Should NFL teams spend more or less of the salary cap on QBs?

I’m not an “NFL guy.” College football is my area of expertise.

Nevertheless, I’m always on the lookout for an edge or an angle, and not being an NFL guy allows the numbers to speak to me without bias.

Brian Edwards asked me to crunch some numbers related to NFL quarterback salaries.

Brian relayed a recent conversation he had with friend and Major Wager colleague Christopher Smith:

“Christopher and I were discussing how Seattle was so good when Russell Wilson was on that rookie contract after going in the fourth round because they had so much money to spend on other positions. Now it’s the exact opposite with Wilson being the highest-paid QB [in average salary per year over the full length of his contract].

“Matt Stafford’s contract seems to be working against the Lions, too, and after last season, it certainly appears as if the Vikings fudged up big time signing Kirk Cousins.

“On the flip side, the Bears and Browns have quality QBs still on their rookie contracts and are off good seasons and appear poised for even better ones this year.”

Since 2011, the average NFL team devotes 7.74 percent of its salary cap to its highest-paid quarterback. That number has risen to as high as 9.02 percent, and currently sits at 8.55 percent following Carson Wentz’ new contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The delta between the highest and lowest team has reached more than 20 percent, and currently sits at 14.54 percent (Detroit has devoted 15.67 percent to Stafford and Dallas has devoted 1.13 percent to Dak Prescott). Here’s an annual snapshot:

YearSalary Cap %High (Team)Low (Team)
20198.55%15.67% (DET)1.13% (DAL)
20189.02%20.88% (SF)0.41% (DAL)
20178.09%14.70% (BAL)0.38% (DAL)
20169.02%15.59% (NYG)1.11% (DEN)
20157.55%16.61% (NO)0.85% (OAK)
20147.51%15.34% (NYG)0.94% (SEA)
20136.76%16.95% (NYG)0.50% (TB)
20126.19%14.93% (DEN)0.35% (ARI)
20116.78%14.36% (NYJ)0.53% (CLE)

Turning attention to Brian’s challenge, I built a database using the quarterback contracts and salary data made available by Over the Cap, using only the highest-paid QB for each team for the last eight years.

Why only the highest-paid quarterback? Because the data set began to thin out in 2012, so I wasn’t able to calculate the total percentage of QB salaries for every year dating back to 2011 without doing some serious digging.

Why go back to 2011 specifically? I wanted to capture as big a sample as possible while still focusing on the current NFL era. There was no salary cap during the 2010 season, which offered a natural break in the data set.

The results are clear: The NFL franchises that won the most games also devoted the highest percentage of their cap dollars to quarterbacks. The teams that lost the most games spent the least on football’s most important position.

Wins (2011-18)Salary Cap %High (Team)Low (Team)
13 or more (+)9.06%14.93% (DEN, 2012)0.68% (SEA, 2013)
12+8.37%14.93% (DEN, 2012)0.68% (SEA, 2013)
10+8.22%15.59% (NYG, 2016)0.41% (DAL, 2018)
8+8.00%15.59% (NYG, 2016) 0.41% (DAL, 2018)
6 or fewer (-)6.65%20.88% (SF, 2018)0.25% (ARI, 2012)
4-6.31%20.88% (SF, 2018)0.50% (TB, 2013)

Again, I’m not an NFL guy, but I understand there are some important outliers that could muck up the data. For example, Peyton Manning’s $16 million salary in 2011, in which he played exactly zero games, accounted for 13.33 percent of the Colts salary cap total. However, I chose not to try and catch every instance in which an injury doomed a team’s playoff hopes.

I also understand a team might pay two quarterbacks a similar amount in a given season. The two could be locked in a position battle, or a rookie starter could make less than his veteran backup, thereby nearly doubling the actual percentage of dollars devoted to signal callers.

A recent example would be Sam Darnold (paid $5.5 million overall and 3.65 percent of the Jets salary cap total in 2018) and Josh McCown ($10 million, 5.64 percent).

Typically, only one QB plays at a time, so we can separate the highest figure devoted to a QB, while setting the rest of the percentage aside.

You NFL guys can dig deeper into the data if you want to see how “overall QB spending” impacts the conclusions. Moving on. As you can see in the chart above, there is a natural correlation between wins and the average percentage a team spends on its quarterback. However, diving deeper, there are some obvious exceptions (this table represents only NFL playoff teams in their respective years):

YearCap %High (Team)Low (Team)Super Bowl Winner
20188.29%13.97% (BAL)0.41% (DAL)12.42% (NE)
20178.25%14.22% (ATL)3.63% (PHI)3.63% (PHI)
201611.31%15.59% (NYG)1.64% (OAK)8.87% (NE)
20157.84%12.74% (GB)2.27% (MIN)12.21% (DEN)
20149.24%14.21% (PIT)0.94% (SEA)11.13% (NE)
20137.45%14.23% (DEN)0.68% (SEA)0.68% (SEA)
20126.14%14.93% (DEN)0.45% (SEA)6.63% (BAL)
20117.67%12.48% (NO)0.79% (CIN)11.75% (NYG)

The average playoff team spent 8.28 percent of its cap dollars on its top quarterback over this time period, while the average Super Bowl-winning quarterback earned an average of 8.41 percent. Those figures make sense given the win correlation findings in the previous chart.

However, two Super Bowl champions, the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles and the 2013 Seattle Seahawks (one of the teams that started this whole discussion), hoisted the Lombardi Trophy despite fielding a team with the lowest percentage of cap devoted to the QB position among playoff contenders.

Perhaps even more fascinating, the numbers above refer to the percentage devoted to Wentz and Tarvaris Jackson, respectively, meaning both the Eagles and Seahawks spent more money on players that didn’t play in the Super Bowl than the ones that led the teams to glory (Nick Foles and Wilson, respectively).

Seattle paid no more than 0.94 percent to a quarterback from 2012-14. In those three seasons, the franchise averaged 12 wins per year and made the playoffs each season. Since 2015, Pete Carroll’s squad has devoted an average of 10.60 percent of its salary cap dollars to Wilson, winning an average of 9.75 games per year (and never more than 10).

While the Seahawks have only missed the playoffs once, they also haven’t won another Super Bowl.

YearTop QBCap %WinsPlayoffsSuper Bowl

Meanwhile, the Lions have spent an average of 11.81 percent of their cap availability on Stafford since 2011 and have averaged 7.88 winswhile,  making the playoffs three times (without winning a single playoff game). He is due to make 15.67 percent of the Lions cap share in 2019 – more than any other NFL quarterback.

The Vikings spent 13.54 percent on Cousins last year and are set to devote 15.41 percent of their assets to him in 2019 (second only to Stafford). Of course, Minnesota saw its win total drop from 13 in 2017 (when Sam Bradford took up 10.78 percent of the team’s cap space) to eight, missing the playoffs.

So how well can we expect Detroit and Minnesota to fare this year? In a small sample of seven previous teams that have spent upwards of 15 percent of its cap dollars on its top QB since 2011, those squads have won 8.14 games on average, with three making the playoffs and four left sitting at home.

None of the 45 quarterbacks making more than 12.5 percent of their teams’ salary cap has won a Super Bowl. In addition to Stafford and Cousins, five other NFL quarterbacks fall into that category in 2019: Andrew Luck (14.63 percent), Tom Brady (14.35), Aaron Rodgers (14.08), Wilson (13.97) and Ben Roethlisberger (13.92).

Does that mean the Patriots’ dynasty is over? Probably not.

Do Chicago and Cleveland appear poised to make a Wilson/Seattle-like run?

Bears starter Mitchell Trubisky stands to make 4.21 percent of his team’s salary cap total in 2019 while former No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield will cost the Browns just 3.95 percent. In the 84 instances since 2011 in which a franchise has paid its QB 4.21 percent of the cap total or less, those teams have averaged 7.27 victories and just 24.73 percent have made the playoffs. Yet two won it all.

One positive note, the Browns spent just 2.65 percent of their available cap space on QBs from 2011-19, which was the fewest in the NFL (Buffalo ranked second at 3.46 percent). The upward trend of money allocated for Mayfield is potentially positive. The Bears were roughly average over that time period, spending 8.56 percent on average, mostly on Jay Cutler.

What does it all mean? Injuries, aging and annual regression to the mean all have an impact on quarterback play, as does strength of schedule. And of course, the front office must use the rest of its cap space wisely. We’ve seen cheap quarterbacks win Super Bowls, but not nearly as often as more expensive ones. Nevertheless, if a team spends too much on one player, there might not be enough to go around to fill out the rest of the roster with quality components.

If you can find a quarterback on his rookie contract that’s able to perform like one of the top 5-10 QBs in the NFL, your franchise should experience a run of success. But that rarely happens.

And if you’re paying a QB top dollar, he better be good, or it will sink your franchise.

Unfortunately, other than potentially applying the overall historical trends of wins-to-cap percentage to season win totals, we don’t have a verified edge or betting angle to offer in terms of quarterback contracts and overall team success.

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