Bargain Quarterbacks Lead NFC Title Teams in Playoffs

In a quarterback-driven sport, no National Football League team is spending less on the position this season than the Seattle Seahawks. They’re also the oddsmakers’ favorite to win the Super Bowl.

Russell Wilson is making about $681,000 in salary and bonuses in his second NFL season, less than 24 players on the Seattle roster, including backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. The money the Seahawks pay to quarterbacks this season accounts for 1.1 percent of their $133.5 million in player salaries, providing financial flexibility to assemble a roster that has six players voted to the Pro Bowl.

It’s a similar situation for the Seahawks’ opponent in this weekend’s National Football Conference championship game, as 2.6 percent of the San Francisco 49ers’ total cap spending goes to quarterbacks, with Colin Kaepernick getting about $1.4 million in salary and bonuses. The eight players the 49ers had voted to the Pro Bowl tied for the most in the NFL.

“These teams are certainly drawing the benefits of having a successful starting-caliber quarterback but not having to pay that much money for them,” said former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans General Manager Charley Casserly, who’s now an analyst for the NFL Network. “It not only deepens your roster, but allows you to have better starters at other positions.”

By comparison, quarterback salaries in the American Football Conference title game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots account for between 11 and 14 percent of their player payrolls, according to USA Today’s figures.

NFC Favored

The Las Vegas Hotel’s SuperBook currently has whichever team comes out of the NFC as a 2 1/2-point favorite for the Feb. 2 Super Bowl in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

While Wilson, 25, and Kaepernick, 26, are still signed under their four-year rookie contracts, four-time NFL Most Valuable Player Peyton Manning, 37, of the Broncos is making $17.5 million this season and three-time Super Bowl-winner Tom Brady, 36, tops the Patriots’ payroll at $13.8 million. Under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011, the salaries of Wilson and Kaepernick are predetermined based on where they were selected in the draft.

When looking at the quarterbacks still playing, it’s “old-school” in the AFC title game against “new school” in the NFC, Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders said this week. Beyond that, this weekend’s conference championships spotlight how the league’s best teams have assembled rosters based on the constraints or flexibility offered by quarterback pay.

Wide Chasm

“The thing you have right now with the quarterbacks is you have the upper echelon, which you could say are around $15 million annually up to the low $20 millions, and then you have the rookie contracts,” Casserly said in a telephone interview. “Among contending teams, the only guy really in the middle is Kansas City’s Alex Smith at $7.5 million plus incentives. You have that huge void there.”

NFL quarterbacks threw a record 804 touchdown passes during the 2013 season and the average of 471.2 combined passing yards a game was also the highest in league history.

Wilson’s production at a relatively low salary has helped the Seahawks in building a winning team focused on the league’s fourth-best rushing offense and No. 1 defense.

Wilson’s 24 career regular-season wins over his first two years in the NFL are a record, and he joined Manning and Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks to throw for more than 50 touchdowns his first two seasons. Wilson’s numbers have dipped in the Seahawks’ past five games, however, as he’s thrown for an average of 157.6 yards during that stretch and is coming off a season-low 103-yard passing performance in last week’s rainy and windy playoff win against the New Orleans Saints.

Favored Seahawks

“I think it’s more of a function of the way the games went,” Wilson told reporters this week when asked about his recent struggles. “We’ve played some really good defenses, but there’s definitely some room for improvement. We’re winning a lot of football games and that’s the best thing.”

The Seahawks are 3 1/2-point favorites against the 49ers for the Jan. 19 NFC championship game in Seattle.

They’re also listed at 7-4 to win the Super Bowl, according to oddsmakers at the Las Vegas SuperBook, meaning a winning $100 bet would return $175 along with the initial stake. Online sportsbook is offering 2-1 odds.

“We’re excited about the opportunity,” Manning told reporters this week. “There is no question that we have come a long way in the two years that I have been here.”

Franchise Quarterback

Manning’s salary in Denver equals the combined pay of two players the Broncos lost to season-ending injuries: left tackle Ryan Clady and linebacker Von Miller, the team’s second- and fourth-highest paid players. The Broncos’ quarterbacks account for 13.35 percent of the team’s total spending toward the salary cap, according to USA Today.

In New England, quarterback pay is 11.27 percent of the payroll on a team that’s lost four of its 11 highest-paid players to season-ending injuries. The Patriots entered this season without their five leading pass-catchers from the 2012 campaign, yet won at least 10 games for the 11th straight year.

“When you get a franchise quarterback, you’re going to pay him a lot of money, but he has to be able to deliver like the Mannings and the Bradys and be able to carry the people around him,” Casserly said.

The Broncos are 5 1/2-point favorites in the AFC championship.

With the 49ers, 26 players on the active roster make more than Kaepernick, a 2011 second-round draft pick whose rookie contract runs through next season. Kaepernick’s salary -- a base of $741,000 -- helped the 49ers assemble an offense that had the third-most rushing yards in the NFL this season and had a defense that allowed the third-fewest points.

NFL rules prevent players from renegotiating until after the third year of their rookie deals, so the 49ers, who are seeking to reach the Super Bowl for the second year in a row, could negotiate a long-term deal with Kaepernick this offseason.

Flacco’s Deal

Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco signed a six-year, $120.6 million deal last year after leading the Ravens past Kaepernick and the 49ers in the Super Bowl. Kaepernick won’t have the same leverage after this season, Casserly said, because the Ravens would have had to pay more than $20 million for one season if they tried to retain Flacco with their franchise player tag. That designation gives the player an average salary of what the top five at the position are costing their teams.

“The more games you win, the price goes up in the agent’s mind. Whether it goes up in the team’s mind is another thing,” Casserly said. “The leverage turned to Flacco in that case salary cap-wise. Leverage is still on the 49ers’ side here with time to go on the rookie contract.”

Wilson, a third-round pick in 2012, won’t be able to renegotiate his contract until after next season.

“It’s going to change down the road when they have the big quarterback paydays,” Casserly said of the Seahawks and 49ers. “When you get to that big contract, it changes the makeup of your team.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.