Photo Credit: All-Pro Reels, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Joe Burrow is about to become a very wealthy man. Of course, this is not to say that the $30 million he’s earned three years into his career so far is chump change. It’s just that, well, the next contract he signs will likely pay him well over $30 million per year. How does $40 million per year sound? $50 mil has a nice ring to it…
Point is, however loaded Burrow is right now, it’s nothing to the tax bracket he’ll likely find himself in once the ink is dry on the mega-extension between him and the Cincinnati Bengals. Though we’re likely months from that happening, that doesn’t mean I can’t wildly speculate on terms of said contract-extension in the meantime.
The prototypical cycle for first-round quarterbacks goes a little something like this: get drafted, perform well in years 1-3, have your fifth-year option picked up before the start of year 4, sign the mega-extension before the year 4 begins. That’s how it went for Patrick Mahomes. That’s how it went for Josh Allen. That’s how it went for Kyler Murray, Carson Wentz and Jared Goff too.
There are always exceptions, though. Lamar Jackson was the youngest and first unanimous NFL MVP in 2019, but injuries the past two seasons, combined with the Baltimore Ravens reluctance to commit to a fully-guaranteed contract, have led to the current impasse. Baker Mayfield seemed like a sure-bet to be the Cleveland Browns quarterback of the future after leading the team to a playoff victory. But, an injury-plagued 2021 season led to the Browns getting cold feet and subsequently selling their souls for a taste of the Deshaun Watson experience.
And speaking of Watson, initially it appeared his career would follow in the likes of Mahomes and Allen and Murray. Three years after his NFL debut, the Houston Texans picked up his fifth-year option. Just months after that, he was the recipient of a brand-new 4-year, $156 million contract extension. Then, everything went to shit.
You know the story, so I won’t rehash it now, but before his career was derailed (by his own hand), Watson was on the same trajectory as Burrow is now. First-round quarterbacks who perform get paid. That’s just how it goes. Burrow, thankfully, is no exception.
So, we know for sure that a mighty windfall is in Burrow’s future. But the length and value of that contract-extension? That’s a bit trickier to project. Here’s a table of some first-round QBs who signed extensions with their teams, provided with signing date, length, value, signing bonus and guaranteed money.
Alright, so what can we glean from this? For starters, just based on the information we have, Burrow is going to sign his contract on the 5th or 6th day of a summer/early fall month. That’s the first thing we know. The second thing we know is that he’s looking at a contract averaging well over $40 million per year.
There are a couple factors that can help us narrow down the area code in which Burrow’s contract-extension will likely land. First, Burrow is hands-down one of the five best QBs in the NFL, if not securely in the #2 spot behind Mahomes. Take another look at this list: only Allen and maaaybe Watson had a claim as one of the best QBs in the sport at the time of their extension. Wentz had been in the MVP conversation the season before he signed his extension, but he suffered a knee injury and missed the Eagles’ run to the Super Bowl. Goff took his Rams to the Super Bowl in 2018, but most believed head coach Sean McVay was more responsible for their success than Goff. Even Murray, who’s easily one of the most dynamic players at the position, hadn’t exactly erased all concerns about his future.
Out of all those players, Burrow’s resume can only be eclipsed by Mahomes. Like Mahomes, Burrow has quickly become the face of his franchise. Like Mahomes, he’s put up monster numbers and led his team to consecutive AFC Championship Games with a Super Bowl appearance to boot. Unlike Mahomes, though, there’s some hardware missing from Burrow’s trophy case (*cough-cough* an MVP *cough-cough*).
What we also know is that the Cincinnati Bengals are not a “flush-with-cash” organization. Owner Mike Brown is near the bottom of the NFL in terms of net worth. And with NFL bylaws requiring future guaranteed money to be kept in an escrow account, it’s safe to say that cash-poor Mike Brown isn’t going to be throwing around buckets of money like other teams might. It’s hard to imagine Burrow getting anything close to a fully-guaranteed contract like the one Watson was gifted by the Cleveland Browns in 2021, even if he’s far more deserving.
The Mahomes contract gives us the best template with which to work from. Both players are beloved by their respective franchises and fan bases. The Chiefs were more than happy to go the distance with their QB. For the Bengals, it’s no different. With that in mind, expect Burrow’s contract-extension to have a significant amount of years attached to it, likely in the 8-10 year range.
It’s a no-brainer for the Bengals. Don’t let this guy out of Cincinnati – period. No player has done more for the dramatic Bengals turnaround of the last couple season than #9. Beyond securing his services into the distant future, a longer-term contract would allow the Bengals flexibility in restructuring or even renegotiating a new deal down the road. For Burrow too, a longer-term deal provides security, a rare boon for any NFL player.
We also know that, with the NFL salary cap continuing to rise, the average annual value of Burrow’s contract will likely be well north of $40 million per year. If Kyler Murray gets an average of $46.1 million per year, doesn’t Burrow deserve at least $50? And while that seems incredible in the moment, consider that ten years after Burrow signs this extension, $50 million per year might be a bargain.
So, now we have our parameters: 8-10 years at an average of around $50 million per year. Let’s just say, for argument’s sake, Burrow signs an 8-year, $400 million contract-extension: how much of that is guaranteed? This is where the real pain of this contract will be felt. Remember, outside of the first year, all guaranteed money in the contract must be kept in escrow. For the Bengals, this is a scarier proposition than it is for most teams. In that case, my sense is that the Bengals will try to maximize Burrow’s signing bonus while minimizing the remaining guaranteed money over the life of the contract.
Still, Burrow is a premier player. He deserves the kind of guaranteed money premier players get. The Bengals aren’t getting away with anything less than $150 million guaranteed – no way, no how. Take another look at the table: notice anything strange about the signing bonuses? Both Mahomes and Allen (the two players in Burrow’s league as a QB right now) didn’t get huge signing bonuses. That, my friends, is where the Bengals can make up the difference.
Instead of making massive future guarantees, like the Cardinals did with Murray or the Bills did with Allen, the Bengals can have their cake and eat it too by offering Burrow an extension in similar length and value of Mahomes’s extension, but offering the up-front signing bonus that Murray got. That will allow the Brown family to avoid keeping large amounts of capital in an escrow account, while also fairly compensating their generational QB.
If we put all the pieces together, Burrow’s mega-extension could look something like this: 8-years, $400 million, with a $41 million signing bonus and $160 million guaranteed. His $50 million average annual value would put him right behind Aaron Rodgers in the QB-hierarchy, while the total value would be second only to Mahomes. The $41 million signing bonus would be the fifth-largest in history, while the $160 million guaranteed would be fourth-most all-time.
It’s the kind of deal that would work for both sides, just like the deal the Chiefs and Mahomes were able to agree upon in 2020. Make no mistake, the Bengals and Burrow are going to come to an agreement. The Bengals are finally getting a taste of being a winning franchise and they aren’t eager to return to the Dark Ages. But finding the middle-ground between fairly-compensating their phenomenal QB and hamstringing their franchise for years to come is imperative if the Bengals want to continue their run of success. The Bengals know this, and Burrow knows this. They have a good thing going here in Cincinnati – and what’s a few hundred mil between football-friends anyway?