In early August, during the humid swelter of training camp, the Los Angeles Rams arrived for a joint practice with the Baltimore Ravens, spilling onto the field with the star wattage of a rock band.
Ndamukong Suh stretched out muscles straight from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Aqib Talib classified learning to play alongside fellow new Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters as “real cool.” Brandin Cooks sprinted down a sideline, flashing the speed that makes him one of the NFL’s fastest wideouts.
General Manager Les Snead observed from behind one end zone, but the man who made the constellation of talent possible stood in the middle of the field. Wearing a can’t-touch-me-red, No. 16 jersey and tossing warmup throws was Jared Goff.
Entering his third season without any playoff victories, Goff may be an unlikely prototype for a Super Bowl-caliber franchise quarterback. But he fits the modern mold to perfection, as much for what he makes as how he plays.
When drafting a quarterback, NFL teams fantasize about a franchise leader who could become a pillar beyond the next decade. What they also gain is a short-term window at building a powerhouse roster around him. In the last collective bargaining agreement, the rookie pay scale suppressed salaries for the first four years of a player’s career, enabling teams to allocate money throughout the rest of the team that veteran quarterbacks often would soak up.
It is a nontraditional pathway to contention, but it might be the best way.
“When you got a young one for four years, you can go out and get a lot more pieces to the puzzle,” former Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “You can put a defense and stars around him.”
Even though Carson Wentz sat throughout the playoffs with an injury, the Philadelphia Eagles last year became the latest team to win a Super Bowl without paying a premium at quarterback. The Seattle Seahawks created a five-year reign that included a Super Bowl title while Russell Wilson — as a third-round pick, his contract was even more financially advantageous — made relative peanuts.
The NFL rewards teams that acquire or develop a great quarterback with an annual chance at contention. But it also punishes them eventually with an onerous dent in their salary cap. After graduating from their rookie contracts, quarterbacks earn far and away the largest chunk of a team’s salary cap.
Of the 19 players making at least 10 percent of their team’s salary cap this season, 16 are quarterbacks, including the 13 highest-paid players in the league. By comparison, Chicago Bears starter Mitchell Trubisky, the first quarterback drafted in 2017, will take up 3.6 percent of Chicago’s cap.
His low salary gave the Bears an opportunity, and they struck as the season neared. Last weekend, Chicago dealt two first-round picks to the Oakland Raiders for defensive end Khalil Mack, a former defensive player of the year who was holding out, and then signed him to a six-year, $141 million extension.
“There’s no question the obvious advantages to [Trubisky’s contract], versus going out and signing,” Bears General Manager Ryan Pace said in late July, before the trade. “In a perfect world, any franchise would want to hit on a young, drafted quarterback — as opposed to maybe hitting on it in free agency, where the financial part is different.”
Finding a quarterback capable of leading a contender in his first four seasons is easier said than done; the Wilsons and Wentzes are not falling from the sky. But the conditions for young quarterbacks could soon make them more common.
Rule changes and evolving strategies have made playing quarterback easier than ever, which means passers can develop more quickly. The financial incentives to build around a young quarterback are obvious, and competitive forces have made it strikingly palatable.
In the NFL of even five years ago, it would have been difficult for Goff to play in a spread, up-tempo offense. Now those systems, and other play concepts prevalent in college, are de rigueur, and teams are looking for coaches to implement them. All of it is taking place against safeties and linebackers likely to be hesitant about how they hit receivers over the middle, as well as pass rushers wary of drawing flags for a variety of outlawed quarterback hits.
It has led to unusual contentment at quarterback across the NFL, with a large dose of young players making short money relative to the position. Trubisky, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Houston’s Deshaun Watson, all entering their second seasons, figure to stabilize their teams for years. Rookie Sam Darnold will start in Week 1 for the Jets, and four other first-round quarterbacks could play by late fall.
“These guys are everywhere now,” CBS analyst Boomer Esiason said. “I think we are in a rebirth of sorts, where there’s a lot of young, vibrant quarterbacks. . . . It reminds me of the mid-to-late ’80s into the ’90s. Everybody knew who their quarterback was.”
Former NFL executive Andrew Brandt called drafting a viable quarterback “an extraordinary advantage” but also admonished teams that view paying a veteran as an obstacle. “The other side is, I do think it’s kind of a cop-out when you have teams say you can’t build a contending team when you have a $25 million quarterback,” Brandt said. Smart teams, he said, should be able to manage the salary cap even with an expensive quarterback. For example, the Minnesota Vikings could splurge on Kirk Cousins at $24 million per season in free agency in part because drafting gems and free agent bargains created financial freedom.
Still, the easiest way to complement a quarterback is to pay less for one. None of the past 10 Super Bowl winners devoted more than 11.6 percent of their cap to their quarterback. When the Patriots won their latest Super Bowl, Tom Brady made only 8.6 percent of New England’s cap because he took less money so the Patriots could spend more elsewhere. This season, 14 quarterbacks will make more than 11.6 percent.
The Rams selected Goff with the first pick in 2016, one spot before the Eagles took Wentz. (The Cowboys later snagged Dak Prescott in the fourth round.) When Snead traded up for Goff, he prioritized stability in the long term. “That’s the goal,” he said. “What kind of environment are we going to create to make sure this kid gets his best shot?”
After a terrible rookie season, Goff blossomed last year under first-year Coach Sean McVay. Despite cementing himself as a legitimate starter, Goff will make $7.6 million this season — just 4.2 percent of the Rams’ salary cap.
“The benefit for us in Jared’s second year, we won a division,” Snead said. “So now we believe we can win the next game. That’s kind of about as far as we think. But because you actually earned that belief, you put yourself in the window [for contention]. And because Jared’s got a good salary, but not [a big] QB salary, you can be more flexible and add and do more things for that environment. You should be aware of that opportunity. Take advantage of it.”
The Rams acquired Suh, Talib and Peters, and in late August they extended the contract of Aaron Donald, briefly making him the highest-paid defender in league history (before Mack’s deal overtook his) and giving them one of the NFL’s most talented defenses. Previously, Snead traded a first-round pick for Cooks, whom the Rams immediately signed to a five-year, $81 million deal.
“We decided to use draft capital to go get a known commodity instead of a rookie because, if you bring in a rookie receiver, just like a rookie QB, you’re not sure how long it’s going to take him to adjust to this game,” Snead said.
And time is the one thing that the most valuable asset in football — not necessarily a great quarterback but a good, cheap one — does not afford the Rams.
At some point in the next two years, they will have to pay Goff, which means their best shot at success is right now.