Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each one must do for a better season in 2016. Next up is the Chiefs, who have a chance to position themselves as AFC West favorites depending on how they navigate this spring. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse draft order over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
S Husain Abdullah, G Jeff Allen, S Eric Berry, S Tyvon Branch, QB Chase Daniel, DE Mike DeVito, OLB Tamba Hali (voidable contract), DT Jaye Howard, LB Derrick Johnson, CB Sean Smith, OT Donald Stephenson, RB Charcandrick West (exclusive rights)
Player(s) that must be re-signed
Berry, Hali, Howard, Johnson: Hali agreed to a pay cut last off-season, then delivered 6.5 sacks while playing through lingering knee pain. His current contract sort of takes advantage of an NFL salary cap loophole—it technically runs through 2019 but with no base salary, just prorated bonuses. So, if the Chiefs and Hali don't agree on a new deal (or Hali retires), $3 million in remaining bonus pay will accelerate onto this year’s cap. Considering Hali’s cap hit was just shy of $5 million last year, those numbers make re-signing him a wise move. Why pay Hali $3 million not to play when he could suit up at $5-6 million?
Well, the Chiefs need money to sign their other defensive stars, so an extra couple million might come in handy. Take Howard. The 27-year-old lineman came into his own this year, teaming with Dontari Poe, Allen Bailey and DeVito to give Kansas City a top D-line. This could be his one and only shot at a huge deal, though—the 2012 Seahawks draft pick turned Chiefs waiver claim has made an average of less than $700,000 per year through his four seasons to date. He might wind up out of Kansas City’s range. The Chiefs handed Bailey a four-year, $25 million extension midway through the 2014 season; they also have to get Poe, set to be a free agent after 2016, a contract extension soon.
Depending on whether he draws DT or DE designation, a franchise tag for Howard would run somewhere between $12 and $15 million. Too much. And the Chiefs need to leave that tag option open for Berry anyway.
Johnson, 33, could be the easiest situation. The career Chief came back from injury to turn in a Pro Bowl season. GM John Dorsey should be able to keep him around at a reasonable cost.
Most important position to improve
Offensive tackle: The Chiefs need to get to work here. Retaining Donald Stephenson might help some, if only for his versatility ... but he was mediocre no matter where he lined up in 2015.
Left tackle Eric Fisher and right tackle Jah Reid remain under contract—Reid now through 2018 thanks to the contract extension he signed in December. But there are a few issues: Reid is probably better off starting at guard, and the Chiefs face a decision in the near future on whether or not to pick up Fisher’s fifth-year contract option, priced at the average salaries of the league’s top-10 highest paid tackles. Fisher was better this season, but is he worth that sort of change?
Even if everyone returns along the line, the front office should be looking for upgrades; the Chiefs allowed Alex Smith to be sacked 45 times in 2015.
Cornerback could be a problem, too. Sean Smith really deserves to be on the “must re-sign” list, but what he’ll likely fetch on the open market figures to price him out of Kansas City’s range. The secondary struggled with Smith out of the lineup early in the year.
Other positions to improve
Cornerback, safety, wide receiver, defensive line: See above on the corners. Jamell Fleming and Marcus Cooper join Smith as potential free agents, while 2014 third-rounder Phillip Gaines landed on IR in late September after tearing his ACL. Right now, it’s Marcus Peters and a lot of question marks.
The safety situation is contingent in large part on Berry. Assuming the Chiefs keep him in the fold, they’ll be in solid shape there with a Berry/Ron Parker combo. The depth could be an issue, especially for a team that likes to run three-safety looks rather frequently—Husain Abdullah and Tyvon Branch are headed toward free agency. Dorsey very well could re-sign both at a relative bargain.
Wide receiver has a solid base, as well. Jeremy Maclin starred all year, and both Albert Wilson and Chris Conley showed promise. Still, finding another true outside receiver should be on the to-do list.
And we covered much of the defensive line situation above. Losing both DeVito and Howard would serve as a significant hit to Kansas City’s defense.
Overall priority this off-season
Decide how much longer to count on the current core: The Chiefs won 11 games in the regular season and reached the divisional round. They could enter next season as the AFC West favorite in many eyes, depending on what happens with Denver’s quarterback situation. This team is a contender for the 2016 season. But then what?
Sustaining success is a massive challenge in the NFL, and the Chiefs find themselves facing some tough decisions. Hali is 32 with 10 seasons under his belt, Johnson already 33, Jamaal Charles next season will turn 30—a presumed line in the sand for running backs—and is coming off another major knee injury. Smith was the No. 1 pick way back in 2005 and also turns 32 this off-season.
How many more shots do the Chiefs want to take with their current core? That’s a pressing issue for Dorsey right now, with the likes of Berry, Johnson and Hali hitting free agency. Meanwhile, Charles has no guaranteed money left on his contract, which runs through 2017 and includes an upcoming roster bonus.
Kansas City should be targeting the Super Bowl in 2016. Can it do so without sacrificing its cap situation for several years to come?