The NFL is a high-risk business when it comes to quarterback contracts, and we’re seeing the downside in both Arizona and Denver this season.
George Paton and Steve Keim would like a do-over, please.
Of course, in the NFL, just like in a grade-school cafeteria, there no take-backs.
This offseason, Paton and Keim knew they were in a tough spot. For Paton, the Denver Broncos general manager had traded away three players and five draft picks — including multiple first- and second-rounders — to acquire Russell Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks. Keim, in the same role with the Arizona Cardinals, was getting pressured by Kyler Murray and the signal-caller’s agent to give him a new deal.
Ultimately, both general managers caved despite having leverage.
Paton signed the 33-year-old Wilson to a five-year, $245 million extension through the 2027 season, when Wilson will be 40. In Arizona, Murray received a five-year, $230.5 million extension, complete with a homework clause which was removed 48 hours after it became public. Murray is signed through the ’28 campaign when he turns 31.
It’s early, but six games into those contracts, they already appear to be a mess.
And here’s where the leverage comes in. When Wilson and Murray put pen to paper on their respective extensions, each still had two years remaining on their deals. Factor in the franchise tag, and both the Broncos and Cardinals had at least three more seasons of team control.
While much of the conversation around both was about the need to reward them, the real question is why? Murray has never so much as won a playoff game or a division crown, with his teams consistently slumping down the stretch. Wilson is an accomplished nine-time Pro Bowler, but he’s entering his mid-30s with mobility questions galore.
Instead of holding a hard line and letting at least one more year play out, Denver and Arizona acquiesced. The result could be a future where the people who made those decisions are gone long before the quarterbacks if things don’t improve.
While the Cleveland Browns ended up going full-Browns by trading for Deshaun Watson and subsequently signing him to a fully-guaranteed $230 million, they made the right decision in the 2021 offseason by not extending Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield was in the same position as Murray, except he was more accomplished with at least one postseason victory. Entering the fourth year of his rookie deal, the former No. 1 overall pick was expected to aim for a deal worth roughly $40 million annually. The Browns balked, Mayfield struggled, and now he appears to be headed toward being a backup somewhere in 2023.
For once, Cleveland did the right thing … before, of course, following it up with the wrong thing.
Back to Denver and Arizona, let’s look at the individual situations.
In the case of Murray, the hope is age. He’s in the prime of his career, and he just got his top weapon back in receiver DeAndre Hopkins after a six-game suspension, helping him beat the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night.
However, the Cardinals not only extended Murray this offseason, they also locked up head coach Kliff Kingsbury. Kingsbury, now in his fourth year, has never shown chops for in-game adjustments, clock management or high-end scheme design. Considering today’s NFL, those might be the three most important traits to have outside of relating to your players.
The duo of Kingsbury and Murray has led to a 3-4 start in Arizona. The offense is struggling mightily, ranking 17th in yards and points per game, and 28th in yards per play. Focusing on the passing attack, the Cardinals are dead last in yards per attempt (5.9) and per completion (9.0) by wide margins.
Of the two situations, Murray’s is the more salvageable. Because with Wilson, there’s less light.
Like Murray, Wilson’s extension doesn’t begin until 2024. Unlike Murray, Wilson will then be 35.
Right now, there’s a strong case to be made Denver has the worst quarterback situation in football. There are worse players starting, but nobody is married to a more undesirable contract, and with a player who appears to be rapidly declining.
Through six games with the Broncos, Wilson is yet to have a game with a QBR above 50. He’s been sacked 20 times and thrown five touchdowns. His completion percentage of 58.6 percent is 30th, directly behind Joe Flacco. His overall QBR of 35.8 is 25th, one slot ahead of Justin Fields.
Looking at the details of the extension, Denver is locked in through at least the 2025 season (the same is true of Arizona with Murray). Wilson’s cap hits are $17 and $22 million the next two years before exploding with the extension to $35.4M, $55.4M, $53.4M and $54.4 million.
Realistically, the Broncos could cut Wilson before 2026, eating $31.2 million in dead money that season before taking on $17.2 million in wasted cap space through the duration of the deal.
Ultimately, many general managers will talk about getting ahead of the rising cap and signing a quarterback while he’s going to comparatively cheap. Fair enough.
But let Wilson and Murray serve as a lesson to the other 30 teams.
If you’re going to pay out a potentially team-crippling amount of money, you better be damn sure the player is worth it.
Because there are no do-overs, and no take-backs.