The $30 million NFL quarterback is coming, and it won't be who you think

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

A little over two years ago, when the Miami Dolphins signed Ndamukong Suh to a staggering deal loaded with $60 million in guaranteed money and worth over $19 million per season, an exasperated NFL executive spoke to Yahoo Sports and asked a pointed question.

“So what do we pay quarterbacks now?”

Welcome to the latest part of the Ndamukong Suh ripple.

The Oakland Raiders have made quarterback Derek Carr – with one winning season and zero playoff games under his belt – the NFL’s highest-paid player. By all accounts, this is an aggressive forward bet: Carr is 26 years old and has spent three seasons putting up video game stats; he’s the ascending centerpiece of a franchise moving to a new market; and he’s a top-end quarterback in a positional market that was due to move north.

All of that said, it would be ignorant to not to see Suh’s place in this.

When the defensive tackle smashed the financial market for an unconventional position, it reset the league’s compass in top-tier salaries. Most especially, it altered the future of top quarterback pay in the NFL – which until 2015 had arguably seen stunted growth when compared to other elite positions.

Then came Suh’s monumental payday, sending a memo to the NFL’s agent community. If an elite defensive tackle was worth nearly $60 million in guaranteed money and an annual salary over $19 million, the top-15 quarterback market (and especially the top-five) was about to go on a financial run.

Now the first two mega-deals since Suh are officially in. First was the Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck setting a new ceiling in 2016 with his five-year, $123-million deal (including $87 million in practical guarantees) and a per-year average of nearly $24.8 million. Then. Thursday brought Carr’s five-year, $125 million extension, which will ultimately come in lighter on guaranteed money ($70 million according to a league source who told Yahoo Sports the majority of that will be paid out in the first three years). Carr’s per-year average for new money will effectively be $25 million.

Derek Carr has thrown 81 touchdowns vs. 31 interceptions in his three seasons. (AP)

But here’s what’s important in the sauce: Carr is not yet definitively the NFL’s top quarterback. And there’s an argument he hasn’t yet cracked the top five. But like Ndamukong Suh before him, he is striking his deal inside a perfect storm of circumstance, and now an entire class of quarterbacks is going to benefit. The Detroit Lions Matt Stafford in particular, as he will likely outpace Carr’s deal in total value, total guarantees and per-year average salary. All of which should make Stafford the next player to take the baton as the NFL’s highest-paid player.

Boiled down, it means that when Stafford’s deal comes in, three quarterbacks who are not considered the best player at the position – Luck, Carr and then Stafford – will all have taken turns as the league’s highest-paid “per-year” player. And it’s no coincidence that they’ve all happened since Suh.

In the wider view, it’s also important to note that it has occurred during an era when the salary cap jumps have spun up premiums on all elite-level players (not to mention backup quarterbacks). But it can’t be discounted that Suh’s deal in 2015 cemented a piece of leverage for agents to work with, one that has played across the board for other players as well (see Denver Broncos pass rusher Von Miller, whose representation heavily leveraged the Suh deal in their negotiations).

In the long view of history, the Suh deal has a chance to be seen as the deal that signified the busting of the NFL’s free agent market – almost a trigger of sorts that spelled out where money was going for the upper class of free agents. But maybe most especially for elite quarterback deals, which haven’t broken out the way top-end money has for almost every other NFL position. That’s about to change, to the point that it’s almost certain that some rancorous negotiation is going to deliver a $30-million per-year quarterback in the next few seasons.

Looking forward, that’s what this Carr deal means. Gone are the days when “elite” quarterback money was considered breaching the $20 million mark. Now, the elite standard is $25 million. After Stafford, it could be $26 million. Indeed, there are those in Stafford’s camp who believe there is an argument that Stafford is worth $30 million per season right now – although that won’t be where he ultimately lands. The point of all this is $30 million per-season is coming as the next standard. And it will likely be achieved in the next few seasons, barring some kind of collective bargaining implosion.

Will Jameis Winston be the NFL’s first $30-million man? (AP)

In reality a $30-million man already exists. But for a litany of reasons that only he can truly understand, the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady has a contract that averages about $20.5 million. That might be a $10 million per-year discount when it comes to his true market worth. Indeed, given all that Brady encompasses on and off the field, it might be a $20 million discount. Others won’t be so generous.

Ultimately, the $30-million man won’t be Stafford. It also won’t be the Washington Redskins’ Kirk Cousins, despite watching his value rise as the franchise drags its feet on a new deal. And it likely won’t even be the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers or Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan, who will both negotiate their next mega-deals in their mid 30s. Even with that, Rodgers and Ryan will both get ceiling-setting deals and get close to the $30 million per-year average.

But the lasting deal – the true earthquake – will come from another player like Carr: A young centerpiece who isn’t quite the best quarterback in the NFL, but whose arrow is pointed straight up at the right time in his career. Barring the Tampa Bay Buccaneers extending him now, it may ultimately be Jameis Winston. Or perhaps the Tennessee Titans’ Marcus Mariota. Or even the Dallas Cowboys Dak Prescott, should he display the year-over-year growth that owner Jerry Jones believes is possible.

But one thing is certain, the average salary for upper-tier quarterbacks is moving to new places. The $30-million per-year elite level is coming. And thanks to Ndamukong Suh, you won’t have to be the best player in the league to be the highest paid. Like Suh, you just have to replicate the right place and right time. Just ask Derek Carr.