Between Kyler Murray and Deshaun Watson, here's what the new guaranteed QB money spectrum means for the NFL

Between Kyler Murray and Deshaun Watson, here’s what the new guaranteed QB money spectrum means for the NFL

Four months ago, when Deshaun Watson signed the most staggering contract in NFL history, a fully guaranteed $230 million dollar deal, the salary implications across the NFL were unmistakable. It had the potential to completely reshape both the ceiling and floor of top-10 caliber NFL quarterback money.

And it left a message resonating through front office and ownership suites.

Now we wait.

For what, exactly?

Well, for Thursday — when the other shoe dropped on a top-10 quarterback deal this offseason, with the Arizona Cardinals essentially setting the floor for where negotiations now start, inking Murray to a five-year $230.5 million extension that includes $160 million in guarantees.

Taken together, the deals carry a bundle of implications for NFL franchises moving forward, as they struggle to grapple with where their particular quarterback will fit on the spectrum, and whether they can swing the salary pendulum toward Murray rather than Watson.

Because as much as this was a good day for Murray, it was an even better day for a multitude of other quarterbacks, including Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert. And depending on how the 2022 season plays out, you might be able to throw Denver’s Russell Wilson in there, too, albeit with a future extension that will likely be shorter than the others.

All of them will open contract extension talks next offseason, and other than Herbert, every other quarterback on that list has accomplished more as a football player than Murray has. Jackson has been a league MVP and helped the Ravens to the postseason twice in four years. Burrow hit his groove in 2021 and led the Bengals to their first Super Bowl appearance since 1988. Wilson is already a Hall of Fame quarterback who has an opportunity to finish his career with a flourish for a Broncos franchise that will be aggressive in trying to keep its Super Bowl window open. And while Herbert hasn’t reached the playoffs in his first two NFL seasons, he has gotten off to one of the most impressive quarterback starts in the history of the league.

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None of that is to suggest Murray didn’t get the money he deserved. Despite struggling down the stretch at times, especially in a poor playoff performance, Murray is the centerpiece of a franchise that has improved every season he’s been the starter. Even though nagging injuries have appeared to impact his play, he’s been durable enough to have played in all but three games over the last three seasons.

At his best, Murray has showcased the ability to take over games and elevate the players around him. Which is the kind of thing that gets you paid a massive extension, particularly when you know you’re the binding element between a quarterback/coach/general manager foundation that is now signed through the 2027 season at minimum.

In effect, the Cardinals had little choice but to pay Murray or risk an ugly standoff that could have ended in a total franchise reboot by the time it was all over. That’s how Arizona ended up paying out what’s arguably the second- or third-biggest quarterback deal in NFL history, slotting behind only Watson’s mega contract and Aaron Rodgers’ three-year extension that will pay him a guaranteed total of at least $150.8 million.

Kyler Murray’s new contract will bracket the spectrum between his own and Deshaun Watson’s. Now top-10 quarterback negotiations could get messy for NFL teams. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

But that doesn’t mean the Cardinals didn’t score at least a modest win for both themselves and the rest of the league by managing to avoid guaranteeing the entire deal. Had that happened, it would have essentially rubber-stamped fully guaranteed deals as the new standard for all top-10 caliber quarterbacks. Instead, the Cardinals managed to only guarantee roughly 70 percent of Murray’s deal for injury, putting Watson’s contract in the outlier category alongside Rodgers’ latest extension and the fully guaranteed three-year $84 million deal Kirk Cousins signed back in 2018.

Rodgers had maximum leverage over the Packers and needed his extension for salary cap relief. Cousins netted his historic deal by playing himself through two franchise tags and managing to get to a wide-open free agency. And Watson forced himself into an unprecedented trade that made a top-five quarterback available at the age of 26, which has never happened in league history.

In other words, there were special football circumstances that put those players in position to command max-level dollars, while Murray’s leverage was more of a standard threat to hold out for a new deal.

But that doesn’t mean his numbers won’t create additional chaos in the system.

Indeed, if Jackson, Burrow, Herbert and Wilson all live up to expectations in 2022, all four of them will command extensions that exceed Murray in guaranteed money and average salary per year. Which means it’s possible that by kickoff of the 2023 season, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Buffalo’s Josh Allen could be the eighth and ninth highest-paid quarterbacks in average annual value. And with deals that lock them in through 2028 (Allen) and 2032 (Mahomes).

As one general manager said Thursday: “[Mahomes and Allen] might barely be in the top 10 in a year, but I’d look at the next 10. How many of those are $40-$45 million [in average salary]? Maybe three or four? Then a middle-of-the-road quarterback costs $30-35 million? If that’s where it’s going, I think more teams will just look to invest a draft pick in a starter. That middle class quarterback is going to be an interesting number in a few years. Teams don’t even want to pay Jimmy Garoppolo [$24 million] and he’s better than quite a few current starters. Now the curve says that’s going to be a $30 million guy? There’s going to be problems with that.”

Of course, that’s just tackling the average salary aspect, which isn’t nearly as important as the guarantees. And if trends hold, Murray’s $160 million should be surpassed by Jackson, Burrow and Herbert next offseason. The question is where that trio will fall between Murray’s $160 million and Watson’s $230 million, and whether owners will claim they are too cash-strapped to pony up the guarantees, which are historically put into escrow for every guaranteed dollar behind Year 1 of the deal.

The entire escrow rule remains a sore point for players and the NFL Players Association, given that it was created decades ago when there was a legitimate chance that owners might default on guaranteed money. Now that teams are worth billions, that’s no longer a real possibility. But the owners have continued to lean on the funding rule as a negotiating tactic to keep guaranteed money in control.

Already, there have been suggestions that the Cardinals used the funding rule to keep from guaranteeing all of Murray’s salary, thereby knocking down Watson’s deal as a standard and refraining from making it an expectation that all top-10 quarterbacks will lock in fully guaranteed contracts.

That probably sounds messy, convoluted and sketchy. That’s because it is. But this is the territory that top-end quarterback money is now entering. And it will likely get even more so next offseason.

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