The False Equivalence of NFL Quarterback Salaries

Yesterday afternoon Jeremy Bergman of reported that the upcoming new deal for Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr could reach a historic $25 million per year. There was natural backlash among NFL fans that a 26-year-old with only three years experience and no playoff wins could become the highest-paid player in the league overnight. Many fans worry that such a contract could cripple Oakland, and criticize Carr for even pursuing such a lofty figure. The most prominent argument centers on the team-friendly contract of Super Bowl champion Tom Brady.

Brady was just the 13th-highest paid quarterback in the NFL last season, despite his obvious value over his better-compensated contemporaries. But the expectation that a player of Carr’s age would give away this much leverage to take a discount underlies a false equivalence between factors and circumstances extending beyond the salary cap.

The first discrepancy between the two quarterbacks involves their ascents to stardom. Carr was the 36th-overall selection in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft, and has started all but one regular season game since entering the league. He was expected to be the instrument of reform for a broken franchise, and he has delivered. He can take a lighter contract next time around if he remains healthy, but this may be his only opportunity to max out his earning potential and set himself (and his wife and two young sons) up for life. He has earned his opportunity to seek a contract befitting his role.

Brady, on the other hand, was making little more than the rookie minimum salary as a former 6th-round pick at the time of his first Super Bowl win. Even after guiding New England to the Super Bowl upset in place of Drew Bledsoe, his initial success was regarded largely as a product of playing with a championship roster which was already in place at the time of his takeover. His value to the Patriots was not as immediately obvious as Carr’s is to the Raiders. Furthermore, after his third Super Bowl victory, Brady did indeed agree to a contract that made him one of the league’s highest-paid players in 2005. Brady did not reach his opportunity to negotiate for a wealthier contract as early as Carr has, but he did take advantage when given his first chance.

Secondly, the $25 million figure Carr is looking for will occupy a smaller percentage of Oakland’s salary cap every year as the cap continues to rise. The yearly figure for Carr will become more proportional to the cap over time, and the ceiling for annual salaries will climb even higher. Brady’s contracts have traditionally been back-heavy, with his current cap hit of $14 million for 2017 projected to jump to $22 million in 2018. These kinds of contracts force New England to renegotiate every two-to-three years. The Patriots have negotiated well under this strategy, but for a resurgent franchise like the Raiders, more long-term security is a better course of action to keep good faith with its young talent and growing fanbase.

Carr is also more of a prisoner of the market rate than Brady is at this stage in his career. As Bergman noted, the negotiations of Carr’s deal will have direct impact on the discussions between the Washington Redskins and Kirk Cousins, or vice versa depending on who reaches a new deal first. And with Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford, and Brady’s backup Jimmy Garoppolo all scheduled to become free agents in 2018, the implications of the Carr contract stretch even further.

But the final trump card in Brady’s deck which enables him to accept substantially less money than he’s worth is the gravitas which accompanies being the greatest NFL quarterback of all time. Brady’s celebrity status earns him an estimated $8 million per year via endorsements with UGG Boots and Under Armour on top of his still-substantial salary. Carr and Cousins each have minor endorsement contracts with Nike and the occasional auto repair shop, but neither are estimated to earn more than $100,000 through their endorsements. And it almost goes without saying that the husband of the highest-paid supermodel in the world is going to be just fine, regardless of what the Patriots want to pay him.

It is certainly true that Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his associates are excellent negotiators, and that Brady has created little financial burden for New England for most of his career. But to expect his unique scenario to be status quo is unfair. In short, Oakland:

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