The only negative about having a lot of great players on one football team is that they all need to be paid eventually.
The Kansas City Chiefs were able to reach agreements with their best player on each side of the ball when they signed Patrick Mahomes and Chris Jones to long-term extensions, but they aren’t the only two players whose contracts are ending soon.
Sooner rather than later, the Chiefs will need to put plans into action on some current members of the team, as waiting until they are free agents isn’t a viable way to do business if you want to keep the player. These are cornerstones for the team, on and off the field, and losing any of them would hurt the team dearly. But the NFL is a salary-capped sport, and tough decisions will have to be made.
Mitchell Schwartz - Contract up after the 2021 season.
Perennial All-Pro Mitchell Schwartz has been a staple for the Chiefs ever since John Dorsey signed him in 2016. In addition to being an All-Pro right tackle, he is also an All-Pro chef and great locker room guy. Losing a player like Schwartz would be a tough thing to stomach, but tackles are paid a pretty penny in today’s NFL and it might be hard for the Chiefs to pay up.
Interestingly, Schwartz signed an extension with the Chiefs last offseason which added more money to his deal along with an extra year. Even with the extra money, Schwartz is making much less than the other top-flight right tackles in the league. Lane Johnson, who signed after Schwartz last November, makes $5.5 million more than Schwartz in 2020 and $6.5 million more in 2021.
While Schwartz is over 30 years old, we have seen many offensive tackles last well into their mid-30s. Jason Peters, Joe Staley, and Andrew Whitworth are all examples of offensive lineman aging gracefully until their late-30s while still retaining their elite traits. Schwartz’s focus on technique also lends itself to aging gracefully, much like these other tackles.
So what would another extension look like for Schwartz? It’s hard to say, as he already signed an extension for new money that was less than what he’s actually worth. Would Schwartz take another less-than-market-value deal, or would the Chiefs have to pay the premium for an All-Pro tackle? Even if he won’t take another sub-value deal, Schwartz should be a priority for the Chiefs to retain, as he's the best player on the line protecting their half-a-billion-dollar quarterback.
Travis Kelce - Contract ends after the 2021 season.
The end of Travis Kelce’s contract is coming up soon, and a few things will make it a bit awkward.
For one, Kelce is not getting younger. Due to coming into the NFL as a 23-year-old and then missing his rookie year, Kelce is already 31 years old. Tight ends can play well into their mid-30s, Jason Witten is still playing at approximately 60 years old as a reference, so making sure Kelce is a Chief for life would only have to extend his current contract a few years.
However, the few years that the Chiefs would have to add on to the contract comes with a monetary issue.
San Francisco 49ers TE George Kittle is getting close to a rumored extension with his team, and many around the NFL are expecting it to break the tight end market. While there are very few tight ends that can look at Kittle and demand what he will eventually get, Kelce is one of those guys. Age does play against Kelce in a prospective contract negotiation, but while other position groups have seen their salaries skyrocket, tight ends salaries have been stuck at around $11 million per year for a while. Kelce might want to get a bigger piece of the pie as he sees the cap soar, but it's hard to say where his priorities lie at this point in his career. If he is okay with an extension at his current salary of around $11 million a year, then Kelce might end up a Chief for life.
Tyrann Mathieu - Contract ends after the 2021 season.
Tyrann Mathieu was an instant leader on the defensive side of the ball with his addition in 2020 and has already turned into an integral part of the team. That’s what makes his uncertain future even more difficult to plan out.
Mathieu's contract not only ends after the 2021 season, but the last year of his contract carries a whopping $19.7 million cap hit. That cap hit is the highest for any safety in NFL history. With only $5 million in dead cap money if he were to be released before 2021, his contract might come under focus in the 2021 offseason for cap savings.
Tyrann is also currently 28 years old and by the time his contract is up, he will be 30. It's hard to say how he will play into his 30s, and it seems like a riskier bet for a team paying big bucks to their quarterback. As a leader on and off the field though, it’s a very difficult decision and one I don’t envy Brett Veach in making.
Sammy Watkins - Contract ends after the 2020 season.
Sammy Watkins was rumored to be a cap casualty heading into the 2020 offseason, but Watkins taking a pay cut in a restructured deal led to the Chiefs surprisingly keeping him for 2020. Watkins went on to later say this offseason that he would rather make less money and win with the Chiefs rather than make more money on another team.
It will be extremely interesting to see how far this attitude is taken next offseason when the Chiefs and Watkins will have to talk about a brand new contract. Will he forgo the open market to stay with the quarterback and coach he seems to love, or is there a price even for that?
Eric Fisher - Contract ends after the 2021 season.
Having an average left tackle is not a bad thing in the NFL, and that is what Eric Fisher provides for the Chiefs. The former No. 1 overall pick has been a solid-but-not-spectacular-starter for the Chiefs during Andy Reid’s entire stint as the Chiefs' head coach and has provided stability to a position that many teams struggle to find.
However, there may be a price point where the Chiefs value savings over stability. In the 2020 draft, the Chiefs may have dropped a hint that they are starting to look for a replacement for Fisher when they selected TCU offensive tackle Lucas Niang. Fisher’s $14.8 million cap hit in 2021 is something the Chiefs might look at as a way to generate cap space, as cutting Fisher would save the team $11.5 million against the cap during the 2021 offseason. This fact might see Fisher’s future with the team decided soon, as the Chiefs will need to make some tough decisions with both Mahomes and Jones taking up large parts of the cap in 2021. Will the Chiefs roll the dice on Niang in 2021 to save money, or will Fisher’s stability be too enticing to protect Mahomes? The value proposition on this move is a tricky one, and a question that is hard to answer at this time.
Charvarius Ward - Contract ends after the 2021 season.
Charvarius Ward was a standout player at cornerback for the Chiefs last year, as he gave the Chiefs great play at cornerback for a dirt-cheap price. Getting quality outside cornerback play for only hundreds of thousands of dollars is a very rare thing in the NFL, and a situation many teams envy.
The days of Ward being cheap are soon over, however, as he will be a restricted free agent during the 2021 season and then will hit free agency the year after. Cornerbacks on the open market aren’t cheap if they are good, and Ward will not be an exception if he continues to improve. Ward will certainly be looking for a big payday as he has been playing on an undrafted free agent contract during his time in the NFL, and it remains to be seen if the Chiefs can afford that big payday at a time when so many other players are also looking for a new deal. Will Veach pay out for a cornerback for the first time, or will he continue the trend of spending next-to-nothing at the position? What he does with Charvarius Ward will be a good indicator.
So what's the plan?
Not every player that has been mentioned can be kept. A stellar 2020 offseason where Brett Veach kept a Super Bowl roster intact has lulled some into thinking Veach will make the impossible possible. The reality of the situation is that the Chiefs cannot hand out many more big contracts, as Mahomes’ $42.45 million cap hit in 2023 is an ever-looming threat to the Chiefs' cap. If this is combined with COVID-19 potentially impacting the salary cap in a major way, then some fan favorites might have to be let go in the near future.
That doesn’t mean all of the players listed have to go. The Chiefs will have room to keep some of these players, and the best bets at this point are Travis Kelce and Mitchell Schwartz. Brett Veach has talked about the fact that he would like to keep Mahomes surrounded with weapons, and it certainly behooves the Chiefs to keep the offense loaded for Mahomes if possible. Keeping Schwartz and Kelce, who should both be able to play into their mid-30s, would stay true to this goal.
It’s hard to imagine a future where Sammy Watkins and Eric Fisher are on the team long-term. While both are great players to keep around, what they offer to the team could be replaced through the draft for much cheaper. In fact, both might have their successors already on the roster in Mecole Hardman and Lucas Niang.
The case of Tyrann Mathieu is the most difficult one. He is one of the best in the NFL at what he does, he’s a great leader, and he is worth big money as he showed last year. However, the Chiefs are paying huge money already to two defensive linemen, and it’s hard to imagine they have more bandwidth for more huge contracts on defense right now. What happens with Mathieu is truly a coin flip, and Brett Veach will have to work his magic again in order to solve this problem.
These conundrums strike at the heart of the reality the Chiefs will have to deal with from now on. How will the Chiefs build the team now that Mahomes will be leaving his rookie deal? It’s a reality that is full of tough decisions, but it is one the Chiefs will have to face.