NFL quarterback salaries cause teams to make difficult decisions

Begin with Tom Brady's new contract, the applause it drew in New England, and the eyebrows it arched elsewhere around the NFL.

Most of those in the know don't expect the deal -- providing short-term cap relief to the Patriots and more money guaranteed (but less total) to the quarterback -- to have much, if any, lasting impact on other quarterbacks around the league.

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"It has no relevance to anyone else," one NFC executive said. "It's a completely different set of factors, a different player, different place, etc. None of these other guys will take that, so what difference does it make? You're gonna offer one of these guys $9 million now? Good luck with that."

But the motivation of the Patriots -- to renegotiate Brady's deal now -- does underscore a growing problem in the league.

Quarterback salaries keep rising and, as a result, their cap numbers do, too. The salary cap itself, though, has leveled off after experiencing meteoric growth over the decade previous.

While the dynamic exists at a number of positions, nowhere is it more prominent than at the most important one. (Another example? Ben Roethlisberger's renegotiated deal with Pittsburgh on Thursday.) And because so many of these deals, for quarterbacks and others, are built with cap numbers rising over the lives of the deals, the flat cap has created a bottlenecking of salaries, which has led to the continuing flurry of firings and restructurings across the league.

Consider that in 2007, the salary cap was $109 million. Since it hasn't been set yet for 2013, let's say it's $123 million, which would represent a 14 percent hike from 2012. Now, digest these numbers -- the top five quarterback cap numbers for 2007 and '13, as they went into franchise tag calculations, respectively:

Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals: $13.48 million
Brett Favre, Green Bay Packers: $11.8 million
Eli Manning, New York Giants: $10.047 million
Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle Seahawks: $9.204 million
Marc Bulger, St. Louis Rams: $9.125 million
Average: $10.73 million

Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions: $20.82 million
Eli Manning, New York Giants: $20.35 million
Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos: $20 million
Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: $17.4 million
Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers: $17.11 million
Average: $19.14 million

The average of the latter list is almost double the average of the former. The standard for the franchise quarterback used to be that he take up 10 to 13 percent of a team's cap; now both Stafford and Eli Manning (whose cap number is actually $20.85 million with workout bonuses worked in) account for between 17 and 18 percent.

Still wonder why the Patriots sought a market correction from Brady?

"It's where you're allocating resources over a longer period of time, that might be three, four, five players that make up the core of your team," one NFC team president said. "The thesis holds. There is a squeeze. But it's not all about the quarterbacks. The cap was ($116.2 million) in 2008, and you had vastly different salary ranges, vastly different minimum salaries, so now you have additional cap space at the bottom and the top being chewed up.

"At the bottom, it's at least fixed. The top may flatten out, but it won't go down."

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The NFC executive agreed with that assessment, and pointed to the model of the Indianapolis Colts of the 2000s as one reason for this phenomenon. The foundation of ex-team president Bill Polian's program was his belief in his ability to draft. Some of those players would become part of the core and get paid at the top of the market. Others would be allowed to walk, with Polian believing he could bring in cheap labor to replace young vets looking for a payday, and save that money to pay his stars.

In the process, the Colts restructured Peyton Manning several times, and drove his back-end cap numbers into the stratosphere, which gave the quarterback infinite leverage at the end of his deals. As a whole, the star system helped pushed the market at a number of positions upward.

When the cap was rising rapidly, it was workable. Now, that growth has flattened. Yet the stars keep getting paid, and the minimums are rising, which means something's gotta give.

"Salaries never level off for the elite," the NFC executive said. "With the flat cap, it's not the elite players, it's that it's gonna squeeze everyone else. That's been going on, even before the new CBA. In '08 and '09, the top players' salaries really started escalating and squeezing the middle class. With the rookie wage scale, you have some savings in there, but without the cap growing, it's kept going."

The next phase to watch here starts with Joe Flacco, whose negotiations likely will color what happens with Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers. And the results will probably make things even trickier with guys like Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton, Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, who came in under the new rookie pay system, and thus will have their teams scrambling to clear space they hadn't previously needed for the quarterback position.

Add up all of the above, and it's pushed Flacco's exclusive number into the neighborhood of $20 million. If the Ravens put the exclusive tag on him, his leverage point against them is well north of $20 million per. If they put the non-exclusive tag on him, they risk losing him.

And so that's why, if the Flacco deal gets done soon (as many around the league believe it will), the price tag probably will be around where Brees' is. As the NFC exec says, "No one thinks Flacco is Brees or Brady, but you can't lose that quarterback."

So the pricetags will keep going up, the decisions around these players won't get any easier. Whatever Flacco gets, Rodgers will be able to get more, and those waiting for their big paydays will reap the benefits.

Meanwhile in New England, at least for now, the Patriots get an elite quarterback in the new world at an old-world rate. It works great for 2013 and '14. But most around the NFL are taking a wait-and-see approach, rather than analyzing it fully.

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"Tom's made out to be magnanimous on this, and I'm not saying he's not being that, but the fact is he got $3 million to restructure, and that's $3 million in cash that could be used elsewhere," the NFC club president said. "The way I see it, if he retires after two years, he got an extra $3 million, and all his money guaranteed. If he plays a third year, and they don't touch it, that's below market. But there's a long way to go, and he'll be 38 then."

Asking your quarterback to take less is not easy. From a short-term perspective, Brady gave the Patriots an advantage over a lot of their competitors in 2013 and '14. And in the process, he highlighted just how challenging this landscape has been for clubs to navigate.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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