Quarterback purgatory is a place few NFL teams seek to find themselves. In the past, this undesirable province was reserved for teams lacking high-level quarterbacks that could reliably lead them to perennial playoff contention. Yet times may be changing.
In the future, limbo may be reserved mainly for teams that lack salary-cap flexibility at the position. The Atlanta Falcons are in a position to avoid such a fate if they commit to Desmond Ridder as their starter moving forward.
Cheap QBs achieved at an unprecedented level in 2022
Notably, the 2022 NFL season saw a number of teams make deep postseason runs with quarterbacks on rookie contracts. Three of the final four teams (Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles, and San Francisco 49ers) competing in the conference championship games had starting quarterbacks on rookie deals. There were nine teams that made the postseason in 2022 helmed by a quarterback on a rookie deal or a comparably cheap veteran such as the Seattle Seahawks with Geno Smith. That’s more than the combined total of the two previous years, which saw four teams each year reach the postseason with such an advantage.
It suggests a new, developing trend in the NFL that is a stark change from the past. Then, it was mainly established quarterbacks making top dollar that were regularly putting their teams in playoff contention and guiding deep postseason runs. Yet, one could claim that 2022 represented an anomaly as opposed to a sign of things to come.
Time will of course tell, but I lean towards this trend continuing. One only has to observe the current quarterback landscape in the NFL to see plenty of disadvantaged teams that are currently paying a premium for their quarterbacks.
When looking at the quarterbacks set to have the highest cap hits in the league in 2023, teams like the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills appear to be the outliers since they aren’t complaining about having to pay Patrick Mahomes ($49.3 million) and Josh Allen ($39.8 million).
Expensive passers will continue to feed the QB carousel
However, there may be buyer’s remorse in Cleveland and Denver given their recent acquisitions of Deshaun Watson ($55 million) and Russell Wilson ($22 million). There is plenty of fodder suggesting the Green Bay Packers and Tennessee Titans are preparing to move on from Aaron Rodgers ($31.6 million) and Ryan Tannehill ($36.6 million) this offseason.
There’s also a reality where the Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions, and Los Angeles Rams eventually follow suit with Dak Prescott ($49.1 million), Kirk Cousins ($36.3 million), Jared Goff ($31 million), and Matthew Stafford ($20 million) in the near future.
The past few offseasons have featured a lot of drama involving the movement of veterans on the quarterback carousel, and this offseason likely won’t disappoint either. Rodgers, Tannehill, Lamar Jackson, and Derek Carr are all potentially on the move this offseason. This recurring quarterback movement may be less of an oddity, rather representing a new paradigm in the NFL that is likely to repeat in future years.
Highly paid passers like Denver’s Wilson and Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray may be shopped next offseason if their performances under new head coaches don’t live up to expectations. 2023 marks the final year of Cousins’ current contract, which means the Vikings will also need to decide whether to extend him or move on in the next 12 months. Similar decisions face the Cowboys and Lions when it comes to Prescott and Goff, who have expiring contracts after 2024.
That is not even considering all the recent draft picks that will be up for new deals in the near future. 2019 first-round pick Daniel Jones is set to get paid by the New York Giants this offseason. We can expect 2020 quarterbacks Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, and Jalen Hurts to land lucrative extensions in short order. But where does that leave fellow 2020 draftee Tua Tagovailoa? Will 2021 draft picks Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields, and Mac Jones also get new deals from their respective teams or will they be ditched as we saw recently with 2018 first-rounders Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold?
Teams like the Falcons that are unsettled about their quarterback futures may have opportunities to acquire some of those players in the near future. Or perhaps those teams will avoid costly trades and signings and continue to mine the draft for cheap, young talent. The 2023 NFL Draft is expected to have four quarterbacks taken in the first round and the 2024 draft class is considered to be even stronger.
A brand new QB pecking order is emerging
All of this is likely related to an overall changing of the guard in the NFL that is unfolding before our eyes. Premier passers that have dominated the NFL for much of the past decade are being phased out and a new class is taking over. Inheriting the mantles from Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees will be Mahomes, Burrow, and Allen.
Yet for much of the past decade, the teams without passers in the elite tier were incentivized to pay premiums for the next tier that included Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, and Cousins. Perhaps we could label these quarterbacks and teams as the NFL’s “middle class.”
We may be now witnessing the shrinking of that middle class. Acquiring one of these good-but-not-great quarterbacks may no longer guarantee playoff contention. The Browns, Broncos, and Indianapolis Colts discovered this after acquiring Watson, Wilson, and Ryan, respectively this past offseason. Instead, investing the dollars and resources that historically have gone towards adding a “middle-class” passer might be better suited to improving and elevating the rest of the roster. Especially now with the price of retaining such middlemen as we see with rumors revolving around Jones’ negotiation with the Giants reaching inflated levels.
The NFL is notorious for being a copycat league, so I expect you’ll see a lot more teams looking to capitalize on the advantages of a cheap, rookie quarterback contract. The Falcons find themselves with a front-row seat should they be able to propel themselves into playoff contention in 2023 by building around Ridder. Or they could continue down the path of their forebears by going “all in” on acquiring someone such as Jackson this offseason, hoping to avoid the pitfalls that ensnared a team like the Broncos with Wilson this past season.
There will always be the haves and have-nots in the NFL, especially when it comes to the quarterback position. But for teams that find themselves outside the upper crust, there are emerging benefits to finding competency under center on the cheap.
It’s all part of an ever-changing NFL landscape at the most important position on the field. The question surrounding the Falcons boils down to whether or not they’ll be pathfinders in this newfound terrain, or will they follow down the well-worn paths of their predecessors.