Derek Carr and now Matthew Stafford have nudged the biggest-contract bar higher for NFL quarterbacks in recent months, and the next beneficiaries are likely to be Kirk Cousins, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers.
The five-year, $135 million contract extension that Stafford completed Monday with the Detroit Lions makes him the league’s highest-paid quarterback ahead of Carr, who signed a five-year, $125 million deal with the Oakland Raiders in June.
It’s good to be a quarterback.
“Heading to backyard to loosen up the old arm after reading news on Stafford deal,” Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson wrote on Twitter.
It was some rare good news for the Lions. After failing to re-sign defensive standout Ndamukong Suh and seeing wide receiver Calvin Johnson abruptly retire in recent years, the organization was able to strike a long-term deal with its franchise quarterback. Stafford had been entering the final season of his contract.
He played well enough to be in the league MVP conversation for much of last season, ultimately throwing for 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns. But he was hampered by an injury to a finger on his throwing hand late in the season and the Lions faded, being overtaken by the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North and losing an opening-round playoff game at Seattle. Stafford probably will have to be an MVP contender again this season for the Lions to be relevant. But at least there will be no more talk about his contract status.
Those conversations now shift to Cousins and Brees. Further down the road, they will be about Ryan and Rodgers. And the numbers between the dollar sign and the decimal point undoubtedly will continue to grow.
“The market is pretty well established and if you’re a guy on that level, the next guy up will get a little bit more each time,” said one agent who does not represent any of the quarterbacks who stand to benefit soon from the Stafford deal. “The one thing that works against that is when a team tries to get their guy to pull a Tom Brady and take less [than market value]. The argument is, ‘We need that money. We need that [salary] cap space if you want to have a team around you that you can win a Super Bowl with.’ There is some pressure in that regard for the guys at that level.”
Cousins is the two-time franchise-tagged quarterback for the Washington Redskins whose future with that franchise will remain a focal point all season. He is to make $23.94 million this season under his franchise-player deal after he and the Redskins failed to agree to a long-term contract by the league-wide deadline in July.
Cousins is eligible — again — for unrestricted free agency after this season, and the bidders will line up for him if he hits the market. No, he’s not as good or as accomplished as Carr or Stafford, but he has been plenty productive. And quarterback-needy teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, New York Jets and maybe the Los Angeles Rams and others would be likely to bid up his price tag to something close to the Stafford deal or perhaps beyond it.
The Redskins would have to pay Cousins $28.73 million in 2018 to keep him via the transition-player tag. It would cost them $34.47 million to retain Cousins next year by way of the franchise-player designation. If those figures set the benchmark for his negotiations on a long-term deal, with the Redskins or someone else, surpassing the Stafford contract is easily within his reach.
Brees also is eligible for free agency after this season. He is in the final season of a contact paying him $24.25 million this season. Brees is a far more decorated quarterback than Cousins, with a Super Bowl triumph and five of the nine 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history (Stafford has one of the others, along with one each for Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Dan Marino).
But Brees is 38. He very well might have productive seasons left, and he has given no indication that he’s ready to retire. But would he want to move on from New Orleans? If not, that could limit his bargaining power and keep his contract relatively in check. The one wild card would be if the Saints, currently coming off three straight 7-9 seasons, fail to return to their winning ways this season and decide they’ve had enough of Coach Sean Payton and Brees. That once would have been practically unthinkable. But nothing is forever in the NFL.
After Cousins and Brees, the focus could turn to Ryan and Rodgers. Ryan, the reigning league MVP who got the Falcons to the Super Bowl last season, is signed through 2018. The Falcons likely will make a strong push after this season to sign him to an extension. Rodgers, the two-time league MVP and former Super Bowl winner for the Packers, is signed through the 2019 season as part of a five-year, $110 million deal. That $22 million-per-season average is obsolete now. But whatever Cousins, Brees and Ryan get, Rodgers could be in position to surpass them all with his next contract.
The other quarterbacks on the list have something working against them. Brees is nearing 40. Cousins and Ryan aren’t Super Bowl winners. Cousins has not convinced everyone that he belongs in the upper tier of quarterbacks. Ryan, before his MVP year last season, had some observers wondering if his career was in gradual decline, and now he must maintain his excellence without departed offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
But there are no such issues with Rodgers, who is among the all-time greats as a passer and also possesses superb improvisational skills. His contract, whenever it’s done, perhaps is the one that might push the bar considerably higher rather than merely nudging it upward.
The saying goes that NFL stands for “not for long.” Though usually applied to players’ relatively brief careers, it also seems fitting when describing the sports’ soaring, record-breaking quarterback contracts. And the cost of doing business with those top quarterbacks is only going to continue to rise.