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  • Writer's pictureBruin Sports Analytics

Big Money or Not? How much Should Quarterbacks get Paid?

By: Jared Fong, Tyler Taylor, Bryan Kwan, Marilyn Infante


Source: The Score

Introduction:


The National Football League (NFL) teams are notorious for paying their quarterbacks big money, becoming the top 10 paid in the NFL. Being the brain of a team, the quarterback position is the most important in a team. Having to be the primary decision-makers and first to be in contact with the football every offensive snap, quarterbacks are one of many contributors to a team's success on the field. The quarterback's ranking is a statistical overview of factors such as completion percentage, passing yards, win-loss record, rushing yards, and fumbles, just to name a few, that measure the performance of a QB. One of many factors as to why, in general, Quarterbacks are the highest-paid football players on a team. But not limited to the time a QB is out during a season due to an injury. This raises the question: What should determine the amount of money a quarterback should be paid?


Patrick Mahomes led the Chiefs to a 14 wins 3 loss record during the 2022-2023 season. For the 2023-2024 season, the Chiefs ended with 11 wins and 6 losses. Both seasons Mahomes has led the Chiefs to the playoffs and has won the Superbowl. Joe Burrow has led the Cincinnati Bengals to new heights. Leading his team to the playoffs in the 2022-2023 NFL season, Burrow was offered a contract that made him the highest-paid QB in the NFL. Despite Burrow having suffered two season-ending injuries the Bengals franchise chose to make the investment of paying Burrow big money. 


Understanding the breakdown of factors that contribute rankings of the 32 quarterbacks will help us decipher the connection between quarterback performance to their salary. Analyzing trends between quarterback statistics and making comparisons among the active 2023-2024 quarterbacks will allow us to find patterns that could contribute to the reason why franchises offer to pay their quarterback's high salaries. The following terms will be defined in order to better understand the models:


  • Salary(in millions): fixed amount paid annually by, in this case, NFL teams to their Quarterbacks.

  • Value: The value of a Quarterback is a measure of how much a QB has contributed to their team.

  • Rookie: A rookie is a player who is playing their first season in the NFL.

  • Veteran (vet): A player who has been in the NFL for more than a season.



To begin, in order to analyze the quarterback salary breakdown in the NFL, we gathered the data on quarterbacks' performances during the 2023-2024 season who played the first snap(play) of their team's first season game. This data also includes second and third string quarterbacks who took the position of starting quarterback during the season. Above, is the data table with the quarterback statistics and salary for the 38 quarterbacks that played during the 2023-2024 season.



On average, during the 2023-2024 season, the quarterbacks were earning 10 million dollars based off of their respective contracts. More than half of the QB’s were earning below the average of all of the active QB’s salaries, while the rest were earning above the mean salary. The salary a QB is earning during an NFL season is dependent on whether the player is a rookie, a player playing their first season, or if they are a veteran, a player who has been in the NFL for more than a year. During this past NFL season, there were 10 rookie QB’s, such as C.J. Stroud for the Texans and Aidan O’Connell for the Raiders. For the veteran QB’s, what should their salary earned be dependent on? Let's take a closer look at the top 5 highest paid quarterbacks vs their value. 


Value vs Salary:


The value at the Quarterback positions as calculated using the equation:


0.02 x Passing Yards - 0.01 x Attempts + 0.25 x Completions + 6 x Passing TDs - 5 x interceptions + 0.5 x Games Started + 2 x Wins +  0.1 x Rushing Yards +  6 x Rushing TDs - 3.5 x Fumbles +  8 x Playoff Wins


From the 2023-24 seasons, the top 5 highest paid quarterbacks were Dak Prescott (Dallas Cowboys), Jared Goff (Detroit Lions), Lamar Jackson (Baltimore Ravens), Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City), and Ryan Tannehill (Tennessee Titans). Out of the top 5 quarterbacks with the highest salary Dak Prescott was measured with the highest value followed by Lamar Jackson. Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes closely trailed behind. While Ryan Tannehill was a massive disappointment for the Titans.  



Four of the five Quarterbacks on this list saw enormous success, Dak Prescott had a career year with career highs in Passing Touchdowns and completion percentage leading the Dallas Cowboys to a 12-5 record and an NFC East division title before falling to the Green Bay Packers in the wild card round of the playoffs. Lamar Jackson ended the season as the league’s MVP as the Raven’s finished the season with the league’s best record of 13-4. Jackson led the Raven’s to the AFC championship game for the first time in his career. Jared Goff and the Lions established themselves as massive threats in the NFC winning the NFC North and making it to the NFC championship game. In a year where he had the weakest supporting cast of wide receivers, Patrick Mahomes was once again able to work his magic to lead the Kansas City Chiefs to an AFC West division title, and, more importantly, his third Super Bowl win. 


On the flip side, Ryan Tannehill failed to live up to his contract. He missed 4 games due to a high ankle sprain, and struggled immensely on the field with career lows in passing yards and touchdowns. The passing game in Nashville has struggled ever since the loss of AJ Brown and Titans have started to rebuild. In 2023 Tannehill was replaced by his potential successor in Will Levis before having his name called upon again after Levis went down with injury. Tannehill’s time in Tennessee came to a close at the final whistle of the 2023 season. Now currently a free agent, Tannehill’s future is a massive question mark with many teams in need of a quarterback are looking at the draft to address those needs. 



To analyze if these quarterbacks were playing up to their contracts we looked at the residuals of our linear model. We found that Dak outplayed his contract the most, followed by Lamar, then Goff, then Mahomes, and rounded up by Tannehill who was the only one out these 5 to have underperformed his salary. According to our linear model, Prescott, Mahomes, Jackson, and Goff are more than deserving of the massive contracts they are receiving. They are performing well above what is being asked of them and leading their teams lots of success. 


The Future


Based on their statistical breakdowns from this past NFL season, Dak Prescott, Jared Goff, Jordan Love, Josh Allen, and Tua Tagovailoa were the most valuable players of the season. From the 5 QB’s, Allen had signed a six-year contract with the Bills before the 2021-2022 season. Apart from signing a six year contract extension with $254 million, Allen has led the Bill’s to the playoffs since signing his contract. Based on our equation, he ranked in the top 5 most valued players of the season. All 5 QB’s were major contributors to their teams success in the regular season record. They all lead their teams to the playoffs, Goff being the QB to lead the Lion’s to the divisional championship. Four out of the five QB’s modeled are yet to receive a contract extension from their respective teams. 



Looking into the future, the offseason, after Superbowl 59, will leave many organizations with big decisions to make. Names like Dak Prescott, Jordan Love, Jared Goff, Trevor Lawrence, and Tua Tagovailoa will play one more season under their current banner before they are due for a new contract. Using our linear equation, we can estimate what these quarterbacks should be paid. In our estimates, we looked at each quarterback’s last contract and took the average value of the years during their last contract. The two exceptions to this method were the two from the NFC North Jordan Love and Jared Goff. We only looked at one of Love’s seasons as he was the only full-time starter for one season. For Jared Goff, we just looked at his time as a Detroit Lion. We then followed the linear regression line to pinpoint how much each player deserves. 



What we found was that out of the 5 with expiring deals, Jordan Love was the most valuable to his team. Followed by Dak, Goff, Lawrence, and Tua. Based on the linear regression line, we estimated what their projected salary for the 2023-2024 season would be.


  • Jordan Love: $61,606,758 

  • Dak Prescott: $52,282,531

  • Jared Goff: $38,287,803

  • Trevor Lawrence: $24,766,355

  • Tua Tagovailoa: $11,026, 240



How much Should Quarterbacks Make? 


Breakdown of each Quarterback: 


Jordan Love


Source: DAZN

A contract of $61,606,758 per year would make Jordan Love the highest-paid quarterback in the league, but it is unlikely that they do so considering Love’s sample size is very small. Jordan Love had an incredible year in his first year since taking the baton from Aaron Rodgers. The Packers have found their guy of the future. However, Love needs to show consistency in future seasons to earn a contract of this magnitude. The Packers will want to secure an extension for Love as early as this offseason to keep their future franchise QB. Love will likely receive a contract of $45 - $50 million a year placing him in the top 10 of highest-paid QB. 


Dak Prescott


Source: NBC Sports

If the Cowboys decide to pay Dak $52,282,531 per season that’ll make him the third-highest-paid QB in the NFL only behind Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes. As of the writing of this article, Dak and the Cowboys are currently negotiating a new deal. Coming off a career year where he led the league in touchdowns, making Dak the third highest-paid QB makes sense. However, some factors are not factored into our equation that may prevent the Cowboys from giving Dak this type of deal. The big issue in many people’s eyes is the lack of playoff success the Cowboys have had with Dak under center. In 5 trips to the playoffs, Dak has won two games out of seven games and the team has never made it past the divisional round. Additionally, franchise cornerstone, Wide Receiver CeeDee Lamb has a deal that is up after the 2024-2025 season. Linebacker and defensive player of the year finalist, Micah Parsons falls under a similar situation with his contract expiring after the 2025-26 season, assuming his 5th-year option is picked up. Both Lamb and Parsons play massive roles for the Cowboys and losing them would be a detrimental blow. A salary of $52,282,531 is a very fitting salary for Dak but his lack of playoff success and Cowboys’ need to re-sign other franchise players in the future might lead to Dak’s new contract seeing him getting less than what we predict. 


Jared Goff


Source: Forbes

When Jared Goff was brought in when the Lions traded Matthew Stafford, the expectation was that Goff was going to be a transitional quarterback and the Lions were planning to draft Goff’s eventual successor. However, Goff has smashed all those expectations playing well above expected and leading the Lions to their first playoff win in 30 years. The Lions superbowl window is wide open; they plan to have Jared Goff leading the team. As Goff heads into his final year under contract, he is currently in negotiations to sign a contract that’ll make him one of the highest paid signal callers in the league. For Goff to be made one of the highest paid, he needs to be paid close to $50 million annually. Our model predicts that paying Goff that type of money would be an overpay. Goff’s value does not match what is expected out of a quarterback that is paid that type of money. The Lions should pay Goff somewhere around $38,287,803 as that closer matches Goff’s value. However, the Lions’ confidence in Goff and rising salary cap my led to the Lions paying Goff closer to $50 million than what our model suggests


Trevor Lawrence


Source: Fox News

The first 3 seasons of Trevor Lawrence’s career have been a bit shaky. After having an illustrious college career at Clemson, the former first overall pick has quite been able to translate his game to the NFL to the level he was playing at in college mainly due to his trouble with turnovers. However, Lawrence is still only 24 years old and has plenty of time to figure things out. He will still be the Jaguars quarterback for at least the next few years. We believe the Jaguars should follow what our model says. A contract for 4-5 years for $24,766,355 per year would be the perfect bridge deal for Trevor Lawrence. This gives Lawrence time to fix his issues to become an elite quarterback while not hurting the jaguars if Lawrence does not pan out


Tua Tagovailoa


Source: miamidolphins.com

Our model immensely underestimates what Tua most likely will be paid. This issue occurred because Tua struggled his first two years before finding his footing with the addition of Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins receiving core. When just looking at Tua’s last two seasons which is a more accurate representation of the level Tua is playing at, our model current cap situation, the deal with Tua will most definitely get finished. However, if the Dolphins follow our model and offer Tua around that $30 million mark, Tua may ask for more with the market value for most top play callers being around $50 million. In this scenario, it’s entirely possible the Dolphins wait another year to offer Tua a new contract, franchise tag him, or let him walk entirely. 


Linear Model Analysis 1 vs 1:


However, all of these predictions were made under the presumption that we successfully created a valid model to begin with. But did we? This is a reasonable thought to question as we, like many of you currently reading this, are just ordinary football fans who collectively leveraged our knowledge of the game to arbitrarily choose specific statistics, and apply various weights, to construct a numerical assessment of a quarterback’s “value” to their team. How well does our model actually fit the current market value of quarterbacks in 2024? Lets explore this by comparing our model with one constructed purely through the use of standard linear regression analysis methods and techniques.


When constructing a linear regression model, the objective of the model is to define a relationship between one independent variable and one (or more) dependent variables using a linear equation that works to minimize residuals. In other words, we want to find a linear pattern that best matches the trends that can already be observed by existing data. Instead of choosing our own variables, and the corresponding magnitude of their impact to our model, we can use common statistical practices to have those parameters chosen for us. After feeding the same variables used in our own model into this secondary comparison model, we used power transform functions and backwards stepwise selection to optimize the fit of our comparison model to our data. We will spare you from the gruesome details of this process but the key idea is that after this process, we can treat the secondary model as a potentially “ideal” representation of a model best fitting salary with quarterback value.



This idealized model, whose diagnostics are shown above, chose to only use passing yards, yards per attempt, completions, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns to compute a quarterback’s “value.” Although the diagnostics indicate multiple flaws with this model, such as the inclusion of variables that don’t contribute positively to our model (indicated by P-values higher than the standard significance level of 0.05 found under the “Pr(>|t|)” column), inconsistent data spread that doesn’t follow a linear pattern (indicated by the crooked red lines in the Residuals vs Fitted and Scale-Location plots) and an overall poor linear relationship between salary and value (indicated by the Multiple and Adjusted R-squared values favoring more towards 0 than the desired value of 1), we can still use this model as a standard to compare with our model.



When interpreting the diagnostics of our model, located above, it is obvious that our model suffers from some of the same flaws as the idealized model. Some of which, such as insignificant variables and a non-linear relationship between salary and value, are even worse in our model than the comparison model (indicated by even higher P-values and even lower R-squared values). Additionally, unlike the comparison model, our model fails to fulfill the presumption that our errors follow a bell-curve shape from which many linear regression assumptions are derived from (indicted by the curvy Q-Q Residuals plot straying away from the light dashed line) and our model has multiple outliers which negatively pull our linear regression line away from the main cluster of our data (indicated by the points with high standardized residuals and leverage values in the Residuals vs Leverage plot).


Does this mean that our model is a completely inaccurate representation of the QB market? Not necessarily. As previously noted, even our idealized model showed many faults revealing the imperfect nature that one may expect if they chose to use this model to predict future QB salaries. This makes sense as the NFL free agency market is fluid, ever-changing, and oftentimes unpredictable. While one team may prioritize a winning game manager who may not light up the stat board in terms of yards and touchdowns but can protect the football from unforced turnovers by keeping their interception and fumble counts down, another team may prioritize a scrambling quarterback who can single handedly change the momentum of a game by throwing bombs down the field, increasing their yardage per attempt. Although statistical trends may point one way, it only takes one GM to sit alongside with us fans and watch a quarterback pass “the eye test” to break the entire market.


Conclusion:


Based on quarterback statistics, we found that teams emphasize a multitude of factors when determining a quarterback’s salary but it often comes down to wins and how much the QB has impacted those wins. The QBs that had the greatest value and projections through our model were ones on top contending teams and had elite statistics like passing, TDs, etc that backed their huge impact to their teams. All the top 5 most valuable quarterbacks took their team to the playoffs and were an integral part of their team’s success. Of course, there are always things to nitpick, like how Dak can’t perform in the playoffs, that aren’t totally represented in our model. 


Using the stats that teams emphasize when paying a QB, we looked into projecting different quarterbacks that were becoming free agents in the near future. We created a model based on our research on the importance of different statistics when determining a quarterback’s true salary. Using the model we projected 5 different quarterback salaries of soon to be free agents.


We projected that Jordan Love should be paid around $45 - $50 million dollars based on his stellar performance this year taking the Packers to the NFC divisional round. We thought Dak deserved $52 million despite the Cowboys’s pressing needs and his lack of postseason success since his numbers were excellent recently. Third, we believed Jared Goff should get around $38 million since he’s been playing pretty good and is really close to bringing the Lions a championship. We also believe that Trevor Lawrence should only get around $24 million a year since he’s been good but had a down season recently. Finally, our last quarterback that we projected was Tua Tagovaiola who we thought should get around $30 million but that differed greatly from other projected numbers.


Analyzing these case scenarios, you can see there is no definite way to determine the right price for quarterbacks but you can use their stats and wins as a way to gauge the salary they deserve.  


References:



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