UCLA sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen is no stranger to the headlines, either for what he does on the football field or for his comments as a millennial unafraid to go against the grain.
In a Sports Illustrated story earlier this month, Rosen made a number of attention-getting statements, including one idea that could impact his future: He wants to play in the NFL on a minimum contract.
Rosen told SI’s Pete Thamel that when he gets to the NFL, which could be as soon as 2018, he wants to make enough money in endorsements that he can sign for less than market value and his team can spend as much as possible on the players surrounding him.
It’s a noble idea, even if it’s not very realistic. The minimum salary for a player’s first eligible veteran contract is $760,000, and the NFL is the only major sports league where the deals are not fully guaranteed. The lack of a financial base could be crushing in the event of injury, or his career s cut short because of any other number of circumstances. It’d also skew the quarterback market in a way that would cause a firestorm among the NFL Players Association.
The outside earnings potential for NFL quarterbacks is substantial, but it has a ceiling and can fluctuate greatly. Endorsements are usually based on production and popularity, and can be easily lost when a player slips up off the field. The four NFL players making the most money through endorsements last year were all quarterbacks, with Peyton Manning leading the way at $12 million annually, followed by Drew Brees at $11 million, Eli Manning at $8 million and Aaron Rodgers at $7.5 million, according to Forbes. The highest-earning quarterback under the age of 30 was Russell Wilson at $6.5 million.
All of those totals are significantly less than their annual salaries, with all of them, other than Peyton Manning’s, falling short by at least $9 million.
Rosen is by all means a tantalizing down-the-road NFL prospect, even though he’s just a true sophomore. He did things last season at UCLA that true freshmen rarely accomplish in college football, such as throwing 245 consecutive passes without an interception. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, he possesses an arm scouts will drool over and a field awareness that belies the fact that he’s only 19.
When push comes to shove in maximizing earnings that aren’t fully guaranteed, it’s hard to expect a wiser Rosen to follow through with his idea. But, to entertain the hypothetical, let’s build a team through the Rosen model.
Quarterbacks currently own the 14th-highest average salaries in the NFL, creating a range from $19.3 million (Miami’s Ryan Tannehill) to $24.6 million (Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck). They can consume up to 19.3 percent of their team’s cap, as Brees will this season for the Saints.
By contrast, the veteran minimum for a fifth-year player is $760,000, which accounts for approximately 0.5 percent of the team’s entire cap space. Minimum salaries increase slightly through tenure, but a veteran could theoretically sign for the minimum and never in his career consume even 1 percent of his team’s cap space.
The closest comparison the NFL has now would be with talented quarterbacks still playing on their rookie contracts, which for a No. 1 overall pick means earnings of just under $28 million over four years. But in the time it takes for young quarterbacks to develop and for the teams that select them to find the right supporting cast, the window is essentially gone.
There’s really nothing like the possibilities Rosen’s model would open up.
What could a team do with all that extra space?
Let’s take the Miami Dolphins as a case study. They have a talented but slowly developing 28-year-old quarterback in Tannehill, who is entering the fifth year of his rookie contract before a $96 million extension carries him through the 2020 season. We’re going to work under the hypothetical that the Dolphins instead declined that fifth-year option because he was willing to take a minimum salary of $760,000.
As the No. 8 pick in the 2012 draft, Tannehill is the perfect example of a talented quarterback who is playing below where his contract and potential say he should be. He boasts a career quarterback rating of 85.2, and the Dolphins are 29-35 in his four seasons. But he now has a young offense around him and a quarterback whisperer for a head coach in Adam Gase, who helped a similarly frustrating Jay Cutler limit plenty of his flaws last season in Chicago.
When Gase signed on for his first coaching job to come in Miami, he was handed a roster with a talented quarterback and stars on both sides of the ball. Some of those stars then disappeared as the Dolphins were pressed hard against the cap, thanks in part to Tannehill’s contract increasing by almost $7 million. With Tannehill signing a minimum contract, Gase and his front office would have had an additional $10.9 million to use in free agency.
For $10.9 million, the Dolphins then could have re-signed running back Lamar Miller and defensive end Olivier Vernon, rather than spend it on aging veterans Arian Foster and Mario Williams. They could have done so even by paying the inflated salaries Miller got from the Texans and Vernon got from the Giants.
Gase would have then carried over the same Miami roster that went 6-10 last year, except he’d have two durable building blocks wrapped up for the prime years of their careers.
In Miller, he’d have one of the game’s most explosive running backs, a player who has ripped off runs of 85 and 97 yards the past two seasons. He’d be the perfect feature back for the run-first offense Gase wants to run, and the coach would surely give him better volume than the befuddling 12 carries per game Miami gave him last season. Doing so could alleviate the pressure Tannehill puts on himself, much like Gase’s offense did for Cutler last season when it finished fifth in rushing DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average).
Vernon would give first-year defensive coordinator Vance Joseph another pass-rush force to play beside Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake. In Suh and Vernon specifically, Joseph would have two of the most durable and balanced defensive linemen to help out the secondary he’s trying to rebuild.
With them, the Dolphins wouldn’t have signed an old and recovering running back like Foster or a 31-year-old defensive end in need of a rebound in Williams. Miami also would have found another use for its third-round pick instead of spending it on Alabama’s Kenyan Drake, a running back in the mold of Miller.
Perhaps it would have gone toward a future replacement for Kenny Stills as slot receiver, such as Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, who went 12 picks later to the Texans. Or maybe Miami would have looked for another cornerback for Joseph to groom, such as Notre Dame’s KeiVarae Russell, who went the next pick to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Add in the other key roster additions Gase and executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum made this offseason — first-round guard Laremy Tunsil, middle linebacker Kiko Alonso, cornerback Byron Maxwell and safety Isa Abdul-Quddus — and it’s easy to see how the talent around Tannehill would be a significant step up from what he had last year.
Mock depth chart
Money saved from new contract: $10.9 million
(2016 cap hit and years remaining on contract in parentheses)
QB — Ryan Tannehill ($760,000, 4 years)
RB — Lamar Miller ($5.5 million, 4 years) — $4.2 million increase over Arian Foster
WR — Jarvis Landry ($868,728, 2 years)
WR — DeVante Parker ($2.5 million, 3 years)
WR — Kenny Stills ($1.7 million, 1 year)
TE — Jordan Cameron ($8 million, 1 year)
OT — Branden Albert ($10.2 million, 5 years)
OG — Laremy Tunsil ($2.3 million, 4 years)
C — Mike Pouncey ($10 million, 5 years)
OG — Billy Turner ($861,000, 2 years)
OT — Ja’Wuan James ($2.3 million, 2 years)
DE — Olivier Vernon ($13 million, 5 years) — $6.5 million increase over Mario Williams
DT — Ndamukong Suh ($12.6 million)
DT — Earl Mitchell ($3.5 million, 2 years)
DE — Cameron Wake ($8.5 million, 3 years)
OLB — Jelani Jenkins ($1.8 million, 1 year)
MLB — Kiko Alonso ($991,000, 1 year)
OLB — Koa Misi ($3.1 million, 2 years)
CB — Byron Maxwell (8.5 million, 5 years)
CB — Tony Tippett ($579,000, 3 years)
FS — Isa Abdul-Quddus ($2.6 million, 3 years)
SS — Reshad Jones ($8.2 million, 2 years)
Whether or not Tannehill can take the next step under Gase remains to be seen, but the foundation would certainly be there, with Landry growing as a go-to receiver, Miller taking over the identity of the offense and with game-changers on both sides of the ball. If it doesn’t work with this kind of talent around him, then perhaps it wasn’t ever truly meant to be.
Regardless, it’d still be one heck of a bargain.
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and can follow him on Twitter@NateAtkins_.