Before we get completely deluged by Draft content, quarterback contracts are still a talking point in the NFL. There’s Aaron Rodgers’ pending move from Green Bay to “Gang Green”, with the finer details still being thrashed out. Then there’s Lamar Jackson, who wants out from Baltimore but no one seems to be rushing to acquire his services – not yet at least. And there are the contracts for Year 3 QBs that are up for extensions.
Having played three years in the league, the likes of Joe Burrow, the Chargers’ Justin Herbert, Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts of the Eagles are now eligible to sort out long-term deals. The first to do so might get the best deal, as each new contract tends to gazump the last, pushing the benchmark ever higher. Yet regardless of whether his contract gets signed before or after the others, the widely held consensus is that Burrow might reset the QB market with the biggest deal ever seen in the NFL.
We know from the Bengals bigwigs the process is already in motion ahead of Burrow’s fifth-year option deadline. At the owners’ meeting in Kansas last week, Cincinnati’s Executive Vice President Katie Blackburn stated that nothing was imminent but confirmed that talks had started. The Bengals will want to know his long-term salary cap hit sooner than later, as they also have other mouths to feed, not least wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. As Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin stated at the NFL Combine, “Sooner is better. Maybe it’s the first piece to come, maybe it’s the last. But we’ll work towards it. We’re not going to rush the process. It’s of vital importance to us. It’s important to Joe, and we’ll work to get it accomplished.”
There’s no doubt that Joe Burrow has earned the right to a huge deal. His rookie year was curtailed by a nasty ACL injury (the Bengals were 2-7-1 at the time) but a year later, he steered them to their first Super Bowl appearance since 1988. And in 2022, despite an emergency appendectomy during the offseason, he led Cincy’s return to the AFC Championship game and ended a 12-4 campaign with a 35 TD:12 INT ratio and a 68.3% completion rate. Over the past two seasons, only the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, now-retired Tom Brady and Justin Herbert have logged more passing yards, and he trailed only Mahomes and Buffalo’s Josh Allen for passing touchdowns. Having set his team’s single-season passing yard and touchdown records, he is definitely in line to land a huge contract.
So what else tells us that he’s in line for a mega-payday? Well, despite the (increasingly inaccurate and outdated) reputation for being cheapskates, the Bengals traditionally pay their QBs handsomely. Andy Dalton signed a six-year, $115m extension in 2014. Before him, Carson Palmer penned an extension worth $118m over nine years. Going back yet further to 1990, Boomer Esiason became the second-highest paid player in the league with a six-year, $16m deal (those were the days, eh?). So the precedent is there: owner Mike Brown isn’t afraid to open his wallet when it comes to his quarterbacks.
The ever-rising salary cap is another factor here. It climbed to $224.8m for the forthcoming 2023 season, up nearly $20m on 2022, and that level of increase is widely expected to continue for the rest of the decade. So if the pot of money keeps getting bigger, Cincinnati should be able to dig deeper to keep the likes of Burrow happy.
All this contract shenanigans doesn’t happen in a vacuum so we can’t ignore the current QB market either. In recent weeks, we’ve seen Seattle’s Geno Smith pen a three-year, $105m deal ($35m/year) and Daniel Jones sign a four-year, $160m contract ($40m/year) with the Giants. At the top of the current list, Aaron Rodgers is the only NFL quarterback with an average salary over $50m a year. Sure, Mahomes signed the biggest total contract ($450m over 10 years) but he still trails Rodgers ($50.2m), Russell Wilson in Denver ($49m), Arizona’s Kyler Murray ($46.1m) and Deshaun Watson in Cleveland ($46m) when it comes to annual salary.
To recap, there’s a strong argument for believing that Joey B is about to recalibrate the QB market. His performances over the last two years warrant it. The Bengals always pay their QBs. The size of other recent deals is on the rise, as is the salary cap. Everything suggests he’s in line to receive for a historic pile of moolah. How historic? Well, Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson states, “I’ve had a chance to talk to people now, and they’re already saying Burrow is going to get $55m. He might even get $6om.” Cap expert Andre Perotta suggested eight years/£408m ($51m/year). And most recently, Brad Spielberger of Pro Football Focus projected a four-year deal worth $214m, which works out at a benchmark-setting annual salary of $53.5m.
But yet… There’s just something niggling away at the back of my mind that says “nope, he’s not going to top the list”. So why am I thinking that?
Well, for one, I’ve seen that Spotrac projects Burrow to earn around $44m/year, based on his current market value. I actually think that undersells him a bit, but I can still see something under the magic 50-mark being possible.
My sense is that Burrow is a shrewd chap. I’m not expecting the lad who attended high school in Athens, Ohio, to offer Cincinnati a home-town discount and leave millions on the table. But like TB12 before him, he could be open to a more team-friendly deal – one that helps the Bengals retain Chase and Higgins (a free agent after next season), as well as Logan Wilson, DJ Reader and others with contract negotiations on the horizon. By his own admission, Burrow sees his Super Bowl window as his “entire career”, he wants to stay a Bengal and wants HC Zac Taylor to be there for the duration too.
Ja’Marr Chase himself said, “At the end of the day, I don’t think Joe is really too worried about how much money he’s going to make because he’s already making a tremendous amount. But it’ll all work out. I think Joe knows how he wants to set up his contract to keep some of his weapons around him. And I think that’s the biggest part for him.” These sentiments were echoed by Tobin, who told The Athletic that Burrow is aware of how his contract will impact the rest of the team. “I think Joe understands better than most people. That’s what makes him a great player. Joe sees the big picture.”
Heaven only knows what the numbers will be but the quotes from Chase and Tobin give me faith that on-field success outweighs hard cash. He can still “get his bag”, as they say, but not at the expense of the rest of the roster. First and foremost, #9 wants to win games, division titles, conference crowns and Super Bowls. I’m not suggesting his next deal follows in the footsteps of Tom Brady, whose biggest-ever contract was his two-year, $50m deal with the Buccaneers. After all, Burrow deserves to be paid what he’s worth – but there are ways and means to do so that suit both team and player.
Like an incentive-based deal, for example. With the Bills, Josh Allen chose to sign a below-market deal of $43m/year, but it was incentive-based, reducing the cap hit. Mahomes’ deal is also loaded with annual incentives, including $1.25m a year for reaching the Super Bowl and $1.25m for winning the league MVP title (so far, so good!). Something similar might work for Joey B; after all, he thinks his team will be contenders for years to come if he can keep the band together. Being locked in for a decade like Mahomes might not be ideal but a long(ish) contract also makes sense. It’ll mean other quarterbacks will eventually pass him in annual salary, making it increasingly good value for the team over time, and it’ll give them some wiggle room should more accounting gymnastics be required.
So after all this to-ing and fro-ing, where am I landing? I’m thinking six years (the same as Allen, less than Mahomes), which is long enough to allow time for some mid-contract restructuring. And I’m thinking $288 million (a fair way behind Mahomes in total contract value but above everyone else) could swing it, which equates to $48 million/year (more than Mahomes, Allen, Watson and Murray but below Rodgers and Wilson). Enough to set you, your kids and your grandkids up (very comfortably) for life, but not a figure that sets new precedents.
I’m sure it can be done with a bit of give and take on both sides. Let’s see if it comes to pass.