Why Kyler's extension sends important message to Fields, Bears originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
Kyler Murray got paid.
After months of negotiations, the star quarterback and the Arizona Cardinals agreed to a five-year, $230.5 million contract extension Thursday, including $160 million in guarantees. The contract makes Murray the second-highest paid quarterback annually, behind Aaron Rodgers.
Murray becomes the latest quarterback to sign a mega-extension, and his deal shines a spotlight on the greatest cheat code in the NFL.
Having a quarterback on a rookie contract.
Per Spotrac, the last nine Super Bowl champions have allocated 13.5 percent of their cap or less to the quarterback position (starters and backups). Two of those quarterbacks, Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes, were on rookie deals that took up less than five percent of the team's cap.
It will take a few years for Murray's cap hit to get to the $46 million range, but when it does, the Cardinals will be allocating somewhere at or above 15 percent of their cap on one player, depending on where the salary cap number falls.
The era of quarterback mega-contracts and the history of the NFL should paint an important picture for the Bears and Justin Fields.
If Fields is their guy, they have a four-year window to compete with a quarterback taking up less than 15 percent of their salary cap. With the 2022 season expected to be Year 0 of a rebuild, the Bears have three years to compete for a Super Bowl with Fields at an affordable number. Now, the Bears could backload a Fields extension to give themselves one or two more years, but the bill comes due eventually.
For comparison's sake, Bears quarterbacks will take up 3.25 percent of Chicago's salary-cap space this season. Two years after winning a Super Bowl on a rookie contract, Mahomes and the Chiefs' quarterbacks will take up 19.46 percent of the cap as the Super Bowl MVP's extension kicks into overdrive.
Having a star quarterback to pay is, of course, an excellent problem to have. But once the signal-caller gets the bag, it usually means you must cut costs elsewhere.
Look at the Chiefs, for example. With Mahomes' cap number exploding to 35.7 million this season, the Chiefs decided to trade Tyreek Hill instead of giving him the lucrative extension he wanted. They didn't believe they could pay Mahomes and Hill over 35 percent of their cap and still realistically compete for a championship. So, the Chiefs we once knew now look a little different.
Having a quarterback on a rookie contract allows you to spend most of your cap space on top-tier veterans and stars at other key positions on the football field.
That's part of the predicament the Bears find themselves in with a quarterback and a head coach/general manager on different timelines.
Head coach Matt Eberflus and general manager Ryan Poles are in the early stages of a tear-down project. The Bears are set to have $100 million in cap space next offseason, but the roster has a lot of holes to address. Meanwhile, Fields enters his second NFL season hoping to make a Year 2 leap and prove to Eberflus and Poles that he's the franchise quarterback the Bears have long sought.
Even if Fields does cement himself as the Bears' long-term answer under center, Chicago now only has three seasons -- maybe five if the extension is backloaded -- left to build a contender around Fields while his contract is at an affordable rate. That's not an impossible task given the cap space Poles freed up for next offseason.
However, it does impress upon the Bears the importance of nailing every move around Fields to maximize a critical window.
But those are tomorrow's worries.
For the Bears, all that matters is whether Fields can show he has the talent to throw open that title window. The rest comes later.