Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has one year left on his rookie contract, which (absent an extension) will pay him a total of $67.5 million over six years.
With Stafford, who had two years left on a rookie deal executed in 2009, signing a contract worth $15.3 million over five years, it could be harder for Ryan to get top dollar. While to a lesser extent than the Tom Brady contract (which created cap space that will now be used in part to absorb $10 million of Aaron Hernandez’s signing bonus), Stafford took less than he could have gotten, if he’d finished his contract and forced the Lions to use the franchise tag in 2015, and possibly beyond.
Market value doesn’t matter for a player whose team will never let him hit the market. Stafford, over the next five years, could have leveraged nearly $114 million out of the Lions, if he was willing to carry the injury risk on a year-in, year-out basis and if the Lions were committed to keeping him. He chose to take more than $37 million less over the next five years in order to get more than $40 million of the total amount guaranteed today.
With Ryan, who has missed only two games in five years due to injury, only 16 regular-season games (and up to four postseason games) away from becoming a free agent, he’ll have to choose whether to take less than he could get by letting things play out, or whether to take full advantage of his leverage.
If Ryan gets through the season unscathed, the Falcons will face the same dilemma (actually, trilemma) the Ravens confronted in February. The Falcons can sign Ryan to a long-term deal, they can use the non-exclusive franchise tender and risk having him sign an unmatchable offer sheet with another team, or they can use the exclusive franchise tender and embark on a path that, if Ryan opts to play on a year-to-year basis, would pay out nearly $80 million over three years.
The Ravens opted to simply give Flacco a deal worth $100,000 per year more than the previous high-water mark set by Drew Brees in 2012 before having to apply one of the two types of franchise tags. For Ryan, he’ll have to choose whether, if he finishes the season without a contract, to try to get $20.2 million or more per year, whether to play under one of the tags (and to entertain offers from other teams if the non-exclusive tag is used), and whether to simply take less.
If he’s going to take less, the time to do it is now, since taking less would also push the injury risk to the Falcons before Ryan puts the hay in the barn for his next deal. Once Ryan completes his rookie deal and the option essentially becomes (if the Falcons decline to expose him to an offer sheet) a long-term deal or a year-to-year arrangement that would pay out nearly $80 million over three years, why should Ryan look for anything less than $62.5 million over the first three years of a long-term deal, which is the current top of the market for the first-three years of a quarterback deal?
Balanced against that dynamic is the importance of having enough cap space left to field a viable team. And the Brady, Stafford, and to an extent Rodgers deals show that, at some point, a franchise quarterback needs to help the franchise.
Still, if Ryan is going to take less for the team, it makes sense to do it now, when he’d also be getting the kind of gigantic guaranteed money that would protect him fully and completely against a catastrophic injury.