NFL Draft: Smart teams will manipulate cap with rookie QBs

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

The recent changes to the NFL CBA has made drafting a quarterback less of a financial risk and more of a way to manipulate the salary cap.

The way the current NFL collective bargaining agreement is constructed, it benefits NFL franchises to have a young quarterback under center. This is because the quarterback, the most important position on the field, will generally become the most expensive player on your roster.

As it stands currently, you can get a good NFL quarterback locked into a non-negotiable contract on the cheap.

Beginning with the 2011 NFL Draft, the new CBA invoked a type of slotting system for NFL contracts. Gone were the $50 million guaranteed deals for Top 5 picks at the quarterback position. Not only did that change, but the rules when contracts could be renegotiated and extended changed.

Currently under the CBA, rookies receive a four-year contract. If that rookie is selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, teams can exercise a fifth-year option that is the average salary of the top 10 players at their position (for players picked 1-10) or the average of the third through 25th paid at the position for picks 11-32.

This means that quarterbacks, at least as rookies, have become an effective way to manipulate the salary cap going forward, rather than being a burden a team has to work around.

If you look at the current Top 10 cap hits in the NFL, six of the 10 are the quarterback position and they're all older veterans on a second or third contract. Not only are they on their second or third deal, but the majority of them have also been the highest cap number on their roster since likely their rookie season, as all but Tony Romo and Drew Brees were high draft picks under the old system.

It's no secret the quarterback is the most important part of an NFL franchise, so naturally they are the most expensive position. Often a team's salary cap is manipulated around the quarterback, due to this fact. For example, the Baltimore Ravens recently signed Joe Flacco to a six-year, $120 million contract with $29 million guaranteed with a $29 million signing bonus. Effectively, they are tied to Flacco until after the 2016 season when his cap hit balloons to $31 million.

Before cap saving cuts, the Baltimore Ravens have just roughly $11 million in cap space projected for the 2014 season with Flacco accounting for $14 million against the cap. The Ravens have always been smart about re-signing and free agency, but now that they have their "franchise quarterback", they'll need to maneuver and manipulate their cap around Flacco's rising cap hits until it's feasible to cut bait.

Sam Bradford, who was the final No. 1 overall pick under the old CBA rules signed a six-year, $78 million deal with $50 million guaranteed and a $17 million signing bonus. Bradford's cap hit in 2014 is $17 million, with a $7 million dead money hit if he's cut and the Rams are projected to have just over $600,000 in cap room for the 2014 season before cap saving cuts are made.

Contrast that with the Indianapolis Colts, who have Andrew Luck under a non-negotiable contract until the end of the 2014 season with the former No. 1 overall pick's cap figure at just $6 million, increasing to only $7 million in 2015 and likely topping out around $10 million if the team exercises their fifth-year option rather than re-signing Luck to a long term deal. The Colts projected cap room for 2014 is $33 million before factoring in any possible cap saving cuts, and you can see the Colts are in position to significantly add to their roster with free agents and/or re-signing their own and dumping bonuses early on to reduce future cap hits.

This type of situation is even more exaggerated with the Seattle Seahawks situation, given they found Russell Wilson in the third round. Wilson's cap hit in 2014 season is a mere $800,000 and like Luck, he cannot even sign a new deal until after the season. This allowed the Seahawks to make a flurry of signings in the 2013 offseason which helped contribute to their Super Bowl run.

As an example, Blaine Gabbert was the No. 10 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft and after three seasons if the Jaguars were to release him (in this instance, likely when) he will carry just a $3.8 million hit on the cap in the form of dead money. Contrast that with Bradford, who would have cost the Rams $23 million in dead money if he were released after his third NFL season.

This means going forward if a team "hits" on their quarterback, even with the No. 1 overall pick, the financial burden is a mere fraction of what it once was. The "fear" of missing on that quarterback should be lessened, because teams are no longer burdened with an albatross for four to five seasons like in the past, but can cut bait after two seasons with minimal financial impact, barring their cap situation is healthy to begin with.

This also means that if a team "hits" on that rookie quarterback, they can set themselves up cap-wise for the long haul and load up on talent, taking in some high cap-hit deals that instead of ballooning over time, like in the past, deflate with a higher spend upfront while the quarterback cap hit is minimal (SEE: Seattle, San Francisco).

The real question going forward however is, what will the "second contract" look like going forward for rookie quarterbacks? Of the new group, Luck is arguably the best one and his cap hit ranks just 19th among quarterbacks for the 2014 season. While it continue to be "highest paid QB ever" contracts for the second deal for franchise quarterbacks, or will it be a gradual increase and that be the third contract?

TL, DR: The financial risk involved in drafting a quarterback high is not nearly as much as it was in the past.

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