Inside Slant: Impact of QB salary-cap hits

January, 20, 2014
Jan 20
10:00
AM ET
Peyton Manning and Russell WilsonGetty ImagesPeyton Manning and Russell Wilson lie on opposite ends of the pay scale spectrum among QBs.
In football, it all starts with the quarterback: on the field, in the community and on the financial ledgers as well. So as we embark on two weeks of hype for Super Bowl XLVIII, it's worth noting how the polar contracts of the game's two quarterbacks -- Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson -- uniquely shaped the teams they will bring with them to MetLife Stadium.

As one of the game's elite quarterbacks, Manning carries with him the third-highest salary-cap number ($17.5 million) among 2013 starters. On the other hand, Wilson is playing under his rookie contract, and his cap number ($681,085) is the second lowest among full-time starters.

Functionally, that difference means the Seahawks had $16.8 million more cap space to spread around their roster than the Broncos this season. How the Seahawks used that money, and how the Broncos worked around Manning's number, provide a compelling snapshot into how mundane salary-cap numbers can direct the building of Super Bowl contenders.

In short, the Broncos picked their spots for veteran acquisitions and relied heavily on recent drafts to surround Manning with a championship-caliber team. The Seahawks had more flexibility, of course, and smartly capitalized on the rare gift of a high-performing young quarterback like Wilson.

Let's take a closer look at each instance.

Denver Broncos

As elite quarterback contracts go, Manning's is relatively simple. It is a five-year, $96 million "pay-as-you-go" deal with no signing bonus, large base salaries and cap hits that range between $17.5 million and $21.5 million each year. Because there was no signing bonus, the Broncos can extricate themselves from it during any offseason with almost no cap impact.

In other words, this contract minimized as much as possible the always-costly impact of signing a future Hall of Fame quarterback as a free agent. And still, Manning consumes 14.2 percent of the Broncos' $123 million cap allotment for 2013.

The chart shows how the Broncos divided cap hits for the 10 highest-paid players on their team, an important benchmark in NFL accounting. Injured left tackle Ryan Clady and veteran cornerback Champ Bailey have monster contracts, but after that, the Broncos spread reasonable hits among a number of veterans -- including free-agent deals for receiver Wes Welker and offensive lineman Louis Vasquez.

In all, they spent $66 million on their top 10 players, actually a bit less than the NFL average. That allowed them to make a number of efficient veteran signings, including linebacker Paris Lenon, defensive end Shaun Phillips and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton -- all of whom started the AFC Championship Game while consuming a combined $4.115 million in cap space this season.

How were the Broncos able to operate that way? Because their drafts from 2009 to 2013 produced 11 starters, many of whom provided Manning key support this season and all of whom remain on their original rookie deals. That list includes running back Knowshon Moreno (2009), receivers Demaryius Thomas (2010) and Eric Decker (2010), tight end Julius Thomas (2011) and right tackle Orlando Franklin (2011).

Together, that group counted a combined $9.23 million against the Broncos' cap, a bargain for such production and experience. Think about it: The Broncos signed Knighton, Phillips and Lenon -- while also employing Moreno, Decker, Franklin and Demaryius and Julius Thomas -- for less cap space than what they committed to Manning. They won't be able to replicate that next season as Moreno and Decker approach free agency, but 2013 provided them a perfect storm of contract arrangements to make this run.

Seattle Seahawks

The average NFL team committed $10.07 million in cap space to its quarterback position. The Seahawks spent $1.52 million for Wilson and backup Tarvaris Jackson, less than every team except the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But the Seahawks didn't simply benefit from having a second-year starter who, by NFL rules, can't renegotiate his contract for another 14 months. Because Wilson was a third-round draft pick, his 2013 cap number was $4.3 million less than what the Indianapolis Colts were required to commit for the No. 1 overall pick, quarterback Andrew Luck.

That might not sound like much in the overall scheme of a $123 million cap limit, but for the Seahawks it probably meant the difference in acquiring at least one of the veteran players they signed last offseason. All told, as the chart shows, the Seahawks had the luxury of committing $75 million in cap space to 10 players who aren't quarterbacks in 2013.

Because their quarterback is (by requirement) so cheap, the Seahawks could absorb elite-level contracts for running back Marshawn Lynch, receiver Sidney Rice, tight end Zach Miller and left tackle Russell Okung. They could handle receiver Percy Harvin's six-year, $67 million contract and not be hamstrung when injuries kept him off the field for 16 of their 18 games.

And most importantly, they had enough space to acquire two high-end defensive linemen in free agency to add to an already-deep group. Michael Bennett ($4.8 million) and Cliff Avril ($3.75 million) combined for 16.5 sacks during the regular season.

Wilson has won 27 of 36 career starts, including the playoffs, and one day he will cost the Seahawks dearly. In the meantime, however, they've built a team of costly superstars around him.

It all starts with the quarterback. Neither the Seahawks nor the Broncos would trade their situations with anyone, but the salary cap required divergent approaches to reach the same goal.

All financial figures courtesy of ESPN's Roster Management System.

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