Ten years ago, the NFL’s richest contract belonged to Tom Brady. The future Hall of Famer’s third Patriots extension came during an era that featured salary cap uncertainty, which led to a stagnant market.
The quarterback financial landscape did not escape that rut for years, but modern passers have enjoyed a more player-friendly marketplace. Kirk Cousins becoming the league’s salary kingpin in March 2018 did the most to drive the market toward Russell Wilson’s $35 million-per-year deal. But Monday’s Patrick Mahomes transaction belongs in another category for market reshaping.
The 24-year-old superstar moved quarterback wages into a new sector, signing a 10-year Chiefs extension worth $45 million on average in new money and up to $503M when incentives and his final rookie-contract years are included. While the Vikings' free-agency deal for Cousins prompted better quarterbacks to push the market from $28M-$35M per year in 13 months, Mahomes' agreement provided a staggering market spike in one day. He will be the NFL’s salary leader for the foreseeable future. It took a 10-year commitment to make that happen. Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson and, come 2021, Lamar Jackson will feel the effects from the Chiefs’ move.
Mahomes’ extension somehow provides good news for most teams and extension-seeking QBs. The Chiefs refused to tie his contract to a percentage of the salary cap, meaning the NFL’s top active quarterback has locked-in earnings (excluding incentives) through 2031. These are whopping figures, but the Texans and Ravens are surely grateful the Chiefs did not cave on the cap-percentage clause. That would have moved negotiations into a new realm. Since the game's premier passer did not secure such a player-friendly arrangement, no quarterback will do so for many years.
Brady’s September 2010 Pats re-up was worth $72 million over four years. The NFL has now gone from $18M as its top salary to $45M in less than 10 years. It took eight years, however, for the market to move from Eli Manning’s then-record $15M-per-year pact -– in 2009 -– to $25M (Derek Carr in 2017). This can partially be attributed to the cap flatlining from 2009-13 -- sitting at $123 million in 2009 and not going up until 2014 -- and current NFL power brokers are probably revisiting that period.
The COVID-19 pandemic will likely, at best, produce a flat cap in 2021. That scenario will only be possible if the NFL borrows enough from future projected revenue, which would stand to cut into the monster cap spikes the new CBA was supposed to trigger. Depending on how the NFL and NFLPA solve this attendance-related dilemma, cap growth in the early 2020s may not be what was expected. As strange as it is to see a player of this caliber tie himself to a team on a non-guaranteed contract of this length, Mahomes' camp cannot be blamed for preferring a windfall now.
As a result, Watson and Jackson can now expect $40M-per year or north of it. Somehow, Prescott’s ruthlessness -– appropriate after playing four years on a fourth-round contract -– has him in line to push for a number in the high-$30M-average annual value range. Mahomes did Prescott a gigantic favor, finalizing his extension before the July 15 deadline for franchise-tagged players to sign extensions. The Cowboys' quarterback will be justified in demanding more, adding yet another snag in this year-and-change process.
Eight days away from the deadline, Mahomes may have injected chaos into a higher-stakes process. The Chiefs had their quarterback under contract for two more seasons; the Cowboys’ inability to extend theirs last year forced a franchise tag. Prescott playing on the tag this year would thrust this situation into Cousins-Washington territory -- a route-to-free agency scenario the Cowboys do not want to begin. A player who may or may not be a top-10 quarterback has obtained incredible leverage. The Cowboys have a lengthy history of caving to players –- as deals for Dez Bryant, Zack Martin and Ezekiel Elliott have shown -– but how high will they go for someone whose price has seemingly continued to rise over the past year?
Watson and Jackson are not in position to demand more than Mahomes -– on five- or 10-year extensions. Like Aaron Rodgers when he held the league’s top salary ($22M) from 2013-16, Mahomes’ place atop the salary hierarchy is safe. But once the new TV deals -– which need to be finalized by next year –- surface, and (hopefully), the coronavirus worst is in the rear-view mirror, future extension-seeking QBs (Trevor Lawrence circa 2024?) will be in position to top it. That may well occur long before Mahomes' contract is up. How long, then, will the Chiefs hold their superstar to this deal?
Although the Chiefs paid an as-of-now astronomical price to get their savior signed, salaries evolve. And if the TV contracts place the NFL back on track to have a $300 million-plus cap by 2030, multiple passers will sign for significantly more than Mahomes. It would have sounded ludicrous, when Brady signed his 2010 extension, for a quarterback to be making $45M in salary by 2020. QB wages approaching $60M by decade's end should not be considered crazy. As lucrative as Mahomes’ deal sounds in 2020, a few years from now he may regret sacrificing so much leverage just as he was entering his prime.
Contract not No. 1 in key category
Given the trajectory-changing impact Mahomes has made for the Chiefs, it is worth wondering why he sought to follow the likes of Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick –- who signed 10-year contracts, respectively, in 2001, 2002 and 2004 -– rather than push for a more contemporary four- or five-year structure. Early numbers have Mahomes banking just $63.1 million in fully guaranteed money. That comes in fifth –- behind Matt Ryan ($94.5M), Rodgers, Wilson and Carson Wentz.
Of course, Mahomes’ deal includes $141M in total guarantees -– which would protect him in the event of another injury scare -– and has “guarantee mechanisms” that would force the Chiefs to cut their quarterback a year in advance to avoid paying him massive roster bonuses. Mahomes’ current status makes overanalyzing this minutia less relevant; he will be the Chiefs’ quarterback for many years. But the Rams once cut Kurt Warner, a league MVP in two of his first three seasons. Mahomes is as close to a franchise-cornerstone lock as there is, but nothing is an absolute certainty.
A major outlier?
Mahomes is not only the first NFL player to sign a contract running into the 2030s, he is the only one to ink a deal that stretches beyond the mid-2020s. Wentz and Jared Goff are the only QBs signed through 2024. The Cowboys have running back Ezekiel Elliott signed through 2026. He and Mahomes are alone in having contracts that run through the second half of the decade.
The Cowboys were the last team to strike a 10-year contract, convincing All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith to sign one in 2014. Four years remain on that deal, which then made Smith the game’s highest-paid offensive lineman. Smith enters the 2020 season as the 20th-highest-paid O-lineman.
It is entirely possible Mahomes’ deal will be a major structural outlier. The better bet is Watson, 24, and Jackson, 23, signing deals more in line with today’s other top passers, thus giving them a chance to negotiate larger extensions –- ones likely to surpass Mahomes’ -– while still in their 20s.
Deal’s place among all sports is debatable
Because NFL contracts are not guaranteed over the life of the deal, the Kansas City quarterback’s 10-year, $450M extension is not in the guarantee stratosphere of Major League Baseball’s top stars’. Mike Trout’s $426.5M contract is fully guaranteed. Even ex-Kansas Citian Eric Hosmer received more guaranteed money ($144M) from the Padres. The former Royal's contract sits 24th among MLB players. Twenty-one NBA players' contracts currently contain more guaranteed money than Mahomes.
That said, the 24-year-old standout avoiding a catastrophic injury will secure him most of the money in this contract. Teams do not part with elite quarterbacks in their prime. When exactly Mahomes and the Chiefs huddle up for their next round of negotiations will be key. Mahomes’ camp will naturally want that to come at some point when he remains in his prime, though the Chiefs have an unusual amount of leverage against a franchise quarterback -– with Mahomes’ contract running through his age-36 season -– compared to most teams. This will create a tricky situation down the road.
Regarding roster management ...
Locking down Mahomes for 12 more seasons creates interesting possibilities for the Chiefs. Again, Mahomes will almost certainly re-up on a higher salary at some point in the decade's second half. But when the salary cap starts ballooning toward $300 million, the Chiefs' deal will look much better. While Monday’s agreement will force them to cut back on free-agency spending –- which they relied on during Mahomes’ rookie deal -– and find more starters in the draft, the bulk of the scary cap numbers come in the contract’s second half. And by avoiding Mahomes' salary cap numbers rising past $31M until 2023, the Chiefs may be able to take care of their best defensive player.
Defensive tackle Chris Jones has expressed understandable frustration, having earned a contract worth more than $20M annually but being cuffed with the franchise tag. The Chiefs extending a slightly less effective pass rusher -- defensive end Frank Clark -- at $20.8M per year complicates matters. No team has two D-linemen earning north of $20M annually, but a window may exist for the Chiefs to make this happen.
To realize the benefit of Mahomes' deal soon and secure a future in which their quarterback and top pass rusher are signed long term, Kansas City may need intel regarding how quickly the league will recover after the to-be-determined 2021 financial setback. Because the team also must hammer out a new deal with the now-vastly underpaid tight end Travis Kelce, Jones will likely play 2020 on the tag due to the league's fuzzy 2021 calculus. Bottom line: If the Chiefs’ Clark extension prevents them from paying Jones, that will make keeping a championship roster around Mahomes more difficult.
Past reveals what deal means for Chiefs
Before 2017's first-round trade with the Bills that landed Mahomes, Kansas City's quarterback-drafting history was abysmal. After Mike Livingston, a 1968 second-rounder who subbed for an injured Len Dawson during the team’s 1969 Super Bowl season before succeeding the Hall of Famer in the mid-1970s, the Chiefs could not identify passing prospects. Steve Fuller, a 1979 first-rounder, was gone by 1983. Brodie Croyle, taken in the 2006 third round, went 0-10 as a starter. And the player most identifiable with the organization’s inability, 1983 first-rounder Todd Blackledge (chosen ahead of Jim Kelly and Dan Marino), forced a seminal course change.
Between Blackledge and Mahomes, the Chiefs used the trade route to land five starters (Steve DeBerg, Joe Montana, Trent Green, Matt Cassel and Alex Smith). They signed four others -– Dave Krieg, Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac, Damon Huard -– in a span that involved three GMs. Combined, this run of passers went 4-14 in playoff games from 1990-2017. Mahomes’ postseason record: 4-1. Monday’s deal was a generational win for this franchise.