NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The easiest decision in the NFL is forking over the big bucks to sign Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Drew Brees to long-term deals. Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton recently signed multi-million dollar contracts from teams trying to lock down their franchise quarterback.
Most clubs still are searching for a quarterback worthy of such money. This season, 19 teams will pay their projected starting quarterbacks less than $3.5 million, or one-fifth of the $17.5 million Jay Cutler will make from the Bears in base salary.
While teams without $15 million quarterbacks have more money to spend on defense, other offensive weapons and depth, most NFL general managers say they would love to have the “problem” of paying a star quarterback.
“If you’ve got a good quarterback, you’ve got to pay him,” Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley says. “Now if you don’t have a good quarterback, then you’re going to try to keep trying to find that quarterback. And teams like the Indianapolis Colts, the Seattle Seahawks and hopefully us, we’ve got cheap, cheap versions of it only because of the salary cap structure and the CBA.”
Cheap doesn’t mean inferior. Andrew Luck has taken the Colts to the playoffs in each of his two seasons, and Russell Wilson has already won a championship with the Seahawks in just two years. With both on rookie contracts, their teams can afford to surround them with better players.
The early success of Luck, Wilson, Kaepernick and others has persuaded many teams to use the draft to find a quarterback who can start quickly. And some teams are more willing than ever to cut an established, but not elite starter, and go fishing for another third-round steal like Wilson.
The Titans are hoping Jake Locker, drafted in 2011, still can be their guy. But they declined to pick up his 2015 option because Locker has missed 14 of 32 games since being named the starter, and they drafted Zach Mettenberger in the sixth round for some protection. Titans general manager Ruston Webster said finding a franchise quarterback solidifies a team in a way no other position can, making it an easy decision to pay up, if you have found the right guy.
“Yeah, we all would like to be able to do that,” Webster said. “While you’re searching or developing a quarterback, though, I think the thing teams are doing — and rightfully so — is build everything else around it and make it as good as you can be. Then let the quarterback take it from there.”
The Seahawks can’t extend Wilson until 2015, so he will make a salary of $662,434 in his third season. That’s about 4 percent of what Chicago is paying Cutler.
“It’s a big deal for us,” general manager John Schneider said. “We’ve been able to acquire other players, and they were definitely players we were able to acquire that helped us get over the top this year.”
But Schneider and vice president of football administration Matt Thomas know it won’t last. They project their salary cap up to three years, and they are preparing for a big hit once they have to pay Wilson an eight-digit salary.
San Francisco and Cincinnati have signed their young quarterbacks to lucrative extensions, but the Bengals front-loaded Dalton’s contract enough to protect themselves if the quarterback who’s 30-18 overall isn’t the answer long-term considering his 0-3 postseason record.
Teams still saving money with young quarterbacks include the Jets with Geno Smith going into his second year, though Michael Vick is an expensive insurance policy. Rookie Johnny Manziel is pushing Brian Hoyer in Cleveland. E.J. Manuel is going into his second season in Buffalo where the Bills’ quarterback search has been ongoing since Jim Kelly retired after the 1996 season.
Houston traded Matt Schaub to Oakland and signed journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick in March after Tennessee cut him. Tampa Bay brought in Josh McCown to start ahead of second-year Mike Glennon.
Jacksonville and Minnesota believed they had drafted franchise quarterbacks in 2011 with Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder only to go back to the draft this year to pick Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater. The Vikings are going with veteran Matt Cassel now, but the money saved on quarterbacks has allowed them to spend big in free agency at cornerback, defensive line and at wide receiver while keeping some of their own players with new deals.
Buffalo invested in its defensive line, and the Bills wound up with three Pro Bowl selections last season while ranking second in the NFL with 57 sacks. The Titans have invested heavily in their offensive line by signing left guard Andy Levitre and right tackle Michael Oher and drafting right guard Chance Warmack and left tackle Taylor Lewan the last two years.
In the meantime, teams wait, watch and hope their young quarterbacks will force them to pay up.
“It’s a nice problem to have, and hopefully we’ve got it,” Whaley said.
For those trying to earn that big deal, Nick Foles of the Eagles has a suggestion. He’s due $615,000 this season and said worrying about numbers puts quarterbacks at risk of making mistakes when the key is trying to win.
“There’s no dollar sign on me when I’m throwing a ball,” Foles said.
Seattle rookie Marsh to have MRI after injury
RENTON, Wash. — Seattle Seahawks rookie defensive end Cassius Marsh will undergo an MRI after appearing to suffer a knee injury in practice.
Marsh was hurt after getting tangled in a pile during Wednesday’s practice, the final one before Seattle broke training camp. The Seahawks have a light practice Thursday before Friday night’s second preseason game against San Diego.
The team did not have any further details. Coach Pete Carroll is expected to talk after Thursday’s practice.
Marsh was a fourth-round pick out of UCLA and was expected to contribute right away as a pass rusher for the Seahawks. Marsh had four tackles and a sack in Seattle’s preseason opening loss to Denver.
Vikings name EJ Henderson youth football manager
MANKATO, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings have named former linebacker E.J. Henderson the organization’s new youth football manager.
The Vikings made the announcement Wednesday at training camp. Henderson spent nine seasons with the Vikings and was voted the team’s defensive MVP in 2007.
In his new post, Henderson will help develop new youth football initiatives, with a particular focus on player health and safety. He’ll also be responsible for widening the program’s reach outside the metro area.
The Vikings also announced Wednesday that linebacker Dom DeCicco will need surgery on his hip. DeCicco did not play in the preseason opener against Oakland last week and coach Mike Zimmer said it’s unclear how long he will be out of action.
‘Underrated’ Campbell would love more recognition
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians calls Calais Campbell one of the most underrated players in the NFL.
It’s a description the big defensive end doesn’t really like.
An imposing 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds, Campbell says he simply wants to be “the best in the game.”
He already is one of the best at his position.
Yet he has never made it to the Pro Bowl, something that Arians says “baffles” him.
One reason is the 3-4 defensive scheme the Cardinals use. That leaves Campbell inside to fight off double teams while others make the play. In the 4-3 system, defensive ends rush the passer and accumulate the kind of sack totals that result in a Pro Bowl invitation.
Cushing among starters back at Texans practice
HOUSTON — For Brian Cushing, there’s no substitute to being on the field.
The Houston Texans linebacker returned to practice on Wednesday, what he called “a very small step” as he comes back from his second straight season-ending injury on his left leg.
“Being back with the team is the most important thing,” Cushing said. “If I can get out here, I can go through some game-like situations, some real, live-speed stuff, and that’s going to help a lot.”
Andre Johnson and Arian Foster were also back in pads as the team went through a joint practice with the Atlanta Falcons. Johnson and Foster have both missed most of training camp while nursing hamstring injuries. Johnson was the most active of the trio on Wednesday, and stayed after practice to work with a passing machine.
“I was able to do things full speed,” Johnson said. “I didn’t participate in competition stuff with the other team because it was the first day. I was just being careful about how they work me back in. Other than that I’ll be out here every day.”
Cushing had been on the physically unable to perform list since the start of training camp. He tore his lateral collateral ligament and broke his fibula in Week 7 last year after a low hit by Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles. In 2012, Cushing tore the anterior cruciate ligament in Week 5 against the New York Jets.
Cushing knew his limitations as he endured his second painful rehab in as many years.
“When you don’t feel right, you don’t want to push it, especially when you’ve gone through it before,” he said. “You know what it feels like when it’s not right. Obviously, there’s some patience that has to go into it. At the same time, you know when you’re ready and when you’re not.”
Jets all wet, accept Pats’ Ice Bucket Challenge
CORTLAND, N.Y. — Rex Ryan and the New York Jets got soaked for a good cause.
The team accepted the New England Patriots’ Ice Bucket Challenge to their AFC East rivals and ended its last public practice at SUNY Cortland on Wednesday by getting doused — with help from the Cortlandville Fire Department.
“Any time you get issued a challenge by New England, we’re going to accept that challenge,” Ryan said.
The challenge, a social media phenomenon, is part of a program launched by the ALS Association to raise money for fighting ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Participants challenge others on video to do it or donate money to ALS before dumping ice cold water over their heads.
A Jets spokesperson said the team would be donating an undisclosed amount to an ALS charity.
The Jets, who were also challenged by comedian Jimmy Fallon, dumped a few buckets on the rookies and then Ryan and general manager John Idzik before the Cortlandville Fire Department sprayed the entire team with a crane-mounted fire hose — sending the drenched players, including Geno Smith and Michael Vick, scurrying as fans cheered.
Ryan nominated his wife, his dogs, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — “He’s a big dude, but not as big as he used to be” — the Jets cheerleaders and the Cleveland Browns.
“Let the Browns take a page out our playbook, if you will,” a smiling Ryan said. “Play like a Brown, so to speak.”