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NFL QB bargains: Ranking best to worst, exploring who gets paid next

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Stephen A.: The Eagles haven't faced anyone like Mahomes (2:34)

Stephen A. Smith lays into Dan Orlovsky and Michael Irvin about the Eagles not facing a quarterback as talented as Patrick Mahomes. (2:34)

In a salary-cap league, value is paramount. The overall point of the NFL draft, for example, may be to build your roster for the long term, but it's also about finding players who can help you win while they're on relatively cheap rookie contracts, so you can pay up for stars at other positions or reward guys who've been great values in the past.

Nowhere is this more important than the quarterback position. Teams with quarterbacks on rookie deals have the opportunity to splurge elsewhere and build out deep, talented rosters that can support that quarterback as he develops or compete for a championship if he develops quickly enough. The most prominent current example of this is the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles with Jalen Hurts.

Teams paying their quarterback at or near the top of the market generally need him to be otherworldly, or at the very least heroic in the biggest moments, because they're going to be counting on younger, cheaper players at other key positions. The elite quarterback making elite-quarterback money must be able to lift the team beyond its flaws and/or growing pains. The most prominent current example is the AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes, who will play the aforementioned Eagles in Super Bowl LVII on Sunday (6:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Because value is such an important concept in the NFL -- at quarterback specifically -- we wanted to take a look at the signal-callers who delivered the most value in 2022. This isn't necessarily a list or ranking of the best quarterbacks, but rather of those who delivered the most value relative to what their teams paid them. Some are young, cheap players. Some are highly paid stars who played like it. And many are in-between.

How we rank: Quarterbacks are divided into four categories: established starters not on rookie deals, journeyman starters, starters on rookie deals and rookie-deal starters on fifth-year options. Within those subsets, quarterbacks were ranked by their total production in 2022 over what was expected based on their compensation. Total production is measured by clutch-weighted EPA (CWEPA), a stat that is the backbone of QBR. Expected production is an estimate based on compensation -- players paid the most are expected to produce the most.

There could be many ways to estimate the true compensation paid in a multiple-year NFL contract. Both current-year salary and cap hit can be greatly misleading, so we estimated a realistic per-year salary for each contract by using "effective compensation," which is the per-year total obligation up to the point where that obligation is smallest. This almost always coincides with when a player's release can bring cap savings. For example, a player with a five-year contract for $10 million in salary per year and a $100 million signing bonus, plus a $40 million roster bonus in Year 5 would work out like this:

  • Year 1: $110M obligation, $110M for one year of play

  • Year 2: $120M obligation, $60M per year

  • Year 3: $130M obligation, $43.3M per year

  • Year 4: $140M obligation, $35M per year

  • Year 5: $190M obligation, $38M per year

In this example, Year 5 is kind of a throwaway year, meant to stretch out the signing bonus and not really intended to be exercised. Realistically, this player is on a four-year contract worth $35 million per year in effective compensation.

With explainers out of the way, let's take a look.

Jump to a group:
Established | Rookie deals
Fifth-year options | Journeymen

Best bargain: Patrick Mahomes

Make no mistake: With an average effective compensation for our purposes of just under $31 million (and even a 2022 cap hit under $36 million), Mahomes is an absolute bargain. He was by far the best and most valuable quarterback this season: His 132.8 clutch-weighted EPA total easily was first at the position (Josh Allen was second at 119.3) and well above expectations based on his earnings. In other words: Mahomes is worth many, many millions beyond what he's currently paid. In fact, even if we only considered the $46.8 million cap hit he's set to cost in 2023, he still would be a value at his current level of play.

Worst bargain: Deshaun Watson

It somehow went slightly under the radar just how badly Watson played in 2022 after returning from an 11-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy by committing sexual assault, as defined by the league, on massage therapists. His QBR was 38.3 -- barely beating out Russell Wilson (37.0) and trailing far behind teammate Jacoby Brissett (59.9) -- over his six games with the Browns despite signing a deal with $230 million guaranteed last offseason. Lest you think this was just a volume thing: Even if we did this exercise on a per-snap basis Watson would still rank last in his category. Sure, his contract was made with future seasons in mind. But in 2022, even if we focus on only what he did on the field, Watson was the worst quarterback value by a mile. -- Seth Walder

Who gets paid next and what can they expect? I still can't figure out a single good reason for Derek Carr, who has a no-trade clause, to agree to any deal. If he's still on the Raiders' roster three days after the Super Bowl, his $32.9 million 2023 salary becomes fully guaranteed, as does $7.5 million of his $41.9 million 2024 salary. Assuming Carr calls the Raiders' bluff and they release him before that money guarantees, he will be a free agent, eligible to sign with any team at any time -- he won't have to wait until the start of the league year March 15. Carr's résumé and the number of quarterback-needy teams should enable him to get at least $35 million a year on a free agent deal.

Dak Prescott has two years left on his contract at $31 million for 2023 and $34 million for 2024, but only the 2023 money is guaranteed. Dallas could extend or restructure him to knock down his $49.1 million 2023 cap number. Jared Goff is a steal for the Lions at an average of $26.5 million over the next two years. He could be looking for a raise after his big season, but the fact that he's two years from free agency hurts his leverage. Detroit could try to work something out with him like Las Vegas did last offseason with Carr -- guaranteeing his 2023 salary and injury-guaranteeing some of his 2024 salary -- to keep him happy and reward him. -- Dan Graziano


Best bargain: Jalen Hurts

Hurts was in an ideal spot this season playing with great receivers, a good offensive line and an elite defense. But he maximized the opportunity and produced magnificent numbers in 2022. For this exercise, he looks even better. All rookie-deal quarterbacks who perform well are great values, but this is especially true for someone like Hurts, who was selected outside the first round (he was taken at No. 53 overall in 2020). Therefore his effective compensation is even cheaper, making him a better value than players such as Justin Herbert, Daniel Jones and Joe Burrow, who were effective in their own right -- though not quite on Hurts' level, production-wise -- but cost more because they were early draft picks.

Worst bargain: Zach Wilson

Wilson has a tough combination of numbers for this exercise: As a former No. 2 overall pick, he's one of the most expensive players on a rookie deal. But he also was the worst in clutch-weighted EPA because of a combination of time missed (due to injury and benching) and poor play. None of that is great, not that it needs to be said to Jets fans, who know these things all too well. Merely average quarterback play almost certainly would have gotten the Jets -- an otherwise quite talented team -- into the playoffs. -- Walder

Who gets paid next and what can they expect? All eyes will be on the Eagles and Hurts, who had an MVP-level season and should have no trouble cracking the $50 million-per-year threshold. Remember, Hurts was a second-round pick in 2020, so the Eagles do not hold a fifth-year option on him for 2024, as the Bengals do with Burrow, the Chargers with Herbert and the Dolphins with Tua Tagovailoa. There's more urgency to do Hurts' deal this offseason.

Burrow and Herbert were both drafted by teams that don't historically spend a lot, but the Bengals have operated their spending a bit differently since Burrow arrived, leading some to speculate they might be willing to make him guarantees they haven't in past contracts. Of course, with receivers Tee Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase also up for extensions in the next two offseasons, Burrow may be better off pushing this thing back a year or two to leave some short-term cash free for the team to keep his receiving corps together. If Burrow and/or Herbert sign this offseason, that $50 million a year is likely their floor.

It's tough to forecast a Tagovailoa extension until there's clarity on his health situation, so we won't do that here. Jones may be the most interesting one in this group. He's a free agent, so if the Giants want to retain him and can't get a deal done soon, they will have to use the franchise or transition tag to keep him off the market. Their preference would be to do a deal with Jones and then franchise running back Saquon Barkley for about $10 million a year, but you can only tag one player per year. Tagging Jones could cost them Barkley, but quarterback is the more important position. The quarterback franchise tag this year is $32.4 million, and if they were to franchise him again in 2024 it would cost them about $39 million, so if you're Jones, any extension talk has to begin with at least $71 million guaranteed over the first two years. -- Graziano


Who gets paid next and what can they expect? Lamar Jackson is the obvious headliner, as he and the Ravens have been trying to get an extension done for two years. My expectation is Baltimore will franchise Jackson to keep him off the open market, which will give the team until July 15 to get a deal done. The issue last year was Jackson was seeking a fully guaranteed contract and the Ravens didn't want to give one on principle, so someone is going to have to change their stance for a deal to get done. Once that happens, the price tag shouldn't be an issue. Given the state of the market and Jackson's credentials, this deal should come in north of $50 million per year. -- Graziano


Best bargain: Geno Smith

Smith's surprise run, not only as the Seahawks' quarterback, but as a good Seahawks quarterback made him an absolute steal in terms of his contract. He ranked sixth overall in QBR among all signal-callers this season while starting all 17 games, making him clearly the No. 1 QB in terms of clutch-weighted EPA in the journeyman category. He was in a good situation with two excellent receivers and a solid pass-protecting line -- but the Seahawks' offense wouldn't have worked without Smith playing well. Because no one in this group is paid an extraordinary sum, being the best in the group makes Smith an easy choice as the top value, too.

Worst bargain: Joe Flacco

Even in limited playing time (four starts), Flacco was costly to the Jets. His 34.2 QBR put him in the Davis Mills range. With a $3.5 million compensation for our purposes here, what's the harm? Well, it's worse play than the others in the group -- even those such as Marcus Mariota who cost a little more were more valuable because they were significantly better and played more (and Flacco would still rank last if this were done on a per-snap basis). -- Walder

Who gets paid next and what can they expect? Coach Kyle Shanahan made it clear Jimmy Garoppolo and the Niners are going to go their separate ways. He'll be looking for that starter-level money we discussed for Carr -- $35 million or so per year at least.

Is Seattle going to stick with Smith or draft a quarterback at No. 5? It seems to make sense to run it back with Smith on something like $35 million a year for three years. Brissett played well for the Browns while they waited for Watson's suspension to end. Will he be able to parlay that into a shot at a starter's job somewhere? If the 49ers don't land a big fish, could they think about bringing in Brissett as a potential hedge against the injury recoveries of Brock Purdy and Trey Lance?

Taylor Heinicke will probably try to get Washington to give him something similar to the two years and $14.3 million Mitch Trubisky received from Pittsburgh last season, but he'll probably have to settle for something like the one-year, $5 million deal Brissett obtained from the Browns last year. -- Graziano

ESPN senior analytics specialist Brian Burke contributed to this report.