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NFL insider notes: How QB landscape changed forever as carousel goes off rails, plus biggest winner, next move

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In the span of just a few days, the quarterback landscape in the NFL changed dramatically. Seismically. Forevermore.

In the week that passed between the Broncos and Seahawks agreeing to terms on a blockbuster Russell Wilson trade and the Browns and Texans agreeing to a blockbuster Deshaun Watson trade, everything about what we thought we knew about the cost of doing business in the high-end quarterback market reset. It jumped up a notch (or 10). It escalated, quickly. You have to go back two CBAs ago, to when Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford entered the league at the top of consecutive drafts (2009 and 2010) with $42M and $50M gully guaranteed, respectively, to see a shift of this magnitude, and even that played out over a year, and not roughly eight days.

Make no mistake, last week’s flurry of QB activity – including Aaron Rodgers landing $50M a year and nearly $102M fully guaranteed over the next two years despite pushing 40 years old, Kirk Cousins securing another $70M fully guaranteed over two years and Stafford’s new $160M extension – too changed the game, and the ripples will be substantial, and enduring. And all of that was merely preamble to what Browns owner Jimmy Haslam did – handing Watson a record $230M fully guaranteed deal despite the QB having not played football at all since 2020, and despite the QB just sweating out a potential grand jury indictment on claims of sexual assault and sexual misconduct a week ago, and while still facing 22 allegations in a civil proceeding. That precedent has raised the bar on quarterback kowtowing to levels never before fathomed and altered the landscape of quarterback compensation forever.

The Browns being willing to lower Watson’s 2022 salary to $1M (to avoid what most NFL execs believe is an inevitable suspension of some meaningful length), and to include language protecting Watson from defaulting on guarantees, and to reward him with a $45M signing bonus after being paid $10M to not play football last season while under criminal investigation, is unseemly, but also indicative of the power that top QBs possess. That Haslam would raise his annual salary by more than $10M a year without him even throwing a pass for them – let alone resolving those ugly civil allegations – is staggering on multiple levels. For him to attain such ridiculous financial windfalls under this ugly set of circumstances means that Haslam’s fellow owners had best be bracing for a new stratosphere of QB contracts moving forward.

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If Watson – without a signature playoff win, without an MVP season, at a time of great personal ignominy, with years to go on an extension he just signed a few years ago (let alone as an unrestricted free agent) – is worth this, right now, before the gambling money and new broadcast money has fully started flowing in, and with the cap yet to take the kind of hikes projected in the coming years, then what are Lamar Jackson, Tom Brady, Wilson, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr worth on their forthcoming extensions, as all are already in contract negotiations or will be by this time next year? We are about to find out, but I can promise you this much – that figure is exponentially higher today than it was 10 days ago.

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The impact of last week will be felt for many, many years to come. Here is just some of the fallout, and what these recent quarterback machinations mean moving forward:

The biggest winner

The biggest winner in all of this is Lamar Jackson. As we’ve been reporting for weeks, Jackson, who just turned 25, had been focused on the three-year, fully guaranteed $83M deal Cousins signed back in 2018 as a template for his new deal. Any leverage the Ravens may have thought they had – and it wasn’t much pre-Watson trade – is destroyed, now. Failing to extend him when Josh Allen did his deal before the 2021 season was a critical error in realtime; it could prove catastrophic in this current climate. Jackson played out his rookie deal without complaining. He won an MVP at age 22. He is a pending unrestricted free agent in 2023, facing an inevitable franchise tag. If Watson got this from a team he’s never played a down for, the Ravens best be ready to pay Jackson $50M a year. Or trade him. If he plays out two franchise tags – which, again, I continue to hear is something he ain’t afraid of – then they face potentially losing him for a 2026 comp pick. Yikes. Jackson’s silence speaks volumes. The Ravens either keep throwing money at him until he says yes, or they’d best be considering alternative plans at QB. “I wouldn’t want to be in (Ravens GM Eric) DeCosta’s shoes right now,” one NFL executive said. “Forget about getting him for $40M a year now, or close to it.”

Or the biggest winner could be …

If Jackson isn’t the biggest winner, then Russell Wilson is. He doesn’t have Jackson’s youth, or MVP trophy, but he is top five in most major QB categories the past five years (while the cast around him in Seattle decayed from the Super Bowl days), and with two years on his deal and salaries spiking, the Broncos want to get a long-term deal done before the start of next season. He is on a first-ballot Hall of Fame path, and wants to play into his mid-40s. So if Rodgers is worth $50M, and Watson is now $46M, what number is Russ cooking at? You do the math.

What all major QB deals will now include

Get used to no-trade clauses being included in most major quarterback contracts. Short of getting to unrestricted free agency – quite difficult for the best at this position – it is the best leverage chip agents have. Think about how much control Watson and Wilson had of their situations (and Rodgers effectively had a no-trade clause given how he got the Packers to void a season on his deal a year ago). Cousins just got one included in his latest restructure/extension. “I wouldn’t do a meaningful quarterback contract without one at this point,” one top agent suggested to me. Oh yeah, and they’ll be looking for fully guaranteed deals, too.

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More Kyler-Cardinals turmoil coming

Get ready for more turmoil between the Cardinals and Kyler Murray. Murray’s representatives have turned up the heat a few times already, and this Watson contract now makes their arguments for a massive new deal more cogent. Haslam doing this for Watson – basically sight unseen – will lead to more public pressure from Murray’s camp. In the aftermath of the Raiders landing Davante Adams, while trying to extend Carr, agent Erik Burkhardt tweeted out how many top salaries the Raiders already have and included: “It’s a CHOICE. A Choice to TRY to win. Or not. #Commitment.” That was intended for Cardinals ownership, and the Bidwells know it. So does the rest of the league. If there isn’t meaningful negotiation between these sides, and progress made, after watching four teams fall over themselves in this Watson sweepstakes Burkhardt has to know some other owners out there would give his client what he wants. And monster QB trades are becoming all the rage. Stay tuned. Forcing your way out, for top QBs, if/when they want to, seems like the play. “Baker Mayfield just asked for a trade, you don’t think these guys would?” said an exec for a quarterback-needy team who is watching the Murray situation very closely.

Tom Brady = $60M man?

Okay, so, no, he’s not going to push for that. But let’s not pretend he’s not worth it. Brady’s return changed everything for the Bucs. These owners should be made to pay elite quarterbacks more like baseball salaries in terms of price, length (and fully guaranteed), and coming off another MVP season, with what he brings in terms of revenue and ticket sales and jersey sales, even $60M is probably low. If nothing else, he should be on par with Rodgers, and Brady has always been willing to structure his deals to maximize the ability to fit others under the cap.

Mayfield’s two obvious suitors

The Colts and Seahawks become the obvious suitors for Mayfield now that he is clearly being dealt (and with the Browns having very limited leverage in what they get in return now). John Dorsey drafted Mayfield first overall; he came up in the Green Bay scouting ranks with Seahawks GM John Schneider and they share some of the same scouting philosophies and views of players, FWIW. Indy needs a younger starting QB who might stick around for more than one year in the worst way possible. But I keep coming back to San Francisco, too. “Mayfield has his faults, but he looks like a fit in (Kyle) Shanahan’s system to me,” as one NFL exec put it. All those boots and waggles. Throwing on the run. Emphasis on the tight end in passing game. Are the 49ers really willing to trade Jimmy Garoppolo without substantial QB insurance if Trey Lance really isn’t ready? I had a theory on a Jimmy G/Carson Wentz exchange, but Baker would make sense, too, and cost less than Garoppolo. Hmm.

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Who the Colts need at QB

As for Garoppolo, I keep coming back to the Colts. Players respond well to him and he was viewed as a leader and very good locker room guy in San Francisco. After the Wentz experiment, that sounds like what the Colts need. When healthy, he tends to win a lot of games, and the Colts already have a run game. Frank Reich would be good for him and a reasonable extension could/should be in the cards.

Where Winston is headed

Many personnel men in this league had the Saints pegged as the team best positioned to land Watson. They obviously did not. Prior to that, many of those same execs – several of whom were in various QB trade and/or free agent markets – figured Winston would return to New Orleans, all things being equal. That looks like a match to me.

Sorting out Matt Ryan‘s future

Matt Ryan isn’t one to put his business in the street. But he wins at the business of football like few others, and after giving the Falcons some contractual latitude during their ill-fated pursuit of Watson, I figure there is going to be some payback coming his way. That restructured deal they were talking about to free up cap space seems a little antiquated in this ever-changing QB-compensation landscape all of a sudden. Many are linking the Eagles to Ryan in a potential trade, with him a Philly native and all, but I get the sense the Eagles want to give Jalen Hurts a real shot to be the guy, and a QB that close to the end of his career probably doesn’t fit their current timeline.

If the Seahawks don’t land a more established veteran, might they be the best spot for Jordan Love? Again, Schneider has super strong ties to the Packers organization, he needs a QB, and the kid is young and cheap and only a few years removed from being a first-round pick. Seattle suddenly had plenty of draft stock, too, after dealing Wilson, and buying low on Love on a rookie contract wouldn’t be out of character for the Seahawks.


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