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The rise in playoff teams with rookie contract quarterbacks isn’t a trend — but it might be soon

Teams with quarterbacks still on rookie contracts were more successful than ever in 2018. Will that continue in 2019 and beyond?

A productive quarterback on his rookie contract is a godsend for general managers across the NFL. Not only do players like Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson give needy teams an explosive presence behind center, but their below-market salaries create room to add more expensive veterans to their lineup in free agency.

But until 2018, having a low-cost quarterback playing out his rookie contract didn’t portend success. Since the 2013 season, only Russell Wilson has started and won a Super Bowl while on a rookie contract.

If 2018 is any indication, Wilson will have some company soon.

Last season marked a major leap from the league’s least expensive passers. These young guns made up the majority of the quarterbacks — seven of 12 — to qualify for the postseason. This was nearly unprecedented; between 2000 and 2011, the league never saw a single year in which seven rookie contract QBs started a full season. Now they ruled the playoffs.

What sparked this sudden change?

2018 was an outlier for young quarterbacks compared to previous years

Rookie contract quarterbacks weren’t always cap space-saving building blocks. The lack of a contract scale before the 2011 collective bargaining agreement made unproven players some of the league’s highest-paid athletes. This not only fixed the problem that came with, say, locking Sam Bradford in for $78 million before he ever played an NFL snap, but it also created a gap between the cost of inexperienced passers and their actual value to the teams that drafted them.

Well-compensated young quarterbacks like Bradford and Matthew Stafford failed to make much of a dent with their clubs, clogging up cap room while mostly failing to turn struggling teams into contenders. The post-2011 class gave teams more of an impetus to focus on quarterbacks who were in the early stages of their careers, thereby freeing up valuable cash that could be used to fill holes elsewhere in the roster. This strategy paid off handsomely in 2018.

The impact of rookie contract QBs, 2018 vs. the previous five years

Timeframe Playoff teams w/ rookie contract QBs % Teams w/ 5 wins or fewer AND rookie contract QBs %
Timeframe Playoff teams w/ rookie contract QBs % Teams w/ 5 wins or fewer AND rookie contract QBs %
2013-2017 17 of 60 28.33% 22 of 37 59.46%
2018 7 of 12 58.33% 3 of 7 42.86%

In the five years before 2018, quarterbacks in the first four seasons of their rookie contracts — before a pricy fifth year could kick in — only helmed 28 percent of the league’s postseason participants. A good chunk of those appearances came thanks to Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Russell Wilson.

The following quarterbacks flooded the 2018 postseason, however, making it the first time this millennium the majority of teams in the playoffs had QBs who started at least five games that season and who were all four-year veterans or younger. That group?

  • Deshaun Watson (Houston Texans)
  • Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City Chiefs)
  • Lamar Jackson (Baltimore Ravens)
  • Jared Goff (Los Angeles Rams)
  • Mitchell Trubisky (Chicago Bears)
  • Dak Prescott (Dallas Cowboys)
  • and Carson Wentz (Philadelphia Eagles), who missed the tail end of the season and the playoffs and only went 5-6 as starter, but still fits the bill.

Those players will remain obscenely valuable in 2019

Of 2018’s magnificent seven, six are currently significantly underpaid — only Wentz, who signed a $128 million extension this spring, has received a deserved raise so far. Meanwhile, Mahomes is only in his third year and already has an MVP award under his belt. Goff will only cost $8.9 million against the cap this fall after leading his Rams to an NFC title.

But that’s also helped extend the cap space that’s allowed their teams to shore up their weaknesses elsewhere over the past two seasons.

That includes pass-rushing help (Khalil Mack with the Bears, Frank Clark with the Chiefs); dynamic wideouts (Amari Cooper in Dallas, Sammy Watkins with first the Rams and then the Chiefs); or other expensive pieces like Houston’s Tashaun Gipson-Bradley Roby secondary combo or Baltimore’s decision to bring Earl Thomas to the East Coast.

This could lead to a surprising lack of turnover between 2018 and 2019’s postseason spread. Over the past three years, an average of seven teams that didn’t make the playoffs the previous year barged their way beyond Week 17. It’s tough to see where that kind of transition will take place next January; forcing Mahomes, Watson, or Goff to a losing record is going to take some work.

It’s more likely that these players will age into more lucrative second contracts than suffer a serious dropoff — in the past, we’ve seen QBs like Andy Dalton and Russell Wilson continue their teams’ success after a substantial raise.

Can the trend continue?

It sure looks that way. Even though Wentz’s contract extension takes him out of the group, there are several other low-price quarterbacks playing for new contenders that could to join Mahomes, Goff, et al.

Baker Mayfield finished his rookie year on a 5-2 tear and is a big reason why the Browns are are the favorites to win the AFC North. Sam Darnold and the Jets might not be quite ready for the postseason. Same with Josh Allen and the Bills. They’ll have a tough time dethroning the Patriots and the game’s oldest quarterback, but the AFC East rivals should both benefit after their teams made significant roster improvements this offseason.

And while 2019 rookies Kyler Murray (Cardinals), Daniel Jones (Giants), and Dwayne Haskins (Washington) were all drafted into grim scenarios this spring, they’ll each have the chance to engineer a turnaround in the near future.

All this suggests we should get used to seeing young quarterbacks in the Wild Card Round and beyond going forward.

The original plan for this data was to determine whether there was a sweet spot of low-cost rookie contracts at any position for playoff teams — a certain number of high-drafted starters who could produce on the field while freeing up cap space for their teammates. There wasn’t much of a statistical link between rostering more rookie-scale players and success, though. Clubs that finished with five wins or fewer in a given season were the ones more likely to have more young players.

However, the data did show a major trend-bucking move in 2018. That was the first season since 2013 when teams in the playoffs had more starters on rookie contracts than the league’s least-successful franchises:

Number of starters on rookie contracts: good teams vs. bad ones

Year RC starters on playoff teams RC starters on teams w/ 5 wins or fewer
Year RC starters on playoff teams RC starters on teams w/ 5 wins or fewer
2018 9.6 8.9
2017 8.8 9.5
2016 9.25 10
2015 9 9.3
2014 9.25 9.3
2013 9.2 8.75

There was no magic number when it came to how many inexpensive young players you need for a good or bad team — playoff teams over the past six seasons ranged from five rookie contract starters to 14 — but 2018’s shift stands out. It was a banner year for young quarterbacks, topped with a third-year passer claiming the NFC title and a second-year QB winning MVP honors.

The future — and the performances of quarterbacks like Darnold, Mayfield, and Murray — will tell if that’s the start of a trend, or just the hallmark of a couple amazing draft classes.