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No, 2021 is not evidence that “expensive” QBs can make it deep in the playoffs

Not even close.

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Over the course of the past week, I’ve now seen it emphatically stated by several individuals, including some who should know better, that the group of quarterbacks who made the playoffs this year is clear evidence that sky-high quarterback salaries are no cause for concern, even in a salary-cap constrained environment.

Here are the “apparent” top 10 quarterback salaries in the league for 2021:

  1. Patrick Mahomes - $45M per year.
  2. Josh Allen - $43M per year.
  3. Dak Prescott - $40M per year.
  4. DeShaun Watson - $39M per year (not in playoffs).
  5. Russell Wilson - $35M per year (not in playoffs).
  6. Jared Goff - $33.5M per year (not in playoffs).
  7. Aaron Rodgers - $33.5M per year.
  8. Kirk Cousins - $33M per year (not in playoffs).
  9. Carson Wentz - $32M per year (not in playoffs).
  10. Matt Ryan - $30M per year (not in playoffs).

So, even by the most liberal salary definition, 60% of the highest paid QBs didn’t make the playoffs this year (and by the end of tonight, only one of the top 10 will be left). But as anyone who pays attention to NFL salaries knows, “appearances” can be tremendously deceiving. Let’s take a closer look at the salary breakdowns for the 4 playoff QBs on this list:

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Patrick Mahomes

Mahomes signed a massive 10-year, $450M contract extension in 2020, right before the 4th year of his rookie contract. The 2021 season is, in effect, the 5th year option of Mahomes rookie deal, and his cap number is a paltry $7.4M as a result, only occupying 4% of the Chiefs’ cap space this year.

In real terms, Mahomes was one of the cheapest starting QBs in the league this year. Next year, his cap hit jumps to around $36M, and then spikes to $46M during the 2023 season. If anyone wants to make the case that Mahomes’ contract isn’t damaging the Chiefs’ competitiveness, their case won’t have any merit for at least another year or two. For the very short time being, the Chiefs and Mahomes, are still in a contract sweet spot. This is the time one would expect them to be the most competitive, and unsurprisingly, they are.

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Josh Allen

The Bills’ Josh Allen was drafted a year after Mahomes, and he’s matured into one of the most promising young QBs in the NFL. As was the case with Mahomes and the Chiefs, the Bills saw what they had in Allen early on, and moved to lock him up long-term after the third year of his rookie deal.

Extended before the 2021 season, Allen was given a 6-year deal worth $258M ($43M/yr). But unlike Mahomes, this year is only the 4th year of Allen’s rookie deal, costing the Bills $10.2M against the cap, a meager 5% of the Bills’ cap space. And, the Bills get another bargain year in 2022, with Allen’s cap hit only $16.3M. In 2023, his cap hit jumps to around $40M, skyrocketing to $51M in 2025, but for the next couple of years, the Bills are in great shape, and Allen, like Mahomes, remains one of the cheapest starters in the league.

Event Name: NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Dak Prescott

Prescott and his Cowboys were unceremoniously dumped from the playoffs in the Wild Card round, but Dak did what it took to punch his team’s ticket to the dance. Dak played out the first 4 years of his contract on his rookie deal, was franchise tagged in 2020, and then signed a 4-year, $160M deal last offseason.

Believe it or not, Prescott actually cost the Cowboys about half as much ($17M vs. $31M) in 2021 as he did in 2020. His 2021 salary consumed around 8% of the Cowboys’ cap space this year. His cap hit climbs to $34M in 2022, topping out at $48M in 2024. Like Mahomes and Allen, Prescott was also one of the cheapest starters in the league in 2021.

NFC Divisional Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Aaron Rodgers

Surely Aaron Rodgers, who has been a superstar in the league for over a decade, was being paid boatloads of money in 2021. He was paid generously, with a cap hit of $27.5M, but that’s less than he received in 2019, and around $19M less than he will count against the cap in 2022 ($46.8M). In 2021, Rodgers’ cap hit consumed 15% of the Packers’ salary cap.

It’s entirely plausible that the Packers “window” with Rodgers has closed at this point, with his encumbrance against the cap jumping to around 22% percent in 2022.

Conclusion

It’s possible that a case can be made that teams can win big in the NFL with a top-priced QB - though I’m deeply skeptical - but it’s not possible that that case can be made with the 2021 playoff quarterback class.

Look for the Bills to be favorites going into the 2022 season, on the back of Allen’s bargain arrangement, and expect that the Chiefs and Cowboys, and particularly the Packers, will begin to struggle in the coming couple of years, as the true cost of their star quarterbacks begins to be felt across their rosters.

Poll

Are you concerned that if Washington brings a top veteran QB in this year, his cap hit could impact the ability to build the rest of the team?

This poll is closed

  • 57%
    Yes, and that’s why I want them to draft a top rookie QB.
    (313 votes)
  • 24%
    Yes, but I’m willing to take that chance.
    (135 votes)
  • 18%
    No.
    (101 votes)
549 votes total Vote Now