NFL’s Most Valuable Player Makes Less Than $1 Million a Year

From a Wall Street Journal story by Andrew Beaton headlined “The NFL’s Most Valuable Players Makes Less Than $1 Million”:

Brock Purdy is a contender to win Most Valuable Player and the quarterback of the Super Bowl favorite San Francisco 49ers. But what makes him so outrageously valuable isn’t just that he excels at the most important position in football for a team expected to vie for the Lombardi Trophy.

Top quarterbacks command contracts worth over $50 million annually. Purdy gets paid less than a million. There isn’t another player who contributes so much and gets paid so little.

As the lowest-paid starting quarterback in the NFL, Purdy highlights the type of extreme market inefficiency that propels teams toward confetti showers. Since improbably taking over as the 49ers’ quarterback last year as a rookie, he’s undefeated, 10-0, as a starter in the regular season. The only thing that has beaten him is an elbow injury he suffered in the playoffs.

By any metric, Purdy is performing like a superstar. He’s completing 72.1% of his passes and leads the league in passer rating. When Purdy threw for four touchdowns in the Niners’ 42-10 blowout win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, it only further cemented his rise.

“Brock is playing as one of the best quarterbacks in the league,” star Niners pass rusher Nick Bosa said.

Purdy, whose contract pays him an average of $930,000 per season, is also playing at that level for a fraction of the cost of his peers. Joe Burrow’s new deal from the Cincinnati Bengals pays him $55 million per year. That nets out to nearly as much for a quarter of a game as Purdy gets in a season. Even plenty of Purdy’s neighbors in the Bay Area make more: Netflix is offering up to twice as much as Purdy makes to hire an engineering director.

NFL teams salivate over the window to build their rosters around quarterbacks who are on rookie contracts, before they require megadeals that gum up the books. Purdy takes that to an entirely new level thanks to what made him such a marvel in the first place.

Purdy makes so little compared with his peers because he was the last pick of the 2022 draft, a selection that bestows the title “Mr. Irrelevant” on a player because the last pick of the draft isn’t supposed to matter. Purdy was never supposed to matter for the Niners, either. He was the backup to the backup—until he became an unlikely sensation.

The 49ers had a clear vision of how to build their team, and it didn’t involve the young quarterback the team plucked out of Iowa State. In 2021, they traded three first-round picks to move up in the draft and select Trey Lance, an athletic but raw passer out of North Dakota State. Lance was tabbed as the future of the team.

It didn’t pan out that way. And when a team commits so many resources to a single player who turns into a bust, it can set a franchise back for years. But it turned out Purdy was the exact insurance policy that the 49ers needed when they mortgaged their future for another player—and that investment went horribly awry.

Lance was a blue-chip stock that saw its value tank. Purdy was the rare penny stock that exploded.

As a rookie, Lance was beat out for the job by Jimmy Garoppolo, the quarterback who took the team to the Super Bowl after the 2019 season. Lance got the job last season, but was underwhelming before suffering a season-ending injury during his second game and giving way to Garoppolo. Then Garoppolo also got hurt.

Suddenly, the rookie taken with the 262nd pick in the draft was thrust into duty, and he defied even the rosiest expectations. Purdy came off the bench to replace Garoppolo and led San Francisco to a big win over the Dolphins. In his first start the next week, Purdy completely outplayed a former sixth-round pick named Tom Brady.

Purdy led the 49ers all the way to the NFC Championship without losing a single game, including two playoff wins, and when the Niners fell to the Eagles just shy of the Super Bowl he wasn’t at fault. San Francisco’s miserable run of luck continued when Purdy suffered an elbow injury, and then his back up got a concussion. Purdy had to return to the game essentially unable to throw the ball.

Purdy’s crazy run of success combined with an injury that required elbow surgery left the 49ers with a dilemma they never expected to be on their hands. But instead of sticking with Lance simply because they once gave up so much to get him, the 49ers admitted he was a sunk cost before the season. Purdy was named the starter. And San Francisco recouped a pittance on its investment in Lance when it traded him to the Cowboys for a fourth-round pick.

Purdy has recovered from his elbow surgery and made that decision look brilliant. The 49ers are now 5-0, and he has dispelled any notion that he’s a mere byproduct of coach Kyle Shanahan’s offensive schemes.

“Brock’s the real deal,” Shanahan said in August.

Purdy’s numbers are among the best in football, no matter the cost of the quarterback, but what makes Purdy unique is how little the Niners have to pay him in a sport where teams are constrained by a salary cap. Every rookie contract has a slotted value based on draft order, and Purdy getting taken last means he’s not just an improbable story. It’s why there’s such a huge gap between his immense contributions and his tiny contract.

For comparison, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence was taken with the No. 1 overall pick in 2021, and his contract pays him an average of $9.2 million a year. That’s far less than what he’d be worth on the open market. It’s also about 10 times Purdy’s average earnings.

Purdy’s average money a year ranks 80th among 84 quarterbacks in the NFL, according to the salary-tracking website Almost every kicker and punter earns more than him. Across the entire league, there are more than 1,500 players who make more money per season than the player who might win MVP.

The result is that the 49ers have about $40 million in cap space—the most in the NFL—giving them unmatched flexibility to make any deals before the league’s trade deadline. And that doesn’t go to waste if San Francisco doesn’t use it: teams are allowed to roll over unused cap dollars into future seasons.

What’s more is that the Niners couldn’t pay Purdy more even if they wanted to. Clubs are prohibited from renegotiating or extending rookie contracts until after a player’s third season.

So Purdy will continue to be absurdly cheap for all of this season—and next year, too.

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