Jerry Jones said it best — and apparently said it for many — when he summarized the Dallas Cowboys‘ playoff disappointment in January with a warning: “We all know how it goes in the NFL. The whole thing is set up to take away from the best and add to the ones that need improvement.”
We can argue the whole “best” thing in that analysis, but it’s clear the broader point Jones was making. Good rosters end up losing good players, or in some cases, great players. And it seems to be happening frequently this offseason to a trio of rosters locked into top-end quarterback salaries. Specifically, the Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers.
All three of those teams are less talented today than they were when each was bounced from the playoffs this past season. All three also have quarterbacks who are top-five in terms of average annual value and in percentage of salary cap dedicated to a QB. As it stands this week, Aaron Rodgers’ AAV is first in the league, taking up 26.1 percent of Green Bay’s cap, while Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is third at 23.3 percent and Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is fifth at 20.7.
That’s leaving teams with choices to make with their rosters, and it’s leading to a sliding scale of talent drain on the depth chart. Some of this is going to directly impact that trio of quarterbacks. Consider the attrition among them.
Start with Mahomes, who lost the most dynamic and skill-matched player he’s ever played with when the Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins on Wednesday. It was ultimately a money maneuver for Kansas City, as the Chiefs balked at paying Hill a market deal similar to that of Las Vegas Raiders wideout Davante Adams. (We’ll get to him in a moment.)
Aside from swapping out one defensive back (Charvarius Ward) for another (Justin Reid), the Chiefs have largely idled in free agency, thanks to a handful of contracts that have positioned the franchise looking for bargains rather than splash deals. Now that Hill is off the roster, cap room will allow Kanas City to maneuver a bit more freely and have some draft capital to fill holes. But it comes at the steep price of Hill, whose departure will take a massively talented player away from Mahomes and the offensive scheme.
That probably sounds familiar to fans in Green Bay, who saw Adams essentially force a trade to the Las Vegas Raiders after getting franchise tagged and then going through some frustratingly slow contract talks. While the Packers allegedly were willing to match Adams’ massive contract offer from the Raiders (which is quite frankly unknowable, even if the Packers assert it), the bottom line is money and cap considerations created the space for a trade to happen.
Like Mahomes, that leaves Rodgers without a multiple-time first-team All-Pro wide receiver. And much like the Chiefs, the Packers have been largely idle in free agency, losing pass rusher Za’Darius Smith and potentially seeing young wideout Marquez Valdes-Scantling depart as well. The Packers did manage to add Jarran Reed to the middle of the defensive line Tuesday. Not coincidentally, their flexibility to go after him was helped by the salary hole left behind by Adams.
Finally, you have Prescott, who has seen the departures of wideout Amari Cooper (who refused to take a pay cut and was traded) and offensive tackle La’el Collins (who also refused to take a pay cut and was released), along with the free agent losses of wideout Cedrick Wilson and edge rusher Randy Gregory. Guard Connor Williams could technically be added to that mix, although Dallas had been planning to let him go.
Still, that’s a multitude of pieces out the door, with very little flowing in to replace them. Dallas’ talented roster is now in need of a significantly impactful draft class, as well as some bargain-bin free agents who can help.
None of this is to blame the roster losses on this trio of quarterbacks, mind you. Particularly in the cases of Adams and Hill, who both were unlikely to show up for camp for the Packers and Chiefs without new top-of-market deals. Or Prescott for that matter, given a handful of less-than-ideal contracts awarded by the Cowboys in previous offseasons (see: Cooper, and Ezekiel Elliott) that have been problematic when weighed against performance. Not to mention the fact that Gregory basically left Dallas with a bad taste in his mouth over contract language and some things that happened during negotiations.
For all three quarterbacks, there were extenuating circumstances with surrounding talent they couldn’t control. But it also underscores a larger point for franchises as we head into deeper salary cap waters. For the teams that have the highest-paid quarterbacks, they are going to be hard-pressed when other elite-level players on their rosters reach free agency and, like their quarterbacks, aren’t inclined to give much of a discount. That’s how you arrive at the breaking point with Adams and Hill — both of whom would be staying home this offseason if their respective franchises had started negotiations with record-setting pay at the wide receiver positions.
When Adams didn’t get such an offer, it opened a crack between him and the organization that ultimately resulted in a trade. Then came the cascading impact, as the Hill negotiations with the Chiefs were blown apart by the deal Adams landed after his trade. So a money issue with one guy led to a trade and a new whopping contract that eventually developed a money issue for another player elsewhere.
This is only the beginning. Eventually, Cleveland is going to have its own brand of salary cap issues caused by the five-year $230 million Deshaun Watson deal. Ditto for the Buffalo Bills and Josh Allen. Even the Los Angeles Rams, who went from salary cap hell to seemingly not believing a salary cap existed, are going to have their hands full with Aaron Donald’s adjusted contract, along with cornerback Jalen Ramsey (be ready for that next offseason) and then contract extension talks with Cooper Krupp, the starting point of which has now been launched into the stratosphere.
With the cap expected to expand considerably moving forward, a multitude of players are going to be looking to max out deals at virtually every position on the field. And that’s going to create some interesting offseasons for franchises on the $40 million+ quarterback wage scale (which, by the way, is going to hit $50 million a season in a blink of an eye).
That’s going to set up more offseasons like this one, where the best and richest teams transform into frustrated and white-knuckled. Tough decisions are going to be made. Roster losses are going to be incurred. And some of the best quarterbacks in the game are going to see the roster talent trimmed around them to make room for more economical choices. This offseason it has been the Chiefs, Cowboys and Packers. In the coming years it will be the Rams, Bills and others.
As we seem to relearn every offseason, you can only give so much to the best players before you have to start taking away from the team around them.