This isn’t the first time Leigh Steinberg has concocted a contrarian idea.
The agent—who has represented some of the NFL’s top quarterbacks over the last 40 years, from Warren Moon to Patrick Mahomes—is exploring an informal proposal that would eliminate at least 25% of the salary cap hit for signal-callers by creating an exception for those who earn more than roughly $40 million per year. Steinberg thinks teams can afford the added expense as the league cashes in on new revenue streams such as the YouTube TV Sunday Ticket agreement and a slew of sports betting-related deals.
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The resolution, which has not been formally submitted to the NFLPA yet, is the latest ploy to ease roster construction as the market for top-tier quarterbacks continues to rise.
“That one position has grown exponentially in compensation,” Steinberg said in an interview. “So much that it’s competitive with basketball and baseball’s top salaries, which has never happened. So, it presents this quandary: How does a team maximally compensate a player while assembling a supporting cast that gives a team the best chance to win? The quarterback market is not going to stop growing.”
The mix of veterans with expiring contracts and young stars eligible for new deals has created a frenzied market while their lesser-known teammates often turn into cap casualties. The 2023 salary cap is at an all-time high at $224.8 million next season, but it’s not escalating as quickly as the market price for top quarterbacks, who often take up a sizeable chunk of their team’s cap space. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recently said it’s difficult to add a better supporting cast because of Dak Prescott’s $160 million contract.
But the issue isn’t likely to convince enough NFL owners to alter the current CBA, signed in 2020—at least not without them gaining something in return.
“Nobody would have a problem with it, other than the owners,” former NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth said in an interview. “Anything that softens the cap, which has been tried in different ways, is normally met with a lot of friction. Not sure if we just haven’t found the right recipe or idea, but I don’t think it’s worth giving up on.”
NBA teams have for decades used the Larry Bird exception to spend over the salary cap to re-sign their own talent. Owning a player’s Bird rights allows a team to pay more than other clubs, with that extra money spent not counting against the cap. NFL owners have yet to agree on an equivalent rule that pays homegrown players more.
This isn’t the first proposal to alter the NFL salary cap by looking at exceptions for the highest-paid position. But this one comes at an unprecedented time for quarterback contracts; New York Giants’ QB Daniel Jones just secured a $160 million deal, for example.
The NFL has a wave of top young QBs—including Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert—approaching extensions. Their negotiations could be affected by those of Ravens’ quarterback Lamar Jackson, a former MVP who was franchise-tagged this week while seeking a fully guaranteed, multiyear deal.
The Cleveland Browns, meanwhile, are trying to figure out ways to get under the cap, including a potential restructuring of Deshaun Watson’s historic fully guaranteed $230 million deal. Watson is set to account for a league-high $54 million cap hit next season.
Steinberg believes his idea would need support from the union’s next executive director, since DeMaurice Smith is likely on his way out this year.
Former New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum believes the proposal would be “good for the game” and helpful for general managers around the league. But he doubts it will be taken up, since it would “create a hole” in the salary cap.
“Getting 24 out of the 32 owners to agree to it in a collective bargaining agreement is a heavy lift,” he said in an interview. “That’s because once you have one exception in the salary cap, it could lead to many more.”
It’s not entirely unprecedented, as the CBA currently includes a veteran benefit rule that allows qualified veteran players who have been in the NFL for more than four years to receive a minimum salary that only reflects two years of experience on the cap table. The rule is valuable to older players looking to stick around, as well as to teams, which have been able to add or keep experienced players at a discount.
Teams have tried to adjust to the current system by going young at the QB position. Four out of the last five Super Bowls featured a starting quarterback who was on a rookie deal, with Jalen Hurts being the latest. It’s become a trend to capitalize on the relatively low salaries of first-round QB draftees on their first contract and build around them, but that strategy has a five-year window, something the Bengals and others are facing as they try to win the title before it’s time to pay their starter market value.
The CBA runs through the 2030 season, but side letters and amendments to the agreement are possible. Still, a request of this magnitude would require more than a stop-gap fix.
One of the quarterbacks who could help reset the market again is Mahomes. The Super Bowl MVP signed a 10-year, $450 million deal back in 2020, but that contract will look like a steal once other quarterbacks get their extensions. Steinberg insists he isn’t pushing this proposal to allow his client to get a raise while keeping his KC supporting cast intact, but of course, the agent stands to gain financially. Higher salaries generate higher fees for those who negotiate them.
“I understand that I’ll receive pushback from people who feel like players are already overcompensated,” Steinberg added. “All I’m suggesting is a switch in accounting.”
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