Patrick Mahomes is your $500 million man.
But before we knew the flabbergasting price tag on the deal, we knew the equally stunning duration: 10 years. A 10-year quarterback deal has only been signed five times in NFL history, with the most recent coming in 2004—16 years ago. In this modern era of skyrocketing cap ceilings, the increased transience of franchise players, and uncertain cap stability as a result of COVID-19, that a 10-year deal was signed is almost too much to believe.
But now that Mahomes’ deal is well and properly leaked, we can see how the structure of past decade-deals is reflected in its build, but with modern twists dropped in to provide Mahomes the long-term security and massive paycheck that he so rightfully deserved.
As I said above, there are five historical 10-year deals in quarterbacking history. The first decade-long deal was signed by Brett Favre in 2001. Favre was turning 32 at the time, and had three years remaining on a seven-year deal that, at the time of its signing, was the biggest deal in the NFL. In the back half of that $47.25 deal, the Packers had loaded up on cap hits for Favre, and needed to alleviate space. So they gave him the lifetime deal: $100M over 10 years, much of which was backloaded: the final four years of the deal had a total base salary of $50M dollars.
Favre would end up playing seven of the 10 contract years, never reaching the caliber of player he had on his first deal: he went 3-5 in the playoffs and failed to make a First-Team All-Pro roster. Of course, it wasn’t that Favre was bad—it’s just that he wasn’t what he had been. This was pretty quickly recognized by Green Bay brass when they drafted Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers in 2005, who took the reins from Favre in 2008 and quickly put the Packers on a eight-season streak of playoff berths, including a Super Bowl win.
So Favre went to New York, then Minnesota. He made one final playoff push in 2009 before officially hanging up the cleats in 2010. He ended up making just under $100M total from the Packers.
Quite soon after Favre signed his deal, it was beaten by New England Patriots QB Drew Bledsoe: $103M over 10 years. Once again, this was construed as a lifetime deal, as Bledsoe (29 at the time), said “I've expressed over and over again my desire to play my entire career with the New England Patriots. It looks like that is a very real possibility.''
Much like the Favre deal, the Bledsoe deal was made such that the Patriots would have cap space in 2001 to attack the free agent market. Unlike the Favre deal, it wasn’t actually built to be a lifetime contract. Rather, it was tethering Bledsoe to future cap figures that were both fair and guaranteed, should he continue playing well, while giving the Patriots escape hatches, should he play poorly. All of the fully guaranteed money was built into the first four years of the deal, but there were multiple options that the Patriots could pick up in later years to guarantee more money and keep Bledsoe on the roster for at least the next couple of seasons. For example, after the first four seasons of the deal, the Patriots would have to pay a $7.2M option bonus to Bledsoe in order to access the 2005-2010 years of the contract. It was a bear of a deal—agent David Dunn said it was 17 pages of technical language. (Mahomes’ deal would end up being 100 pages more than this.)
Of course, Bledsoe would play exactly one game of his 10-year contract. In Week 2 of the 2001 season, Bledsoe went down with a life-threatening injury against the Buffalo Bills and was replaced by second-year quarterback Tom Brady. The Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl that season (and in many seasons to come), with Bledsoe filling in for the injured Brady in the AFC Championship Game for his final snaps with the Patriots.
Given the success and relative cost of Brady, the Patriots looked to trade Bledsoe’s contract, finding a dance partner with the Buffalo Bills and returning a 2003 first-round draft pick in the process (Ty Warren). Bledsoe was still a talented passer, and had a productive 2002 season, but was eventually cut by the Bills in 2004 in favor of first-round pick J.P. Losman. Bledsoe played two more seasons with the Cowboys before retiring from the NFL.
Next up on our quarterback carousel is Donovan McNabb, who signed a stunning 12-year extension with the Eagles in 2002, only four years into his professional career. McNabb was 26 at the time, and had yet to accrue the Super Bowl appearances and highfalutin accolades that belonged to both Favre and Bledsoe. He was certainly a promising quarterback, with back-to-back playoff berths and Pro Bowl appearances. But this was not billed as the same lifetime deal as the previous two.
So why was the deal signed? It was signed because of the advantages it offered to the Eagles. The final three years of the contract were automatically voided by performance metrics that McNabb was very likely to meet, and like the Favre deal before it, the contract’s total value was inflated by massive base salaries in final years that the player would likely never see. In effect, McNabb’s deal was only for nine seasons and totaled $72M dollars, with $20.5M of that money guaranteed. Never was the deal expected to take up more than 10% of the Eagles’ cap in any given season.
For the first time in this megadeal’s history, we would see it truly play out. McNabb played on that deal through 2009, completing eight of the nine seasons and making it to four NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl. In 2009, the Eagles restructured the final two years of the shortened deal to actually boost McNabb’s salary for those two seasons, as McNabb had been hunting an extension with the Eagles, and the Philadelphia brass was unwilling to take McNabb beyond his age 34 (2010) season at the time.
McNabb would never even get there. The Eagles traded him to Washington for a second-round pick before the 2010 NFL Draft. In Washington, McNabb played pretty poorly, signed a massive extension, and then saw that massive extension restructured when he was traded to the Minnesota Vikings in 2011, this time for just a sixth-round pick. McNabb was cut by the Vikings in 2011 and retired from football in 2013.
In 2003, those same Vikings doled out the fourth big-money deal for a quarterback, with $102M going to Dante Culpepper over a 10-year span. At the time, it was the third-largest deal on the market, behind McNabb’s and Bledsoe’s, and fit more in the mold of McNabb’s deal, with whom he was drafted with back in 1999. It was meant to keep his yearly cap figure manageable, but reward him with longevity.
Culpepper had three starting seasons to his name at the time of his extension at the age of 26, with one Pro Bowl and one playoff appearance, each in his first season of starting. In fact, Culpepper’s 2001 and 2002 seasons were not that great—in 2002 alone, he threw more interceptions than he did touchdowns and turned the ball over a league-leading 32 times. Culpepper had some good seasons following the signing, and even grabbed a raise in 2005 to make his cap figure more competitive against the new market value. But Culpepper got injured in 2005, was traded in 2006 to the Dolphins, and got cut in 2007, only playing out four years on his 10-year extension.
The final and most recent long-term deal at quarterback was handed out to Michael Vick by the Falcons in December of 2004: 10-year extension, $130M dollars total, and a $37M signing bonus. At the time, Vick’s performance was so good that it had forced a void similar to that of the McNabb deal, and Vick could have hit free agency in the spring if the Falcons didn’t pay an option bonus to bring him back, similarly to the Bledsoe deal. To that point, Vick had already set the third-highest mark for QB rushing yards in a single season and made the Pro Bowl and the playoffs in both seasons in which he started more than four games. He was excellent.
This was once again billed as a lifetime deal, despite the fact that Vick was 24 when it was signed. With another performance-based void at the back of the deal, Vick was technically only under contract until he was 33 years old. This contract was backloaded like Favre’s and McNabb’s, and Vick never got to those high salary years, as he was suspended indefinitely in the summer of 2007 after pleading guilty to criminal charges for his involvement in a dogfighting ring. Vick later returned to the league, playing for the Eagles on another $100M deal, the New York Jets, and the Pittsburgh Steelers before retiring in 2016.
So in total, only two QBs played out most of their lifetime contract: McNabb, who played all but the final season of what was really a nine-year deal, and Favre, who played seven seasons on a 10-season extension. Not a single quarterback who signed that massive deal stayed with that team forever, with all but McNabb playing on at least two other teams to finish out their careers.
So this brings us now to Mahomes: his contract, the structure, and his outlook.
Let’s distill some real takeaways from these abstract figures. Mahomes is guaranteed about 95% of his deal in $477M dollars because of how much of his money is built into roster bonuses instead of base salary. These massive roster bonuses help keep the signing bonus money small, which is important for the Chiefs, who are currently strapped for cash—and Mahomes’ camp doesn’t mind because roster bonuses, unlike base salaries, are considered guaranteed money when they trigger on the given date stipulated in the contract. That money won’t come in game checks on any given year—it will go straight to Mahomes’ pocket. Remember, you can only prorate a bonus over five years after its activation, so a low signing bonus at the top of the contract keeps Mahomes’ numbers down in 2020, 2021, and 2022, when his base salary is fully guaranteed. In the event that the Chiefs need to open up more space in future years, when the cap hits start getting a lot bigger, they can convert that roster bonus money into signing bonus money, prorating it across multiple seasons of the cap to lower their yearly cap hit.
As Pelissero later pointed out, these roster bonuses are mostly vested years before they are due—which is to say, Mahomes’ 2024 roster bonus would become fully guaranteed if he remains on the roster in 2022, not in 2024. This helps Mahomes retain his spot on the Chiefs’ roster, as the Chiefs will always be taking on a huge dead cap hit in the event that they cut Mahomes—unlikely, but still possible.
When we look back on past megadeals and how they were handled, we can see clear echoes of the Bledsoe deal here. While Bledsoe’s contract was a lot more discrete in how the option bonuses guaranteed the subsequent seasons, the same idea is in play with the rumored “guarantee mechanisms” that allow Mahomes to void the contract if they aren’t filled. Just as the Patriots either had to guarantee multiple years’ worth of base salary on Bledsoe’s deal in order to access those years of the contract, it seems the same structure is in place for the Chiefs as they look to pay a healthy and successful Mahomes in the years to come. This will not be too much of a hit in the early seasons of Mahomes’ base salary, which is $2.5M in each of the 2024, 2025, and 2026 seasons—starting in 2027, things get a lot more serious.
Much like the McNabb deal and Favre deal, which had huge upsurges in total cash in the final few years of the deal, we see the 2027-2031 years surge with base salary money, while the roster bonus guarantees suddenly stop rising and start falling. This is where Mahomes could become “cuttable,” though it’s far more likely that his deal is just restructured, assuming the Chiefs don’t get stuck in cap quicksand and have to make aggressive moves on Mahomes’ deal before 2027. It is helpful, then, to look at this as an extension through 2026 worth at least $225M dollars—conditional on incentives reached and future bonuses guaranteed, likely a significant chunk more.
But copy-pasting a 2001 structure into 2020 would not be enough in an era of ballooning cap ceilings and heightened player power in negotiations—this is more than just the Bledsoe and Favre and McNabb deals. The roster bonus format is unique to this era and is to the player’s advantage, as that money is calculated into the guaranteed money. The above note that Mahomes’ roster bonus money will vest years in advance gives him some long-term security.
This is not dissimilar to how the Chiefs structured Tyreek Hill’s extension, which is worth $54M, about $43.5M of which is built into roster bonuses. In that Hill’s deal is shorter, he doesn’t have the same yearly pre-empting of the guarantee that Mahomes does—but other long quarterback deals have had similar mechanisms, in which money in the later years of the deal becomes guaranteed if the player is on the roster in earlier seasons.
Mahomes’ contract then alludes to the rolling guarantee structure of past megadeals, but with the dial cranked up to 11. Once we know the exact years in which the Chiefs will have to address those Bledsoe-esque “guarantee mechanisms,” we’ll have a better idea of when, if ever, Mahomes could see his contract cut by the Chiefs without much of a burden. Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated shared that the first year that looks realistic is in 2026, which vests in 2025, only one year previous—not two.
When it was announced that Mahomes was signing a 10-year deal, many wondered what contract format could possibly entice such a superstar to tether himself to one deal for such a long period. Wouldn’t it be in Mahomes’ interest to hit the market as many times as possible? Well, this is the answer: massive, rolling guarantees that secure themselves multiple years in the future keep Mahomes’ money in a position to likely be earned, while paying him at a rate that will likely remain atop the league’s quarterback market for years to come.
Will he play like one forever? The history of 10-year contracted quarterbacks tells us that even if Mahomes plays out the majority of this deal with the Chiefs, as Favre and McNabb did with their teams, he won’t necessarily deliver on expectation. Between the 15 seasons that those two played on their megadeals, they had exactly one Super Bowl berth. But neither did what Mahomes did at such a young age—and even though Mahomes got Favre comparisons, a 10-year deal at 24 is much different than a 10-year deal at 32. Mahomes is as strong of a candidate to provide a positive return on this monster deal as we’ve seen since Vick. This is a special player getting paid like one.