The NFL Salary Cap Needs a Quarterback Exemption

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- There is no more important position in sports than quarterback, especially at the professional level.

You can win without a dominant center in basketball (i.e, LeBron James with the Miami Heat and Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls), as an example. You don't even need great pitching in baseball (the Red Sox won the World Series last year without even having the best earned run average in their division). But there is no way you can win without superior quarterbacking in the National Football League, especially with the salary cap limiting what teams can spend on player compensation.

As proof, look no further than Tom Brady and Peyton Manning: Their teams have played in eight of the last 12 Super Bowls (and likely more except for injuries).

There are four reasons why there should be a quarterback exemption to the salary cap now set at $133 million per team for the National Football League:

  1. Due to the costs of a quality quarterback, teams cannot afford to be deep at the position. A top quarterback such as Aaron Rodgers now makes more per game than Johnny Unitas, the best ever, did in his entire career. It is that way for other positions, too. But no other is as vital as the quarterback in the National Football League so teams need an exemption to the salary cap for needed depth.
  2. It takes a long time to develop a quarterback at the professional level. Some say it takes at least three years. Teams no longer have that luxury of time due to the salary cap. A talented back-up being groomed will be signed away by another team for more money. With a quarterback exemption, teams would be able to develop talent at the position over time, raising the level of play across the league.
  3. There are more changes at quarterback now than ever before, owing to injuries and other factors. Due to this turnover, the quality of play falls when the best quarterback is not starting. Talented backups are not there due the salary cap not allowing for depth and development time. For those teams not fortunate enough to have a Brady or Manning at quarterback, the chances of winning diminish. As a result, the level of competition in the National Football League declines. The quarterback exemption would allow for more quarterbacks of a higher quality per team.
  4. What also deteriorates is the quality of the overall team with a great quarterback due to the salary cap. Teams have to shed themselves of high cost players at other positions to accommodate the rising salaries of a top quarterback pushing against the ceiling. Drew Brees makes nearly three times as much as the next highest paid Saint, as just one example.

When it comes to professional sports, there is always a concern that, without a salary cap, the richest teams will stockpile talent. But there is no worry that a team will be able to load up on great quarterbacks due to the exemption from the salary cap as none will want to ride the bench.  The preference will always be to play among professional athletes, especially the top performers.  

In addition, there's quite a bit of money at stake in the form of endorsements by star players. While Manning's $15 million salary for 2013 is certainly a nice chunk of change, so is the $12 million he earns annually in endorsements. Other quarterbacks rake in the endorsement millions, too, from companies such as General Motors (GM)





Total Endorsement Earnings 2012-2013

Peyton Manning

Buick (owned by General Motors)

Wheaties (owned by General Mills (GIS))

Gatorade (owned by PepsiCo)

$12 million

Tom Brady

Under Armour (UA)

Dodge (owned by Fiat (FIATY)

UGGS (owned by Decker Outdoors (DECK))

$7 million

Drew Brees

PepsiCo (PEP)


Verizon (VZ)

$11 million

Aaron Rodgers

Nike (NKE)

Pizza Hut (owned by Yum! Brands! (YUM)

Ford (F)

$6 million

Source: Forbes

General Mills does not put someone on the front of Wheaties box if they are sitting on the bench. Drew Bees would not be starring in a Pepsi commercial with the band One Direction if he were not starting. The same is true for Under Armour, Decker Outdoors, Nike, Ford, and others. So quarterbacks aren't likely to stack up on teams if it means risking that extra income. 

On the other hand, teams are being squeezed by the salary cap. The chart below shows the top salaries for 2014 for five quarterbacks, without any endorsement income.

The quarterback's salary takes up 30% to 45% of what a team is spending for the entire offense. One player is exhausting about one-third of the salary allotment for 11 players, 22 counting the backups. That makes it very difficult for a team to have talent that is wide and deep, covering every position on the field.


Player Salary

Total Salary Cap going to Offense

Player Salary as % of Offense Salary Cap

Player Salary as % of Team Salary Cap of $133 million

Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers





Joe Flaco, Baltimore Ravens





Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints





Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos





Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons





Source:, Spotrac,com,

Peyton Manning could make as much this year in salary as the next nine highest paid members of the Broncos, depending on who is cut and injuries. Last year, Manning's salary was $15 million. With Champ Bailey gone, the next highest was Wesley Woodyard at $3 million. The tenth highest paid Bronco, Mike Adams, made $1.75 million. When players are cut or leave due to salary issues emanating from the quarterback pay taking up the salary cap, all suffer: the level of talent on the team falls, the fans suffer from inferior play and their favorites at other positions leaving and player personnel decisions are made based on compensation rather than contributions, which harms the entire league.

A quarterback exemption to the salary cap would remedy this situation and be easy to implement as there is ample precedence.

One of the most successful coaches in history, Joe Gibbs, won three Super Bowls for the Washington Redskins in a 10-year span with three different quarterbacks. Gibbs was always three-deep at quarterback: the starter, a veteran backup, and then the young quarterback in tutelage holding the clipboard, learning on the sideline over a period of years. Two of those young quarterbacks developed well enough that Mark Rypien won the Super Bowl and Jay Schroeder took the Redskins to the NFC championship game, with both making the pro bowl.

Each team should be allowed three quarterbacks on the roster, with the salaries exempt from the salary cap. Other sports have similar structures, such as the NBA with the "Larry Bird" rule that allows teams an exemption when resigning qualified veteran players. This will allow for all teams to have depth at the most impotant important position on the field.

What is most important is that every stakeholder concerned will gain from a quarterback exemption to the salary cap.

There will more quarterbacks at a higher skill level due to more time being development time. Teams will be stronger with more capable quarterbacking. The fans will not only have better teams, but players staying longer as many will not have to be cut to clear out salary space for the needs of quarterback.

The overall level of play in the league will improve due to better quarterbacks and better teams. From that, companies such as Nike, Ford, Yum! Brands and others will continue to support the league and the players with bountiful advertising dollars and lucrative endorsement deals.

Better quarterbacks always result in better football, and the best way to achieve that in the National Football League is through an exemption to the salary cap.

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Jonathan Yates does not have a position in any of the stocks mentioned in this article.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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