Sam Mellinger: How Mahomes can do more than become the NFL's richest man, with many rooting for him

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Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) directs action during Super Bowl LIV against the San Francisco 49ers on February 2, 2020, at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. - Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/TNS

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The most anticipated contract negotiation in NFL history is underway, in some form. Hard to know exactly where things stand. Parties on either side aren’t talking about it, not even privately.

There is too much at stake. We are left with only a few certainties.

First, Patrick Mahomes will be the highest-paid player in NFL history.

Second, his next contract has the power to change such negotiations in the league forever.

“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.

These are among the handful of agents who spoke for this column over the last few weeks, each given the anonymity to speak freely.

Chris Cabott, president and COO of Steinberg Sports & Entertainment, represents Mahomes. He declined to speak for this column, but several who did want him to know they’re rooting for him.

“This is one of those contracts that could help all of us,” one agent said.

One possibility that would have players around the league lighting celebratory cigars: Mahomes tying his salaries to a percentage of the salary cap.

“The holy grail,” in the words of one agent.

The attraction is multifold. From the players’ perspective, it could be a tool that encourages owners to spend closer to the cap, which would mean more money paid out. It would also set a new precedent, adding options for future negotiations on a point no team has been willing to concede.

“To me, that’s a hill the owners will die on,” one agent said.

But what about now? Because this comes at a particularly interesting moment. Even assuming a full season is played, stadiums will almost certainly be devoid of fans, at least in the beginning.

The NFL’s $5 billion TV contracts offer better protection than, say, Major League Baseball’s. But the league would stand to lose $5.5 billion in stadium revenue — 38% of its total income — by playing behind closed doors, according to Forbes.

The league’s CBA calls for 48% of revenue be paid to players. That’s quite a haircut.

“Everybody’s saying the cap is going to be lower next year — everybody,” an agent said.

Teams have always resisted tying salaries to a percentage of the cap, but this is an interesting moment. Mahomes and the Chiefs generally want the same things — for him to be the league’s highest-paid player, and for the team to surround him with enough talent to continue winning.

Giving Mahomes a set percentage of the cap could theoretically offer both sides protection and ensure a fair deal.

If the cap explodes — still a long-term possibility with legalized gambling become increasingly common and another round of TV negotiations to follow the 2021 season — then so does Mahomes’ salary.

But in the short-term, if the cap indeed diminishes next season, the Chiefs would be better equipped to fill out their roster.

“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.”

OK, fine. Other new milestones could be achieved, none more important to players than guarantees.

Fellow quarterback Kirk Cousins signed the NFL’s first fully guaranteed contract — all $84 million across a three-year deal that will expire after the 2020 season.

Mahomes is under the Chiefs’ control through the 2021 season, which means a four-year extension would run through 2025. One agent predicted the quarterback franchise tag would be around $45 million by then, so Mahomes should be in line for $160 million or more.

What if that was fully guaranteed?

“We’d be dancing in the streets,” one agent said.

Fallen barriers often become the new standard. The more normalized big guarantees become, the better for players. One agent presented the idea of guaranteeing at least 20% of all rookie contracts, for instance. Some already get that, of course, but creating a minimum would benefit hundreds in every class.

None of this is to say that Mahomes’ contract will be the new standard. Lamar Jackson is a Super Bowl win from being able to negotiate off Mahomes’ deal, and nobody else is even that close.

There’s an old line among agents about the difference between a star and a comet — Deshaun Watson is a star; Mahomes is a comet.

In other words, there might be only one Mahomes, but another quarterback could be his franchise’s Mahomes.

NFL players typically have far less leverage than, say, those in the NBA or MLB. Their careers are short, their talents often replaceable. It’s not a coincidence that those who speak out on labor issues do so only after making their first fortune, and establishing job security.

No player has ever entered a negotiation with Mahomes’ juice. He won league MVP in his first season as a starter and Super Bowl MVP in his second. He changed a franchise from perennial playoff heartbreaker to the league’s likeliest next dynasty. He is beloved by teammates and coaches. He’s the league’s most marketable player. He is 24 years old.

He can also be relatively certain that if he doesn’t sign this summer his price will only jump.

“I’d take my shot,” an agent said. “And if they want to talk about basing this deal on past deals, or what someone else is making, I’m betting on myself. Nobody’s been in a spot like this.”

The consequences of this deal — good, bad and precedent-setting — will stretch across the league for years.

Mahomes will be wealthy, no matter what. But he could also be a pioneer, and there is a sense on the agents’ side that Mahomes and Cabott will want to do more than secure their own bag.

They may also prioritize new precedents that will benefit players immediately and long-term. Which brings us to the third and final certainty of this negotiation:

It’ll be watched by agents and players throughout the league like no other contract in NFL history.

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©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)