It is forever tempting to build a team around a young quarterback, but it is almost never easy. There are developmental hiccups and physical limitations, injuries and inconsistencies. Starting quarterbacks are the Jenga piece that can't be bungled, and only so many come ready-made. Drew Brees, the NFL's all-time passing leader, didn't make the Pro Bowl until his fourth season.
But if a young quarterback is good enough, if his talents belie his age, there might not be a greater force multiplier in sports. The biggest threats to the New England Patriots' dynastic run have been teams with quarterbacks almost half Tom Brady's age. When Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs faced Brady and the Patriots in last season's AFC championship game, it was the greatest age difference (18 years, one month) between starting quarterbacks in league playoff history.
Mahomes, 24, is a generational talent, the NFL's Most Valuable Player in only his second season and the heir apparent to Brady, 42. But his contract might be as important to Kansas City's ascent as his glorious right arm. Mahomes isn't paid like an MVP -- not yet, anyway -- and that salary disparity gives the Chiefs enviable flexibility. When the Ravens meet Kansas City on Sunday in a clash of unbeatens, they will battle a Super Bowl favorite led by its 10th-highest-paid player.
It could be a preview of what is possible with Lamar Jackson. The Ravens quarterback is just two games into his first year as a full-time starter, and it is unlikely he finishes the season as the NFL's highest-rated passer, the distinction he holds after two brilliant games. Jackson doesn't need to be elite for the Ravens to establish themselves as the Chiefs have, though. His rookie deal might be enough.
Next year, with former quarterback Joe Flacco's mega-contract finally off the books, the Ravens will pay their highest-earning quarterback and most important player just $2.6 million. Twenty-six other teams will owe at least one quarterback over $5 million in 2020. What the Ravens don't have to spend on Jackson, they can allocate elsewhere. It's one thing to have a quality quarterback. It's another to have him at Quality Inn rates.
"Certainly, it enhances your window from a standpoint that you could become aggressive at other positions," said ESPN NFL analyst Mike Tannenbaum, the former New York Jets general manager and Miami Dolphins executive vice president of football operations. "It keeps your window open because there's such a substantial savings, so teams like Kansas City and Baltimore right now can sign other players that, a year or two down the road, they won't be able to."
The Chiefs have built smartly, complementing Mahomes with young, cheap playmakers. Wide receiver and returner Tyreek Hill, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, was a fifth-round draft pick in 2016. (He recently signed a three-year, $54 million extension.) Running back Kareem Hunt, a Pro Bowl selection as a rookie in 2017, had over 1,200 total yards in 11 starts last season before a video showing him shoving and kicking a woman led to his release.
But Kansas City also has spent lavishly to patch up its defense and supercharge its offense. In April, the Chiefs traded a 2019 first-round pick and a 2020 second-round pick for Seattle Seahawks star pass rusher Frank Clark. Then they signed him to a five-year, $105.5 million contract, in which much of the guaranteed money will be paid out when Mahomes is still on his rookie deal.
When the Chiefs signed wide receiver Sammy Watkins to a three-year, $48 million deal in March 2018, it was in large part because they assumed Mahomes "would be an elite-level quarterback," Kansas City general manager Brett Veach told The Ringer. With Hill and All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce already under contract, they could afford to double down on Mahomes' potential.
"They put speed around him. They throw shots. They throw screens. They check it down. They run the ball. That's what they do. They're not complicated," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. "You can see what they're doing, but they do it really well with good players, and they give you all the things that are tough on different coverages.