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NFL QB Contract Trends: What is the Optimal Cap Hit to Win a Super Bowl?

Adam Thompson for Bookies.com

Adam Thompson  | 9 mins

NFL QB Contract Trends: What is the Optimal Cap Hit to Win a Super Bowl?

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Over the last six seasons, all but two NFL teams have clinched at least one berth in the postseason. Sorry, Denver Broncos (seven years and counting) and New York Jets (12 years). No other professional sports league can boast such parity. Some of that is due to the unbalanced schedule that pits the top teams of a year ago against other top teams. A bigger part of it, however, is the salary cap. 

Unlike the systems put in place by the NBA and MLB, the NFL salary cap, implemented in 1994, has maintained a competitive balance that assures the small-market Jaguars and Packers can compete with – and regularly beat – the Bears and Giants. 

When it comes to building Super Bowl contenders, it starts at quarterback. But at what point does a QB become too expensive? From Aaron Rodgers, to Patrick Mahomes, to Deshaun Watson, to Jalen Hurts, to Lamar Jackson and now Justin Herbert, they’ve all signed the biggest contract in NFL history recently, one-upping the next. 

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Is there enough financial space under the cap to build a great team around an expensive quarterback? Is it better to draft a potential star and go all-in while the signal-caller is on his rookie deal? No position receives more attention, more scrutiny, or more money, than QB.

The salaries of Super Bowl-winning QBs have varied wildly, from Russell Wilson’s $681,000 cap hit when he led the Seattle Seahawks to the title in the 2013 season, to Patrick Mahomes’ $35.8 million cap hit for the Chiefs this past season. 

Is one an anomaly, the other a trend? Bookies.com has completed a survey on Super Bowl-winning QBs in the salary cap era, discovering the trends that put teams in the best position to contend for a championship. 

(Salary cap figures by Spotrac.com)

QBs Break The Bank

The cap was first introduced for the 1994 season and was expected to be $32 million, but a huge TV bid from FOX and other networks increased the cap to $34.6 million. Fast-forward a few decades, and the cap now increases by upwards of $20 million annually. It has risen by at least $10 million in 9 of the past 10 seasons (the COVID-affected 2020 season being the lone exception).

NFL Salary Cap By Year

YearNFL Salary Cap (Millions)
2023$224.8
2022$208.2
2021$182.5
2020$198.2
2019$188.2
2018$177.2
2017$167.0
2016$155.3
2015$143.3
2014$133.0
2013$123.0

There are 53 players on the active roster that must get paid, plus practice squad guys. Then there are players no longer on the team that count as part of the cap, as well. Dead Cap players are those who have guaranteed money but were either cut, or in some cases traded, with the cap burden staying with the player's previous team. 

With only so much money to go around, there is a notion that teams must push to win Super Bowls with QBs on their rookie deals, before salaries explode into the annual eight-figure range. Once that happens, the team usually can't afford to keep the rest of its elite roster. But Bookies.com dug into the numbers and we have empirical proof that shows this theory doesn’t always hold weight. After all, NFL experience for QBs is priceless. 

Of the 29 QBs who have won Super Bowls since the salary cap era began, 14 of them (48.3%) were the highest-paid player on their team. Many more were among the highest paid on their team, with 22 of 29 (75.9%) ranking in the top three. Only two of the 29 ranked outside the Top 10. 

The QB Sweet Spot

In the 12 years since the no-cap season of 2010, just three Super Bowl winners were led by QBs still on their rookie contract: Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks in 2013, Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016 (with a caveat) and Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2019. 

Wilson’s $681,000 made up less than one-half percent of Seattle’s cap space. Wentz didn’t play in the postseason due to injury (Nick Foles led the Eagles over the Patriots) but was the starting QB most of the regular season. 

On the flip side, no QB with a cap percentage over 13.1% had ever won a Super Bowl – until this past season. Mahomes’ cap hit was a massive 17.16% of the team total, way more than the 13.1% of Steve Young in the very first year of the cap (under a contract that was signed before a cap existed). 

Since the no-cap season, seven of the 12 winning QBs have ranged from 10.6%-12.3% of the team's cap -- in other words, moderately high-priced veteran types. 

The only non-veteran, non-rookie-deal QBs to buck both trends were Joe Flacco, who commanded just 6.6% of the Ravens’ cap space in the 2012 season, and Tom Brady, who took a short-term pay cut in 2016 and accounted for 8.6% of the Patriots’ number. 

The only one of the aforementioned seven that wasn’t No. 1 on their team docket was Matthew Stafford. His $20 million hit ranked No. 2 behind the $24 million of dead cap owed to Jared Goff – who was traded to the Detroit Lions in a package that brought Stafford, and ultimately a Super Bowl, to L.A.

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Who Fits The Bill In 2023? 

When it comes to the 10.6%-12.3% range for 2023, just two QBs slide into that category. Cowboys QB Dak Prescott has a cap hit of $26.8 million, which amounts to 11.9% of the team’s space. Prescott led the NFL in interceptions in 2022 despite playing only 12 of a possible 17 games. 

Jimmy Garoppolo of the Raiders is at $23.8M for '23, 10.6% of his team's cap room. Most teams are trending younger, and lower, on the cap scale for QBs. If we drop that number lower – but not too low – to 8.1% of the team's cap, that adds seven QBs to the group. 

QBs % of Team Salary Cap

PlayerTeam% Of Team's Cap
Dak PrescottCowboys11.9%
Jimmy GaroppoloRaiders10.6%
Lamar JacksonRavens9.9%
Russell WilsonBroncos9.8%
Daniel JonesGiants9.7%
Kirk CousinsVikings9.0%
Mathew StaffordRams8.9%
Deshaun WatsonBrowns8.5%
Josh AllenBills8.3%

Most teams are planning to go for it on the cheap. A whopping 18 squads will be using 4.55% of their salary cap or less on their starting QB. 

Jalen Hurts of the Eagles only has a $6.2 million cap hit for 2023, a number that rises $7-15 million in each of the next five years. Newly-minted Jets starter Aaron Rodgers is costing his new team just $1.2 million in cap space this year. That jumps to $37.4 million in 2024 and $56 million the year after. 

(The Packers are on the hook for $40.3 million in cap space based on Rodgers’ contract. Tom Brady may have retired from the NFL, but the Buccaneers are still on the hook for over $35 million in cap space for 2023.)

When it comes to teams led by QBs on garnering less than 5.5% of their team's cap space, several squads fit that bill as contenders – defined as teams with Super Bowl odds on betting sites of +2500 or lower. Hurts’ Eagles (+800), Joe Burrow’s Cincinnati Bengals (+1100), Brock Purdy’s 49ers (+900), Rodgers’ Jets (+1400), Tua Tagovailoa’s Dolphins (+2000), Trevor Lawrence’s Jaguars (+2500) and Herbert's Chargers (+2500) fit that bill. 

NFL QB Contract Trends: What is the Optimal Cap Hit to Win a Super Bowl? 1

Avoid Top-Earning QBs

The previous highest QB cap hit percentage for a Super Bowl winner was 13.1%. That was in the inaugural year of the cap, for Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers in 1994. He was, of course, working on a contract that predated the cap. 

But Mahomes set a new standard last year. He’ll be the No. 1 on the list this year with a cap hit of $39.7 million, or 18.01% of the cap. But Mahomes is in a league of his own, in terms of compensation and play. 

Four other QBs playing this coming season rank higher than Young’s 13.1%. These QBs/teams will look to buck a trend that only Mahomes has bucked the last 30 years.

Top 3 2023 QB Salary Cap Hits

QBTeam% Of Team's Cap
Patrick MahomesChiefs17.7%
Ryan TannehillTitans16.3%
Jared GoffLions13.8%

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Huge Bumps In 2024

Nobody knows what the 2024 salary cap will be, but several QBs will reach uncharted heights under their current contracts and could take up new levels of cap space percentage for their teams. 

If the cap jumps another $20 million, to $244.8M, these would be the top five cap hits for 2024. They’re all astronomical and will likely involve contract adjustments before next year’s offseason to allow their squads to field a competitive overall team. 

Herbert's record-breaking extension actually lowered his cap hit for '23 to $8.5 million and it's a modest $19.3 million for '24 before it explodes annually. By 2028, the cap hit is $71.1 million. 

Five QBs are slated to cost more than $50 million against their team's 2025 cap: Watson ($64M), Allen ($56.6M), Rodgers ($56M), Wilson ($55.4M) and Stafford ($50.5M). 

Projected Top 5 QB Cap Hits For 2024

QBTeamContract% Of Team's Cap
Deshaun WatsonBrowns$64.0M26.1%
Dak PrescottCowboys$59.5M23.3%
Kyler MurrayCardinals$51.9M21.2%
Mathew StaffordRams$49.5M20.2%
Josh AllenBills$47.1M19.2%

About the Author

Adam Thompson for Bookies.com
Adam Thompson
NFL writer and expert Adam Thompson joined Bookies.com in 2019 after a successful run as senior handicapper for SportsLine and CBSSports.com. He's long been established as one of the nation's premier handicappers, specializing in the NFL where he's hit on more than 60% over the past three years. Adam's NBA, PGA and horse racing picks have also produced major winners over the last 12 months. His customized NFL and NBA odds for players and teams have been picked up by hundreds of websites over the past year.