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Ask BA: Financially Kyler Murray Would Do Better In The NFL

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Kyler Murray (Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland A's/Getty Images)

Q: Is playing both football and baseball professionally a viable option for Kyler Murray?
-- Doug @hdouglasotto

J.J. Cooper: Because Murray is a quarterback, I would say no. If Murray were a running back (like Bo Jackson) or a cornerback (like Deion Sanders) a job-sharing role might be possible, even though no player has done it more than 25 years. Talent is talent, though, and teams are willing to put up with a lot for the chance to put an impact player on the field. But those are positions where players can step in and play with less practice time. Quarterback is such a repetition- and study-based position that it’s hard to envision any NFL team being willing to make a part-time player a starting quarterback. For baseball, Murray is already behind in at-bats compared to his peers. Splitting time would make that even more difficult. From that standpoint, he would likely be better off focusing on one sport.

Murray has publicly said that his plan remains to join the A’s for spring training next season. And there are plenty of logical reasons to stick to that plan—baseball players have a much lower risk of a significant injury and do not have the significant long-term health issues that often come from playing football.

Ultimately, the decision is Murray's, but nothing in his baseball contract with the A’s precludes him from deciding to play football instead of baseball. Looking at Murray’s decision from a purely financial standpoint (we have no clear insight into which sport he prefers to play), it’s clear that football would be a more lucrative decision if he is a first-round talent.

At any other football position, this argument is flipped. NFL careers are too short, injuries are too common and the players’ pay pales in comparison to baseball players. But with quarterbacks, it pays to play in the NFL.

Murray has a $4.6 million guaranteed signing bonus in hand that he will be fully paid as long as he reports and plays baseball going forward (the contract specifically allowed him to play for Oklahoma this fall). But in baseball, that $4.6 million is the only significant payday he will receive for the next five to seven seasons. Considering he has less at-bats under his belt than his peers, he’s likely two to three seasons away from reaching the majors. And then he would be another three seasons away from arbitration. So his first big payday for baseball would likely not come until 2023 or 2024. His first chance at free agency would likely come after the 2026 or 2027 seasons. At that point, Murray will be 29 or 30, which means he’s likely to get one significant free-agent contract if he ends up being a very productive regular.

In football, Murray is consistently projected as a first-round pick. His college teammate Baker Mayfield landed a $21.8 million signing bonus and over $32 million in guaranteed money by being the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft (all contract information here has been gathered from Spotrac.com). And if he plays reasonably well, Mayfield will get a big payday as a free agent after the 2022 season. Even if he signed a five-year extension, Mayfield would hit free agency again in 2028 for a second big payday.

But that’s a best-case scenario. Let’s say instead that Murray lasted until the final pick in the first round. Quarterback Lamar Jackson was picked in that spot last year, and is now starting for the Ravens.

Even in Jackson’s case, he will do significantly better financially as the 32nd pick in the NFL draft than Murray did as the ninth pick in the baseball draft. Jackson signed a nearly $5 million signing bonus and is guaranteed more than $7.5 million even if the Ravens cut him tomorrow. That is almost $3 million more than Murray’s baseball contract. Jackson will make an average of more than $1.1 million a season over the first four seasons of his NFL career. The Ravens can keep him for the 2022 season by exercising a fifth-year option at a significant raise (likely $10 million or more). And then, having earned $20 million or more, he would be eligible for free agency after the 2022 season.

So if Murray gets drafted anywhere in the first round, he will earn somewhere between two and seven times as much money over the next five years in football than he will in baseball. If Murray is even an average NFL quarterback, he will make more than he will as anything other than an All-Star outfielder.

A few years ago, we looked at comparing Jeff Samardzija, a wide receiver/pitcher who chose baseball, to Calvin Johnson, a wide receiver/outfielder who chose football. At the time we noted that even though Johnson was one of the best in the NFL and Samardzija was simply a solid MLB pitcher, Samardzija was likely to out-earn Johnson.

The opposite is true with quarterbacks. Quarterbacks in the NFL are so well compensated that average NFL starters can compete with the paydays received by MLB stars. There are five active MLB outfielders who have earned $125 million or more in their careers. There are five active NFL quarterbacks who have earned more than $200 million in their careers. Unlike other NFL positions, quarterback is one where quality players have better longevity than baseball. MLB teams are hesitant to give large free-agent deals to players over 30 and especially any player over 35. NFL teams regularly hand out massive contracts to quarterbacks in their mid-30s.

The list of extremely well-paid mediocre quarterbacks is lengthy. Mark Sanchez has earned $74 million. Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, 26, has already earned $40 million. Chase Daniel has been a nine-year backup. He’s earned $28 million. Matt Cassel started for four-and-a-half seasons in a 14-year career. He’s earned over $60 million. In comparison, center fielder Adam Eaton has been a 4.0 or better WAR player in three seasons. At the end of his current contract in 2021, he'll be 32 years old and will have earned $43 million. He's unlikely to land another massive free agent contract. A career like Eaton's would be a solid outcome for any rising outfielder, but it can't compare to the payoff of being an NFL quarterback.

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As Kyler Murray's NFL Stock Rises, Questions About His Future Persist

Murray, Oklahoma's QB and the Oakland A's No. 9 overall draft pick, is already Oakland's fourth-best prospect.

To offer one more comparison, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and Dodgers lefthander Clayton Kershaw grew up together. Kershaw has been one of the best players in baseball over the past decade. Generously, Stafford could be described as a slightly above-average NFL quarterback. He’s made one Pro Bowl. In 10 seasons, Stafford has earned $178 million. If he plays the final four years of his current contract, he’ll have earned over $262 million. Kershaw has earned $173 million so far over 11 seasons. He will earn $266 million by the end of his current deal in 2021.

Both players are 30 years old, but because he’s a quarterback, there’s a good chance Stafford’s career will last longer than Kershaw’s. In 2018, seven of the NFL’s 32 starting quarterbacks are 35 or older. Four are 37 or older. Of the 196 pitchers and hitters who qualified for the ERA or batting title last season, 11 were 35 or older. Only three were 37 or older.

Murray will have a big decision to make going forward. But MLB’s decision to put a hard limit on draft bonuses and prohibit major league contracts for two-sport stars as draftees makes it hard for baseball to compete financially when it comes to quarterbacks.

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