Commentary: Carr still underpaid, just like every other top NFL QB

Mark Purdy
San Jose Mercury News
Matthew Stafford

On paper, Derek Carr is now the richest quarterback in NFL history. He is still underpaid. At the very least, Carr is worth every dime of the $125 contract he’s signed with the Raiders, or an average of $25 million for each season of his new five-year deal.

You can make a case, though, that he deserves twice as much. You can make a case that’s true for any top NFL quarterback, including the Matthew Stafford, who is expected to top the $25 million annual average when he re-ups with the Detroit Lions.

Carr is young, just 26 years old. But he’s proven plenty enough in his three seasons. He’s already in the upper half of NFL quarterbacks not just statistically but by the measurement of any trained football eye.

Even if Carr had not broken his leg last December, the Raiders might not have reached the Super Bowl. But they would have been a strong contender to meet New England in the AFC title game. Without Carr, the Raiders couldn’t even get past a mediocre Houston team in the first round.

Quarterbacks are the NFL’s lifeblood, the reason people watch the NFL, the reason that the game sells merchandise, the drive train of fantasy football and point spreads. It has always been thus. Forty years ago, my first NFL coverage experience occurred in Cincinnati. Paul Brown, one of the men who invented modern pro football, was the Bengals’ general manager. One day while discussing offenses in general during a sideline practice conversation, Brown jokingly mentioned that no matter what anyone said, the NFL was first and foremost based on “pitch and catch.”

“But when you coached in Cleveland,” I said, “you had Jim Brown, maybe the best running back ever.”

“Ever notice how many times we threw the ball to him?” Brown said. “He didn’t just run every down.”

Derek Carr

So that settled it for me. Starting quarterbacks in the NFL will always deserve the most money, four times as much as the next highest paid player. The only reason they don’t make it is the NFL’s salary cap, which controls team salaries. The NFL salary cap for the 2017 season is $167 million. If there were no salary cap, there’s no telling how high the free market would drive up the best quarterbacks’ paychecks. But right now, if a team pays a quarterback $50 million rather than $25 million, it would leave significantly less compensation for the other 52 players on the roster.

But every top-tier NFL quarterback is worth that much, probably more. And I would challenge those other 52 players to disagree. Keep in mind that the NFL generates more money than any sports organization in the world. According to Forbes magazine, the league generated roughly $12.3 billion of revenue in 2016. That’s several notches ahead of the $9.4 billion that flowed to Major League Baseball in 2016 and more than double the $5.9 billion accumulated by the NBA in 2015-16.

And yet for all that, the best pro basketball players make far more than the best NFL quarterbacks. Kevin Durant of the Warriors already banks more money annually than Carr will under his new deal. Durant will bank even more — an estimated $31 million — when he signs his next contract. So will his Warriors’ teammate, Steph Curry.

Yes, NBA rosters are smaller. The economics are different. But the biggest break for the NFL is that the salaries you see reported in highly-touted signings like Carr’s are almost always never paid out totally because they aren’t guaranteed.

As always, diving into the details of NFL contracts is facing a mathematical zone blitz. We know that Carr’s $25 million in average compensation per season makes him the “richest” player in the game because it puts him ahead of the $24.594 million average per season that the Indianapolis Colts gave Andrew Luck last summer. Yet according to the people who study this stuff, Carr did not receive the same solid guarantees as Luck did across several categories. The former Stanford star has $87 million of his package reportedly guaranteed in case of injury and $47 million guaranteed no matter what.

According to ESPN and other outlets, Carr will have $70 million of his $125 million contract guaranteed. But you might want to put that “guaranteed” in quotes.

Here’s why: Carr is set to make $25 million total this season, including his $12.5 million signing bonus, his $7.5 million roster bonus and his $5 million salary (which was originally going to be just $1.15 million as part of his original rookie contract). Carr also has a fully guaranteed 2018 roster bonus that he’ll pocket next season. But the rest of his 2018 money — Carr’s $7.4 million base salary — does not become guaranteed until after the Super Bowl that season.

Similarly, the injury-guarantee clause in Carr’s 2019 income does not become effective until February 2019 and the injury-guarantee chunk of his 2020 compensation isn’t fully guaranteed until February of that year. Beyond that, none of his salary is guaranteed.

In other words, if the Raiders decide to cut Carr after the 2018 season — and he is healthy when they do so — then the Raiders will have only paid him $47 million and be required to pay him no more. No one expects that to happen. But we’ve all seen stranger things in the NFL. Remember the seven-year, $126 million contract that Colin Kaepernick signed with the 49ers in 2014? How much of that did he end up collecting? Less than one-third of it.

So. Just for an economic exercise, let’s say Carr is ultimately paid only $70 million of his $125 million. That puts him even farther behind NBA stars when it comes to percentage of league-wide revenue earned.

The NFL could always set up its formula differently by making salary cap exceptions for quarterbacks, allowing them to be paid from a separate or unlimited pool of money. There’s no incentive to do so, given that owners pocket the money that the quarterbacks don’t get — and the NFL Players’ Association would rather have cash spread out among its entire membership.

I realize it’s easy for me to spend the Raiders’ money. But to pay Carr just $25 million per season on average — with an average of just $14 million per season guaranteed … they’re getting a huge bargain.