Estimated 2015 Cap Space: -$1.7M ($140M cap limit)
Players Under Contract: 67
Pro Bowlers: 4
Unrestricted Free Agents: 14(6 with 50%+ playtime)
Draft Selection: 18
Salary Cap Breakdown
Free Agents to Re-sign
Justin Houston is a must sign if the Chiefs have any intention of keeping their defense as a strength of team. Houston is a devastating pass rusher that is the best outside linebacker in the NFL. Clay Matthews is the current positional price leader at $13.2 million a season and Houston is a superior player to Matthews even going back to the timeframe in which he signed his contract. He can push the $14 million mark. Kansas City can, and likely will franchise tag him to protect their rights. Kansas City has used the tag on Branden Albert, Tamba Hali, and Dwayne Bowe in three of the last four years so it’s a given they will find a way to use it here. This will be a very difficult negotiation for Kansas City who also failed to seal the deal with Bowe and Albert when tagged. The fact that they failed to get a deal done during the season gives Houston even more negotiating leverage because of the Chiefs cap concerns…The Chiefs have allowed their offensive line to deteriorate due to salary cap concerns, but keeping Rodney Hudson would be wise to begin reversing the trend. He has slowly grown into one of the better players in the NFL at the position which puts him in the $5-6 million dollar man club with potential to earn more. A team with extreme cap space like the Jaguars can more or less make an offer the Chiefs have no chance of matching if they let him get to March.
Free Agents to Let Walk
In a perfect world the Chiefs should bring back Ron Parker, especially with the health concerns for Eric Berry, which go well beyond the football field. But it’s not a perfect world and he could push for the $6M a year that was received by players like LaRon Landry and William Moore, which is just too expensive for the Chiefs at this point. The kind of contract that they would need to give him at that price would be incredibly player friendly giving them no realistic outs in the future…Mike McGlynn graded as one of the worst guards in the NFL by Pro Football Focus so it’s pretty obvious the team will be looking to replace him, even if he plays at the minimum.
Contracts to Modify
Sometimes in the NFL deals just don’t work out and that is what happened between the Chiefs and Bowe. Bowe showed every trait needed for a number one and it was easy to blame the lack of production on the lack of presence at the QB position. But he has had a professional QB for the last two years and done nothing. Bowe has a $14 million cap charge and the team saves $5 million if they release him, but given their lack of depth at receiver its best to find a way to keep him. If Bowe were to be released tomorrow I don’t believe he would have more than $4 million in value around the NFL and it might be less than that. If the Chiefs can get him to play for $4-5 million that creates at least $6 million in cap room, more than if they released him outright. This in my mind is a must do….There is likely no way for the Chiefs to function if Alex Smith carries a $15.6M cap hit. Converting $5M of his base salary to a bonus will free up just under $4M without damaging their future too much. They can save $8M if they go all in on his restructure though that will leave them with massive cap charges in the future… Tamba Hali will carry an $11.96M cap charge if the Chiefs can’t extend him. Hali will be 32 and the Chiefs should try to model a deal similar to the one the Ravens signed with Terrell Suggs last year once they had Elvis Dumervil as the proven young pass rusher. Suggs signed for just over $5M a year in return for some massive guarantees. His cap fell from $12.4M to $7.8M with the move, so the numbers should be similar here for the team.
Players to Consider Releasing
Mike DeVito has missed 15 games in his two years with the Chiefs and it is unlikely they can risk a roster spot on him again. They have players who stepped up in his absence and he saves the team $4 million if cut….Releasing Donnie Avery saves the team $3.55 million and his production can easily be replaced by a minimum salary player…While the Chiefs like having Anthony Fasano it is time to go full steam ahead with Travis Kelce who is developing into a tremendous all around player. Fasno’s release creates just under $2 million in cap space…While it is nice to have a backup you can rely on if the Chiefs want to keep their best players in uniform next season, Chase Daniel probably has to go and you have to risk the QB staying healthy. Releasing Daniel will result in $3.8 million of cap space….Cutting Joe Mays, who had no impact last season, saves the team $3 million…The release of Hali and Bowe are also clear possibilities.
Everyone saw the writing on the wall for where this was headed once the Chiefs were successful in 2013. The team spent a great deal of money that season to add to a group of underachievers which did push them over the hump, but was going to leave them clawing and scratching for cap space down the line. With major players to re-sign one could argue that they have the second worst cap position in the NFL. There is no team in the NFL that would benefit more from the salary cap rising well beyond the NFL projections of $138-142 million.
If they are forced to carry Houston on the tag and we use our $140M cap estimate that puts the Chiefs in the ballpark of $15 million over the salary cap. With that kind of position it will be near impossible to free up space to negotiate favorable terms with Houston and Hudson, instead needing to go the large bonus and low cap charge in year one route. That said the Chiefs usually use such contract mechanisms so it is not the kind of departure from the norm it would be with other teams.
I think the Chiefs need to map out a plan and not dwell too much on one player. Houston should be the top priority but if it seems to be at an impasse they shouldn’t forget about Hudson and then scramble at the last second to come up with something. I feel like that was a problem in the year the re-signed Bowe and tagged Albert. They also need to decide quickly as to Houston’s willingness to come to terms quickly because if he does not then they need to make as many moves as possible to create the cap space to swing some leverage in their favor.
If the Chiefs do everything mapped out above and are forced to tag Houston it should leave them with $15 million to spend on draft picks, free agents and Hudson. If they do the low year one cap deal with Hudson they will have around $10 million after they sign rookies. I’d say that would max their free agent dollars at $6.5 million. They can get more relief from Smith to increase that figure.
I haven’t mentioned Berry at all but know I will get questions about him. The Chiefs can work out various terms with Berry to try to lessen the immediate cap hit. That can include a lower salary knowing he may not be able to play again or even splitting his salary over two years with the intent to put him on NFI and pay him over two years if he comes back the following season. I can’t see any scenario in which they cut him or simply make the decision to pay him nothing so I think its best to just operate on the assumption he’ll have his full cap charge for the offseason and they will come up with a solution in the summer when hopefully he is getting better and better news about his condition.
The Chiefs are in desperate need of a receiver but they won’t find it easy to get one in free agency unless they get a deal done with Houston. Cutting Hali may also be a pre-requisite to that. Given the makeup of the team I am not sure they can wait for draft development at this position so they will likely do whatever they can to make it happen. The large contract they gave to Bowe is also going to have receivers asking for the moon when they come to the team since the Chiefs already set their own precedent for the valuation of a number 1 projected receiver. One would lean towards Jeremy Maclin being their top target if they can find a way to squeeze him in.
There is no shortage of offensive lineman available in free agency, but being that they have let go of Albert, Geoff Schwartz, and Jon Asamoah it is hard to picture them going for players that would grade in the above average pay tier. I see this as more of a draft position to fill in the 2nd and 3rd rounds. I would imagine their secondary help will also come via the draft.
Not many teams seem to land in a position like the Chiefs are in right now. They are faced with the decision of the cap dictating difficult cuts or perhaps not the best terms if they keep the player on the roster. Unlike teams of the past with tough choices like the Raiders, Jets, and Colts this is far more complex because the Chiefs are highly competitive and filled with a mix of young and old that seems prepared to challenge now for at least a division crown.
The wrong decisions though can really damage the team in the future, pigeonholing the team into the 2015 roster for the next few seasons without opportunity to really change much. I’ve seen plenty of teams go through that and it is not a pleasant experience and extremely frustrating for the fanbase. This will be a team to watch over the next few weeks to see what direction they are headed for in free agency.
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Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.