There is no more valuable player in professional sports than a franchise quarterback. Stars carry teams in every professional sports league, but no league has success hinge as much on the performance of one position as football.
As a result, top quarterbacks don't come by cheap. Whether it is Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers today or Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson tomorrow, elite playmakers at quarterback are going to continue to be paid top-dollar.
Combine these two factors and one thing is clear: a cost-controlled franchise quarterback isn't just rare. It is franchise-changing.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have a chance to use this advantage to change their fortunes and finally build a consistent winner, but will they capitalize?
Can the Jaguars follow in the footsteps of the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks and use the advantage of having a starting quarterback on a rookie salary to propel them to the top of the NFL over the next three to four years?
Or will they instead follow teams like the Houston Texans and not be able to take the steps necessary to win at a consistent level with a young quarterback?
This is the question facing the Jaguars in the immediate wake of No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence officially signing his rookie contract this week. And it will be a question that head coach Urban Meyer and general manager Trent Baalke are going to have to balance as they field a team around Lawrence.
Lawrence's four-year rookie deal will amount to $36,793,488 according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, which amounts to Lawrence having a cap hit of just $6,689,725 in 2021. According to Spotrac, this would rank No. 25 among NFL quarterbacks -- just in front of Nick Foles and behind players like Taysom Hill, Case Keenum and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
If Lawrence is as productive as a rookie as his talent suggests he could be, there is a good chance he will be better than the 25th-best quarterback in the league as a rookie. His production will more than likely exceed his cost, a trend that won't change until he is finally off his rookie deal.
And Lawrence's cap hit isn't expected to rise above the 25th-highest at his position during his rookie deal. Spotrac has his 2022 cap hit of $8,362,156 as the No. 25 cap hit among quarterbacks in 2022 as of today. Lawrence's cap hit won't even approach the $10 million mark until 2023 when it is $10,034,588.
Couple all of this with the reality that the NFL's salary cap will continue to rise over the duration of Lawrence's contract and the Jaguars could be on the verge of something special from a team-building perspective -- but only if they take the necessary and responsible steps.
When Dave Caldwell was given this same opportunity (albeit with a quarterback who was not a franchise passer) from 2014-2017 with Blake Bortles, the Jaguars splurged. It led to some positive additions such as Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye, Malik Jackson, Jermey Parnell, Tashaun Gipson, and Marcell Dareus. But it also gave the Jaguars the room to make costly mistakes such as Julius Thomas, Jared Odrick and Davon House.
Ultimately, the Jaguars were able to push past those mistakes and advance to the AFC Championship based off the strength of their veteran additions. If Bortles wasn't under his rookie deal, the Jaguars wouldn't have been able to allocate so many resources to the rest of the roster.
The same theory will apply to the Jaguars for the next four years with Lawrence under center. The Jaguars spent considerably during the 2021 offseason, though this was in part due to their sheer quantity of additions. They didn't sign any free agent who left the offseason as one of the new highest-paid players at their positions like in past seasons, but knowing that Lawrence's rookie deal would afford them cap flexibility in 2021 likely played a big role in the Jaguars' offseason plans.
But what about 2022 and beyond? Will the Jaguars be swift, calculated and aggressive in surrounding Lawrence with productive free agents on both sides of the ball? Or will they invest in the wrong areas on bad fits, wasting away Lawrence's first few years in the NFL as they attempt to navigate building a team around him?
Winning a Super Bowl with a quarterback after his rookie deal is far from impossible, but the goal becomes harder with each passing year. Even if the Jaguars are fresh off a 1-15 season, their best window to win is over the next four seasons.
Whether the Jaguars capitalize upon their Lawrence advantage will be the deciding factor in the success of the Meyer and Baalke regime. But the Jaguars shouldn't slow-play their rebuild. If Lawrence is the quarterback they think he is -- the quarterback they need him to be -- then his second contract will be astronomical and it will be a long-forgotten memory of when he was once the league's 25th highest-paid quarterback.
The Jaguars have talent around Lawrence now. They are better than most teams picking No. 1 overall typically are, at least on paper. But over the next four years, they need to reach heights far above that. Failing to do so would be failing to take advantage of the greatest gift the franchise has received in its history.