Is the NFL in a QB salary bubble? As the most important position in sports becomes more expensive, teams have to decide when it makes sense to pay their quarterbacks big money and when it’s time to move on. On Wednesday, The Ringer examines the decisions a team faces as its rookie quarterback approaches free agency, how a $30 million QB has become a bargain, and what the next big-money deal might look like.
The Kansas City Chiefs are going to show Patrick Mahomes the money. Mahomes is not eligible for a contract extension until after this season, but once this year concludes, the Chiefs will likely offer to rip up Mahomes’s rookie deal and make him the highest-paid player in the NFL. That may not be enough. His agent is Leigh Steinberg, the inspiration for the movie Jerry Maguire, and Steinberg can casually mention that Mahomes is the youngest MVP in more than 30 years, the third player to throw for 50 touchdowns in a season, and the cover star of Madden. Not bad for his first season as a starter. How Mahomes and Steinberg use his immense power to leverage his next deal could reverberate around the league for years—and possibly change the way quarterback contracts are negotiated. Here are four ways they could do it.
Door No. 1: The First $200 Million Quarterback
The Chiefs will be willing to make Mahomes the highest-paid player in the league. The question is by how much. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported in January that Mahomes could land the first $200 million football contract.
“A $200 million contract is certainly feasible,” Jason Fitzgerald, founder of Over the Cap, wrote via email. “The top of the market is already at $35 million a season, and all that means is a six-year deal would easily lead to a $200 million contract.”
Average annual contract value is a better gauge than total money. Right now, Russell Wilson is the highest-paid player in the league with a four-year contract that pays an average of $35 million per year. Mike Ginnitti, the managing editor of Spotrac, used past quarterback deals to calculate how much Mahomes could top Wilson by. The most likely scenario would be a four-year deal worth $160 million, with a $70 million signing bonus, $106 million guaranteed at signing, and $128 million of practical guarantees. All of those figures would be records. But even a contract for $40 million per year isn’t capturing Mahomes’s true value.
“The worth of Patrick Mahomes to the NFL alone is $50 million,” Ginnitti said. “It has to be. If you’re the most important player at the most important position in the highest-earning league in sports, you’re worth 20 percent more than anyone else in the league, and that’s what $50 million is right now. If the [salary] cap does jump to $200 million next year, then I have to say he’s worth $50 million of that.”
The NFL isn’t a free market, which is why Mahomes won’t sniff $50 million next year. It’s also why a record-breaking deal for an average of $40 million annually wouldn’t be record-breaking for long. It would make him the highest-paid player in NFL history, but that title changes hands all the time. The following players have, at some point in the past three years, been crowned as the NFL’s highest-paid player by average annual contract value.
- Joe Flacco
- Andrew Luck
- Derek Carr
- Matthew Stafford
- Jimmy Garoppolo
- Matt Ryan
- Aaron Rodgers
- Russell Wilson
This happens because of inflation. The NFL has nearly doubled its annual revenue in the past decade, from $8.5 billion to more than $16 billion, and is on pace for $25 billion annually by 2027. The salary cap is a percentage of league revenue collectively bargained by the players, and the cap has subsequently spiked with the NFL’s cash flow.
In the past five years the salary cap has gone up more than 52 percent, from $123 million per team in 2013 to $188 million per team in 2019 (2010 was an uncapped year, hence the gap in the graph). To many fans it sounds silly that Dak Prescott could earn $35 million per year, but it makes more sense considering the Forbes valuation of the Dallas Cowboys is $5 billion, up from $1.7 billion a decade ago. This flood of cash means that when players like Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson sign record-breaking deals, so much money pours into team budgets so quickly the deals become outdated within two or three years. The same will happen to Mahomes. Five years for $200 million looks eye-popping now, but it won’t look as great when Buffalo gives Josh Allen an even bigger deal a few years later.
If Mahomes wanted to break this wheel where every quarterback gets a brief turn at the top before descending back to the bottom, he has options.
Door No. 2: A Fixed Percentage of the Salary Cap
If contracts quickly become outdated because league revenue is rising, it would make sense for Mahomes to tie his compensation to the salary cap. That’s how star players get paid in the NBA. Basketball’s best earn a maximum percentage of the salary cap that is based on how long they’ve been in the league. A player with zero to six years of service time can get a maximum of 25 percent of a team’s cap, a player with seven to nine years can get a maximum of 30 percent, and a player with 10 or more years can get a maximum of 35 percent. It would make sense for Mahomes to ask for a similar arrangement.
“That is the right approach but there is not a tool in place to do that,” Ginnitti said.
As Ginnitti interprets the collective bargaining agreement, there is no mechanism for a deal that allows escalators tied to league revenues or the rising salary cap. The only way to tie Mahomes’s compensation to the rising cap would be ripping up his deal every offseason and redoing it, which would rely on the dubious proposition of the Chiefs making a handshake agreement to give Mahomes more money every year.
There’s a chance that language could be added to fix this gap. The NFL and NFL Players Association are currently negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, which could include maximum-level contracts tied to a percentage of the cap and would make Josh Norman happy. But the NFL’s union is weaker than the NBA’s, and the couple of thousand NFL players in the union are unlikely to fight for quarterbacks—the NFL’s 1 percent—to get an even bigger share of the pie than they do now.
“There’s bigger fish to fry,” Ginnitti said.
Door No. 3: The Kirk Cousins Approach
NFL contracts are typically not guaranteed, but Kirk Cousins famously received a fully guaranteed three-year contract in 2018 by forgoing the fourth and fifth years usually included in contracts that are essentially team options. Ginnitti says Mahomes could shift the paradigm by adding a full guarantee into the fourth year of his contract.
“There has not been a fourth-year guaranteed at signing in the time that I’ve done Spotrac [since 2007],” Ginnitti said. “I thought that was something that Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson could have done, [but] neither of them got close to it.”
The move would ensure Mahomes is set for life and is in Kansas City for the medium term. It would also give him a security for injury. As Andrew Luck’s retirement shows, nothing in the NFL is predictable or to be taken for granted.
But Mahomes may not value fully guaranteed money as much as Cousins, a fourth-round pick who was drafted to back up Robert Griffin III and fell into the starting job. He never drew admiration from the Washington fan base nor faith from Washington’s front office. He was hit with the franchise tag two years in a row, which made moving on from him a constant discussion in D.C. sports. Meanwhile Mahomes is already a league icon and borderline demigod in Kansas City. Replacing him is unthinkable at this point. Mahomes can fight to ensure the total money allocated to him can’t be taken away if he is released, and it may yield some juice. But it might not be worth the squeeze.
The true cue for Mahomes to take from Cousins’s contract is not that it was fully guaranteed, but that it was only three years long. With the salary cap rising every year, it makes more sense for quarterbacks to sign short deals that let them negotiate often (for non-quarterbacks the risk of injury looms over short-term deals, unless you’re Darrelle Revis). By signing a three-year deal in 2018, when the salary cap was $177 million, Cousins ensured he could sign one last big contract in 2021 when the salary cap could be more than $210 million. Mahomes could push for a similar short contract that could get him back to free agency soon.
“While the $200 million [contract offer] sounds impressive,” Fitzgerald said, “unless he is reaching that total by signing a five-year contract worth at least $40 million a season, he is far better off looking for a shorter-term contract that would land him back in free agency in three or four years.”
Ginnitti agreed a short-term deal is best for Mahomes.
“Follow the NBA deal, follow the LeBron James system where I don’t need to get five years,” Ginnitti said. “I’m going to maximize two or three or four years right now with this team in this window because I know this team can win and I want to be here, but I don’t want them controlling me in years 5 and 6 like the traditional breakdown would be. So it’s a shortened deal—maximize the salary, fully guarantee it, or at least for injury, and then it’s my call after that.”
Getting back to the market for Mahomes could be crucial. Since the salary cap was implemented in 1994, it usually grows between 5 and 9 percent every year. But two seasons featured a massive cap spike: 1998 and 2006, when the NFL negotiated new television broadcast deals that are the centerpiece of league revenue. In 1998 the salary cap rose 26.4 percent, and in 2006 the salary cap rose 19.3 percent. When the leagues negotiated deals in 2012 the NFL smoothed the cap increases over time instead of one big spike, but the NFLPA should take a page from National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts and demand a one-year spike when the current TV deals expire after the 2022 season. If we use past growth to factor in the salary cap rise for 2020 and 2021 and then factor in the potential for the TV deal spike in 2022, here’s what the cap could look like over the next four years.
Projected Salary Cap 2019 to 2022
Using this year’s established figures and the salary cap growth from 2014 through 2019 as a baseline, we can project the cap could grow to around $215 million by 2021. If the NFLPA pushed for a one-year spike like 1998 and 2006, the salary cap could jump to $260 million by 2022 (using the past two TV deals as ballpark estimates). That’s a 38 percent increase over this season’s salary cap.
This means that in order for Mahomes to maximize his value, it’s essential to sign a short deal. If Mahomes signs a three-year contract for $40 million annually in 2020 (roughly 20 percent of Kansas City’s 2020 salary cap), he could return to negotiations just a few seasons later when 20 percent of Kansas City’s salary cap is $50 million per year.
The problem with this plan is the franchise tag, which lets teams force a player to play on a one-year contract for a top-five salary at their position. It’s not intended to be used multiple years in a row and levies significant raises each time—the second consecutive year costs 120 percent of the first tag, and then a third consecutive years costs 144 percent of the Year 2 price—but it often serves as the baseline in negotiations. It also hangs over players’ heads as a year-to-year option, leaving them without long-term security in a violent sport.
“[The franchise tag is] what scares me about his whole situation,” Ginnitti said. “How long will they choose to control him with the franchise tag? If Kirk Cousins got two years, can the Chiefs go that third year? Which is crazy money, but it’s still control they can have. … If he lets this ride and he tries to bring this into 2022 when he knows the money is going to be there, will he get stuck on the tag? So that’s the reason to do something before 2021.”
One way to counter that would be fighting for a no-franchise-tag clause in his next contract. They are rare. Tom Brady and Drew Brees are among the only quarterbacks known to have them, and it exists in a gray area of the CBA—Ginnitti has yet to find the language in the CBA that allows the practice, making it an invisible elephant in the room.
“If he can get a no-franchise clause on a three-year fully guaranteed deal, that would take him to the TV money,” Ginnitti said, suggesting a three-year fully guaranteed $125 million extension. “So in essence that might be the smartest, most logical approach for him to take.”
But the Chiefs may not acquiesce to a no-franchise-tag clause, both because it is ambiguous and because the tag is one of their strongest bargaining chips. It’s more likely that the tag will set the terms of the deal rather than get taken off the table.
“I think you look at the fact that three tags would cost the Chiefs around $40 million a season and be willing to do a four-year contract worth $40 million a year,” Fitzgerald of Over the Cap said. “I’d aim for a fully guaranteed contract in exchange for a taking that fourth year. I would like a deal like that [to get] me back to free agency in four years, and I not only hit the $40 million benchmark but can take the mantle from Cousins on having a fully guaranteed contract.”
Door No. 4: All of the Above
Ginnitti and Fitzgerald agree that Mahomes’s 2019 season influences his negotiating power. An elite campaign ensures he gets paid, but another historic season would put him beyond comparison to fellow quarterbacks in negotiations. If he becomes the only player in NFL history to toss 50 touchdowns in multiple seasons, and he does it in his first two years as a starter, everything would be in play. Any deals signed by Jared Goff or Dak Prescott would go from starting points to launching pads. He could get a four-year, fully guaranteed contract for $44 million per season, taking him to $200 million over six years and then get the no-franchise-tag clause, ensuring he can chase $50 million-plus every year afterward and putting him on the path to become the richest player of all time.
No pressure, Pat.