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.

"They know the coverages they’re trying to attack. So that’s smart. He’s a gifted thrower, really, on all three levels. He gets the ball out quickly, can avoid the rush, can create time. That’s why he was the MVP last year.”

The Chiefs were not the first to seize on the value of a capable quarterback on a rookie contract. The Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl two years ago with a second-year quarterback, Carson Wentz, and decently paid backup, Nick Foles, overseeing the offense. The Los Angeles Rams went to the Super Bowl last season with third-year quarterback Jared Goff. The Houston Texans are hoping Deshaun Watson, a first-round pick in 2017, can take them to similar heights.

Rising stars, quarterbacks especially, don’t stay cheap for long. Wentz and Goff signed contract extensions before this season worth up to a combined $278 million. Mahomes could be the first player to earn a $200 million contract. But players aren’t eligible for a contract extension until after their third NFL season, meaning the Ravens and Jackson are more than a year away from formally negotiating the specifics of their future together.

Jackson’s 2019 salary cap hit is more than $23 million less than the average value of the 10 highest-paid quarterbacks, and savvy drafting has surrounded him with a similarly impressive, inexpensive core. Mark Andrews, who leads all tight ends in receiving yards through two weeks, will make less than $1 million in his second year; Kelce has a $10.7 million cap hit. First-round pick and breakout wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, like Jackson, is under team control for up to five seasons.

Six other players who start or contribute significantly on offense — running backs Justice Hill and Gus Edwards, wide receiver Miles Boykin, tight end Hayden Hurst, and linemen Orlando Brown Jr. and Bradley Bozeman — are in their first or second year. “We have a lot of young players, so we have no choice but to grow,” veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith said during mandatory minicamp. “Hopefully sooner than later.”


The Ravens will face difficult personnel decisions after this season, whenever it ends, whether it’s in Week 17 or at the Super Bowl. Smith, outside linebacker Matthew Judon, defensive tackle Michael Pierce, inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor and wide receiver Willie Snead IV are among the 12 players set to become unrestricted free agents.


Jackson’s contract will make it easier to address what Tannenbaum called the “premium positions” — offensive line, cornerback and pass rusher. Pretty soon, Ravens executive vice president/general manager Eric DeCosta will have to worry about paying Jackson, too. Until then, Tannenbaum said, the Ravens can get him the help he needs.

“Make sure that good, young players stay on your team,” he said, “and you can keep your nucleus together.”