As more and more quarterback contracts become year-to-year propositions, the best and perhaps only way to give these or any other players real security comes from a large signing bonus. Apart from the magnitude of the cash in hand, a big signing bonus ensures that the player will still be on the team for a few years.
The bigger the signing bonus, the bigger the cap hit if the player is cut early in the deal. For that reason, big-money contracts used to be evaluated largely by the payout in the first three years, since the deals almost always carried a signing bonus that made it difficult if not impossible to cut the player before completion of third season. Because signing bonuses spread over time, cutting or trading the player early in the deal triggers an acceleration under the cap.
While more and more teams opt for pay-as-you-go deals, possibly influenced by the annual spending requirements under the new CBA, franchise quarterbacks had been immune from than dynamic.
In 2012, for example, Saints quarterback Drew Brees earned $37 million at signing. Then, the 2013 flurry of franchise quarterback contracts paid out more than $170 million in signing bonuses, with Aaron Rodgers getting $33.25 million, Tom Brady getting $30 million (so much for “taking less”), Joe Flacco getting $29 million, Matt Ryan getting $28 million, Matthew Stafford getting $27.5 million, and Tony Romo getting $25 million.
This year, the pendulum has swung sharply in the other direction, with Colin Kaepernick getting a mere $12.328 million to sign, and Andy Dalton receiving only $12 million. While Dalton gets another $5 million up front as a signing bonus, the acceleration will be much lower if he’s cut, making his deal as a practical matter a two-year, $25 million deal with a year-to-year arrangement thereafter.
As the next wave of young quarterbacks moves closer to their second contracts (including Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, and Robert Griffin III), the size of the signing bonus will go a long way toward determining how long of a commitment the team is truly making. If they can push back against the precedent created by the Kaepernick and Dalton deals.
The potential exception comes from the Jay Cutler structure, which carries a huge amount of fully-guaranteed future salaries, giving the team no reason to cut him loose, since they’ll be paying him whether he’s on the team or not. Absent that kind of future security (which is rare), the signing bonus continues to be the biggest factor to consider when the next young quarterback signs his new deal.
In the interim, veterans like Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, and Philip Rivers could help the cause of young quarterbacks by getting huge signing bonuses. All three players have contracts that expire after the 2015 season, and those deals undoubtedly will become factors for the contracts to be signed by the next wave of franchise quarterbacks.