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Rookie contract hero: The Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt trio is setting the Chiefs up for a dynasty

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Kansas City’s emergence is the product of great drafting — and that will ripple well into the future.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs have a legitimate claim as the NFL’s top team in 2018, and it’s all thanks to some outstanding drafting. The four main cogs in the league’s top-ranked scoring offense — Patrick Mahomes II, Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce — are all homegrown talents. And while Kelce is earning every bit of five-year, $46.8 million deal signed in 2016, Mahomes, Hunt, and Hill have emerged as three of the league’s biggest bargains.

Kansas City is 4-0 despite a defense that’s given up more yards through four games than anyone else in the league, and that’s credit to an absolutely electric offense. Mahomes has spread passing touchdowns across nine different targets to start the season, leaving opponents no quarter in the red zone. Hill and Kelce are on pace for 1,200-plus receiving yards each. Hunt has backslid a bit after an explosive rookie season, but remains an important counterbalance to that aerial attack and averaging a touchdown per game. When Mahomes had a relatively slow performance in Week 4, Hunt was there to pile up 175 total yards in a comeback win.

The Chiefs have combined the league’s MVP frontrunner (Mahomes), its foremost home run threat (Hill), and a pressure-relieving tailback (Hunt) for a combined cap hit of a little more than $5 million. Together, they cost less than one-third of what Sam Bradford will make to not play quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals.

That’s immensely valuable, not just because it gives the team the latitude to overcome the large swaths of turf the Chiefs’ defense gives up on a play-by-play basis, but because that massive production is coming on a shoestring budget. That’s going to create some salary cap space going forward — and Kansas City’s Super Bowl hopes will rest on the team being as smart in the free agent market as it has been at the draft.

The Chiefs’ defense is in shambles, but their young playmakers give them the cash to fix that

Mahomes, Hunt, and Hill are all rostered via low-cost rookie contracts. Hill will be a free agent in 2020; Mahomes and Hunt aren’t scheduled to hit the open market until a year later, though Mahomes has a team option built into the fifth year of his contract as a first-round pick. (It will almost certainly cost less than his market value, and even if the team exercises that option he will likely be signed to a contract extension before free agency becomes a concern.)

The trio takes up a combined $5.2 million in cap space in 2018 — or about $100,000 more than the team guaranteed backup QB Chad Henne. For that low cost, they have created approximately $43 million of production on the field in 2018 — a savings of around $38 million. In 2019, assuming no major extensions are reached, that surplus would grow to nearly $44 million in the face of rising free agent contracts.

Chiefs’ rookie contract savings vs. their worth on veteran FA deals

Player 2018 cap hit Similar player cost 2018 savings
Player 2018 cap hit Similar player cost 2018 savings
Patrick Mahomes $3,733,141 $24,000,000 $20,266,859
Tyreek Hill $704,996 $14,000,000 $13,295,004
Kareem Hunt $778,238 $5,200,000 $4,421,762
Totals: $5,216,375 $43,200,000 $37,983,625
Player 2019 cap hit Similar player cost 2019 savings
Patrick Mahomes $4,479,776 $27,000,000 $22,520,224
Tyreek Hill $797,464 $16,200,000 $15,402,536
Kareem Hunt $872,738 $6,700,000 $5,827,262
Totals: $6,149,978 $49,900,000 $43,750,022

(Similar player values are calculated using current top-10 positional contracts for Mahomes and Hill and a top-15 figure for Hunt.)

Those salaries are a pittance for a big three that rivals anyone’s in the league and, unsurprisingly, Mahomes is the guy creating the greatest value. That’s going to be extremely important going forward for Kansas City.

Using the savings generated by inexpensive and overperforming young stars to fill out a roster with veterans is a proven strategy in the NFL. The Eagles used Carson Wentz’s low-cost contract to build a Super Bowl champion in 2017. The Rams have extended their most talented players and added Ndamukong Suh to an already-intimidating front line thanks to the value gleaned from players like Jared Goff, Cooper Kupp, and Marcus Peters.

The Chiefs will have an estimated $50 million in space to throw at free agents next spring. Some of that money will be spent on retaining upcoming free agents like Demetrius Harris, Allen Bailey, Dee Ford, Mitch Morse, Chris Conley, and Steven Nelson. A good chunk will likely be devoted to extending Hill. The rest can be used to lure a couple big names to Missouri to patch up the holes in a defense as seaworthy as the S.S. Poseidon.

Players like Ezekiel Ansah, Jadeveon Clowney, Landon Collins, DeMarcus Lawrence, LaMarcus Joyner, Dante Fowler, HaHa Clinton-Dix, and Anthony Barr are all scheduled to hit the open market in 2019. The money saved by Mahomes, Hunt, and — barring an extension — Hill will give the Chiefs some cash to throw at those free agents. The fact they’ll have one of the league’s most explosive and exciting offenses on the other side of the ball will be a nice selling point as well.

Throwing money at veterans hasn’t worked well for the Chiefs in recent seasons, however

The worst thing about the Chiefs’ awful defense is that it isn’t a cheap one. Four of Kansas City’s top six cap hits this fall currently go to defensive players — Justin Houston ($20.6 million), Eric Berry ($13 million), Dee Ford ($8.7 million), and Allen Bailey (just under $8 million). All but Ford are working on their second contracts with the team, and all four have struggled to live up to the expectations set by extensions in recent years, due to either injury or regression.

Berry has played in just one game since signing a $76 million extension in 2016 thanks to a torn Achilles in 2017 and bone spurs this fall. Houston has been solid in 2018 but has typically been unable — whether by injury or because he’s been the focus of opposing teams’ game plans — to reach the 2014 peak that led him to a $101 million deal with the team back in ‘15. Bailey is a perfectly useful player who is making a little more than he’s worth on the field; he’s also missed 17 games the past 3.25 seasons.

Ford will press the team’s spending room into play next season. He’s only had one real breakout year as a pro so far (10 sacks in 2016), but he’s playing like an upper-tier pass rusher in the fifth year of his rookie deal and is in line for a big pay day in 2019. The Chiefs’ history suggests they’ll sign him to a sizable deal — and then watch him struggle with injuries over the life of it.

The team’s limited background in signing high-cost defensive free agents from other teams has mixed results as well. Sean Smith was a solidly average starting cornerback after coming to Kansas City from Miami at $6 million/year. Darrelle Revis, at two years and $11 million, was not.

So what are these three offensive stars going to cost the Chiefs in 2019 and 2020?

With one fewer year remaining on his contract, Hill is the first man up for an extension. This past year has seen deep threats like Brandin Cooks and even teammate Sammy Watkins sign deals averaging around $16 million per season. That would be a fine baseline for Hill — if he were just a receiving threat.

Instead, Hill can take the Le’Veon Bell track of wanting to be paid for every tool he brings to the offense. The third-year player has scored touchdowns as a receiver, running back, kick returner, and punt returner. That pushes him into the Antonio Brown-Odell Beckham tier when it comes to salary — at least as a starting point. With Mahomes and Hunt still saving the team money and Hill serving as a key part of the team’s offensive identity, the two sides could wind up somewhere in the neighborhood of five years and $85 million, with $55 million guaranteed.

That leaves a problem for the Chiefs if they’re looking to make a move in 2020. Kansas City doesn’t have any big contracts coming off the books (though cutting Watkins would saving $14 million in space) that offseason, and while it can use its team option to prevent Mahomes from becoming the league’s most sought-after free agent, Hunt is a different story.

The ending of that tale will tell us how Kansas City views its young runner. Running backs like Todd Gurley and David Johnson parlayed big early-career performances into eight-figure average salaries, but they’re also dynamic receivers out of the backfield. Hunt proved he can have that kind of impact as a rookie by making 53 catches (on 63 targets), but he’s only made four receptions (on seven targets) in four games so far in 2018.

If that kind of limited use persists — he did make three of those receptions in Week 4, so a surge may be forthcoming — it will hamper Hunt’s value in a volatile market. Even so, his traits and abilities mean he’d be looking at something in line with the deal Devonta Freeman got from another team loaded with playmakers — the Atlanta Falcons. Adding for inflation, that would look something like five years for $45 million, with $25 million guaranteed. But keep in mind tailback values can pitch upward and downward on a whim, and Hunt could wind up on either side of that projection without much surprise.

That brings us to Mahomes, who may have to wait until the final year of his rookie year to earn his big payday in order to:

a) accommodate the big deals already on the Chiefs’ books as well as
b) the free agents whose deals will expire before his.

It’s tough to tell just how much the quarterback market will have escalated by then, but it seems a safe bet Mahomes’ next contract will be a record-setter — since almost every above-average quarterback gets at least one.

Let’s shoot for the moon and go with something nutty like five years, $200 million, and $135 million guaranteed. Yes, that seems like a ton of money now, but three years ago the league’s top average annual salary was $22 million. Now it’s $33.5 million (both for Aaron Rodgers) — $40 million per year could wind up being an underpay when all is said and done.

Other rookie contract studs who upped their value in Week 2:

Sony Michel, RB, Patriots (112 rush yards, TD vs. Dolphins)

Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Bears (Six dang passing TDs vs. Buccaneers)

Keke Coutee, WR, Texans (11 catches, 109 yards vs. Colts)

Jaire Alexander, CB, Packers (One INT, pushed Josh Allen to the ground vs. Bills)

Anthony Walker, LB, Colts (10 tackles, sack vs. Texans)

Previously in rookie contract heroes:

Week 1: Michael Thomas

Week 2: Matt Breida

Week 3: Myles Garrett