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How the Chiefs' Draft Impacts KC's Contract-Year Players

The Chiefs have several key players entering the final year of their contracts. How does KC's draft impact their futures?

When Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid steps up to address the media, one can predict that a gem of a quote will soon follow. Sometimes the topic is a good cheeseburger to celebrate a win; other times, it's comparing the Chiefs’ teamwork to a big piece of prime rib. One of this year’s gems surfaced through his description of former Chiefs-turned-Bears wide receiver Byron Pringle: "One of my goals was to get him a potato chip contract, and he got one."

Thus continues the longstanding tradition of those in high-powered offenses being rewarded with lucrative deals. Assuming this remains a goal for Reid in 2022-23, he'll have quite the group to choose from. Few teams delivered haymakers to the degree that Kansas City did in the 2022 NFL Draft. Though, for as much talent as they acquired, questions surrounding the talent they were already developing and their long-term outlook opened up just as quickly.

Jan 30, 2022; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman (17) reacts after a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals during the second quarter of the AFC Championship Game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Mecole Hardman is perhaps the first example that stands out. In the week of March 18 — between the JuJu Smith-Schuster acquisition and the Tyreek Hill trade — it appeared that the I-told-you-so, true breakout campaign was on the fast track for Hardman. That is, until the Chiefs got faster over these past few weeks.

It’s certainly possible that Hardman still does make the incremental jump from Year Three to Year Four; after all, he’s already done it twice already, and motivation should be sky-high for the former Georgia Bulldog. However, the Chiefs’ wide receiver room — despite its vibe of WR2-type talent with no bonafide WR1 — muddies a bit with Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and a pair of new rookies, Skyy Moore and Justyn Ross. It'll be must-watch for both the talent and the target share competition.

Per Spotrac, Hardman, still just 24 years old, owns the ninth-highest cap hit on the Chiefs, at about $4.4 million. He (and we) have talked extensively about the expectations in place for his contract year. To his benefit, production at wide receiver isn't as difficult to track.

Looking back over history, even before the arrival of general manager Brett Veach, the position’s past is littered with players who performed to a lesser degree than Hardman still being paid handsomely, either by the Chiefs or elsewhere in free agency. Albert Wilson, a player of similar stature and age entered a prove-it year in 2017 with the Chiefs as No. 3 on the receiving totem pole, totaling 42 catches, 560 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns.

Western Michigan wide receiver Skyy Moore (24) receives a pass during the Battle for the Cannon between Western Michigan and Central Michigan on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019 at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, Mich. Wmuvscmu02

For reference, Hardman has already surpassed those numbers twice. Wilson went on to sign a three-year deal for $24 million, making him, for a time, the highest-paid player on the Miami Dolphins' active roster. And, as referenced by KSHB’s Tod Palmer, Hardman’s estimated market value — $10.1 million — sits in that same speedboat.

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Through both adjusting to the defensive schemes and overall maturation as a quarterback, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offensive staff was noteworthy in how they shared the ball around to different playmakers. Five different Chiefs accumulated 40+ receptions and 400+ yards, conjoining them with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals as the only teams of such honor.

Dec 12, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Josh Gordon (19) celebrates with tight end Travis Kelce (87) after scoring against the Las Vegas Raiders during the first half at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

One could make a similar argument for Josh Gordon, and how his role could diminish with Moore and Ross in tow. Gordon didn’t make the most of his opportunities a season ago, with key drops on just 14 targets. The thinking is that him having a chance from scratch at training camp could provide rejuvenation. In short, though, the opportunities will be there for Hardman and Smith-Schuster, and they could be there for Gordon. But with this many mouths to feed, there may have been better times to be hungry for a new contract.

Defensively, three names in particular — Juan Thornhill, Rashad Fenton, and Derrick Nnadi — stand out with a similar conundrum on their hands. 

August 14, 2021; Santa Clara, California, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Juan Thornhill (22) before the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Thornhill burst onto the scene early, allowing just a 43.0 quarterback passer rating over 28 targets as a rookie, but suffered a torn ACL in 2019's finale, requiring an adjustment period. His snap counts to start the year were more volatile than midwestern weather, bouncing from 95 percent to 14 to 29 before stabilizing back to the 90s a few weeks later.

The fact that the Chiefs drafted two safeties, particularly Cincinnati’s Bryan Cook could present a challenge for snaps, which is never ideal in a contract year. On the flip side, scheme versatility will be remarkably high between the likes of Justin Reid, Thornhill, Cook, etc.

Dec 31, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats safety Bryan Cook (6) and safety Bryan Cook (6) and safety Bryon Threats (10) celebrates making an interception against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the third quarter during the 2021 Cotton Bowl college football CFP national semifinal game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In Fenton’s case, there’s some intrigue in that the Chiefs selected not only three corners, but saw it as a first priority, snagging Trent McDuffie at No. 21. This isn’t an indictment on Fenton, who for the third year in a row saw his snap counts rise, and didn’t allow a single touchdown in 2021. 

Yet, the Chiefs may have bucked their past trends in taking cornerbacks early, but paying DBs in huge sums? That remains to be seen. It was noted a few weeks back that Kansas City has yet to spend more than $3 million on a cornerback in the Veach era, and for Fenton, watching the Chiefs allow 25-year-old Charvarius Ward to roam freely after a Pro Bowl-caliber season could be another indicator.

In any case, each of the aforementioned players has a body of work that will allow them a strong chance to earn a “potato chip contract” of some form. But if one thing’s for certain, it’s that the 2022 NFL Draft may have altered where they’ll be eating them at in 2023.