Now that the Kansas City Chiefs are out of their salary cap deficit thanks to Part 1 of our Mock Offseason, it is time to retool the roster for another Super Bowl run. Improving the team with $15.344 million in salary cap space seems like a daunting task, but in reality, it is achievable.
However, before the Chiefs go off and spend their newfound cash in this mock offseason, there are a few bookkeeping things to get out of the way.
The first is a small update since part one of the mock offseason series; the fact that the salary cap might end up a bit higher than the initial estimates for this series. A few reports have come out over the past week that has indicated the salary cap might land somewhere in the $182-184 million range. For the purposes of this simulation, nothing about what the Chiefs will do will be affected by this. The mock offseason is still based on $180 million, which just means the Chiefs will have a larger reserve of salary cap room and more carryover salary cap going into 2022. The higher the salary cap goes in reality, the bigger this reserve and carryover cap will be.
To understand this part of the mock offseason, it's vital to have a basic understanding of NFL contracts and their structures. My series on NFL contracts from last offseason, The Art of NFL Contracts, should cover those knowledge gaps.
Now for the fun stuff.
Which player should the Chiefs sign first this offseason? The answer is not even a free agent this year, it is Tyrann Mathieu.
Re-signing The Honey Badger to lower his salary cap hit this year could be the first domino to fall for the Chiefs this offseason. Mathieu’s $19.73 million cap hit is almost $3 million above Landon Collins' $16.9 million cap hit, the next-highest salary cap hit for a safety.
What would an extension for Tyrann Mathieu look like? Something like this:
Three years, $45.72 million, $15.2 million APY, $29.3 million guaranteed, with a year-one salary cap hit of $12.4 million
Applying the principles described in The Art of NFL Contracts to Mathieu's new deal, $11 million of his 2021 base salary is turned into a signing bonus to spread out over two new years on his contract. There is a fair bit of security and new money for Mathieu to be happy with in the form of a guaranteed base salary in 2022 and top safety APY in the NFL. This feels like a nice compromise to make more than $7 million in extra salary cap space in 2021. Chiefs 2021 Cap Space: $22.36 million
Now with over $20 million in salary cap space, the Chiefs will have ammo to go and fill needs aggressively. This has been Brett Veach’s style since becoming the Chiefs' general manager.
It is incredibly hard to predict exactly what the Chiefs will do and where market prices for free agents will land. The players and contracts involved might be wildly off from where the real thing actually lands, but they will provide a baseline of what the Chiefs are capable of. For each contract handed out, the cost was kept around or above what Pro Football Focus projected for the player in their Top 200 Free Agents article.
So, who do the Chiefs sign in this mock offseason? Here are all the major contracts.
1) EDGE Tarell Basham: Three years, $21.8 million, $7.27 million APY, $9 million guaranteed, with a year-one salary cap hit of $3.1 million. Chiefs Cap: $19.92 million
2) Wide Receiver Marvin Jones Jr.: Two years, $20 million, $10 million APY, $11.5 million guaranteed, with a year-one salary cap hit of $7.5 million. Chiefs Cap: $13.08 million
3) Linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis: Two years, $5.5 million, $2.75 million APY, $2.5 million guaranteed, with a year-one salary cap hit of $2 million. Chiefs Cap: $11.74 million
4) Center Austin Reiter: Two years, $8.3 million, $4.15 million APY, $3.5 million guaranteed, with a year-one salary cap hit of $2.24 million. Chiefs Cap: $10.16 million
5) Cornerback Charvarius Ward: One year, $3.422 million, second-round restricted free agent tender. Chiefs Cap: $7.402 million
6) Running back Darrel Williams: One year, $1.12 million, $320k guaranteed. Chiefs Cap: $6.94 million
7) Wide receiver Byron Pringle: One year, $1.05 million, $330k guaranteed. Chiefs Cap: $6.55 million
8) Offensive lineman Andrew Wylie: One year, $1.02 million, $300k guaranteed. Chiefs Cap: $6.19 million
9) Guard Kelechi Osemele: One year, $987k, veteran salary benefit. Chiefs Cap: $5.87 million
10) EDGE Taco Charlton: One year, $987k, veteran salary benefit. Chiefs Cap: $5.66 million
11) Cornerback Alex Brown: One year, $780k, ERFA tender. Chiefs Cap: $5.66 million
Even with only a bit over $20 million in salary cap space, the Chiefs in this mock offseason were able to fill holes at their second wide receiver, edge rusher, and nickel/dime linebacker spots while keeping some nice depth players. In fact, all three new players (Basham, Jones Jr., and Pierre-Louis) are probable upgrades over the player who played at their position for the 2020 Chiefs.
Tarell Basham is very much in the same vein of the Alex Okafor signing a few years ago, except Basham has more upside than Okafor did off of a serious injury.
Basham is definitely a Spagnuolo-type defensive end standing at 6’4” and 266 lbs with an 80.5” wingspan. Basham has been a really good run defender and a decent pass rusher, which seems to fit the profile for defensive ends the Chiefs have been interested in under Veach and Spagnuolo. The upside of Basham is a bit limited, but at a cost-controllable price and with a serious need at EDGE, Basham helps fill out the Chiefs' empty edge rusher room. If the Chiefs wish to spend more on the edge, Trey Hendrickson is also a really intriguing option.
Sammy Watkins is leaving a hole at the Chiefs' second wide receiver spot, a hole that Mecole Hardman might not be able to fill. While a rookie option at this position is possible, many young wide receivers seem to take a year or more to see the field under Andy Reid, so KC may need to get a veteran to fill the position, and Marvin Jones Jr. is a good option to fill that gap. Jones brings great hands, solid YAC skills, and good field-stretching ability along with the bonus that he has been durable so far over his career. Jones has previously said he really wants to play for a contender, so any competitive offer the Chiefs can throw in the bidding war may be able to secure Jones’ services.
On the topic of wide receiver, Allen Robinson is technically feasible for the Chiefs this offseason. Robinson could be signed for the same salary cap hit in 2021 that Marvin Jones earned here. The difference is what comes after 2021. It seems financially irresponsible for the Chiefs to pay the almost $30 million a year that it would require to keep Robinson’s year-one salary cap hit this low after 2021, so Robinson remains an unlikely signing.
Onto more realistic moves, former Chief Kevin Pierre-Louis has had a competent NFL career so far. The long-time role-player linebacker and special team ace has proven the past few years to be a net-positive passing-down linebacker. A linebacker that can cover and play special teams is the perfect replacement for Ben Niemann and is probably a substantial upgrade on Niemann when it comes to sub-packages on defense. It would seem odd for Pierre-Louis to return to the Chiefs, but when he left in 2017, the defense was helmed by Bob Sutton and the general manager was John Dorsey. The Chiefs' new management could value differently at this point in his career.
Austin Reiter is a perfect example of "don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater." Yes, the Chiefs offensive line was bad last year, but was Reiter really to blame? According to PFF, Reiter only allowed 11 total pressures over the entire 2020 regular season. Reiter is also their 12th-graded center on the season. Mahomes even talked about how his relationship with Reiter was on the level of opening Pokemon card packs together. If the Chiefs could bring Reiter back on a small but substantial pay increase compared to his last two-year deal with the team, it would be one less position to worry about in the draft.
When deciding on what to do with Charvarius Ward, it is hard not to also make a decision on Bashaud Breeland in tandem. With both being free agents, it feels like the Chiefs should bring at least one back so the cornerback room is not too depleted. Breeland might still be somewhat cheap as he is now 29 years old, but the Chiefs would probably have to sign Breeland for at least two years if they were to re-sign him at all. So, while Breeland is probably a slightly better cornerback for the 2021 season, Ward is the more appealing option to keep due to the one-year second-round restricted free agent tender. No team is likely to give up a second-round pick for Ward, so the Chiefs can put Ward at outside cornerback this year and let him walk next year.
Darrel Williams, Bryon Pringle, and Andrew Wylie are all peas of the same pod in the fact that they are all restricted free agents like Ward. However, these three players are probably not as valuable to other teams around the NFL as Ward is, so any tender for them (the minimum tender for restricted free agents is $2.2 million) doesn’t seem to match their value as solid depth players. There has been some speculation around the league that teams will negotiate with restricted free agents and compromise on a lower salary cap hit in exchange for guaranteed money due to the lowered salary cap in 2021. That compromise is used with all three players in this mock offseason.
There is a provision the NFL has created somewhat recently to make veterans with four or more accrued seasons more appealing for teams to sign, and that is the veteran salary benefit. In short, the veteran salary benefit lets teams pay veterans the minimum base salary they are afforded by the CBA for the accrued seasons they have earned, but the team who extended this offer can list the players’ contract on the books at a reduced rate, specifically the minimum base salary of a player with two accrued seasons. This helps veterans that teams would not touch before find their way on to rosters. The Chiefs have used this provision in the past, as recently as Anthony Sherman in 2020, and in this mock offseason, they use it twice with Kelechi Osemele and Taco Charlton. Both players had their 2020 seasons ended by injury and are unlikely to draw much interest around the league, so if their medical check-ups check out, having them return is a low-risk, high-reward move.
Alex Brown is the only exclusive-rights free agent the Chiefs have this year that has nice upside and seems likely to return. Exclusive-rights free agents have very little in the way of contractual freedom because if the team wants them back, they tender them at the minimum salary and that's that.. Nick Keizer is also another notable exclusive-rights free agent for the Chiefs who could return.
A few other Chiefs who could return, although they did not in this mock offseason, are Mike Remmers, Tanoh Kpassagnon and Daniel Sorensen. For all three, it is pretty hard to gauge their markets in free agency and whether the Chiefs actually value them enough to bring back.
Mike Remmers has a high possibility of earning a contract the Chiefs cannot match for his good play in 2020 all the way up until the Super Bowl. In a league with very few quality tackles, it is possible a team sees him as a $5 million per year player. Should the Chiefs pay that to keep him? They could, but it feels like a position the Chiefs should just try and get younger at through the draft.
Kpassagnon and Sorensen are players with a bigger role in the defense than what they should have had for their ability. Kpassagnon playing 66% of the Chiefs’ defensive snaps was a black hole of production at times, as he has not put his physical gifts to use in the NFL so far. Sorensen has glimpses of brilliance, but his low-lows are too frequent for a guy who played 82% of the Chiefs’ defensive snaps. This feels like as good a time as any to find replacements for these players and Kpaassgnon’s was already found in free agency with Basham.
In this mock offseason, the Chiefs are leaving free agency with $5.66 million in salary cap space, still based on the worst-case scenario of a $180 million 2021 salary cap. While it looked impossible at first glance, holes are now filled at the Chiefs' second wide receiver, center, edge rusher, and sub-package linebacker spots, and three of them could be nice upgrades. While no offensive lineman other than Reiter and Wylie were signed in free agency, the offensive line class is pretty deep in this draft, especially at tackle. Coupled with the positive news about right tackle Mitchell Schwartz this week, the picture about what the Chiefs offensive line would look like in 2021 is becoming much clearer in this mock offseason.
Going into the NFL Draft, the Chiefs now have much more flexibility. The Chiefs will not be forced to go wide receiver, edge rusher, and offensive line in the first three rounds; they can now also go down to tier-two needs like safety, linebacker, and second tight end. Of course, the former tier-one needs are also still in play. However, thanks to free agency, the Chiefs are not forced to reach for underwhelming players at positions of need. Reducing those dire needs should be the focus of the Chiefs' free agency period, and signing Jones, Basham and Pierre-Louis accomplishes this goal.
Now, time to draft.