Andrew Luck is the highest-paid player in NFL history (for now). And the Colts had almost no way to avoid making that happen. This is what it costs to keep a franchise quarterback.
Luck on Wednesday signed a five-year contract extension through 2021 worth $139.125 million (or around $123 million on top of the $16 million Indianapolis had committed to Luck for 2016), with $87 million in total guarantees. Colts owner Jim Irsay said that $47 million of the deal will be fully guaranteed; the rest locks in in stages by the 2019 season.
Luck’s average annual value of $23.2 million catapults him over Joe Flacco ($22.1 million), Aaron Rodgers ($22 million), Russell Wilson ($21.9 million) and every other player in the league. History tells us that he will not stay there forever. Drew Brees should top $20 million per year again on his next extension, which could come at any point. Rodgers also is approaching restructure territory on the $110 million deal he signed a few years back. Derek Carr, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota ... all of them could get into big-money territory quickly.
An oddity in the Luck saga, of course, is that this massive contract extension comes on the heels of Luck’s worst year as a pro—an injury-plagued season that resulted in the Colts missing the playoffs after a trip to the AFC title game a year before. Luck was missed when he was hurt but mediocre at times when he played, by his own admission.
Which all would matter if the Colts were paying Luck for his 2012–15 performance. They’re not.
NFL contracts are not like restaurant bills, showing up at the end of a meal when all the food’s gone. They are investments in the future, a show of good faith. The Colts legitimately believe that they have their long-term answer at quarterback and that, better yet, said long-term answer at quarterback has the potential to be the best player at his position. So they paid him as such.
That type of approach does not always work out, mind you. Jay Cutler’s $126.7 million deal has become something of an albatross because he, and his team, never got any better once it was signed. Colin Kaepernick’s $114 million deal ... well, you know. The minimal guarantees Kaepernick received (around $13 million initially, plus another $11.9 million for this season) tempered the fallout a bit.
Is anyone complaining about Rodgers’s price tag, though? How about Cam Newton’s $100 million contract? Or Ben Roethlisberger’s $99 million extension?
Nope. At least, not yet, because those quarterbacks all have matched or exceeded the initiatives placed in front of them when asked to sign on the dotted line. Those situations vary from Luck’s because, at least in the cases of Rodgers and Roethlisberger, there was extensive, Super Bowl-winning evidence that they could lead the way.
But the point is that a contract is only as good as the player who signs it.
Last week, we took an in-depth look at what Luck could earn on his contract extension, and why. Among the major factors playing to his advantage, aside from his talent, were the Colts’ commitment to building a young offense around him and the league’s ability to continually rake in revenue hand over fist. The salary cap rises every year and, presumably, will keep on that trajectory, so the Colts had oodles of money to set aside for the game’s most important position.
They also have seen firsthand what happens when a team does not have a true franchise quarterback on multiple occasions. Peyton Manning’s neck injury led to a 2–14 record and—stroke of fate—Luck’s arrival. Then Luck’s injury last season coincided with the Colts’ worst record since the 2011 season, when Manning was sidelined.
This is a franchise that expects to win now, behind its 26-year-old quarterback. Within the past year-plus, the Colts have signed running back Frank Gore, re-signed valuable tight end Dwayne Allen, locked up left tackle Anthony Castonzo long-term, used a first-round draft pick on wide receiver Phillip Dorsett and spent several draft picks rebuilding the offensive line. The core of the Indianapolis attack is in place for years to come, if all goes according to plan.
Luck has been the centerpiece of that plan since he was drafted in 2012. There was no imminent danger that he would get away, not with the Colts exercising his fifth-year option for the 2016 season and having a franchise tag option down the road.
The last thing either QB or front office wanted, though, was for the contract talks to drag on and turn ugly—locker room distractions are real. Rather than dance with the franchise tag next off-season and possibly in 2018, the Colts took care of their QB and kept their house in order.
Luck is worth $23 million per year and $47 million guaranteed because the Colts believe him to be, and because the market says that’s what a top QB should earn right now. Sooner rather than later, another quarterback will come along to topple Luck from his highest-paid perch, and this whole discussion will begin anew.
In the meantime, it’s on Luck to repay the Colts’ commitment by playing like a $139 million quarterback.