The offseason quarterback carousel kicked off with Derek Carr signing with the New Orleans Saints. Carr got the have the head start after he was released by the Las Vegas Raiders. With this deal now in place, the first domino has fallen a day before the franchise tag deadline and a week before the official start of free agency.
We can now get some questions answered for the quarterback market and what this means for the Saints and Carr heading into the 2023 season.
How big of an upgrade is Derek Carr?
In a vacuum, Carr is a better quarterback than Andy Dalton, who played the most snaps for the Saints last year, but Dalton’s production went widely overlooked for the 2022 season. Dalton was 22nd among quarterbacks in EPA per play, according to TruMedia, while Carr was 15th last season. Dalton averaged 0.6 more yards per attempt than Carr.
Carr brings a level of play that is right around average but he’s also declined in EPA per play over the past four seasons. He peaked at 0.14 in 2019 but dropped to 0.09 in 2020 to 0.07 in 2021 to 0.05 in 2022.
Last year Carr was more aggressive throwing the ball deep, which led to an average depth of target of 9.13 while 14.3% of his passes traveled over 20 air yards, which was the seventh-highest rate among quarterbacks in 2022. That could potentially mesh well with Chris Olave who was one of the best deep receivers in the league during his rookie season.
But Carr is also a streaky deep passer. While that average rate ended up high, he had four games with a deep passing rate over 20% and five with a rate under 11%.
Carr was seventh in the rate of go routes thrown last season but he was just 18th in EPA per play on those throws and 21st in the rate of inaccurate throws. Dalton ranked fifth in EPA per play and had the lowest inaccuracy rate, according to TruMedia.
Dalton was not going to repeat those figures in 2023 but Carr would also have to improve quite a bit to come close to those numbers.
While Carr sits around the quality of the play-action-heavy quarterbacks such as Cousins and Tannehill, he’s not the type of quarterback that can be unlocked with those easy buttons. In two of the past three seasons, Carr has negative EPA with play-action.
The Saints have not been a heavy play-action offense over the past few seasons but that increases the need for Carr to have trust and control of the offensive structure. Plugging in Carr and expecting a big jump from what was already on the field in 2022 could be some wishful thinking.
How can the Saints afford this?
Still, New Orleans always made sense as a landing spot for Carr. When the Raiders allowed Carr to seek a trade, the Saints were the only team that had agreed to a compensation package that was good enough for the Raiders to allow Carr to move forward with negotiations. It was reported the Saints asked Carr to take a pay cut from his 2023 salary, but given the contract New Orleans eventually gave the quarterback, that appears to be more about structure and cash flow than the actual amount of money.
Carr’s deal has been reported as a four-year/$150 million with $100 million guaranteed. $70 million is fully guaranteed. Per Over The Cap, the $100 million in total guarantees would tie Matt Ryan for 10th among quarterbacks while the $70 million fully guaranteed would tie Kirk Cousins for eighth. The key metrics here but Carr in the Ryan-Cousins-Ryan Tannehill tier of quarterback contracts.
The $37.5 million average annual value will look relatively large but that average will be boosted by high non-guaranteed salaries in the third and fourth years of the contract that aren’t likely to be reached as currently constructed. It’s the type of deal that looks better on paper, gets some more cash in the player’s hand in Year 1, and will be either terminated or restructured by the time the big money cap charges come.
Per ProFootballTalk, Carr has a 2025 salary of $40 million with just $10 million of that guaranteed. There is a non-guaranteed $50 million salary in 2026.
With a $28.5 million signing bonus and a $1.5 million salary for 2023, Carr would only have a cap hit of $8.625 million for the upcoming season. If there is a void year tacked on, that would go down more with another year to prorate the signing bonus.
Before this deal, the Saints were $18 million over the 2023 cap per OTC, though the NFLPA salary cap report has the Saints $1.1 million under. Even if the Saints are currently cap compliant, there are still more moves to be done for the 2023 season.
Just to get to this point, the Saints have already made a flurry of restructures for the veterans already on the roster. This continues to push money into the future for a roster that was already the league’s oldest by snap-weighted age in 2022.
This is where the Saints get in a bit of trouble. Take the contract for Taysom Hill. which was just restructured. Hill will only have a $6.9 million cap hit for 2023 but would have a $22.8 million dead cap charge to release him. In 2024, the $16.9 million dead money charge is still $1.1 million more than Hill’s cap hit, which means the Saints would lose over $1 million to release him after the 2023 season when he’ll be 34 years old.
Does this make the Saints NFC South favorites?
The popular reaction to this is proclaiming the Saints as the favorite in the NFC South. That might be a bit premature given New Orleans was able to make the first strike. The current quarterbacks in the division aren’t great but this also isn’t likely to be how this division enters the season.
Without Tom Brady, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in a similar spot to where the Saints were after the retirement of Drew Brees. Tampa Bay could pivot from a few of the veterans on the roster to take all the dead money hits in 2023, take a year to clean up and reset the cap, and set sights on building the next version of the roster in 2024.
But the Buccaneers could also keep the ship moving, hoping to get the most out of the veterans still on the roster. That could lead to a stop-gap quarterback in free agency, whether it be someone such as Jimmy Garoppolo or Jacoby Brissett. Is a quarterback of that caliber throwing to Chris Godwin and Mike Evans really much of a dropoff from what the Saints will be running out?
The Carolina Panthers will likely add a rookie under Frank Reich. Reich has gotten at least competent quarterback play from a wide range of passers and it would not be surprising to see the Panthers have a productive offense on top of a talented defense now led by Ejiro Evero.
Then there is the NFC South offense that was already good in 2022. The Atlanta Falcons were one of the most efficient offenses during the regular season, though much of that came from a running game that included Marcus Mariota.
Mariota left a ton on the bone in the passing game, which forced the Falcons to start Desmond Ridder for the final four games of the regular season. Over that stretch, the Falcons were 14th in EPA per play. The run game was still effective — seventh in EPA per play — and if Ridder is still the starter, he’ll get a full offseason and hopefully a full season of Drake London and Kyle Pitts.
At BetMGM, the Saints are currently the favorite in the NFC South at +130, but that’s likely an overreaction to this news. It’s also the second-lowest odds for a current division favorite behind the Detroit Lions at +150 in the NFC North.
There’s some projection in place but just taking into account what could be the median expected outcome, it’s hard to comfortably say the Saints sit in the driver’s seat in the division.
What does this mean for the rest of the quarterbacks?
It’s unclear if much changes. Before the signing, reports surfaced that Carr was leaning toward the Jets, but they were still waiting on Aaron Rodgers. The Jets now appear to be Rodgers or bust on the market, but that might not put them in the worst spot.
Rodgers could lift that young core and that should be Plan A but a significantly cheaper Plan C might not be a terrible outcome for the Jets compared to what they would have needed to commit to Carr had they acted first.
Carr’s $37.5 million shouldn’t make many waves for the asking prices for the quarterbacks facing the franchise tag. Daniel Jones will still ask for what he wants and the Giants’ front office will see through the cap manipulation New Orleans used to get Carr to that number and this figure won’t fall into an argument for one side or the other. It still feels like the tag is the most likely outcome there. Lamar Jackson, meanwhile, is in his own category. Geno Smith could be a closer comp, but it appears the Seahawks have been close in conversations with their quarterback.
The Garoppolo/Brissett/Bridgewater tier was always going to have to wait out the top of the market. There are still spots in the NFC South for a bridge quarterback and the Raiders could also be a landing spot for one of those quarterbacks, though with the seventh pick, the Raiders could also be in striking distance for a trade up in search of a rookie quarterback.