Why you should care
Aaron Rodgers, Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald and more stars who play in the NFC have something very expensive in common.
Oakland Raiders fans awoke on September 2 refreshed from a long holiday weekend only to have their blood pressure skyrocket upon hearing the news: Oakland had sent Khalil Mack, the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and by far the franchise’s brightest talent, to the Chicago Bears. Not since February’s move of cornerback Marcus Peters by the Kansas City Chiefs to the Los Angeles Rams, for pennies on the dollar, had a trade rocked the NFL quite like this.
The Bears, in turn, made Mack the highest-paid defender in NFL history, on a deal worth an average of $23.5 million per season that offered $90 million in guaranteed money.
The final days of summer have always been an expensive time to do business in the NFL, as teams look to lock up star players well into the future. Mack’s deal followed one Aaron Donald signed with the Rams for an average of $22.5 million per year, one that had made him the highest-paid defender in NFL history — for all of two days. And we can’t forget the granddaddy of them all, Aaron Rodgers’ $134 million extension with the Green Bay Packers on August 29, which made him the NFL’s highest-paid player ever.
Aside from the fact that they can all afford to pick up the dinner tab for the foreseeable future, these players have something quirky in common. As it turns out:
Eight of the NFL’s 10 highest-paid players all play in the National Football Conference, or NFC, while just two play in the American Football Conference.
Per sports contract tracker Spotrac, when sorting contracts by guaranteed money — the best measure of how much an NFL player truly earns — eight NFC players come out on top: Matt Ryan, Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Mack, Donald, Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo and Alex Smith. The two AFC players, Andrew Luck and Derek Carr, come in at No. 5 and No. 10, respectively.
Why is this, when the salary cap for all players in the league is the same? And where exactly is the AFC spending its money?
One reason the NFC seems to be going all in is that, well, it is. The AFC is extremely top-heavy. In the past 15 years, only five teams have represented the conference in the Super Bowl: the New England Patriots (seven times), Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts. The NFC has sent 10 teams to the big game in that same span, during which the conference has trounced the AFC six times.
“The consistency of the Patriots appears to have really affected many of the AFC teams’ ability to think and build intelligently over the past decade,” says Michael Ginnitti, Spotrac co-founder and editor.
If you want to win now in the NFL, you need an excellent quarterback, and the supply of them in the NFC may be why those teams are spending so much.
The relative well-roundedness in the NFC has gotten only more pronounced in recent years. Half the conference has a legitimate chance at making the conference championship this season — so NFC general managers are ready to spend big to make it happen for their team.
If you want to win now in the NFL, you need an excellent quarterback, and the supply of them in the NFC is why Pro Football Focus NFL analyst Mike Renner thinks those teams are spending so much.
“Seemingly everyone in the NFC has a legit quarterback or a high draft pick,” Renner tells OZY. Teams are “more willing to go all in when that’s the case.” In the AFC, meanwhile, once you get past New England’s Tom Brady, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Philip Rivers, the QB talent wanes. The conference has a “history of franchises that have continually whiffed on QBs,” says Renner.
Ultimately, the quarterback position “drives all of this,” explains Ginnitti. And the teams that have made defenders the showcase of their spending — such as the Bears with Khalil Mack and the Rams with Aaron Donald — also, no coincidence, have young quarterbacks who won’t demand major money in the near future but can still hang with the big dogs.
But fret not, AFC fans — the time for your team will come. You’ll just need to wait for Brady to retire first.