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Creating a ‘team-friendly’ $400 million contract for Patrick Mahomes

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Starting with an out-of-the-box contract hypothesis, it’s possible to create a deal that would work for both the Chiefs and their star quarterback.

Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes at Disney World Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

A month ago — two days after the Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl — I wrote an article suggesting that the team might be considering a contract that would pay Patrick Mahomes as much as $400 million. It was based on something Ian Rapoport had said on NFL Network.

“He is going to be the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL,” Rapoport said. “And from what I understand, I wouldn’t be surprised if his number started with a four rather than a three — which would be huge... and deserved.”

Some readers questioned my interpretation of Rapoport’s words. They argued that the number Rapoport was talking about was the average value per year instead of the total value of the contract — that is, that he was talking about the difference between a contract that would pay Mahomes $35 million and one that would pay $40 million per year.

In truth, that could be exactly what Rapoport was really saying. The vague phrasing he used left a lot of room for interpretation.

But on Wednesday morning, NFL.com writer Jason La Canfora wrote an article showing how the Dallas Cowboys could use what he called “out-of-the-box thinking” to sign quarterback Dak Prescott to a $350 million deal.

In full disclosure, the hypothetical contract I am about to suggest is not my idea. An enterprising agent who I very much respect hashed it out himself, putting himself in the place of Prescott’s representatives and applying some different concepts. The same agent came up with a pretty cool potential Cousins contract for me years ago when that was one of the pressing issues in the NFL, and while this idea is a bit outside the norm, it makes for some great fodder to consider.

According to La Canfora, his agent pal was proposing a deal that would look like this:

Proposed Dak Prescott deal

Yr Slry Bonus
Pd
Cap
Bonus
Cash
Pd
Cap
Hit
2020* $4M $50M $25M $54M $29M
2021* $6M $50M $25M $56M $31M
2022* $8M $25M $25M $33M $33M
2023* $10M $0M $25M $10M $35M
2024* $12M $0M $25M $12M $37M
2025 $36M $0M $0M $36M $36M
2026 $37M $0M $0M $37M $37M
2027 $38M $0M $0M $38M $38M
2028 $39M $0M $0M $39M $39M
2029 $40M $0M $0M $40M $40M
Total $230M $125M $125M $355M $355M

La Canfora said that the first five years of the deal — indicated by asterisks in the table — would be fully guaranteed. That would give Prescott no less than $165 million on the deal. In addition, his $125 million signing bonus would be paid through installments of $50, $50 and $25 million over the first three years of the deal — but as allowed under current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) rules, it would prorated under the salary cap over the first five seasons of the contract.

La Canfora noted that the low salary in the fourth and fifth years probably wouldn’t appeal to Prescott — but he’d be a fool not to sign the deal.

Yes, the take-home cash in Years 4 and 5 are cheap… but he also would be walking away from a minimum of $165M in cash if he turned this offer down.

As for the final five years, the agent proposed making at least a few years, and perhaps all five of them, guaranteed for injury at the time of signing. And then there would be rolling guarantees of the salaries — say three days into the start of the 2024 league year, Prescott’s full salary for 2025 would become guaranteed for skill and cap as well (and thus fully guaranteed). And that repeats each year.

This made me wonder if creating this kind of structure for a Mahomes deal would make sense. Here’s what it could look like:

Proposed Patrick Mahomes deal

Yr Slry Bonus
Pd
Cap
Bonus
Cash
Pd
Cap
Hit
2020* $6M $40M $24M $46M $30M
2021* $8M $40M $24M $48M $32M
2022* $10M $40M $24M $50M $34M
2023* $12M $0M $24M $12M $36M
2024* $14M $0M $24M $14M $38M
2025* $42M $0M $0M $42M $42M
2026 $44M $0M $0M $44M $44M
2027 $46M $0M $0M $46M $46M
2028 $48M $0M $0M $48M $48M
2029 $50M $0M $0M $50M $50M
Total $280M $120M $120M $400M $400M

Like Prescott’s deal, this would be a 10-year contract — but one with only $120 million in signing bonus. The bonus would be would paid in equal installments over three years and prorated over five seasons. But it includes $280 million in salary over the life of the contract — $50 million more than Prescott — giving Mahomes the potential to earn a cool $400 million. In addition, this contract would be guaranteed over the first six years, giving Mahomes (and his agent Leigh Steinberg) the ability to announce the deal is worth $400 million — including $212 million guaranteed!

That’s the kind of money that could make someone like Ian Rapoport be at a loss for words — just like he appeared to be when he reported on the Mahomes deal a month ago.

“Patrick Mahomes is going to make a lot of money — a whole lot of money. More money than... it’s just going to be a lot.”

But would this contract cripple the team’s ability to pay the rest of the team? As long it is signed after the new CBA is ratified, it probably wouldn’t.

On Tuesday, Arrowhead Pride reader Phil Bryde shared an interesting article with me. Published on a Green Bay Packers fan site in the spring of 2018, it argued that once a player’s cap hit reaches a certain percentage of a team’s cap space — said to be 13.1% — it becomes nearly impossible for the team to win a Super Bowl.

It is true that no team has ever paid more than 13.1% to one player and won a super bowl. The players with the highest percentage of the salary cap who have won a super bowl are as follows: Steve Young (13.08 percent - 1994), Peyton Manning (12.21 percent - 2015), Tom Brady (11.82 percent - 2014), Eli Manning (11.75 percent- 2011), and Brett Favre (10.2 percent - 1996).

I would argue that it isn’t quite impossible. A data scientist would tell you that Steve Young’s 13.08% share of cap hit in 1994 is measurably lower than 13.1%, but not significantly lower.

It’s also true, however, that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady won six Super Bowls with a cap share never higher than 12.21% — and then only in 2018. In four other championships, it was below 9%. Meanwhile, Peyton Manning — who exceeded the 13.1% cap share in eight of his 18 seasons — won just two. In those two seasons, his cap shares were 10.2% and 12.2%.

I have long been on record as being generally opposed to this kind of single-data-point analysis of a complex team sport — particularly when it works backward from Super Bowl victories. Even the article in question notes there have been multiple instances where a team played in a Super Bowl with a player whose cap hit share was above 13.1%.

Just the same, the article makes an argument with which most NFL fans could agree: it’s foolhardy to expend too much of your salary cap on a single player.

And while we still don’t know what the salary cap allocation will be in 2020, we can make some educated guesses. Using a back-of-the-envelope calculation starting with the best-case and worst-case starting points for 2020’s salary cap — and an assumption that the salary cap will continue to grow about 6% per year during the next decade — here’s the range of salary cap percentage this Mahomes contract could use:

Mahomes Cap Share

Yr Cap
Hit
Best
Case
Worst
Case
2020* $30M 12.5% 15.0%
2021* $32M 12.3% 13.3%
2022* $34M 12.4% 13.4%
2023* $36M 12.4% 13.4%
2024* $38M 12.3% 13.3%
2025* $42M 12.9% 13.9%
2026 $44M 12.8% 13.8%
2027 $46M 12.6% 13.6%
2028 $48M 12.4% 13.4%
2029 $50M 12.3% 13.2%

This shows that in the worst-case scenario, the critical point of this contract would be the first year. After that, the amount of cap space it would use would consistently be right above the breaking point — although not outrageously so.

But in the best case, the contract would be right in the range of what could be sustainable.

Rapoport’s appearance on NFL Now a month ago made it pretty clear the Chiefs plan to wait until the new CBA is in place before making a deal with Mahomes.

”It’s not expected to happen until after the new CBA deal is reached, because everyone needs to know the landscape and the factors they’re working with,” he said.

That’s also consistent with what team officials have said about the timing of Mahomes’ deal. Even if everything comes up roses — that is, the players ratify the new CBA before the new league year begins on March 18 and that immediately adds tens of millions to the 2020 cap — executing such a deal this season might be difficult without making tough cuts to the Chiefs roster. In 2021, it’s likely to be much easier.

Regardless of when Mahomes signs on the dotted line, by starting with the contract structure La Canfora’s agent buddy proposed, we can see that it’s possible to give Patrick Mahomes the record-breaking deal he deserves — while keeping him locked up for a very long time, leaving the team an out after six years and keeping enough salary cap space to field an adequate team around him.