Money

Why last season’s 8th best quarterback is the NFL’s highest-paid player

The Detroit Lions' quarterback Matthew Stafford signed a contract in August worth $27 million a year over the next five seasons. That makes him the highest-paid player in NFL history.

But it doesn't make him the best.

ESPN ranked him as the number eight quarterback in the league last year. He finished the season with a pass completion rate of 65.3 percent, 4,372 passing yards and 26 total touchdowns. To put that in perspective, Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons, 2016's overall No. 1, had a five percent higher completion rate. He also had almost 500 more yards and threw for a total of 38 touchdowns.

Consider another metric: a poll of NFL players recently voted Stafford as the 31st best player in the league across any position, not just quarterbacks.

So, if the 29-year-old is not the best, why is he getting paid the most?

17-08258410
Diamond Images | Getty Images

It's all about timing. The more money the league has, the higher its salary cap, which is what each team is allowed to spend on its players. And, according to NBC Sports, the NFL expects to generate a record-breaking $14 billion in revenue this season. That's up $6 billion from 2010.

The expectation is, for the most part, attributed to boosted advertising revenue, which recently hit a $3.5 billion record, reports Forbes. That's a 3 percent increase from 2015, even with a dip in TV ratings last season.

NFL officials hope the low viewership is not the beginning of a larger trend. Many think, as the Sports Business Journal theorized, that it was influenced by the season's overlap with the president election cycle.

Like revenue, the NFL's salary cap is at an all-time high. This year's spending limit is $167 million per team, with an additional $37 million for benefits, said an NFL official. That makes it the fourth straight season where the cap increased by $10 million.

Stafford's record salary agreement is a reflection of this increase. When teams have more money, contract values are amplified.

As the Washington Post notes, another quarterback will inevitably break Stafford's record soon. Ryan, for instance, has a contract worth $103 million over five seasons that he signed in 2013 and it will be up for renewal soon. He could get an offer that beats Stafford's.

Kirk Cousins of the Washington Redskins, who is currently on a one-year-deal, might also break the record.

The other factor, independent of a player's talent, that can influence how much he earns is his willingness to take a pay cut. The lower a salary, the more room under the cap for the franchise to afford other talented payers.

In 2013, Tom Brady extended his contract with the New England Patriots in such a way that freed up $15 million for his teammates. He's arguably the best quarterback of all time, but only the 15th highest paid in the league right now.

In the NFL, what you're paid doesn't always reflect what you're worth.

Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook

Don't miss: The 20 highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL