Derek Carr doesn't actually have the NFL's biggest contract.
Sure, Carr is slated to make more money playing football in 2017 than any other quarterback. And sure, he technically set the NFL record for most potential new money per year when he signed his five-year, $125 million extension earlier this offseason. But that record is based on dollar amounts, and frankly, dollar amounts aren't the best way to look at contracts.
Almost every year NFL teams hand out these "record-breaking" deals to players. The top players do, indeed, earn more with each passing season. But a large part of that is simply because the salary cap is rapidly rising.
To compare the simple number of dollars in Carr's deal (signed with a $167 million cap) to those in Aaron Rodgers' contract (signed in 2013 with a $123 million cap) is roughly akin to directly comparing the price of bread at one grocery store today to another from 2000.
As one NFL player agent put it, in a world where Rodgers is scheduled to cost only about $20 million against the cap this year, the rising cap "is the only thing that allows Derek Carr to make $25 million."
If we look strictly at the average annual value (AAV) of contracts, these are the five biggest current quarterback deals.
But when we factor in inflation, we find that Carr's new deal is merely the 10th-biggest among current quarterback contracts.
Here's how we get there:
For starters, it's worth pointing out that there is no perfect way to boil NFL contracts down to one number that can be compared to others because of structural factors such as bonuses and guarantees. But one good estimate, which we'll use here, is the average annual cash value of the first three years of the contract. It helps paint a picture of how much money is coming in yearly, while focusing only on the first three years of a deal, when the money is most likely to actually be paid out.
Typically, only new money and new years are counted for average extension values, which is why Carr can have an AAV of about $25 million on what is technically a five-year, $125 million extension, even though he's actually earning the money over six years (starting in 2017). In order to put extensions on the same playing field as new free-agent deals, we will simply count the cash earned over the course of the first three years of the deal, starting in the year the contract was signed, and call it adjusted 3AAV. While this calculation doesn't differentiate "new money" or other factors that impact a player's leverage in negotiation, we're just trying to measure the biggest contracts. As soon as Carr signed on the dotted line, it all became old money, and it's all the same to us for this exercise.
With that settled, we can get to the important part: adjusting for the salary cap. To do this, we simply will convert the adjusted 3AAV number for each deal into the percentage of the salary cap the contract took up in the year the deal was signed. Carr's deal cost the Raiders 13.51 percent of the 2017 league cap, which is less than, for example, the contract Ben Roethlisberger (15.12 percent) signed in 2015 even though Carr signed for more money.
By looking at adjusted 3AAV as a percentage of cap, the top five biggest QB contracts are:
Doesn't this list make a little more sense?
It turns out that Matt Ryan, rather than Carr or any of the QBs who recently signed deals, was able to wrangle the highest percentage of the salary cap among players currently employed, slightly edging out Rodgers, who signed in the same season. Eli Manning looks particularly overpaid when we slice the numbers this way, but that's just a function of the fact that he, quite simply, is overpaid. Andrew Luck's contract, despite often being compared to Carr's, was clearly the better and bigger deal.
Here's the next batch of quarterback contracts, in terms of 3AAV as a percentage of cap in the year signed.
Carr is 10th on the overall list -- a reasonable place for him to land. We can see that Russell Wilson certainly is a bargain, let alone Tom Brady. And Matthew Stafford would seem to deserve a new deal -- his old contract doesn't pay enough relative to his ability at quarterback, and it doesn't pay enough based on 2013 dollars, either. With Brock Osweiler and Joe Flacco ahead of Stafford, he should be in line for a raise in percentage of cap, which would translate to quite a lot more money. But if Stafford does sign a new deal, we should consult this list again before declaring whether the contract has reset the market.
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