Patrick Mahomes walked into the Chiefs facility Wednesday, three days after their first win of the season and four days before a visit from the Bears. He would talk about an offense that’s been slow out of gate, about defenses that are choosing more and more zone coverages against him and about how his receivers might be handling all of it.
So, you know, just another day at the office.
Oh, except this: Mahomes secured a guaranteed $35 million Wednesday, the automatic ante in a contract revision this week. The renegotiated deal will guarantee him more than $200 million total from 2023-26, the most in league history over a four-year time frame.
It’s sticker shock to most of us, though as Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said, there’s probably never going to be a number that matches the value of a football player who has revitalized an organization. An economist far more well-versed in this sort of thing than I am could probably make an argument he deserves exponentially times more than what he just obtained.
Mahomes’ otherworldly talent has put the Chiefs in position to be a Super Bowl contender for the past half-decade and they hope for the next full decade. But it’s also placed him in somewhat of a predicament.
He wants to win.
But he wants to his share of the cash — or a bigger share of it — while ensuring his peers across the league get their bag too.
While everything he said Wednesday illustrates an objective to fulfill both desires, the reality is those two concepts — winning and getting paid — historically reside at opposite ends of the spectrum, separate sides in a game a tug-of-war. Mahomes just grabbed the rope closer to the cash.
The aftermath? The Chiefs’ path to winning a Super Bowl in 2024, 2025 and 2026 became more difficult than it was a week ago. Maybe it’s only 10% more difficult. Perhaps it’s less. But we are talking about a league in which the margin is razor thin. Difficult is not a synonym for impossible, but this matters.
A year ago, the Chiefs became the first team to win a Super Bowl with their quarterback occupying more than 13.1% of the salary cap, when Mahomes accounted for 17%.
In 2024, Mahomes is slated to be making 58% more than he did in the Super Bowl season. The cap will jump a lot, to be sure, but not at that clip. He will likely be taking up more than 20% of the reserved space.
Which means that while the Chiefs accomplished something last season that had never been done before, soon they’ll be asked to top it. It is my opinion the Chiefs can overcome that number. It is a fact that no one else has.
Here’s where I’ll pause to acknowledge the potential for exception. Kind of an exception, that is.
The contract does allow for flexibility, same as the last one did. The Chiefs will have the option of pushing some of Mahomes’ gargantuan salary cap charge to future years, because the contract runs through 2033 with the addition of a couple of void years. (It will be replaced by a negotiation long before then.) The Chiefs astutely managed to create about $2.5 million in cap space in 2023 with the new deal, and they can basically choose whether to absorb future cap hits immediately or save a portion of them for the future.
The flexibility, though, sits with when the money is going to apply to the books rather than if.
It’s coming. They will almost certainly have to do something about the when, because as it stands, Mahomes’ cap charge is $57.4 million in 2024, $60.9 million in 2025 and $63.3 million in 2026. Those would all be top-three numbers in football, if unchanged.
By comparison, Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow remains on the highest annual average value contract in the NFL — at least until the next guy tops it, because that’s how this all works — and his cap charges are $29.7 million in 2024, $46.2 million in 2025 and $48.2 million in 2026. (So, that’s $27.7 million less than Mahomes in 2024, $14.7 million less in 2025 and $15.1 million less in 2026.)
In other words, yeah, expect some cap maneuvering from a group that is increasingly known for its ability to massage the cap. There’s more to massage now.
Look, I don’t want any of this to be construed as blaming Mahomes. If you’ve arrived at this space before, you’ll know I’ve long advocated for players to get paid their worth. That includes Mahomes. It has included Chris Jones too, who was greeted with a much different narrative when he sought a raise, by the way.
I certainly think Mahomes could’ve taken more. In relative football terms, he deserves more.
But a week ago he was taking less.
And that’s the takeaway from his pay bump. Well-earned by the player. A tougher spot for the team, even if it could’ve been worse.
And it all derives from a player trying to please two masters — particularly one who is publicly adamant about preserving a Super Bowl caliber roster. The raise doesn’t fit the latter as the end-all, be-all preference. It fits as a player trying to find a happy medium. If you’re inclined to call it team-friendly, you ought to point to the fact he’s still making less than Burrow per season. But it’s a significant raise, and therefore undoubtedly less friendly than before, like a bro-hug greeting turned into a smile and a handshake.
His justification for what changed is logical — other quarterbacks’ negotiations will almost certainly reference what the best player in the world is making. Maybe players at other positions too.
“It’s hard. You have to watch and see what’s going on around the league and find that right spot,” Mahomes said. “I think we found a good one in this negotiation that we’ll be able to still keep that space for other guys to get signed.”
The irony is just last season he proved his team needs less of that support than any other team in history.
But even less? The future will determine how far the envelope can be pushed.