For most new general managers in the National Football League, the organization’s primary goal is simple: find a franchise quarterback by any means necessary. Some teams opt to go through a trade or free agency, but many GMs yearn to find “their guy” in the draft and build a team around that player.
But finding a franchise quarterback through the draft is one of the most challenging tasks in sports. Once a team finds that player, any amount of success is dependent upon the GM’s ability to draft well, make emotionless decisions and use anticipatory skills to keep the roster ready to contend.
The benefit to drafting a quarterback is the inherent financial advantage a team gets early on, but extending past the initial quarterback contract separates good GMs from great ones. The first few years after a long-term quarterback extension can be the most critical to a GM and quarterback, making the draft ahead of the final year of a quarterback’s rookie contract so crucial.
The Bills, Ravens and Browns are all approaching the next financial phase with their franchise quarterbacks in 2022. The Athletic took a comprehensive look at past successes and failures of drafting in the final year of a quarterback’s rookie window, the domino effect those drafts had on those teams and why hitting on those picks is so important long-term.
The Rise of the Rookie Window
The Seattle Seahawks in the early 2010s were a revelation.
They were the envy of the league for finding a game-changing quarterback in Russell Wilson during the third round in 2012. On top of that, his cost-controlled contract helped usher in a new model to the copycat NFL.
The Seahawks helped the term ‘rookie window’ become synonymous with team-building strategy. And with new rules brought on a decade ago, those opportunities weren’t confined to just teams that struck gold in the mid-to-late rounds.
Ten years ago, the NFL and roster-building theory as we know it changed significantly, and perhaps forever. Before the NFL Lockout in 2011, the league’s first work stoppage in 24 years, it was commonplace for highly drafted rookies to come close to resetting the market at their positions every year.
Players that had never played a snap were essentially guaranteed to carry one of their team’s highest cap percentages within three seasons. Quarterback Sam Bradford was the top selection in 2010 and garnered the biggest contract for a rookie player in NFL history — a six-year, $78 million deal with $50 million guaranteed.
Back then, the salary cap lingered at around $120 million for several years. Bradford’s third season in 2012 carried a cap hit of nearly $16 million, which accounted for 13 percent of the St. Louis Rams’ salary cap. The deal might not have been an intentional tipping point, but years of rising and unchecked rookie contracts turned it into a must-change issue to teams in the 2011 labor talks.
Once the NFL and NFLPA arrived at the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that July, big rookie contracts were a thing of the past. The two sides agreed on a rookie wage scale, dramatically reducing the cap hits for young players and pushing money back to veteran players who earn big paydays.