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New contracts for Justin Tucker and Ben Roethlisberger show Patriots advantage in the AFC

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The Patriots continue to dominate the league with advantageous contracts.

Pittsburgh Steelers v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

I just posted an article showing how the New England Patriots’ approach to adding defensive talent was much more cost-effective than the Kansas City Chiefs’. The Chiefs spent a first round pick to change their pass rusher from Dee Ford to Frank Clark; the Patriots went from Trey Flowers to Michael Bennett and will effectively receive a fifth round pick (based on the value of draft picks).

The Patriots continue to win because they’re just smarter than other franchises and these contract victories add up into six Super Bowl titles and three more appearances over the past two decades.

And now two more AFC teams are showing why the Patriots are so great. The Baltimore Ravens just signed kicker Justin Tucker to a record-shattering deal, while the Pittsburgh Steelers extended Ben Roethlisberger to make him the second-highest paid quarterback in the league.

Here’s how Tucker’s contract compares to Stephen Gostkowski’s new deal, and how Tom Brady’s potential deal would stack up to Roethlisberger’s.

Justin Tucker vs Stephen Gostkowski

The Baltimore Ravens just signed the 29-year-old Tucker to a 4-year, $23.05 million extension with $12.5 million guaranteed over the first two seasons, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

This contract dwarfs the 2-year, $8.5 million contract the Patriots gave to the 35-year-old Gostkowski earlier this month, and the 4-year, $17.2 million deal the Patriots gave Gostkowski in 2015- then the largest contract for a kicker in NFL history.

Tucker is the all-time leader in field goal conversion rate, while Gostkowski ranks third, and yet Tucker is making over $1.5 million more per year than Gostkowski. For the record, Gostkowski is tied for the third-highest paid kicker in the NFL, assuming that Robbie Gould signs his franchise tag or a comparable deal elsewhere, so it’s not like he’s poorly compensated. The Ravens are just paying Tucker that much more.

And Tucker is that good. If we look at the past four seasons, when the league made multiple changes to the kicking game like moving back the extra point line and changing the strategy of kickoffs by moving touchback from the 20-yard line to the 25-yard line, Tucker has been incredibly valuable.

Of kickers with 50+ field goal attempts and 100+ extra points over that time frame, Tucker rates second in field goal conversion and first in extra point rate. Gostkowski ranks fourth and fifth, respectively.

Matt Bryant (released by the Falcons), Saints K Will Lutz (signed a 5-year, $20.25 million contract in March), and Matt Prater are the only other kickers to rank in the top 10 of both categories.

If we want to look at advanced stats, Tucker and the Ravens have dominated Football Outsiders’ special teams rankings, with the 2015, 2016, and 2017 Ravens ranking first, second, and third for the best kicking and kickoff units over the past four seasons. The 2018 Ravens ranked a respectable 16th of 128.

Over those four years, the Ravens lead Football Outsiders’ kicking metrics by a large distance, followed by the Philadelphia Eagles thanks to two great years in 2015-16, and then a grouping of the Patriots, Falcons, Chiefs, and 49ers. The Patriots’ 2018 kickoff unit ranked last in the NFL, through no real fault of Gostkowski, so the measurement of kicker value isn’t perfect, but this is still a solid ranking of kicker value.

Tucker is the best kicker in the NFL by a mile. Gostkowski leads the next tier. Both kickers are compensated as such. But within the context of positional spending, the Ravens are giving Tucker roughly 35% more per year than the Patriots’ are giving Gostkowski. That’s a big premium that New England should be able to use on a key special teams player or two.

Ben Roethlisberger vs Tom Brady

The Pittsburgh Steelers just signed Roethlisberger to a 2-year extension, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a flurry of new deals for the older quarterbacks. Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, and Philip Rivers are all free agents after the 2019 season and are in need of new deals.

Roethlisberger, Manning, and Rivers all signed matching 4-year deals over the 2015 offseason worth between $20.8-$21.9 million per season. Brady and Brees signed extensions ahead of the 2018 season. All should be watching this Roethlisberger deal for a blueprint on how their next deals should look.

Roethlisberger’s 2-year extension is for $68 million and includes a $37.5 million signing bonus, per NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport. That average of $34 million edges out Aaron Rodgers ($33.5 million per year) and puts Roethlisberger behind Russell Wilson ($35 million per year) as the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL.

That figure is bonkers and Rivers and Brees could very well see deals in the same price range. It would be a surprise if Manning received that much money, but it would be funny if it happened.

Brady and the Patriots could reach an agreement to make Brady one of the top 10 highest-paid quarterbacks in the league at $25 million per year- a big increase over Brady’s previous deals- and have a major bargain at the position.

But I wonder if the Patriots continue to do what they’ve done with Brady in recent years, by signing him to below-market level deals. Ever since the Patriots made Brady the highest-paid player in the NFL with a 4-year, $72 million contract in 2010 (those numbers sound laughable now), New England and Brady have basically agreed to instead sign Brady to a middle-of-the-pack deal and invest in other positions on the roster.

“If we were going to have to pay [Brady] elite-quarterback money and have elite-quarterback cap numbers, I just didn’t think we would be able to build a team,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said back in 2013. “We don’t want to have a team where we’re paying 18 to 20 percent to a player on the cap...

“I just thought if winning is the most important thing to him, and I think it is, and it certainly is to our family, this gives us the best chance to win. Hopefully we have an elite quarterback that, even if his skills decline even a little bit, he’ll still be better than 90 percent of the quarterbacks in the league. And his legacy -- I already believe he’s the greatest of all time -- if we win one or two more, he can solidify that”

(The Patriots have surpassed Kraft’s lofty goals of a couple more Super Bowls, so I’d call this strategy a major success)

And so if Brady is willing to continue taking below-market deals at the same $15 million range that he’s received since 2013, that gives the Patriots a nearly $20 million per year team-building advantage over the Pittsburgh Steelers, allowing the Patriots to build unrivaled depth across the roster.

Roethlisberger should absolutely sign for the largest contract he wants, don’t get me wrong. But the advantage of Brady’s cheap contract grows with each passing megadeal.