Should the Bears Draft Caleb Williams and Trade Justin Fields? A Look at the Financial Advantage of a Rookie QB Contract Through a RotoViz Lens
Image Credit: Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Caleb Williams.

Now that an NFL champion has been crowned all eyes turn to free agency in March, and the draft in late April before NFL media outlets corporately begin the Great Summer Filibuster. The most focused scrutiny has already been steadily affixed to the Chicago Bears and what they might do this April. Despite finishing the season with a 7-10 record, they have the NFL’s top draft pick thanks to a trade made this time last year with the Carolina Panthers, who, in turn, won only two games. The Bears’ young QB Justin Fields played arguably his best football in the back half of 2023, but Caleb Williams, at least the most heralded QB prospect since Trevor Lawrence, looms within their reach if they want him. So, it has many wondering: What should Chicago do?

DEFINING THE QUESTION

A massive component of this examination (if not its entirety) is what kind of advantage can be earned by a team playing a QB on a rookie deal. Not only is Williams the more heralded prospect, but he would reset the clock for the Bears, who are nearing the end of Fields’s rookie contract. Fields is set to make just over $6 million against the Bears’ cap in 2024, then a fifth-year club option for 2025, if exercised, would raise that figure to an estimated $22 million. Beyond that, at the current rate of QB inflation in the league, Fields will probably be due something at or above $30 million per year by 2026, provided he is still believed to be a starting-caliber NFL QB, but that’s a little cart-before-horse.

Williams is slotted to be the first pick in the draft, which, according to Spotrac, is expected to be about a $38 million contract, costing about $6.97 million against the cap in 2024. Drafted players’ rookie contracts are four years, and first-rounders come with a fifth-year club option like the one Fields could be tied to in 2025.

Top-5 Earners on Veteran Contracts (2023) Top-5 Earners on Rookie Contracts (2023)
Patrick Mahomes – $37.1m Trevor Lawrence – $10.0m
Ryan Tannehill – $36.6m Tua Tagovailoa – $9.6m
Jared Goff – $31.0m Zach Wilson – $9.6m
Dak Prescott – $26.8m Bryce Young – $6.9m
Lamar Jackson – $22.2m C.J. Stroud – $6.6m

The savings on a high-level starting QB toward the back end of his deal is immense. Lawrence makes a great study because he was anointed in the same way that Williams has been — a can’t-miss, blue-chip Luckmanningesque prospect, and he is entering the final year of his contract, not accounting for the fifth-year option. According to Over the Cap, he will cost $11.7 million against Jacksonville’s 2024 cap, an estimated 4.7%. Meanwhile, Deshaun Watson’s league-high 2024 cap hit is just shy of $64 million in 2024, about 23% of the Browns’ estimated total. That’s a massive disparity between the two extremes, and it certainly impacts the resources that can be used to outfit a starter with a better surrounding cast.

A WORTHY EXCEPTION

Patrick Mahomes just won his second straight Super Bowl at or around 17% of his team’s total cap (17% in 2022 and 16.9% in 2023). Mahomes is the first QB to win a Super Bowl while making more than 13% of his team’s total cap since 1995, when Steve Young, whose contract was penned before the salary cap went into effect, made 13.1%.

Mahomes may well be a worthy exception. At 28, he is already considered a future first-ballot Hall of Famer and is almost objectively one of the greatest QBs ever to lace up cleats. The most obvious evidence for this may have been submitted to us as recently as this past week, as it was apparent that this iteration of the Chiefs didn’t have the same level of talent as the previous versions; yet, here they are, champions again. If the formula is to put more on Mahomes because he is Mahomes, it’s hard to deny that it’s working. But even if we accept the thesis that Mahomes will cover the sins of his team better than most, it’s equally difficult to ignore the 25 seasons between him and Young, where no other team has been able to get away with putting so much on one player.

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Mat Irby

RotoViz contributor since 2023, fantasy player since 1991, and someone who occasionally dabbles in full-time film work when no one's looking - even on a thing or two you've seen. Atlanta is for sleeping, but Dallas will always be home.

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