The Chiefs were not even 24 hours removed from winning the Super Bowl when talk already began about Patrick Mahomes contract and what it means for the future. I didn’t want to really even discuss the Chiefs salary cap since the fans of the team should get the chance to celebrate the accomplishments of the team before even caring about the future, but we can talk about the general concept of paying the quarterback and how people are overblowing the idea that salary paid to most of the players at the position keeps you from winning.
1. QB Salaries Will Continue to Rise.
I think everyone is under the assumption that Mahomes will sign a contract worth $40 million a year which would place him at $5 million above the current NFL leader, Russell Wilson. That sounds like a lot but for how long will it seem like a lot of money? Back in 2009 Eli Manning became the top paid player at $16.25 million. By 2010 Tom Brady became the top paid and then in 2011 it was Peyton Manning. Drew Brees became the guy in 2012 and eventually the market was capped by Aaron Rodgers in 2013 until he was surpassed by Andrew Luck in 2016 until he got beat out by….Derek Carr in 2017 which led to a complete market reset and salaries jumping over $30 million per year.
I would expect Mahomes to act as the “Rodgers block” on salaries whenever he signs his contract but just like with Rodgers a ton of players came close to the Rodgers number during that 2013 to 2016 timeframe. Lets say that Mahomes signs this February for $40 million. Slot in Prescott at $36M and Watson at $37. If Jameis Winston has a crazy year hell get in that range. Kirk Cousins is a free agent next year and maybe Cam Newton returns to form. By 2021 and 2022 the Jackson class is eligible and if Jackson continues as he did last year it’s a lock he’ll surpass Mahomes. At that point Mahomes will still probably be under contract until 2026.
The point is the big QB contract is only going to be an issue if the QB contract is so much higher than the market that it puts significant pressure on your ability to re-sign other key members of the team or to target a free agent. $5 million a year isn’t really that. Its basically the decision between Mahomes at the $40M number and a situational rusher that probably comes in for 30-35% of the defensive snaps. It’s only a significant starting quality player if you are getting into the $10M+ per year excess salary department. In this case Mahomes is going to have players getting close to him and most likely would not even be the highest paid payer for most of the years he is under contract.
2. There is Nothing Wrong with Paying a Good Quarterback
Mahomes is certainly a rare talent and there are a handful of players who are at least close to the tier that he is in. These are the drivers of winning in the NFL. The Chiefs offense was shut down last Sunday for pretty much three quarters. Mahomes hit a few big plays and they won going away against an inferior quarterbacked team. Having an elite talent at the QB is the biggest competitive advantage you can have in the NFL. You can never give that up once you find it.
The problem in the NFL is when they pay the average QB as if he is a great QB. The salary sometimes creates the perception that the player is great. Matt Stafford, Derek Carr (and I was a big Carr guy so I fell into that camp), Jared Goff, Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, Jacoby Brissett, etc… are not great players, yet they all have been near the top of the market at some point and that feeds into the same market issues above. At some positions a player like Aaron Donald likely maintains a big market discrepancy over most of the talent for a few years, but at QB most people come close.
These deals may hamstring a team because they over-rely on the expensive player only because he is expensive and in their case having the extra budget, whether cash or cap, to add other players is important. Garoppolo needs a lot of support. Overpaying that type of players puts you on an uneven playing field. The Mahomes level doesn’t need that level of support. You can probably pick a few players on that team (from a salary perspective lets just say Frank Clark and Sammy Watkins), pull them off and the end result is the same.
Other teams chase the dream of the draft pick that is failing on the field and even though they are cheap you have a big edge there as well because they are wasting two or more years chasing a bad investment. You only lose that advantage if you don’t pay your great QB and end up back into the Ryan Fitzpatrick type player pool down the line.
3. There are Ways to Manipulate the Cap
While we report all contracts based on their “new money” values the fact is that the effective cap value in most cases in far lower. For the Chiefs a $40M deal for Mahomes would actually play out as a seven year contract (2 existing years at approx. $29M in cap dollars and 5 new years at $200M) that will count for less than $33M a year on the salary cap. While you can do that with most players in the market and lower their values its would put him basically at the same exact average cap consideration as the Seahawks have with Wilson over the course of his deal and $5 million more than the Cousins/Garoppolo deals. He would likely be cheaper than Prescott who is a true free agent. This is why its imperative that teams lock up the young quarterbacks as early as they can in the process, assuming of course they know it’s the guy (the Bears would for instance be crazy to extend Trubisky)
Secondly you can always manipulate the cap. I liked the 49ers approach with Garoppolo where they decided that they would basically take their lumps all in one year with a $37M cap hit in one season and a contract that never went above $27M in any year thereafter. You can use that to give yourself flexibility if the player for some reason doesn’t pan out but more than that you can really aim to strategically use the cap numbers to coincide perhaps with other rookie contracts on the team or years when you expect other spikes to maximize your ability to spend without compromising your overall risk in a player.
4. Free Agency is Rarely the Cure-All
For the most part teams do not lose their homegrown drafted players because of a salary cap crisis. There may be the oddball team here and there but the consistent growth of the salary cap combined with smarter roster management strategies and union concessions on player contract control have made it hard to lose any player you want to keep. Teams should be able to project this pretty well these days. Generally where the unexpected spending comes into play is in free agency where prices grow high and you cant manipulate the numbers as well unless you want to have a more chaotic cap situation in the future.
Free agency certainly adds to a team but most teams are built through the draft and all having that extra money tied up in the QB means is you have to be more successful in the draft and you cant take as many risks in free agency as before. Most teams that try to rebuild a roster in free agency drive prices and fail, usually in spectacular fashion. All the higher priced player may do is pull the team out of the mix for one of those high priced guys that they probably don’t need anyway. The low priced QB just means you can take on some unnecessary risk at other positions. You lose that now, but its not that big of a loss.
5. Focus on Positional Drafting
Having a rookie QB will always be the biggest “moneyball” advantage a team can have. Lets assume Joe Burrow becomes a star. His contract will effectively be undervalued by about $30M per year if that happens which is huge if the team can spend it effectively. But why just focus on the savings of a QB?
Once that same team know they have to deal with the high price of the QB (which they should know by 3 years in) maybe they should be moving their draft strategy in the first and second rounds away from taking linebackers, running backs, safeties, non-rush linemen, tight ends, centers, and guards to exclusively drafting cornerbacks, edge rushers, receivers, left tackles, and defensive tackles with rush ability. If you hit on an edge rusher late in the first at $3.3M a year well that’s about $17M in value. A corner would be around $12M. A left tackle in the ballpark of $13M and so on. Hit on a few picks using that kind of strategy in two or three seasons and you just made up the obvious “competitive edge” of the cheap QB with the less obvious one of hitting on premier positions in the draft.
There are ways to build a very successful team around an expensive QB. The problem is that too often team maybe get away from doing things the right or logical way and things get out of control and optically it looks really bad. But if a team develops a strategy early in the process and does its best to stick to the strategy it should never compromise their ability to make deep playoff runs year after year.