through with.
"If you wanna see a team do something unique, it's gonna be to discard their quarterback for a rookie, or keep drafting them and building the team around them," the NFC exec said. "Russell (Wilson) is gonna be a $20 million swing for Seattle -- that's a huge swing. Now, the problem is, Russell has become the face of their franchise. That makes it hard. But I think the Niners could've pulled it off. And something like that is coming sooner rather than later."
But absent that, and looking at the economics, it certainly feels like something's got to give.