Entering the 2012 NFL draft, talent evaluators buzzed about a quarterback crop that brimmed with talent and promise. Stanford’s Andrew Luck stood at the head of the class with Baylor’s Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin III, close behind. Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M was often discussed as another potential early first-round pick.
Now, with the group on the precipice of a pivotal third professional season, another member of the 2012 quarterback class has surpassed the others. While it was Luck who was the top overall selection in that year’s draft by the Indianapolis Colts and Griffin who was named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year for the Washington Redskins, a diminutive quarterback who entered the league as a far less celebrated third-round choice commandeered the spotlight last season by beating his peers to a Super Bowl triumph.
For Russell Wilson, the spoils of that victory which he helped to engineer for the Seattle Seahawks soon could include something else that his cohorts cannot yet match: a jaw-dropping contract.
Big deals for NFL quarterbacks generated headlines in the offseason, as San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton cashed in with contracts potentially worth more than $100 million apiece. If there is an unofficial race between Luck, Griffin, Miami’s Tannehill, Wilson and another quarterback drafted in 2012, Philadelphia’s Nick Foles, to see which will be the first to break the bank, the reigning Super Bowl-winning quarterback could be the odds-on favorite.
“I think Wilson will be the next guy to advance the ball,” said Joel Corry, a former agent and now an NFL salary cap and contracts expert who writes for the National Football Post and CBS Sports. “Neither guy [Wilson nor Kaepernick] is really the focal point of his offense. Those are both running offenses. But he has something that Kaepernick doesn’t have: the ring. The ring will get him into the upper level of quarterback pay. And if he wins another one and it’s with him throwing the ball more and being more the focal point of the offense, he could be the highest-paid player in football.”
Super Bowl titles can be very lucrative to quarterbacks, as when Baltimore’s Joe Flacco signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract in 2013 after the Ravens won a championship. At the time, Flacco’s total contract value was the richest in the game.
Wilson, like Luck and Griffin, took his team to the playoffs as a rookie in 2012. Unlike Luck and Griffin, he managed to ascend all the way to the sport’s pinnacle. He was aided by the Seahawks’ powerful defense and running game, but Wilson did his part. He threw 26 touchdown passes to go with only nine interceptions in the 2013 regular season. He has totaled close to 6,500 passing yards in two NFL seasons with 52 touchdowns, 19 interceptions and a career passer rating of 100.6.
But as good as Wilson has been, the biggest reason he could beat the other quarterbacks in his draft class to a massive payday stems from the rules in the sport’s rookie pay system that went into effect with the 2011 labor deal. Under that system, drafted rookies sign four-year contracts and those deals cannot be renegotiated until after three seasons. For the 2012 quarterback class, that means they will be eligible to renegotiate following the upcoming 2014 season.
The rookie compensation system also puts an option for a fifth season automatically into the contracts of first-round draft picks like Luck, Griffin and Tannehill. Non first-rounders, such as Wilson and fellow third-rounder Foles, have no such fifth-year options in their contracts. So they are a year closer to their deals expiring and being eligible for free agency, and their teams could feel more urgency to negotiate with them sooner rather than later.
What has happened thus far with the quarterbacks in the 2011 draft class might be illustrative. A pair of quarterbacks chosen in the second round that year, Kaepernick and Dalton, signed their contract extensions this offseason. The quarterback selected with that year’s top overall pick, Carolina’s Cam Newton, has not. The Panthers exercised their fifth-year option in Newton’s deal and have him under contract through the 2015 season.
Former Redskins and 49ers front office executive Vinny Cerrato said he wouldn’t necessarily be in a hurry as a team to sign any of those in the 2012 quarterback class to new deals.
“I would probably say it’s not so much a contract year,” Cerrato said recently. “When you look at Seattle’s model, when you’ve got a cheap quarterback for a while, you keep him cheap so you can get other pieces. I’d try to get more pieces. And that’s what I’d tell him.”
The original four-year contracts of Wilson and Foles expire following the 2015 season. The fifth-season options for Luck, Griffin and Tannehill could keep them signed through the 2016 season. Corry said he expects teams to make efforts to lock up their young franchise quarterbacks to long-term contracts after the 2014 campaign. But those efforts, he said, won’t necessarily produce new deals.
“If it’s a guy that’s a core player, you should try to lock them in,” Corry said recently. “The issue is going to be giving them an offer that they might actually consider. I think teams are going to try. I just don’t think they’re going to be successful unless they treat the player like they’re truly in a contract year.”
Kaepernick signed a six-year deal with the 49ers worth up to $126 million. The contract contains only a little more than $13 million in fully guaranteed money, although other money becomes guaranteed as the deal progresses. Dalton’s six-year extension with the Bengals is worth as much as $115 million. But its base value over the six years is lower, about $96 million, and it gives the Bengals chances to walk away from the deal if things aren’t working out. The annual salaries are not guaranteed.
The Kaepernick and Dalton deals widely have been viewed in and around the sport as establishing the going rate for contracts for quarterbacks not quite in the sport’s upper tier. They have also been regarded as largely team-friendly. The headliners among the 2012 quarterback class perhaps will look to do better. But before any ink dries on any contract extensions, there’s a season to play. One that could greatly impact any negotiations ahead.
Luck secured his first career playoff victory last season. He already has been highly productive, throwing for nearly 8,200 yards in his two NFL seasons, and his passing numbers could be even more eye-catching this season with a trio of talented wide receivers — T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne and Hakeem Nicks — at his disposal.
He has demonstrated an ability to rise to the occasion with games on the line. Even if Wilson might land the first massive contract, Luck still might be positioned to get the biggest deal.
“I would think probably Luck and then Wilson and then RGIII, just because RGIII was hurt,” Cerrato said when asked which quarterback in the 2012 class has the best chance to move the money bar significantly higher. “If Wilson wins another Super Bowl, then he becomes Joe Flacco.”
Griffin has much more to prove than Wilson or Luck does. He failed to duplicate his rookie-year exploits last season in his return from knee surgery. His relationship with former Redskins coach Mike Shanahan was intensely scrutinized, and Shanahan was fired following a 3-13 season. Now Griffin has a new coach in Jay Gruden and a bolstered corps of receivers that includes DeSean Jackson.
But he must return the luster to his stardom that dimmed last year, to the point that there has been persistent talk that third-year backup Kirk Cousins’s presence provides the makings for a quarterback controversy. Griffin has vowed not to concern himself with contract issues.
“I didn’t pay any attention to it,” Griffin said during the offseason, shortly after Kaepernick’s contract extension with the 49ers was signed. “We’ve got to take care of what we’ve got to take care of here. You let the money people take care of the money, and let the guys that are supposed to play football play football. And I’m here to play football.”
In Philadelphia, Foles is coming off a 27-touchdown, two-interception coming-out party last season for the Eagles. But there is room to wonder how much the freshness of first-year NFL Coach Chip Kelly’s offense contributed to that. So Foles probably will have to show he can do it again before being a candidate for a mammoth contract.
Tannehill is on the upswing, improving on a 12-touchdown, 13-interception rookie season with a 24-touchdown, 17-interception performance last year. He needs more help from an offensive line that permitted him to be sacked 58 times last season. But he, too, could be on the cusp of NFL stardom.
“Look, all of those guys still have something to prove, other than probably Luck or Wilson, before you’d give them a giant contract with no strings attached,” said one NFL agent who doesn’t represent any of the 2012 quarterbacks. “But the bottom line is, they’re all gonna make a lot of money in this game and you’d probably be happy to have any one of them as a client.”