This story appears in the May 6, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
It was a moment destined for Instagram. Chevron-patterned neon lights coursed up a digital background last Thursday night while Kyler Murray, the former Oklahoma QB, held a red Cardinals hat to his chest. Two hours had passed since his name was the first called in the NFL draft, and now a photographer was yelling out which way to turn, how to pose, while Drake’s “God’s Plan” blared from a speaker—fitting, because the moment had seemed preordained. “Finally being able to play for Coach Kingsbury,” said Murray, “is something we’ve been talking about for a long time.”
Their relationship began when Kliff Kingsbury was Texas A&M’s offensive coordinator and Murray was a promising Allen (Texas) High sophomore. While the QB did enroll at College Station, it was only after Kingsbury left to coach Texas Tech. So when Kingsbury said in October of Murray, “I’d take him with the first pick of the draft if I could,” it meant nothing—until Jan. 8, when Arizona, owner of the No. 1 pick, hired Kingsbury as its coach.
When Cardinals general manager Steve Keim then made Murray his man—using his top pick on a quarterback for the second straight year—it represented sort of a jackpot for Kingsbury. He got the pilot he wanted for his Air Raid offense, and got him on a fresh rookie contract. While Murray is projected to sign a deal worth roughly $35 million over four years, the total value of his contract will equal only the average yearly salary of the NFL’s highest-paid passer, Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who on April 16 signed a four-year, $140 million extension.
Funny enough, it was Wilson’s highly affordable rookie contract—$4 million over three years, signed in 2012—that inspired the roster-building strategies of so many NFL teams today, Arizona among them. When the Seahawks went to back-to-back Super Bowls, in 2013 and ’14, their QB accounted for less than 1% of their salary cap.
Even before Wilson (who, as a third-round pick, is an extreme example of rookie savings), the rookie wage scale that was established in the ’11 CBA provided a road map to cap flexibility, allowing teams to spend money building out the rest of their rosters. One season after Sam Bradford, the No. 1 pick in ’10, negotiated a six-year, $78 million deal with the Rams, the top ’11 pick, Cam Newton, was automatically slotted into $22 million over four years with the Panthers.
What we see today—the Cardinals, for example, dipping twice in successive years into to the well of affordable QBs—is all about trying to maximize the window provided by a rookie starter on relatively low wages. Combined, the salaries of Carson Wentz and Nick Foles accounted for less than 5% of the Eagles’ cap when they won Super Bowl LII. The Rams drafted Jared Goff, used the savings to make several big defensive splashes in free agency and reached Super Bowl LIII. Reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes will account for 2.4% of the Chiefs’ salary cap this season; when they traded for and inked defensive end Frank Clark (from the Seahawks) to a contract extension in April, they loaded the guaranteed money into the first three years, allowing flexibility when they need to sign Mahomes to what could very well be a $200 million deal, in 2021.
Kingsbury and Murray enter this same win-now window together, with an important caveat. Because the Cardinals first tried to solve their QB issues through free agency, they have a graveyard of dead cap charges: Bradford and Mike Glennon, along with Josh Rosen (the pick from 2018)—none of whom are with the team—will combine for more than $16 million in dead money this year. As is always true, though, when it comes to football’s most important position: If Murray truly elevates the Cardinals, none of those past failures will matter.
As Murray walked across the draft stage in downtown Nashville last Thursday wearing a pink suit styled after a costume Leonardo DiCaprio wore in The Great Gatsby, he held up a red jersey and gazed out at the thousands of people lined up on Broadway. This wasn’t so different from the moment Rosen experienced last year in Arlington, Texas—except for the rain and the honky-tonk bars. Murray has vowed to “change things up” in Arizona. And if he doesn’t? Don’t doubt that the Cardinals will spend another first-rounder to find someone who will.
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