By the end of the 2023 NFL offseason, Patrick Mahomes could be as low as the ninth highest-paid quarterback by average annual value. By the end of the 2024 offseason, Mahomes could slide outside of the top 10.
That would be absurd given the caliber of quarterback Mahomes is and what he has accomplished and can still accomplish during his career. But it's possible given the state of the QB market and the nature of his 10-year, $450 million contract extension he signed in 2020 with the Kansas City Chiefs.
As Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson noted earlier this month, the impending contract extensions for the Baltimore Ravens' Lamar Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles' Jalen Hurts, Cincinnati Bengals' Joe Burrow and Los Angeles Chargers' Justin Herbert could push Mahomes down the QBs list if some of them sign deals worth more than $46 million a year. The Jacksonville Jaguars' Trevor Lawrence is also up for an extension after next season, too, and who knows what the Miami Dolphins will pay Tua Tagovailoa.
Mahomes is far and above the best quarterback since he became a full-time starter in 2018 as he ranks first among 60 qualified passers in expected points added per play and success rate. Mahomes also has more passing yards than Tom Brady, more passing touchdowns than Aaron Rodgers and is tied for the most yards per completion with, oddly enough, Jimmy Garoppolo during that span.
This past season, Mahomes held a 0.056 EPA/play lead over the next-best passer, Hurts, which is almost as big as the gap between Hurts and the sixth-ranked quarterback, Tennessee’s Ryan Tannehill. Mahomes also added the most Wins Above Replacement of any quarterback this past season, per Pro Football Focus.
Tannehill had the highest cap hit of any quarterback in 2022 at $38.6 million. Mahomes was No. 2 at approximately $35.8 million.
Despite being clearly the NFL's best quarterback, Mahomes will likely never be the highest-paid player at his position. Even next season, when Mahomes’ salary cap hit rises over 20 percent to $46.79 million, he’ll still be third behind Deshaun Watson and Dak Prescott, and could drop further down if the aforementioned names sign bigger deals.
This situation might rival the pay cuts Brady signed with the New England Patriots during their 20-year dynasty. Brady was never a top-five salaried QB during the seasons the Patriots reached the Super Bowl, per overthecap.com — and that helped New England win six rings from 2001-2018.
And like the Patriots, the Chiefs are capitalizing on Mahomes’ contract by keeping most of their best in-house players, finding quality yet inexpensive veterans at positions of need and drafting exceptionally well.
Mahomes’ deal allowed Chiefs to spend and draft wisely
Save for Tyreek Hill, whom the Chiefs traded away for a bounty of draft picks, Kansas City locked down its players before Mahomes’ deal takes a bigger chunk of the Chiefs' salary cap. Tight end Travis Kelce and defensive tackle Chris Jones were the big ones as both re-signed in the same month Mahomes got his big extension, five months after the Chiefs won the Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers. Both played a tremendous role in the Chiefs’ trip back to the title game this season and Kelce ranks second all time in postseason touchdown receptions.
To fill in the rest of the gaps, the Chiefs signed or traded for impactful players at reasonable rates. Running back Jerick McKinnon joined K.C. in 2021 and finished second on the team with 10 touchdowns in 2022. Receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marques Valdes-Scantling signed short-term deals worth just $8.7 million combined in 2022, per overthecap.com. Kansas City traded for oft-injured but supremely talented former first-round receiver Kadarius Toney as well, who is still on his rookie deal. Those three combined for seven touchdowns during the regular season and 24 receptions for 261 yards and three touchdowns in the playoffs.
The Chiefs also have drafted incredibly well since Mahomes signed his contract. Kansas City added linebacker Willie Gay and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed in 2020, then linebacker Nick Bolton and offensive linemen Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith in 2021. The Chiefs used part of the haul from the Tyreek Hill trade to find trade up for cornerback Trent McDuffie and drafted pass rusher George Karlaftis, receiver Skyy Moore and seventh-rounders in cornerback Jaylen Watson and running back Isiah Pacheco in 2022. Moore and Pacheco each scored in the Super Bowl win over the Eagles.
Chiefs lucky to have Mahomes on a bargain
This doesn’t debunk the rookie quarterback contract theory. Yahoo Sports’ Henry Bushnell and Jeff Eisenberg did that in 2021. But what the Chiefs have done with Mahomes is a rudimentary blueprint for how other teams with talented quarterbacks should try to navigate a contract extension.
There are also alternatives. The Eagles just played in their second Super Bowl since the 2017 season with a different quarterback on a rookie deal. They reinvented themselves thanks to savvy roster building by general manager Howie Roseman and cutting bait on Carson Wentz soon after realizing he wasn't worth his extension. The Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers more or less bought their Super Bowl rings, with potential long-term ramifications.
But it’s an inescapable fact that the Chiefs are in the position they’re in because of how they’ve built a roster around a quarterback who is at the top of his game but not paid as such. Mahomes is good enough to be worth as much as whoever sits at the top of the QB market. And unlike Brady, Mahomes signed a long-term deal rather than shorter ones that secured his financial future — at least until 2025, when all the guaranteed money is gone — and gave the Chiefs flexibility to win as many Super Bowls as possible.
There will be a reckoning for the Chiefs when Mahomes’ cap hit balloons to $59.95 million in 2027. But that’s already almost identical to the $59.51 million Aaron Rodgers will make in 2023 if his current contract holds. There is a possibility that Mahomes’ salary in 2027 — if he’s still playing on that deal — is still a bargain given the trajectory of the QB market. Even more: the salary cap that year will likely be much higher than the $224.8 million in 2023.
So no matter how it’s dissected, the Chiefs have arguably the best quarterback of all time on the best contract of all time. And that makes their window to contend wide open for the future.