Carson Wentz joined the Eagles at 8:22 p.m. on April 28, 2016. Once the Eagles came off the clock at the draft, a new countdown started: to the end of his rookie contract, when the quarterback will become eligible to sign a nine-digit extension.
Being a franchise quarterback is good business these days. The 16 highest average salaries in the NFL go to quarterbacks. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford signed a record $135 million contract last week, breaking the then-record $125 million deal Oakland’s Derek Carr signed a month earlier. Quarterback deals are the NFL’s version of Amazon stock.
That’s why the biggest bargain in the NFL is to have a good starting quarterback on a rookie contract, like the Eagles have with Wentz. Since the NFL and its players signed a new collective bargaining agreement in 2011, rookie contracts have been slotted. Wentz, as the No. 2 overall pick in 2016, signed a four-year, $26.7-million deal with a fifth-year option for the average salary of the 10 highest-paid quarterbacks. His average salary ranks 26th among quarterbacks in the NFL.
“Assuming a player like Wentz is your starter for those four years, you’re getting tremendous value because an average player at that position is making more than twice that,” said Andrew Brandt, a former Packers executive and Eagles consultant who is now the director of the Moorad Center for Sports Law at Villanova University. “So there’s a tremendous investment that was made in terms of draft resources, but what a value if a player turns out to be what we all think he’s going to be. … Maybe the best value in the game when you’re talking about franchise quarterbacks.”
Wentz is eligible for a contract extension in 2019. If the Eagles exercise his fifth-year option, he would not be eligible for unrestricted free agency until 2021. It might be most prudent for Wentz to wait to extend his deal because contract values keep escalating. Regardless when it comes, if he’s as good as the Eagles believe, that next one will be substantial.
The advantage under the current CBA is most applicable for high-first-round picks. After the first round, teams always benefited from quarterbacks on rookie contracts. But a player selected in Wentz’s spot under the old CBA would have signed a burdensome-to-the-team contract before playing a game. Sam Bradford, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the year before the new CBA, signed a six-year, $78 million contract as a rookie.
“It’s a dramatic difference,” said Joe Banner, the former Eagles president and Cleveland Browns general manager. “Theoretically, those are all dollars you can put into the rest of the roster.”
Eagles executive Howie Roseman once told a story about how a team with the No. 1 pick under the old CBA asked the team with the No. 4 pick what it would offer for the top choice. The team with the fourth choice responded by asking what the other team would pay to get rid of it. That’s because of the financial obligation that was attached. Roseman was dogged in his pursuit of Wentz, but the new structure further motivated Roseman because the contract cost was not as prohibitive.
“I think it goes to not only the quarterback position, but it goes to all those positions that are high-cost positions,” Roseman said last year when asked about the advantage of quarterbacks on rookie salaries. “With escalating salaries, as you see in all these positions, if you get a guy in the top 10 [of the draft] who you have under contract for four plus the option [year], it gives you some flexibility elsewhere, because those are high-money positions.”
That flexibility is important to build the roster around the quarterback. When the Eagles signed defensive tackle Fletcher Cox to a $103 million contract last year to be the cornerstone of the defense, it was pointed out to Roseman that Cox received quarterback-type money. But it was helpful that the Eagles didn’t need to pay their quarterback that kind of money. Cox signed a six-year deal that started this year, although the salary cap numbers were staggered and most of the guaranteed money comes before a Wentz contract extension will kick in. There is little guaranteed money starting in 2021 – the first or second year of a Wentz contract, depending upon what year such a deal is signed. This is by design. The Eagles can also structure a Wentz contract extension in such a way that the big cap dollars don’t come until his sixth year.
“Assuming the Eagles go to [Wentz] after the third year, it represents a time where they can make a lot of hay in that time period, like the Seahawks did in the time before they addressed [Russell] Wilson,” said Brandt, who also hosts a podcast, The Business of Sports. “They had [Richard] Sherman done. They had Michael Bennett done. They had Kam Chancellor. It’s all that same idea of staggered spending.”
The Eagles have staggered spending for more than two decades, dating back to Banner’s time with the team. Seattle’s strategy of re-signing core players is one way teams can take advantage of a quarterback on a fixed contract. Another is being aggressive in free agency. After Andrew Luck’s rookie season, the Colts took advantage of having a No. 1 overall pick on a rookie contract by going on a free-agent spending spree. Teams can also do what the Eagles did this year, which is focus on one-year deals that upgrade the roster, giving the team a chance to win in the short-term but leaving it with long-term flexibility.
“You don’t want to miss this moment,” Banner said. “Years 3, 4, and 5 with these young quarterbacks are a chance when you have a benefit of an A-caliber quarterback with an unprecedented opportunity to probably have $20 or $30 million of extra cap room that you should have while you have an A quarterback, that you won’t have again for the rest of the career.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh knew the advantage that the Seahawks had before Wilson signed a four-year, $87.6 million contract in 2015 – a year that aligned with losing notable starters Byron Maxwell and James Carpenter in free agency. The Ravens gave Joe Flacco a six-year, $120 million contract after winning the Super Bowl. The deal affected the money that the Ravens could allocate elsewhere.
“It boils down to math and bookkeeping,” Harbaugh said in a 2014 Daily News article. “[The quarterback] is a big chunk out of your bookkeeping. …You’ve got to determine where you’re going to be able to spend your money.”
If a quarterback is good enough, he’s worth it. The challenge teams have is when they don’t know whether to pay their quarterback a second contract. Banner said that if a team has a top quarterback with a top contract, the quarterback can make up for deficiencies elsewhere. It’s a problem when teams pay a “B quarterback” a top contract, because then the shortcomings at other spots will become more of a problem. It’s inevitable to have fewer second-contract players when a quarterback commands such a significant percentage of the salary cap.
There should be enough time within the rookie contract for the Eagles to determine how good Wentz can be. It helped that he started as a rookie, and if Wentz remains healthy, they will have three full seasons before negotiations can even begin.
“I think, personally, three to four years in this league is when you really start to know exactly what you’re going to get,” Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo said. “I think by then, barring injury, you’ve played a lot of football. …And hopefully by that time, you’ve played in some high-pressure playoff games.”
The Eagles are ready. They’ve prepared for this type of extension even last summer, when they paid Cox, and it was reflected in how they approached this past offseason. The clock started April 28, 2016, it’s ticking this year, and the Eagles must take advantage of this period while it lasts.
“You’ve got $15, $20, $25 million advantage over what a quarterback of that caliber is going to cost in a couple years,” Banner said. “You’ve got to put that into play because it gives you a chance to win a Super Bowl now.”
Sign up for "Early Birds," our new Eagles newsletter by Zach Berman, at philly.com/earlybirds.