Russell Wilson tops ranking of NFL's best QB bargains

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Schefter: Darnold only rookie QB with chance to start Week 1 (1:15)

Adam Schefter sees Sam Darnold as the only rookie quarterback with a realistic chance to win the starting role by Week 1. (1:15)

Dak Prescott is the Cowboys' starting quarterback but is still being paid as a fourth-round pick on his rookie deal. It makes him among the best bargains at the position in the NFL. But where does he rank among all 32 projected starters in terms of bang for the buck over a career?

First of all, this is not a ranking of the best QBs. You can find that here and here. This is a ranking of each projected 2018 starting quarterback (no rookies) by a career salary efficiency score, which gauges how much of a bargain each QB has been, given his career earnings and production. We measured production with expected points added (EPA), which weighs the overall effect any play has on the game score and accounts for drive situation, including down, distance and yard line.

We adjusted career earnings relative to 2017 salary-cap dollars. The quarterbacks who exceeded the estimated EPA totals based on earnings have been the best bargains, have higher salary efficiency scores, and are ranked on the top of our list. Those quarterbacks who have most underperformed relative to their career earnings are ranked at the bottom.

1. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

Salary efficiency index: 64.3
Career salary: $58,840,123
Career adj. salary: $69,783,286
Years in NFL: 6

Why he's ranked here: Instant proficiency (and later, greatness) plus a third-rounder's salary is a recipe to become the league's most cost-effective starter. With Wilson's contract now closer to market value, it will be difficult for him to stay ahead of the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan in the years to come.


2. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

Salary efficiency index: 53.4
Career salary: $1,373,392
Career adj. salary: $1,524,081
Years in NFL: 2

Why he's ranked here: Prescott regressed heavily after a spectacular rookie campaign, but even if he doesn't return to his earlier pace, his fourth-round salary likely will remain the league's best bargain until he signs an extension or reaches his free-agent season in 2020.


3. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

Salary efficiency index: 47.0
Career salary: $139,228,570
Career adj. salary: $192,378,128
Years in NFL: 14

Why he's ranked here: Rodgers' production since becoming the starter in Green Bay has been prolific. His efficiency would be even higher if not for making first-round money (via pre-2011 collective bargaining agreement) as a backup to Brett Favre for three seasons. He'll likely make near the maximum going rate for an elite quarterback in the years ahead, so he'll need to stay healthy and sustain elite production to keep his place on this list.


4. Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Salary efficiency index: 43.1
Career salary: $158,084,239
Career adj. salary: $246,409,078
Years in NFL: 18

Why he's ranked here: Brady stands out because his career production is historically unmatched, and he has a track record of signing team-friendly contracts. At over 1,600 EPA produced over 16 starting seasons, he has added over a touchdown per game more than an average quarterback to his team's fortunes. In 2017 cap dollars, his career earnings average just under $15 million per season, half of what top-shelf QBs are making today.


5. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

Salary efficiency index: 41.5
Career salary: $142,017,145
Career adj. salary: $190,659,033
Years in NFL: 10

Why he's ranked here: Ryan has played about half as long as Brady but is quickly catching up in terms of career earnings. He's a high-quality passer and worth the top dollar the Falcons have paid him.


6. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles

Salary efficiency index: 39.9
Career salary: $19,713,533
Career adj. salary: $22,364,559
Years in NFL: 2

Why he's ranked here: Even a former No. 2 overall pick can be a value in the post-2011 CBA, especially if he puts together an All-Pro-caliber sophomore season the way Wentz did.


7. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers

Salary efficiency index: 36.0
Career salary: $84,178,270
Career adj. salary: $102,887,517
Years in NFL: 7

Why he's ranked here: Newton has shown flashes of brilliance, but he has been unable to sustain top-level production totals. His current deal is at the top of the pay scale, balanced by several years on his rookie contract. Unless he is consistently more productive, he will fall down this list quickly.


8. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Salary efficiency index: 31.0
Career salary: $21,459,285
Career adj. salary: $25,906,695
Years in NFL: 3

Why he's ranked here: Winston's three seasons have been shy of what was hoped when the Buccaneers took him first overall. He is only this high on the list because he's played exclusively on his rookie contract.


9. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts

Salary efficiency index: 26.8
Career salary: $79,107,998
Career adj. salary: $95,331,587
Years in NFL: 5

Why he's ranked here: All of Luck's production came during his first five seasons under team control. Ironically, his most expensive year was entirely missed because of injury, suppressing his career salary efficiency. Had he played in 2017, he would rank a couple of spots higher.


10. Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings

Salary efficiency index: 21.7
Career salary: $46,469,288
Career adj. salary: $51,711,896
Years in NFL: 6

Why he's ranked here: Cousins' career earnings arc might be the most unusual. After making fourth-round rookie money for four seasons (two and half years before becoming the starter in Washington), he cashed in on two seasons of franchise tag money.


11. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals

Salary efficiency index: 11.8
Career salary: $53,419,158
Career adj. salary: $65,392,820
Years in NFL: 7

Why he's ranked here: Dalton's modestly productive seven seasons have been slightly better than his mid-shelf salary over that period, which was kept down by a paltry $4 million for three years as a second-rounder.


12. Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans

Salary efficiency index: 11.4
Career salary: $8,680,988
Career adj. salary: $9,211,204
Years in NFL: 1

Why he's ranked here: Watson's fantastic rookie season debut was cut short by injury, so his rating here is largely because small sample effects. The question is whether he can recover and sustain his torrential production from just six starts in 2017.


13. Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans

Salary efficiency index: 9.3
Career salary: $20,477,069
Career adj. salary: $24,715,049
Years in NFL: 3

Why he's ranked here: Without significant improvement, this season will be Mariota's last as a slight bargain before his fifth-year option puts him underwater.


14. Tyrod Taylor, Cleveland Browns

Salary efficiency index: 8.8
Career salary: $27,306,508
Career adj. salary: $30,715,451
Years in NFL: 7

Why he's ranked here: Taylor spent four seasons backing up Joe Flacco in Baltimore before living up to his price tag in three modestly successful years in Buffalo.


15. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

Salary efficiency index: 7.7
Career salary: $169,458,707
Career adj. salary: $237,191,014
Years in NFL: 14

Why he's ranked here: Roethlisburger is a lot like Philip Rivers and to some degree Drew Brees in that his ability to produce points is top notch, but so too are his paychecks.


16. Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers

Salary efficiency index: 5.9
Career salary: $3,022,979
Career adj. salary: $3,713,774
Years in NFL: 4

Why he's ranked here: Garoppolo spent over three years as the backup to Tom Brady before shining late last season in San Francisco -- although his production was buoyed by facing below-average defenses. Going forward, he'll have to be Bradyesque to outplay his pricey contract.


17. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

Salary efficiency index: 2.8
Career salary: $198,942,810
Career adj. salary: $288,252,663
Years in NFL: 17

Why he's ranked here: Brees has the second-most total production of any active quarterback, but he did not take the team-friendly deals that Brady did. He's still worth the cash and continues to be among the league's best passers.


18. Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers

Salary efficiency index: -1.8
Career salary: $181,468,660
Career adj. salary: $255,878,479
Years in NFL: 14

Why he's ranked here: Rivers is the only quarterback from the fabled Class of 2004 without a ring, yet in the regular season he has been the most productive. His salary has matched his regular-season success, resulting in a middling earnings efficiency score.


19. Case Keenum, Denver Broncos

Salary efficiency index: -3.8
Career salary: $6,683,235

Career adj. salary: $7,655,099
Years in NFL: 6

Why he's ranked here: Keenum was a good fit in Minnesota last season, and his value exceeded his cost, but otherwise he has slightly underperformed his backup-level salary. He'll need to sustain his production from last season to earn his much bigger paychecks from Denver this year.


20. Josh McCown, New York Jets

Salary efficiency index: -6.8
Career salary: $37,455,277
Career adj. salary: $52,926,531
Years in NFL: 16

Why he's ranked here: McCown is the embodiment of the "journeyman," playing just well enough to stay in the league while earning veteran QB money. He's played the role of developmental rookie, starter, backup and placeholder for eight different teams, all while earning slightly more than you would expect for his production.


21. Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders

Salary efficiency index: -7.1
Career salary: $29,394,283
Career adj. salary: $32,097,048
Years in NFL: 4

Why he's ranked here: Until last season, Carr would have ranked much higher. He took a step back in terms of production and signed a big extension.


22. AJ McCarron, Buffalo Bills

Salary efficiency index: -7.3
Career salary: $2,305,299
Career adj. salary: $2,720,849
Years in NFL: 4

Why he's ranked here: McCarron is largely untested in only spot relief, and has been paid accordingly.


23. Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins

Salary efficiency index: -9.0
Career salary: $50,050,979
Career adj. salary: $60,061,193
Years in NFL: 5

Why he's ranked here: Tannehill's overall production took a hit when he missed all of 2017. His otherwise unremarkable performance is on par for his pay.


24. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars

Salary efficiency index: -10.4
Career salary: $20,654,802
Career adj. salary: $22,469,190
Years in NFL: 4

Why he's ranked here: A rookie-scale contract kept Bortles' salary at reasonable levels through last season, but overall he still underperformed. After signing an extension with over $25 million in guarantees, he'll quickly become a bad deal for Jacksonville without a big jump in on-field performance.


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1:18

Berry calls Smith a fantasy 'home run'

Matthew Berry expects Alex Smith to outperform his fantasy predicted ranking of QB 20 this season with the Redskins.

25. Alex Smith, Washington Redskins

Salary efficiency index: -11.4
Career salary: $113,241,145
Career adj. salary: $156,097,335
Years in NFL: 13

Why he's ranked here: Although Smith became a consistent passer later in his career, his early struggles and injuries in San Francisco while enjoying pre-2011 rookie dollars for a No. 1 overall pick weighs on his overall cost effectiveness.


26. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

Salary efficiency index: -13.8
Career salary: $161,511,410
Career adj. salary: $207,048,662
Years in NFL: 9

Why he's ranked here: Stafford was the last of the No. 1 picks to get a huge rookie deal before the recent CBA took effect. He's been effective but overpaid.


27. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens

Salary efficiency index: -24.3
Career salary: $136,205,590
Career adj. salary: $176,769,490
Years in NFL: 10

Why he's ranked here: Flacco waited to sign an extension until after his fifth season, the same year he went on a postseason tear and won a Super Bowl MVP. For whatever reasons, his recent production makes him seem borderline unstartable, but he's still dining out on that trophy.


28. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams

Salary efficiency index: -27.3
Career salary: $20,688,202
Career adj. salary: $23,472,292
Years in NFL: 2

Why he's ranked here: Goff rebounded mightily in his second season, but his rookie year was so epically terrible it will take more than one season of above-average performance to make up for it.


29. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs

Salary efficiency index: -35.4
Career salary: $10,551,152
Career adj. salary: $11,195,594
Years in NFL: 1

Why he's ranked here: Mahomes spent his rookie year as a backup while earning first-round money. We'll see how cost-effective he becomes in 2018.


30. Sam Bradford, Arizona Cardinals

Salary efficiency index: -36.9
Career salary: $103,055,385
Career adj. salary: $136,721,525
Years in NFL: 8

Why he's ranked here: Get paid, get injured, repeat.


31. Eli Manning, New York Giants

Salary efficiency index: -66.3
Career salary: $189,994,650
Career adj. salary: $266,861,731
Years in NFL: 14

Why he's ranked here: Manning has made more money from football than any other current player, despite a modestly productive 14 regular seasons. The Giants have paid for past heroics more than for expected performance.


32. Mitchell Trubisky, Chicago Bears

Salary efficiency index: -75.7
Career salary: $19,719,500
Career adj. salary: $20,923,925
Years in NFL: 1

Why he's ranked here: Trubisky dug a very deep hole in a tough rookie year.