Who Dat Nation can finally rest easy with quarterback Drew Brees locked up long term. You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief coming from New Orleans Saints fans everywhere when he signed his five-year, $100 million deal. We all know Brees deserved this contract. He is one of the top players at the game's most crucial position and delivered a Super Bowl title to a long-downtrodden franchise. Paying him -- he'll get a $37 million signing bonus this year, $50 million over the first two years of the deal and $61 million over three -- is a great deal for both the player and the team. The one thing I have learned from managing the salary cap is that you can never overpay a great player ... especially when that player is a quarterback.
Making Brees the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL was not hard for the Saints. Paying great players is never hard -- simply determine the market value of players with similar talents, then work accordingly. However, there is one big mistake teams can make in terms of cap management: paying good players as if they were great players. (See: the NBA.) Good is not great; teams must be disciplined in assessing the difference.
Unfortunately for teams, the player-contract market does not care about such distinctions. One contract can push another contract higher, and before too long, the good players are paid like great players. The ripple effect of the Brees contract will be a financial boon for many signal-callers. It should really benefit, for example, the New York Giants' Eli Manning, the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger and maybe even the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford. But will it benefit the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco and/or the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan?
Flacco, who has one year left on his rookie contract, has clearly shown improvement during his four years in the NFL. Flacco, who started his career as a game manager, has grown as a player and is now the reason the Baltimore Ravens can compete for a title. He has the skill set to carry the Ravens -- the team's success is no longer entirely dependent on its defense. Flacco's agent will look at Brees' contract, note the fact that his client has participated in nine playoff games in just four years and conclude that Flacco deserves a deal similar to Brees' (with incentives that would make it even to Brees' deal if Flacco wins a Super Bowl). Is this realistic? No, because Flacco is just an above-average quarterback right now. But he does have real potential to be great in the near future, making his contract hard to execute at this time, especially after the Brees deal.
Flacco is not worth $20 million per year right now -- even his agent would quietly agree with that. But what will Flacco be worth in three years if he continues to improve and drive the Ravens' success?
The Baltimore Ravens would not be able to easily replace Flacco, so if they can't complete a long-term deal, they will be forced to apply the franchise tag to him next offseason. This means Flacco will receive more than $14 million in 2013, with a 120 percent raise every year thereafter. That's an expensive way to proceed. As much as the Ravens want to execute a deal worth less than $15 million per year, the rules and their inability to replace him make that goal unrealistic. The Ravens will therefore pay Flacco like he is great now and hope he proves them right, sooner rather than later.
The same scenario is playing out in Atlanta with Matt Ryan, who has two years left on a six-year, $72 million rookie deal. Ryan is not great, either, yet he is also hard to replace, which means the Atlanta Falcons will likely have to craft a deal that pays a good player great money. What choice do they have? Regarding Ryan and the Falcons, my original cap-management axiom -- You can never overpay a great quarterback -- suddenly applies to good quarterbacks, too.
Brees' deal will impact the worth of franchise tags, which means both Flacco and Ryan become even harder to apply the tag to in the future and harder to sign right now. Both teams will have their work cut out for them and both might be well-served to wait until after the 2012 season to strike a deal that fits their payroll structures.
While Brees assisted Ryan and Flacco in future contract talks, he really helped Eli. Manning has won two Super Bowls and averages more than $15 million per year in a contract that does not expire until after the 2015 season. Does he deserve a raise? Yes, but he has four more years on his deal, so the Giants have more time to decide how to proceed. However, we all know this is something that will be resolved before his contract is up.
The Packers are facing a similar scenario with Rodgers. The reigning NFL MVP has a ring of his own, and he's signed to a very reasonable deal through 2014 -- earning a base salary of just $8 million in 2012. The clock is now ticking for the Packers to give a new deal to the man who was just crowned the No. 1 overall player in the NFL by his peers.
By signing on the dotted line Sunday, Brees finally gave Saints fans peace of mind ... and made every other starting quarterback in the league a little more money.