Jalen Hurts and the Race for the First $55 Million Quarterback

Apr 18th 2023

Bryan Knowles

On Monday, Jalen Hurts and the Philadelphia Eagles inked a five-year, $255 million contract extension, one that will theoretically keep him in Eagles green through the 2028 season. The deal makes Hurts the highest-paid player in NFL history in terms of average annual value, second behind only Patrick Mahomes in terms of total value and second to only Deshaun Watson in guaranteed money. It’s a lot of money for a player after only his second full year as a starter, but as Hurts currently has a solid claim as the best quarterback in the NFC, it’s hard to argue that it’s not worth a shot.

There are any number of interesting angles that this deal brings. First and foremost, it’s timing – Hurts hasn’t even turned 25 years old yet. Because Hurts was not a first-round pick, the Eagles didn’t have the luxury of a fifth-year option to kick their decision one more year down the road; it was make a deal now or try to negotiate with him with free agency looming in the window. As such, Hurts becomes the youngest player to become the highest-paid ever since Michael Vick signed a 10-year, $130 million contract on Christmas Eve in 2004. In the 20 years since, we’ve typically seen the largest contracts go to more experience, more fully-developed players. Hurts is cashing in early, with the Eagles gambling that he’s going to continue improve going forwards.

And make no mistake, Hurts does still have room to improve as a passer. Hurts has never finished higher than 10th in passing DYAR or DVOA, and he’s never had a passing grade above 83.8 from Pro Football Focus. They’re also paying for Hurts coming off of his best season – his previous passing highs were a -0.3% DVOA and a 69.2 PFF grade. He’s improved in every year he’s been in the NFL and there’s every reason to believe he’ll take that next step forward, but the Eagles are paying him as if he already has. It’s a risk worth taking, but that means it’s still a risk.

There’s also the storyline of Philadelphia guaranteeing tons of money – with a no-trade clause, to boot – to another quarterback so soon after putting their chips on Carson Wentz and striking out. That’s more of a radio talk show talking point than something that actively matters going forward – it’s not like the Eagles have Wentz’s contract still on the books or anything – but it is a historically unusual situation. Since the salary cap was put into place in 1994, there have only been 48 quarterbacks who signed deals worth at least 15% of the cap. The four-year gap between Wentz’s 2019 extension and Hurts’ new deal is the second-shortest for one team in NFL history, only beaten by the Rams flitting from Jared Goff to Matthew Stafford. Remember, if everything had gone the way they had hoped, Wentz would still have two more seasons left on that 2019 extension. Flipping between franchise saviors like this is historically unusual, to say the least.

There’s also the matter of how the contract is structured, which is fascinating in and of itself. Philadelphia put themselves in something of a tough financial position this offseason, dedicating a lot of resources to putting together last year’s NFC champions. It was an open question as to just how the Eagles would manage to structure a contract that would give Hurts the money they earned while also giving them some wriggle-room to keep a team around him. The answer? Extreme IOUs.

Hurts’ contract is almost hilariously back-loaded, with him not even passing $32 million per year until 2027. As things currently stand, Hurts will have the 25th-largest quarterback cap hit in 2023, behind backups like Tyrod Taylor and unknowns like Trey Lance. He won’t enter the top 10 until 2026 at the earliest, giving the Eagles plenty of time of relatively cheap contracts to build around him. In exchange, the Eagles gave him a load of guaranteed money up front -- $175 million in new guarantees. That is huge – by comparison, Kyler Murray’s big deal only included $125 million in new money. It’s $20 million more in new guarantees than anyone not named Deshaun Watson has ever received in a contract. It’s easy to paint the Watson deal as an outlier done by a crazy management team in Cleveland. This isn’t that – this is a big jump, yes, but it’s also a reasonably logical one, and an easier one for agents around the league to point to as a model for why their clients deserve humongous guaranteed signing bonuses. It’s certainly a risk any time you give a player massive amounts of guaranteed cash – cue everyone in Denver nodding their heads vigorously – but Hurts’ deal makes that a harder argument for management to make.

And that, ultimately, might be the most interesting aspect of Hurts’ new deal. The ink isn’t even dry yet, and we’re already speculating who will usurp Hurts’ title as the highest paid player in football. The reign is likely to be very short, with Lamar Jackson, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert all waiting in line for new deals. By getting their deal done first, the Eagles probably will end up with the cheapest of the four contracts, as each of those remaining top passers will be looking to top the class themselves. After all, that’s the definition of the highest-paid player nowadays – the last very good quarterback to sign a deal. The next quarterback of the trio to sign will likely hit $54 million, and the second will be the one to crack the $55 million barrier.

It's particularly relevant to Jackson’s case, as he’s the one at contract loggerheads at the moment, sitting there on the non-exclusive franchise tag. The last reported deal he turned down from Baltimore had $133 million guaranteed at signing and $175 million guaranteed for injury, with $25 million more “essentially” guaranteed. The Hurts deal is very much in line with those numbers, and not with the fully-guaranteed deal Watson signed last year. It shows that Baltimore is in line with the market in what they’re offering Jackson.

Should Jackson get more money than Hurts? I certainly would be more comfortable paying Jackson more money; he has a longer track record of success and the higher highs, despite working with less talent around him than Hurts had last season. We may never see 2019 MVP Jackson again, but he was putting up good passing numbers with a receiving corps of Demarcus Robinson, Devin Dunvernay and Rashod Bateman in 2022. Give him someone of Odell Beckham’s quality, and you should see his raw numbers improve substantially. Yes, his injury history is real and worrisome, but the top-level quality is more than enough to make up for the risk. But if Jackson is still holding out hope for that 100% guaranteed deal, the Hurts deal is a massive blow to his plans – this reiterates the Watson dealer as an outlier. And if the runner-up to MVP can’t get more than 70% of his contract guaranteed, then it seems beyond improbable for a player coming off of a lengthy, lingering knee injury to get more than that. Eric DeCosta should send Howie Roseman a gift basket.

Roseman may not get the same courtesy from Tom Telesco or Mike Brown, however. The Bengals, in particular, have been making noise about structuring Burrow’s contract like Patrick Mahomes’ deal. Mahomes’ contract may be roughly the GDP of Micronesia, but it was also surprisingly team friendly, with just 25% of it essentially guaranteed at time of signing. Mahomes’ deal is essentially guaranteed for two years at a time, with a new year getting guaranteed each season. That gives the Chiefs more flexibility to move money around, creating cap space when needed and eating salary when they can afford to. But with Hurts getting so much guaranteed up front, why should Burrow or Herbert wait for their guarantees? Sure, maybe Burrow still takes too many sacks, and Herbert’s checkdownitis reared its head once again in 2022. But it’s not like Hurts is without his warts, either. If the Bengals and Chargers were hoping to maintain financial flexibility, Hurts just plowed through that dream with just as much efficiency as his fourth-down sneaks.

Ultimately, it seems unlikely that any of the four teams in question will truly regret signing a very, very large check for their franchise passers – you’d rather have a guy and be paying them a little too much than watch them go and put up huge numbers elsewhere. But Hurts’ deal looks like it will, at least to a certain extent, up the total amount of guaranteed money the trio of passers still in the queue will receive. And, in a league filled with inflated numbers to create contracts that look deceivingly fruitful, that’s a win for the players.