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Saunders: NFL’s Crazy QB Contracts Giving Steelers Leg Up



Steelers QB Kenny Pickett

The NFL quarterback market is becoming unhinged, and possibly at the right time for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The top of the market, for franchise-level players has been well established for a while now. Patrick Mahomes will count for $49.3 million against the Kansas City Chiefs’ salary cap this year as part of a 10-year deal signed in 2020. Dak Prescott’s four-year deal was signed in 2021. He’ll count for $49.1 million against the Dallas Cowboys’ cap. Deshaun Watson signed his contract last year and will count for $55 million on the Cleveland Browns’ ledgers.

Mahomes, the only one of the top three that played a full season in 2022, finished first in the league in DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement). He also won the Super Bowl. This offseason’s biggest free agent, recently-tagged Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, will surely land among that stratosphere when he eventually signs.

But what has happened in recent days has seen a drastic elevation in the salary of players that aren’t even in the next tier of quarterback play.

According to DYAR, an attempt to replicate overall passing value, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith was ninth in the NFL in 2022; Derek Carr of the Las Vegas Raiders was 17th and Daniel Jones of the New York Giants was 18th. On Monday, the Seahawks agreed to a three-year, $105 million contract with Smith and the New Orleans Saints snapped up Carr, who had been cut by the Raiders, on a four-year, $150 million deal. Tuesday, Jones signed with the Giants for four years and $160 million. That’s $35 million a year for Smith and $40 million a year for Jones.

Not only were those three quarterbacks barely above average in 2022, they don’t have much of a track record of being better. Jones was 12th in 2021 and 32nd in 2020. Smith was a full-time starter for the first time since 2014. Both of those contract are far from based on sure-thing levels of production. Carr had at least been in the top 10 in each of the previous two seasons before his downturn last fall.

Steelers RB Najee Harris and TE Pat Freiermuth

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver George Pickens (14) celebrates after his touchdown with Pat Freiermuth, right, and running back Najee Harris (22) during the second half of an NFL football game against the Las Vegas Raiders in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Don Wright)


With other teams shelling out big bucks for mediocrity, this is where there is an opportunity for the Steelers. Rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett finished 2022 23rd in DYAR, just five spots behind Jones. He’s only going to count for $3.2 million in 2023. The Steelers are paying Pickett less than 10% of Jones and less than 8% of Smith. Put another way, the Steelers are getting Pickett, Diontae Johnson, Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and George Pickens combined for $26.2 million. The Steelers could sign a free agent wide receiver for $13.7 million and would be playing their entire six starting offensive skill position players less than the Giants are paying Jones.

There are multiple ways to build a Super Bowl-contending team. The easiest way is to have an elite quarterback (Kansas City in 2022 and 2019, Tampa Bay in 2020, New England in 2018, 2016, 2014 and Denver in 2015). The second-easiest way is to have a quarterback on a rookie contract (Kansas City in 2020, Philadelphia in 2017, Seattle in 2013).

There have been exceptions. The 2021 Los Angeles Rams made a bunch of trades to put together a short-term winner, and Matt Stafford, though not a premier quarterback, had a top-five season.

That has to be the hope for teams spending huge portions of the salary cap on merely good or average starting quarterbacks.

For teams like the current Steelers, with not only Pickett but almost their entire skill offense under reasonable contracts, there is a real opportunity to strike while they have a competitive advantage.

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