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Having a starting quarterback on a rookie contract is considered a gate key to success in today's NFL.
Ever since the Seattle Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII with Russell Wilson hitting the team’s salary cap that season for less than $1 million, NFL teams have sold out to this model of securing a young QB, taking advantage of his capped rookie salary and making a run at a championship during the window prior to the QB being due for major renegotiation.
Since then, the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs (twice) all reached Super Bowls with their quarterbacks costing a relative pittance compared to the league average.
The working theory is clear as day: The less money a team has to spend on quarterbacks, typically the league’s priciest position, the better off it is in constructing a complete roster.
This method is neither foolproof nor a singular path to the promised land. First, teams need to pick the right QB. Second, even that doesn't guarantee a young, talented quarterback will be able to make a Super Bowl run in his first three or four seasons, even while playing on teams with stacked rosters.
Plus, teams have proven they can win with quarterbacks taking up much bigger portions of the cap.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the sixth-most dollars committed to quarterbacks in 2020 and beat Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in the Super Bowl in February. So too did the Denver Broncos (sixth-most QB money) in 2015. The Atlanta Falcons (most QB money in 2016) should have won Super Bowl LI; Matt Ryan’s outsized contract had little to do with the team coughing up a 28-3 lead in that one.
This is the reason why the rest of the NFL should be on high alert even with the Chiefs starting to feel the financial sting of Mahomes’ half-billion contract extension, a 10-year deal with an average cap hit of $46.7 million that kicks in next season, per Spotrac.
Last season, the Chiefs reaped the benefits of having Mahomes on the cheap. Among quarterbacks, his cap hit last year ($5.35 million) ranked 32nd in the NFL, behind even the league’s three rookie first-rounders. This season, it’s only a shade more at $7.43 million, ranked just below No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow and just ahead of Browns backup Case Keenum.
That’s the bad news if you root against the Chiefs. The frightening news? Even with Mahomes’ annual salary set to explode in 2022, salary cap gurus don’t agree that the Chiefs’ Super Bowl window is going to slam shut at that point.
Former Green Bay Packers executive Andrew Brandt says this is the kind of deal that can keep the Chiefs in contention for a long time.
“I managed the cap for 10 years. Who cares?” Brandt said by phone recently. “All this talk about [future] cap hits ... if it’s friendly now, you know it’s going to be cap-heavy later.
“Of course it works out for the team. But to me that’s really secondary to having that special player under contract at whatever number.”
In Green Bay, Brandt says he always tried to minimize the long-term damage by frontloading deals whenever possible. But he also understood that the cap is malleable, and that this situation is less about a balance sheet and more about the bottom line: The Chiefs have an otherworldly star locked up for a long time.
“You contrast [Mahomes’ deal] with Dak Prescott, who is making $160 million over four years,” Brandt said. “That’s the first part of it. The second is he’s hitting free agency at 29. So he’ll get the early part of the deal — what Mahomes gets much later in his deal — and [Prescott] didn’t sacrifice the early part like Mahomes did.”
After collecting his thoughts, Brandt made his points as clearly as he possibly could.
“The Chiefs got a great deal,” Brandt said.
Chiefs' key in Patrick Mahomes' deal? No threat of free agency
Brandt was hired by the Packers in 1999, and not long afterward he signed Brett Favre to what was deemed a “lifetime contract.” When the ink dried on Favre’s 2001 extension, it was recognized as the NFL’s first real $100 million deal.
Brandt and the team were more than happy to give out a massive deal to lock up Favre, then the best quarterback in the NFL — or at worst No. 2 behind Peyton Manning. At that point, Favre was 31, had won three MVP awards and had made the Super Bowl twice, winning once.
But Brandt had one big goal in mind from the team’s perspective with the contract.
“Certainly it was in our mind that, OK, let’s take away any threat of free agency,” Brandt said. “The biggest thing was, you have a superstar under contract for as long as possible and you’re not going to be worried about cutting him. Whatever the market rate was at the time, we were willing to pay that as long as we got the terms we wanted.”
The result was a 10-year, $101.5 million deal. That it didn't end up being a “lifetime deal” for Favre is not the takeaway here, although to Brandt's point, the Packers and Favre never reached the point where they needed to renegotiate prior to Fave leaving town.
Green Bay also was able to create flexibility by negotiating Favre’s salary in such a way where he would not be the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL (that was Manning then) until Year 4 of his deal, in 2004.
The Favre and Mahomes deals— even accounting for the major differences between the league then and now — have similarities. Contracts of that length were more common back then, with Drew Bledsoe, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper and Michael Vick each signing 10-year agreements after Favre did. But agents quickly realized the drawbacks to having their players locked up so long. From 2004 (Vick) to 2020 (Mahomes), not a single 10-year deal was signed in the NFL.
“My big thing is, the only way you have true player empowerment is the real threat or perceived threat of free agency,” Brandt said. “That’s how NBA players get so much leverage. It’s why Aaron Rodgers didn’t have leverage despite all the talk this summer.
“If you lock someone up without even getting to the point where, ‘Hey, I’m two years away [from redoing the deal],’ it just really can create team power over a player.”
The lesson Brandt took at the time, having watched other clubs stricken by big-money deals they had handed out to quarterbacks who were past their prime, was to adopt a pay-as-you-go method. Don’t get greedy by restructuring and pushing money into the future as a way to gain a short-term edge.
The result? The Packers remained mostly competitive during those years, with one losing season in a seven-year span, and they reached the NFC championship game in Favre's final season in Green Bay. When Favre was traded to the New York Jets, the Packers incurred a $600,000 dead-money charge, a relative pittance.
As for the Chiefs now? Like those Packers teams, they should receive a similar benefit: fairly cheap labor in Mahomes’ early years and no real threat of being shackled by money paid to him while he’s no longer on the roster. According to Spotrac, Mahomes’ final dead-money charge (of a mere $4.34 million) would come in the 2025 season, the year he turns 30.
In some ways, salary cap space doesn't matter
From 2013-2020, the NFL’s allotted salary cap per club increased by a measure of at least $10 million. Each year in that span, the cap increased by a factor of 5.3% to 8.4%, almost like clockwork, as the league financially flourished. The COVID-19 pandemic stopped that cold last year for the 2021 cap, as teams and the players union recognized how the altered 2020 season would lead to lost revenue.
Even so, the bounceback is well underway. The NFL’s 2022 cap already has been set for $208.2 million, a $10 million bump from 2020. It’s as if the league hit a one-season speed bump and kept right on chugging.
And there should be very few things that cause any future cap downturns. The new media contracts the NFL signed with its broadcast partners in May project to help make up for the estimated $4 billion in lost COVID revenue, and they figure to grow the pie slices by a potentially greater measure.
So cap space should not be an issue for the Chiefs, who currently have 26 players under contract for 2022 at a total of $177.8 million, led by Mahomes’ $35.8 million figure. Yes, there are deals to be done for projected free agents Orlando Brown Jr. and Tyrann Mathieu. But there are plenty of ways for the Chiefs to make it all work and keep the core of a championship team intact for years.
“As long as Mahomes stays healthy and he continues to play at an elite level, the salary cap will never be a problem for them,” New England Football Journal salary cap expert Miguel Benzan told Yahoo Sports.
Benzan’s reasoning is simple. The Chiefs know what Mahomes' cap hits currently are through 2031. The cap should go up steadily each of the next 10 years, perhaps by a total of $100 million or more.
And if there’s still an issue along the way? Well, the Chiefs can adjust Mahomes’ cap number for any particular year. Sometimes it’s as easy as that.
“They will simply decide what they need his cap number to be for that year for them to build a Super Bowl contender,” Benzan said. “Example: In 2025, his cap number is around $46.3 million. If they need it to be $20 million, they will make it so.”
For instance, in March the Chiefs converted Mahomes' $21.7 million roster bonus into a signing bonus, clearing $17.3 million of cap space this year. There’s always money in the banana stand, as it were.
Another way to create cap space is to carry it over from one year to the next. In the old days, teams had to adopt a use-it-or-lose it approach to cap space. Since 2011, the carryover rule allowed teams to siphon unused resources from one year to the next, creating a somewhat unbalanced cap from team to team. In fact, every single NFL team carried over some cap room from 2020 to 2021, from a low-mark of about $587,000 (Baltimore Ravens) to as much as $30.4 million (Cleveland Browns).
The Chiefs and Mahomes are in an ideal situation. They have a superstar quarterback at the peak of his powers, and his contract is not an anchor.
When Josh Allen signed his mega-extension this summer with the Buffalo Bills, there were some Mahomes-ian elements to it. But the early money in Allen’s deal far outpaces what Mahomes is slated to earn over a commensurate period, and potentially could earn more over its six-year lifespan than the Chiefs will pay out Mahomes over his first six years.
Even after Allen’s deal, Mahomes’ contract remains a singular advantage.
“I think it’s an outlier,” Brandt said. “Even with the Josh Allen deal, it continues to be an outlier where the early money is … I don’t know what adjective to use, but it’s really sinister what [Mahomes is] making over the first three years for arguably the best player in the league.
“So I don’t get it. Having done contracts [for] a long time, I don’t know how the Chiefs [got Mahomes to sign that] deal. … I still have issues with it now, locking up a player like that for a [big portion] of his career.”
You know who doesn't take issue with it: The Chiefs.
Now in order to take advantage of it, they now must do what the Packers of yore couldn't: win a second Super Bowl during their star quarterback's decade-long window.