Ever since Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes finished his third season under contract to the team — which officially made him eligible to have his rookie contract extended — one question has been on the mind of NFL observers.
But the question wasn’t whether or not Mahomes would become the highest-paid player in NFL history. After being named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in his first season as a starter — and after suggesting to offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy that the Chiefs call 2-3 Jet Chip Wasp on a third-and-15 in Super Bowl LIV, which directly led to him being named Super Bowl MVP in his second, that hasn’t really been in doubt.
Instead, the question has become, “How much will Patrick Mahomes be paid when he becomes the highest-paid player in NFL history?”
And thanks to a perfect storm of events, when his contract is finally signed, we still might not know the answer.
On Thursday, the Kansas City Star’s redoubtable Sam Mellinger wrote a column about the contract that Chiefs general manager Brett Veach continues to discuss with Mahomes’ agent Chris Cabott of Steinberg Sports and Entertainment. While Cabott and Veach continue to speak about the contract the Chiefs have consistently called their highest priority, Cabott wasn’t willing to speak with Mellinger on the subject — but in recent weeks, the Star columnist spoke to many agents about Mahomes’ contract, collecting an impressive array of (understandably) anonymous quotes.
“We’re all watching,” said one NFL agent.
“If anybody ever had leverage in the history of the world, it’s your quarterback,” said another.
“He can do whatever he wants,” said a third.
Taking his cue from Mellinger, Mike Florio of NBC’s Sports’ Pro Football Talk also weighed in on the subject.
The best player in the NFL after only two seasons as a starter and already on track to be one of the best to ever play the game, Mahomes deserves to be the highest paid player in football. Many have suggested that he’ll be the first player to crack the $40 million-per-year threshold.
Both Mellinger and Florio suggested that the solution could lie in an option never used by an NFL team: tying Mahomes’ compensation to a percentage of the salary cap.
This is familiar territory for Florio, who has been clamoring for this practice for quite a while. In 2016, Florio noted there was no provision in the then-current Collective Bargaining Agreement prohibiting it.
Per an NFL Players Association source, there’s nothing in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that prohibits tying compensation to a percentage of the salary cap. While it can’t be used in rookie deals or offer sheets, it’s fair game for free-agent contracts and veteran renegotiations.
Back in 2016, Florio’s source was exactly right — although Florio could have simply checked the document himself. I’ve just checked, and the new CBA signed in March also lacks any such prohibition.
So why haven’t cap-strapped teams made these kinds of deals?
One reason is that the NFL Management Council — the entity that negotiates on the league’s behalf with the NFL Players Association — has strongly discouraged writing such contracts for players. This could be because history has shown that once one player gets something in his contract, another player will want the same thing in his contract; if too many players are taking their cuts off the top of the cap, it could become even harder to manage.
Back in 2016, Florio said there was more to it than just a league directive.
Teams prefer certainty in player contract amounts, despite the year-to-year uncertainty of the cap. Besides, few players will have the leverage to demand that kind of a term.
One agent told Mellinger that compensation based on a percentage of the cap will never happen, saying, “It’s a hill the owners will die on.” But he also spoke to an agent who said that if it were up to him, he wouldn’t make such a deal for Mahomes.
“I understand why you’re hearing some agents hoping for that,” one agent said. “But if he was my client we’re going for the most bottom-line money possible. Too talented, too young, get all the money you can.”
So what’s the answer? How could the Chiefs make a long-term deal with the player who is
arguably the most valuable they’ve ever had under contract?
It might be turn out that the unprecedented leverage Mahomes now possesses — combined with the unparalleled circumstances oF the COVID-19 pandemic — might combine to create the perfect storm that blows down the wall built around these kinds of contracts.
Since the NFL salary cap was established in 1994, only twice has it failed to rise from one year to the next: In 1997, when it fell just $300,000 to $58.4 million and in 2011, when it dropped $3 million to $120 million after the uncapped 2010 season. Since 2013, the cap has risen at a remarkably consistent rate, increasing by $75.2 million over just seven seasons.
But according to one of Mellinger’s agent sources, that ride will likely end with the 2020 season.
“Everybody’s saying the cap is going to be lower next year — everybody.”
Even the rosiest forecasts for this season — with every game played as scheduled and with fans allowed in the stadiums — project lower league revenues.
Fans may be able to come to stadiums if they so choose, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will. Polling has suggested that most fans won’t want to attend large public gatherings until a coronavirus vaccine is available — and even in the unlikely event one is available before the season begins, pocketbooks will be stretched. Unemployment is at its highest level since the Great Depression; many fans may simply be unable to afford the luxury of attending NFL games.
And all of that is in the best-case scenario. The league’s revenue losses from games in empty stadiums — or the worst possible outcome: cancellation of some games that result in the loss of TV revenue — could be huge.
In short, no one can predict what will happen to league revenue in 2020 — and with it, the 2021 salary cap. So if the Chiefs and Mahomes want to come to a fair deal before the next offseason — or maybe even after — a contract that provides at least some of the young quarterback’s compensation in the form of a percentage of the salary cap could be the only answer.