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When the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints take to the field on Sunday to square off for a Super Bowl berth, each team will share one strikingly similar connection: Their starting quarterbacks all make less money than what they could make on the open market.
In the case of the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes ($4.1 million) and Rams' Jared Goff ($7 million), their annual average salaries are a combined $11 million. That's because of league-mandated rookie-scale contracts that keeps a lid on what newly drafted players can make.
That cost-effectiveness is unlikely to last long, especially if both players continue to play at stratospheric levels and get offered big contracts at their next signing. But at least for the moment, Goff's and Mahomes' relatively low salaries are a big benefit to their teams, allowing them to spend money on weapons all around the quarterbacks.
It's also why in the past, many young quarterbacks see instant team success. Seattle's Russell Wilson, Baltimore's Joe Flacco, San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, Dallas' Dak Prescott, and Washington's Robert Griffin III are some examples of that effect in the last several years.
Even consider last year's champion, the Philadelphia Eagles. The team had Carson Wentz for cheap ($6.7 million annual average), which allowed them to have a strong backup in Nick Foles, who took over for an injured Wentz to win the Super Bowl.
Then there are Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Last off-season, the New Orleans' signal-caller had a lot of leverage when he signed a free-agent deal with the Saints. To take a $25 million per year deal, when others were getting $30 million and above, allowed the Saints to use the extra money on the team. At the time, it was noted as the most team-friendly contract in the league.
Yet Brady's salary has become a point of debate and confusion for so many years. He consistently takes less money than he could. At $20.5 million per year, it's a bargain for the Patriots, considering that 15 other quarterbacks league-wide make a higher average salary.
"Certainly the Rams and Chiefs did some serious spending with those cheap contracts in place," said Andrew Brandt, a sports law professor at Villanova with past experience as an NFL player agent and an executive with the Green Bay Packers. "Tom Brady perennially takes less, and Drew Brees signed a market deal but he could have received more money."
The pay disparity is even more jarring when considering the league's six highest paid quarterbacks all missed the playoffs this year, while only one of those teams even finished with a winning record. That includes veterans like Aaron Rodgers ($33.5 million), Matt Ryan ($30 million), Kirk Cousins ($28 million), and Matt Stafford ($27 million).
It's possible teams start to notice that an extra $5 to $10 million saved on a veteran QB can buy a lot of help at multiple positions. However, that's nothing compared to a team saving $20 to $30 million by having a young quarterback (who, of course is capable of playing at a very high level) on a rookie contract.