How can Chiefs keep paying players big money under salary cap? 

How on the pandemic-wrecked, salary-capped earth are the Kansas City Chiefs paying all these high-priced players?

It’s a question asked a lot recently. Every time it’s reported a different K.C. player has been handed a bag of gold doubloons, the head-scratching from the general public takes some more hair off its already thinning scalp.

I thought the NFL had a hard salary cap? I thought the Chiefs didn’t have much money left?

It’s always been truth that if a team is good enough at financial gymnastics, the salary cap is but a standing obstacle to be leaped around. Through contract restructures, renegotiations, turning base salary into bounces to push money into future years and tacking on voiding years at the end of deals to spread cap hits, teams can usually find a way to make their desires fit under the hard cap. That the salary cap has increased by about $10 million per year up to this season has been beneficial as well — pushing money into the future hasn’t hurt with the cap increases (how that changes in future years due to the pandemic remains uncertain).

The Chiefs’ situation, however, is different. This isn’t really a case of the team doing aerobatics to fit the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Chris Jones and Travis Kelce under the cap.

Nope. It is the players making it all work.

The group of K.C. players has taken team-friendly deals that are structured in a way as to give the Chiefs flexibility (toss in some creative-thinking bonus points to the club’s front office).

Neither Jones nor Kelce got signing bonuses, which kept Kansas City’s 2020 cap figure low.

NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo noted Friday on Good Morning Football that the Chiefs were able to extend all three key players while adding only about $8 million to the payroll in 2020.

The players’ desire to stay together for years to come and their willingness to leave cash on the negotiating table have enabled the Chiefs to get creative with their structures. Take a gander at K.C.’s salary cap figures at Over The Cap, Mahomes, Kelce or Jones are not in the top-four earners on the team this year.

Kelce’s deal, which got done Thursday, is a prime example of a player giving the team flexibility. On its face, the extension is worth $57 million in new money over four years, with $28 million in guarantees. The scratch is good, particularly for a depressed TE market. With two years left on his previous deal, it keeps Kelce in K.C. for the next six seasons. Normally with these types of extensions, there is a hefty signing bonus that ups the current salary-cap figure significantly. Not this time. They’ll pay the star TE the same $9.25 million he was already scheduled for this season. Zero more.

Per Garafolo, the cash flow on Kelce’s deal runs: $9.25 million in 2020; $13.25 million in 2021; $7.5 million in 2022; $13.25 million in 2023; $15 million in 2024; and $17.25 million in 2025. 

Other than a $4 million bump next year, the short-term cost is uber-team-friendly. This is basically $30 million over the next three years ($10 million per, which is where the TE market was before) and then the team will play it by ear from there.

Kelce is betting big he’ll still have massive value by the end of the extension. Backloaded deals like this aren’t common — they take a player willing to give huge amounts of leverage to the team. It’s possible Kelce never sees the end of this deal, and it’s reworked again as he enters the twilight of his career.

So, why are the Chiefs able to get so many great players to buy into these team-friendly contracts?

Blame Mahomes.

When the world’s best football player is willing to leave money on the table, it begins a trend. (Sidenote: It’s easy to “leave money” when what’s being taken off that table is nearly half a billion dollars).

Not only did Mahomes ink a decade-long extension that will likely have him looking underpaid in a few years, he was vocal about the fact that he’d left money on the table so the Chiefs could keep a great team around him.

The top NFL player on the planet set the course: Let’s all give up a little to build a dynasty.

His teammates have followed suit.

Now the Chiefs have a corps of star players under contract that could rule the AFC for years to come.

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