The Los Angeles Rams recently resigned Brandin Cooks to a 5 year, $80 million extension, a deal that locks up their deep threat to go alongside Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Then, just today, they turned around and handed Todd Gurley $60 million on a 4-year extension, a deal that sets a new benchmark for the running back position (and makes LeVeon Bell a happy, happy man).
So how is this all feasible, for a team that also needs to lock-up Aaron Donald long-term? The answer, as it is for a few other lucky franchises, is a productive young quarterback (Jared Goff) on a cost-controlled rookie contract.
Rookie Deals Have Changed How Teams Build Their Rosters
For the player’s first few (inexpensive) years in the league, teams are able to allocate valuable cap space typically devoted to a franchise quarterback across other position groups, raising the overall talent base of the team. The Philadelphia Eagles (Carson Wentz) and Seattle Seahawks (Russell Wilson) are two teams that have recently parlayed these cap advantages into championships, as their savings at the quarterback position have allowed them to spend more heavily on defense and at the skill positions. The Dallas Cowboys, while not a championship team, have also taken advantage of this situation, using Dak Prescott’s cheap $630,000 contract to invest heavily in a league-best offensive line.
All good things must come to an end, though, and football is no different. Once that same franchise quarterback comes due for their next deal, spending shifts back to the quarterback position. Oftentimes, this means the team is no longer able to acquire or extend as much premium talent at other positions.
As this shift takes place, the margin of error for the team and general manager shrinks - now unable to overpay free agents or absorb bad contracts, contention becomes increasingly difficult. The aforementioned Seahawks are a great example of this phenomenon - failing to advance outside of the second round of the playoffs any of the three years since signing Russell Wilson to a 4 year, $87.6 million contract extension.
Teams Allocate Their Spending in Unique Ways
While the discussion thus far has focused specifically on quarterbacks, the core theme of locking up affordable, controllable talent and leveraging the leftover financial resources translates across position groups. With a hard cap of $177 million in place, any additional financial flexibility is important in competing with other teams and building out a roster.
With this in mind, some teams invest heavily on defense, relying on younger, cheaper players on offense. Others focus spending heavily on offense and seek to build defense on younger players through the draft. These are each valid strategies, but are highly depend on the roster and cap situation for the team making decisions.
Cap Allocation by NFL Team
To show how the allocation of spending across position groups varies greatly across teams, I’ve put together a series of graphics displaying positional spending data, gathered from Sportrac. Check out your team below to see how their salary is allocated, and compare with other teams in the league!
Cap Allocation by Division