News & Analysis

The best starting lineup that Patrick Mahomes' $45M APY can actually get you in today's NFL

Jan 12, 2020; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) celebrates against the Houston Texans in the second half of the AFC Divisional Round playoff football game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In case you missed it, Patrick Mahomes is now a very rich man. Expectations were high for what he would bring in on his second contract, leaving many believing that his new 10-year deal was a steal on the part of the Kansas City Chiefs. Even so, the average value per year of Mahomes’ deal — $45 million per Over the Cap — reset the quarterback market by $10 million per year.

That led to a number of observations on what that contract could get you, including this SportsCenter graphic highlighting an entire starting lineup coming in at less than Mahomes’ $45 million average per year.

It is filled with Pro Bowlers and All-Pros, but all of them are on their rookie contracts. It’s a fun exercise; it’s just not a realistic one. Putting together that team would require hitting on every draft pick across a variety of positions and rounds, so I thought it would be interesting to see what kind of starting lineup you could realistically put together in 2020 for $45 million. To do that, I looked only at players who are no longer on rookie deals.

As you might imagine, the results aren’t nearly as impressive.

Note: All salary cap data is taken from OverTheCap.com

Offense

Position Player Team Average salary per year
QB Cam Newton New England Patriots $1.8M
RB DeAndre Washington Kansas City Chiefs $1.0M
WR Robert Woods Los Angeles Rams $6.8M
WR Phillip Dorsett Seattle Seahawks $1.0M
WR Albert Wilson Miami Dolphins $3.0M
TE Trey Burton Indianapolis Colts $0.9M
LT Cornelius Lucas Washington $1.9M
LG Stefen Wisniewski Pittsburgh Steelers $1.4M
C David Andrews New England Patriots $3.0M
RG D.J. Fluker Baltimore Ravens $1.1M
RT Marcus Gilbert Arizona Cardinals $1.1M

Two exceedingly cheap offseason deals to Newton and Jameis Winston helped the value on this team. You’re generally not going to find competent NFL starters at quarterback in the $1 million to $2 million range, but you could this offseason. I sided with Newton based on the ability he provides in the designed run game and the fact that we’ve seen more of a ceiling from him than from Winston — a ceiling that could hopefully be reached again in his first fully healthy season since 2017. If you look at the past four years and split Newton’s games out into playing “healthy” and playing injured (2016 Weeks 15-17, 2018 Weeks 10-17 and the two games played in 2019), his PFF grade when healthy is 75.3. The injured subset sits at just 51.2.

Robert Woods is by far the biggest spend in the starting lineup, but he also stands out as one of the better values. He is one of just six wide receivers with an 80.0-plus PFF grade in each of the past three seasons, bringing in 156 first-down receptions in total since 2017 (eighth among wide receivers). Woods is one of the more underrated players at the position in the NFL, and his average salary per year of $6.8 million is a small price to pay for a true No. 1 wide receiver. DeAndre Washington, Phillip Dorsett, Albert Wilson and Trey Burton aren’t overly exciting options to round out the skill positions, but they’ve all shown the ability to provide average (at the worst) play and come cheap.

Along the offensive line, David Andrews is the best of the bunch. He sat out the 2019 season due to a blood clot in his lungs, but his pass-blocking grade in each of 2017 and 2018 sat above 80.0. Across those two seasons, his 82.4 overall grade ranked fifth among qualifying centers. That kind of player at just $3 million is tremendous value for the Patriots.

There are some weak spots, particularly at left tackle (Cornelius Lucas) and right guard (D.J. Fluker), but that is a function of the fact that good offensive linemen with starting experience get paid once they hit free agency. That holds especially true for tackles. Lucas is one of the very few viable options at left tackle with an average salary below $5 million. Last season with the Chicago Bears was his first year with 500 offensive snaps played since his rookie campaign in 2014, but his 72.2 overall grade on those snaps was respectable enough to potentially warrant another shot as a starter in Washington. The takeaway there is that hitting on good rookie tackles in the draft gives teams a real advantage.

Defense

Position Player Team Average salary per year
DI Mike Pennel Kansas City Chiefs $1.0M
DI Shelby Harris Denver Broncos $3.3M
EDGE Adrian Clayborn Cleveland Browns $2.9M
EDGE Aldon Smith Dallas Cowboys $2.0M
LB L.J. Fort Baltimore Ravens $2.9M
LB Jatavis Brown Philadelphia Eagles $1.0M
CB Prince Amukamara Las Vegas Raiders $1.2M
CB Johnathan Joseph Tennessee Titans $2.0M
CB Nickell Robey-Coleman Philadelphia Eagles $1.4M
S Karl Joseph Cleveland Browns $2.5M
S Damarious Randall Las Vegas Raiders $1.5M

Total: $44.7M

Similar to offensive linemen, you’re not going to be getting too much value on good pass-rushers beyond their rookie contracts. The deal that Shelby Harris signed with the Broncos this offseason does stick out as good value for Denver, though. Over the past three seasons, Harris has earned an 86.8 overall grade — 16th among qualifying interior defenders. He’s at his best against the run but gives you a little something as a pass-rusher, as well. Harris’ 28 pressures in 2019 were a career-high.

At edge defender, Aldon Smith’s status for the 2019 season is up in the air. His reinstatement was the first step toward making good on the $2 million deal he received from the Cowboys, and if he looks anything like the player we saw over the first three seasons of his career — an admittedly unlikely outcome — this contract would end up looking like one of the best values in the NFL. From 2011 to 2013, Smith’s 189 regular season pressures ranked sixth in the league.

L.J. Fort has graded out in the low 70.0s at linebacker in each of the past two seasons in a rotational role, playing 250 to 350 snaps per season. It’s an intriguing profile that makes you wonder what he could do in a full season of action, but it’s an opportunity he may not get in 2020 after the Ravens drafted both Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison. Jatavis Brown, on the other hand, is coming off two rough years. He earned just a 53.4 overall grade as a starter for the Los Angeles Chargers in 2018 and hardly played on defense last season. With a new opportunity in Philadelphia, he will look to return to his early-career form (75.9 grade over first two NFL seasons).

Lastly, the secondary — particularly the cornerback position — has some of the better value on the team. Prince Amukamara has been solid throughout his NFL career, never falling below a 66.3 overall grade since his rookie season in 2011. As for Nickell Robey-Coleman, it's surprising that the Eagles were able to snag him on such a cheap deal. The NFL continues to undervalue slot cornerbacks, and Robey-Coleman sticks out as one of the best at that position. His 0.8 yards per coverage snap allowed since 2017 rank third behind only Richard Sherman and Byron Jones at cornerback among players with 1,000 or more coverage snaps. I’ll take that player for just over $1 million every time.

$45 million doesn’t take you as far as it might appear at first glance

It’s easy to look at all the outstanding young players in the league right now playing on their rookie deals and think that you’d prefer that team to spend all the money on Mahomes. When you take rookie deals out of the equation, though, that $45 million looks a lot less impressive spread out across 22 starters.

There are situations where overpaying at quarterback can hamstring your team. It’s a situation that appears to be unfolding right now in Los Angeles with Jared Goff and the Rams, but Mahomes is not Jared Goff. This is the best quarterback in the NFL — one as capable of throwing across his body 50 yards downfield on the run as he is manipulating defenders with his eyes in the pocket and hitting the open throw. You pay that quarterback. In the coming years, the Chiefs will be happy they did.

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