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The middle-class quarterback keeps getting richer

Julian Catalfo / theScore

The NFL's last 16-game regular season produced an aerial assault. In 2020, offenses combined to pass for 871 touchdowns as quarterbacks and their playmakers shredded coverage schemes.

The longer, listless 2023 season produced 754 passing scores. Teams would've needed to play 20 games apiece to beat the 2020 total.

Signs suggest that quarterback play is slipping. Tua Tagovailoa's 4,624 passing yards were the fewest by the league leader since 2017. The average passer rating (89.0) also hit a six-year low. Collectively, QBs threw for the fewest net yards per attempt (6.04) since 2006, partly because they were sacked on the greatest share of dropbacks (7.1%) since 1998, per Pro Football Reference.

Few quarterbacks were dominant last season. An egregious number of them, visualized in red below, struggled to move the ball upfield.

Their stagnancy contrasts with how the position is compensated. QB play has plateaued, but the pay's rising.

There are 15 NFL quarterbacks - more than can fit in the postseason field - who earn at least $35 million annually. Only nine passers were in this cohort a year ago. The league's top earner at any other position, 49ers edge rusher Nick Bosa, commands an annual average of $34 million.

The QB salary chasm is widening. Just four QB contracts - those belonging to Jared Goff, Geno Smith, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Jordan Love - are valued between $10 million and $35 million. The middle class will thin if the Raiders release Garoppolo in March, as expected, and Goff and Love proceed to ink lucrative extensions.

In baseball's version of this trend, superstars make bank while lesser veterans get squeezed. A growing share of MLB players haven't amassed the service time to be eligible for arbitration, theScore's Travis Sawchik noted recently. There are more young players around the majors who earn less, like NFLers on cost-controlled rookie deals, and fewer dollars being lavished on free agents.

The dynamic at quarterback differs. Functional vets - guys who've impressed in the past and could conceivably lead future playoff runs - have secured the bag at an unprecedented rate. Front offices that seek stability under center are enriching elite talents, occasional MVP contenders, grizzled trade acquisitions, and one-year wonders. In any given season, some inevitably will disappoint.

Regardless, the going rate for solid production has ballooned. That could benefit Kirk Cousins and Baker Mayfield when free agency opens March 11.

Nick Wosika / Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

Cousins is rehabbing an Achilles tear and turns 36 in August, but he's considered the top offensive free agent in the class. His reputation grew in 2023. Over eight Vikings games, Cousins threw at a 4,954-yard pace with a 69.5% completion rate and an 18-to-5 TD-to-INT ratio. Dak Prescott was the only starter who boasted a higher on-target throw rate (Cousins' was 82.2%) and a superior bad-throw rate (12.8%), per Pro Football Reference.

Cousins' annual market value is $39.3 million, Spotrac projects. Competition between possible suitors, be it the Vikings or QB-needy playoff hopefuls like the Falcons or Steelers, could drive up the average cost.

Mayfield, a former No. 1 draft pick, risked busting after asking the Browns to trade him ahead of the 2022 season. He lost eight of his 10 starts with the Panthers and Rams and ranked last among 37 qualified passers in expected points added per play, according to Ben Baldwin's database.

The Buccaneers revived his career. Signed for one year and $4 million, Mayfield helped the squad win the NFC South, smoke the Eagles in wild-card action, and scare the Lions in the divisional round. By clicking with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin - both receivers ranked in the top 25 in yards and catches - Mayfield elevated to 11th in QB EPA/play. Whether teams think that's repeatable will shape his next contract.

Mayfield's low cap hit helped the Bucs compete. His deal represented 0.7% of the team's outlay, per Over the Cap.

Underpaid quarterbacks consistently reach the Super Bowl. The modest cap percentages of the 49ers' Brock Purdy in 2023 (0.4%), the Eagles' Jalen Hurts in 2022 (0.7%), the Bengals' Joe Burrow in 2021 (4.2%), and the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes in 2019 and 2020 (2.4%) facilitated the construction of stacked lineups. The affordability of C.J. Stroud, whose rookie contract runs for three more seasons, has the potential to hasten the Texans' rise.

Young QBs who run an offense artfully are invaluable players. Steep second contracts can limit a team's flexibility and ceiling. That explains why the Bears, who rank 31st in wins over Justin Fields' three seasons, should probably trade him and reset the compensation clock by drafting a promising successor.

Rich Storry / Getty Images

Cautionary tales abound on the earnings leaderboard.

Last March's marquee signings, Derek Carr and Daniel Jones, undershot expectations for the middling Saints and lousy Giants. Over the Cap estimates that Carr's production in 2023 was worth $28 million. Jones' paltry $3.9-million valuation reflected that he was terrible to start the season and missed much of it with an ACL tear.

The performance valuation for Russell Wilson ($25.9 million), an offseason cut candidate, barely covered half of his megadeal's annual price. Injuries to Kyler Murray ($9.3-million valuation), Deshaun Watson ($5.1 million), and Aaron Rodgers ($1.4 million) muted their teams' return on investment.

Within a couple of years, most teams will field an expensive QB. Precedent dictates that Goff, Love, Tagovailoa, and Trevor Lawrence have done enough to expect handsome raises. Three of them have won in the playoffs, while Tagovailoa helped turbocharge the Dolphins' offense in his fourth season, but none are proven game-breakers.

The Dolphins need to weigh Tagovailoa's impressive stats against his concussion history, as well as his stumbles versus 2023 playoff teams (1-5 record, pedestrian 7-to-6 TD-to-INT split). They could use the fifth-year option and franchise tag to delay an extension. A long-term pact that bets on his continued growth is the likelier outcome.

Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images

Significantly, the salary cap for the coming season spiked to $255.4 million, about $10 million more than was projected. Clubs have more wiggle room to pay a passer's supporting cast. It might permit the Bengals, for example, to retain the starry receiving tandem of Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins.

Contenders will still have spending constraints. Burrow, Prescott, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, and Matthew Stafford all remain on track to earn more than 15% of the cap in 2024 or future seasons, Over the Cap notes. Only one QB - the inimitable Mahomes - has won the Super Bowl while in that pay tier, per Sportico's Lev Akabas.

Around the NFL, quarterback depth matters more than ever. For the second straight season, more than two QBs per team - 67, to be exact - started a game in 2023, per Stathead.

The Cousins and Rodgers injuries sank the Vikings and Jets, but Joe Flacco emerged to salvage the Browns' playoff push. Pending free agent Gardner Minshew, the injury replacement for Anthony Richardson, maximized his next payday by steering the Colts to a winning record. The Commanders settled for four wins but sparkled in spurts when Sam Howell was benched for backup Jacoby Brissett, another 2024 free agent.

Teams can learn something from this. Losing a big name doesn't have to ruin a season, but money needs to be left over - and spent wisely - to weather the blow.

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

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