In a salary-cap league, value is paramount. The overall point of the NFL draft, for example, may be to build your roster for the long term, but it's also about finding players who can help you win while they're on relatively cheap rookie contracts, so you can pay up for stars at other positions or reward guys who've been great values in the past.
Nowhere is this more important than the quarterback position. Teams with quarterbacks on rookie deals have the opportunity to splurge elsewhere and build out deep, talented rosters that can support that quarterback as he develops or compete for a championship if he develops quickly enough. The most prominent current example of this is the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles with Jalen Hurts.
Teams paying their quarterback at or near the top of the market generally need him to be otherworldly, or at the very least heroic in the biggest moments, because they're going to be counting on younger, cheaper players at other key positions. The elite quarterback making elite-quarterback money must be able to lift the team beyond its flaws and/or growing pains. The most prominent current example is the AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes, who will play the aforementioned Eagles in Super Bowl LVII on Sunday.
Because value is such an important concept in the NFL -- at quarterback specifically -- we wanted to take a look at the signal-callers who delivered the most value in 2022. This isn't necessarily a list or ranking of the best quarterbacks, but rather of those who delivered the most value relative to what their teams paid them. Some are young, cheap players. Some are highly paid stars who played like it. And many are in-between.
How we rank: Quarterbacks are divided into four categories: established starters not on rookie deals, journeyman starters, starters on rookie deals and rookie-deal starters on fifth-year options. Within those subsets, quarterbacks were ranked by their total production in 2022 over what was expected based on their compensation. Total production is measured by clutch-weighted EPA (CWEPA), a stat that is the backbone of QBR. Expected production is an estimate based on compensation -- players paid the most are expected to produce the most.
There could be many ways to estimate the true compensation paid in a multiple-year NFL contract. Both current-year salary and cap hit can be greatly misleading, so we estimated a realistic per-year salary for each contract by using "effective compensation," which is the per-year total obligation up to the point where that obligation is smallest. This almost always coincides with when a player's release can bring cap savings. For example, a player with a five-year contract for $10 million in salary per year and a $100 million signing bonus, plus a $40 million roster bonus in Year 5 would work out like this:
- Year 1: $110M obligation, $110M for one year of play
- Year 2: $120M obligation, $60M per year
- Year 3: $130M obligation, $43.3M per year
- Year 4: $140M obligation, $35M per year
- Year 5: $190M obligation, $38M per year
In this example, Year 5 is kind of a throwaway year, meant to stretch out the signing bonus and not really intended to be exercised. Realistically, this player is on a four-year contract worth $35 million per year in effective compensation.
With explainers out of the way, let's take a look.
Best bargain: Patrick Mahomes
Make no mistake: With an average effective compensation for our purposes of just under $31 million (and even a 2022 cap hit under $36 million), Mahomes is an absolute bargain. He was by far the best and most valuable quarterback this season: His 132.8 clutch-weighted EPA total easily was first at the position (Josh Allen was second at 119.3) and well above expectations based on his earnings. In other words: Mahomes is worth many, many millions beyond what he's currently paid. In fact, even if we only considered the $46.8 million cap hit he's set to cost in 2023, he still would be a value at his current level of play.