The numbers are eye-popping at first, sure. But within the context of the NFL quarterback market, Andrew Luck‘s new deal is a pretty big letdown.
This is a deal that has been anticipated for more than a year now by people around the NFL. Agents have been drooling in anticipation of a contract they believed would set new benchmarks and really drive the top of the quarterback market upward for the first time in years. Team executives have been watching to see how much of his considerable leverage Luck would wield against the Colts.
The answer? Not that much.
The quarterback position really hasn’t kept pace with recent salary-cap growth. Since Rodgers signed his contract in 2013, the NFL’s salary cap has risen from $123 million to $155.27 million — an increase of 26.2 percent. Even counting Luck’s new deal, over that same time period, the top quarterback salary has risen 5.9 percent.
Why? Well, I’ve been asking agents and executives that question over the past few weeks in anticipation of a Luck deal, and they all say the same thing. Quarterback is the ultimate leadership position. How does it look in the locker room if you insist on setting records and eating up all the cap space? Remember last year, when Manning got so upset about a report that he wanted to make more than Rodgers made? He didn’t, a source said, and he hated that someone would suggest he did. This is the way these guys think — especially those like Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, who have won their Super Bowls and made their big second-contract money already.
But Luck should have been different. Luck should have raked the Colts over the coals. If ever a player were going to take a stand and demand the league’s first fully guaranteed veteran deal, this was the guy to do it. He didn’t even come close.
No time soon will any player wield the kind of leverage Luck had over the Colts. He’s universally recognized as a unique all-around talent — a respected leader with a brilliant brain, a huge arm and swift feet. He’s exactly the humble, half-goofy, badly bearded face of the franchise that the Colts want him to be. They’d be toast without him, and while yes, they could have franchised him next year for something in the low $20 million range, at some point he would have been able to threaten to leave.
Instead, like so many of his quarterback brethren before him, Luck chose to take the very pretty bird in the hand over the potentially historic bonanza in the bush. Tough to blame him, but if you’re a quarterback looking for a big deal in the coming years, he did kind of let you down.
Drew Brees has one year left on his Saints deal. He could conceivably ask for more than Luck, but it would have been far sweeter for him if Luck were sitting at $25 million a year than $23.3 million. Kirk Cousins could be in for a big payday if he plays out 2016 on his franchise tag number and has a big season. But how will he be able to argue for more than Luck next March? He was looking forward to drafting and slotting in behind Luck’s number the way guys like Manning, Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson were slotting in behind Rodgers not long ago. That slot was supposed to be more stratospheric than this.
We don’t know who from the group of very young, promising quarterbacks on their first contracts will end up looking for top-of-the-market deals. Jameis Winston? Blake Bortles? Derek Carr? Marcus Mariota? Jared Goff? One of them, maybe a few of them. But whoever they are, when their time comes, it appears they’ll be stuck in a quarterback market that doesn’t seem to want to skyrocket. And if Luck plays the way the Colts and the rest of the world think he can, then those players’ teams can hold Luck out as an outlier to whom they don’t have the right to compare themselves.
If anybody was going to blast through the ceiling of the NFL quarterback market, it was going to be Andrew Luck. Instead, he settled for just nudging it upward a bit.