KANSAS CITY, Mo. — No NFL team has won a Super Bowl with a starting quarterback eating up more than 13.1% of the salary cap since the NFL instituted the rule in 1994.
San Francisco QB Steve Young’s cap hit was 13.1% of the 49ers' salary-cap space that season, which remains the record.
The second-highest percentage is the 12.2% for Tom Brady with the 2018 New England Patriots and 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There have only been eight instances where a starting QB accounted for more than 10% of the salary cap for the eventual Super Bowl champion in 27 seasons.
Impact of Mahomes’ contract
That’s potentially important because the Kansas City Chiefs’ salary cap situation changes dramatically next season as the 10-year extension Patrick Mahomes signed on July 6, 2020, kicks in.
Signing Mahomes, who is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL, to a nearly half-billion extension last summer was a no-brainer for the Chiefs, but it’s still going to complicate General Manager Brett Veach’s job after the 2021 season.
Mahomes counts for roughly $7.4 million against Kansas City’s salary cap for the upcoming season, which has a deflated $182.5 million ceiling for 2021. He accounts for 4% of the Chiefs’ salary cap according to Over the Cap.
Including backup Chad Henne’s contract, which counts more than $1.6 million against the cap, quarterbacks account for only 5.4% of the Chiefs’ spending among the top 51 players contracts.
But Mahomes’ cap number nearly more than quadruples for 2022, ballooning to nearly $35.8 million.
Even with the NFL salary cap going up to $208.2 million in 2022, Mahomes’ escalating cap hit — which includes a $27.4 million roster bonus, which gives Veach some flexibility to move around money as needed — puts a pinch on spending at other positions.
Mahomes and undrafted rookie free agent Shane Buechele are the only quarterbacks under contract for 2022, according to Over the Cap, with Mahomes’ current cap number alone expected to eat up roughly 17.2% of the salary cap.
If the Chiefs — which have been to consecutive Super Bowls, ending a 50-year title drought with a win in Super Bowl LIV — can win a championship in 2022 or beyond with Mahomes counting that much against the cap, it will be unprecedented in NFL history.
Of course, as the salary cap escalates, which it should substantially with new TV deals in place and additional revenue from streaming services, Mahomes’ cap percentage could come down significantly in the coming years, easing the burden on Veach.
The genius of the deal Mahomes signed with the Chiefs is that he seemed to understand the need for some cap flexibility. It’s structured with the bulk of the money — $315.5 million — coming in roster bonuses, which can be moved to future years or converted to a signing bonus that would be spread over the next five years of the contract.
Kansas City did just that in March 2021, turning a $21.7-million roster bonus into a signing bonus, which adds more than $4.3 million to his cap number from 2022-25.
Clearly, the Chiefs aren’t hamstrung by Mahomes’ contract in the near-term, but eventually the bill will come due. The hope is that the cap rises fast enough to account for it moving forward with another extension possible down the road to provide additional flexibility.
Kansas City has more than $10 million in dead money, including $3.75 million for Mitchell Schwartz and nearly $3.2 million for Eric Fisher, who were both released in March ahead of the new league season.
Early 2022 cap assessment
The Chiefs’ salary obligations for the 38 players currently under contract for 2022 leave $19.1 million in cap space, or 9.2%.
That doesn’t sound too bad until you consider that the 51 most-expensive contracts are used for salary-cap purposes and neither left tackle Orlando Brown nor All-Pro safety Tryann Mathieu are signed beyond the 2021 season.
Plus, many of the players current under contract for 2022 are undrafted free agents, who may not even make this season's roster out of training camp, which begins Friday at Missouri Western in St. Joseph.
Brown, acquired via trade with the Baltimore Ravens in April 2021, almost certainly will be eyeballing former teammate Ronnie Stanley’s five-year, $98.75-million deal as the benchmark for any extension he signs.
The Chiefs, of course, could load up another contract with signing and roster bonuses — similar to the Chris Jones deal — to push money into the future, if needed.
Absent that, the Chiefs could use the franchise tag on Brown for 2022, which would cost nearly $17 million — all guaranteed money — and it wouldn’t leave much room to fit a Mathieu extension under the cap either.
Mathieu carries the second-largest cap hit in 2021 at more than $19.7 million and many expected an extension this offseason to keep him with the Chiefs beyond 2021 and lower that number, which may still happen but hasn’t yet.
So, where can the Chiefs turn for relief other than Mahomes' money?
Embattled defensive end Frank Clark, who recently was indicted on weapons charges for a March 2021 incident and arrested in a separate June 2021 incident involving an uzi in his native Los Angeles, carries the biggest cap number in 2021 ($25.8M) and 2022 ($26.3M).
While remaining guarantees dictate the Chiefs can’t cut him this season, Clark is a likely cap casualty before the 2022 season — a move that would free up at least $12.7 million, maybe more depending on the timing and any possible NFL suspension.
Middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens is another player who may become expendable in 2022 for cap reasons as cutting him would save $8.5 million.
The Chiefs also could move around some of Jones’ $18.1-million roster bonus to create relief, but only is he's willing to help Veach and the Chiefs out with such a move.
Aside from the players already mentioned along with wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who’s an extension candidate, tight end Travis Kelce and newly signed guard Joe Thuney, nobody else on Kansas City’s roster signed beyond 2021 carries a cap hit higher than kicker Harrison Butker’s $4.2 million.
In other words, Veach will have to continue to be creative to keep the championship window open now that Mahomes is about to get paid like he's one of the NFL's best.