Last July, when Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown praised the long-term contract extension signed by Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, there was a tidal wave of eye rolls across the ranks of agents and the NFL Players Association.
The general irritation? Of course Brown loved Mahomes' deal. Not only was the length of the extension significantly team-friendly — giving Kansas City a staggering 10 years of control, unheard of for elite quarterbacks — it also put Mahomes' average annual salary at a very manageable $45 million per season. Certainly not a pittance, but also not the league-warping contract many thought Mahomes could command as a (then) 25-year-old Super Bowl champion and the NFL’s next Tom Brady-esque marketing centerpiece.
When Mahomes did his deal in 2020, agents across the industry bellowed, complaining that he could have pushed for a contract structure or salary that would have changed quarterback deals forever. Instead, he sent the hearts of NFL team owners swooning, doing a decade-long deal for $450 million. It was a deal that everyone knew failed to maximize Mahomes' value by pushing out his next free agency window into his mid-30s and it guaranteed that he’d be quickly surpassed in salary by a multitude of lesser quarterbacks. The flipside: It made life easier for Kansas City when it came to surrounding a stratospheric talent with a supporting cast. In the pantheon of stars who had contractually taken one for the team, Mahomes was setting an example similar to Brady, who repeatedly signed contracts for less than his true value over the course of his 23-year career.
Making it all the sweeter for the Chiefs, Mahomes actually wanted it that way.
“When I signed my deal, I knew I was going to be pretty set for life, regardless of what the market kind of [dictates],” Mahomes said of his extension last summer. “But you just keep playing. Money is one thing, but when you get those Super Bowl rings, at the end of your career, I think that’s going to be what you look back upon. I think I’ve made enough money from the football field and obviously off of it as well, that it won’t matter at the end of the day.”
That statement was certainly on the mind of Brown last July, when he was staring down the reality that his own quarterback, Joe Burrow, was quickly carving out an avenue to superstar status. It was a track that was likely to put Brown, who is often accused of being cheap, into a tough spot. Not only had Burrow quickly reached significant heights as a quarterback, he was doing it in a manner that made him beloved by his teammates and the Bengals' fan base. A powerful cocktail of adoration and success typically puts ownership in the position of having to make a quarterback the highest-paid player in the league. And that was going to be a potential problem with the division rival Cleveland Browns having signed Deshaun Watson to a mind-blowing five-year, $230 million, fully guaranteed extension.
In the 2020 offseason, Mahomes walked down a financial path similar to Brady — highly paid, but unlikely to remain the highest paid for very long. Two years later, Watson, whose contract immediately threatened to do what Mahomes’ deal hadn’t, appeared to rewrite elite quarterback extensions forever. Brown knew exactly which path he was hoping Burrow would follow. And last summer he started steering the Burrow negotiation down it, in hopes of keeping his star offensive players together.
“It’s going to be a real challenge for us,” Brown said of balancing out future contract extensions on his offense. “I sort of like how Mahomes said he doesn’t care about what those [other quarterbacks] are getting. He’s set for life with what he’s got. And why isn’t that a good way to look at it, I’m thinking.”
Surely that’s what every franchise owner has been thinking as multiple other QB contracts have rolled in, each either resetting the highest-paid player in the league or establishing mountains of guaranteed money. None has approached the Watson deal, which is suddenly looking like an established outlier. But multiple have already exceeded Mahomes’ deal in guaranteed money and average annual salary. First came Watson, then five others behind him: the Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray; Denver Broncos’ Russell Wilson; New York Jets’ Aaron Rodgers, Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts; and most recently, the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson.
That’s six quarterbacks who have exceeded Mahomes in average annual salary and overall guaranteed money. Soon enough (and barring a Mahomes renegotiation), that list will be joined by Burrow, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert and Jacksonville Jaguars' Trevor Lawrence. By the start of the 2024 season, Mahomes could be the 10th highest-paid quarterback in the league.
What’s remarkable about this whole history and economics lesson is that one question has run parallel with it. The singular query that nobody could really answer: Would another quarterback go the Mahomes and Brady route, taking lesser money to free up flexibility to keep elite parts of a team together? Brown certainly seemed to hope so with Burrow last summer. What nobody really knew was whether the Bengals’ quarterback would buy into it.
On Tuesday, we might have gotten a peek at the answer.
While Burrow didn’t reveal the particulars of talks, he made two points clear about his future extension when meeting with the media. First, he knows what he wants out of the deal financially. Second, he has been negotiating with an eye on other extensions that will be coming down the pipeline, including what are expected to be pricey deals for wideouts Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. So much so that he has discussed with Higgins and Chase the goal of keeping the offensive core together.
“Whenever you have guys on the team that need to be paid, that’s always on your mind,” Burrow said Tuesday. “You want that to be a focal point. We’re working to make that happen.”
That’s no small thing in the current quarterback environment. Not only is it suggestive that he’s willing to walk in the Mahomes path — or at least lean toward it — it’s coming at a time when it’s a departure from Watson’s sledgehammer contract and the return to the normal trends of resetting the annual salary bar and overall guarantees.
Of course, we don’t know for certain how Burrow’s deal will be crafted. He could go the Mahomes route and trade a massive swath of his future in exchange for one consistently high salary that eventually falls into a lane of each season being guaranteed one year prior (which is what Mahomes’ deal does). Or he could decline to set a new high bar for average salary or guarantees (apart from Watson’s, of course), which would be something along the lines of what Brady did for years with the New England Patriots. Not counting his rookie contract, Brady did six extensions or restructures with the Patriots and two deals with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Only once, in 2010, did his new contract make him the highest-paid player in the league (albeit for less than one offseason) in average salary and guarantees.
Mahomes and Brady traded what many of the most recent other quarterback contracts haven’t — cash for continuity. And even the Mahomes deal arguably hasn’t been perfect, given that wideout Tyreek Hill was sacrificed as the team tried to avoid the ramifications of fielding a $45 million-per-year quarterback with a $30 million-per-year wide receiver. It's a circumstance that is at least worth noting, given the looming extensions of Chase and Higgins.
Time will tell how much compromise Burrow is willing to lead with, and whether or not Chase and Higgins — and possibly other players — are willing to leave money on the table as well. But the fact that he appears open to it suggests we may be on the verge of another interesting deviation in how elite quarterback deals are done.
That would be welcome news for teams that feared the new normal was quarterbacks insisting on the fully guaranteed structure of Watson. Instead, the NFL seems to be going about business as usual in how it gets its richest deals done. And maybe even turning the clock back to 2020, when the league’s biggest star made the boldest statement about sacrificing for something bigger than his bank account.