The Chiefs took an undeniable step forward this year, rebounding from a 1-5 start to win 11 consecutive games, including their first playoff victory in 22 years.
But some crucial business decisions loom. The Chiefs are in a far better position regarding the salary cap than last year at this time, when they had only about $300,000 in cap space. This year, former agent and salary-cap expert Joel Corry projects the Chiefs to have about $33 million in cap room.
“It’s a fair amount of space,” Corry said. “But they’re going to have to make some tough decisions, particularly defensively. The defense helped fuel the long winning streak. You’ve got some guys that are a little long in the tooth, so if they’re gonna come back, it may have to be at discounted rate.”
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The Chiefs’ top free agents are safety Eric Berry, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and outside linebacker Tamba Hali. All three likely will be in the team’s ring of honor one day.
But there is good news. If all three agree to contracts near their market value, the first-year cap numbers for all three players should approach roughly $10 million, leaving enough money to retain other key defensive free agents — such as tackle Jaye Howard or cornerback Sean Smith — or dip into free-agency to fortify positions of need.
“You’re still going to be left with $23 million,” Corry said.
1. Free safety Eric Berry
Berry, 27, is the story of the year in the NFL. After beating Hodgkin lymphoma in the offseason, he made the Pro Bowl and was chosen first-team All-Pro. Corry says Berry, whose rookie contract has expired, has a strong case for a large payday.
“After his surprisingly fast recovery where there hasn’t been a drop-off in his play, he’s going to be looking to get paid at the top of the safety market,” Corry said. “That’s (New England’s) Devin McCourty ($28.5 million guaranteed) or (Seattle’s) Earl Thomas ($27.72 million guaranteed) money.”
If the two sides can’t agree to a new contract, the Chiefs could also put a franchise tag on Berry. Assuming there’s a $153.4 million salary cap in 2016, Corry said tagging Berry would result in a $10.7 million cap hit.
But if the two sides can agree to an extension, Berry’s first-year cap number could be lower — around $3.5 million — depending upon the structure, Corry said.
“So you’re better off just trying to get a long-term deal done if you can, sooner rather than later,” Corry said. “If you use the franchise tag on him, the timing of that — if it’s like Justin Houston’s — you’re tying up all that cap room until the middle of July.”
2. Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson
If Berry is the heart of the defense, Johnson, 33, is the soul. Both were elected defensive captains in the playoffs, an indication of their value to the team and their leadership. Johnson is the voice of the defense and led the team in tackles.
Corry said the Chiefs should hope Johnson is willing to play for the same $5.25 million he made in 2015. The top of the inside linebacker market was set by the Jets’ David Harris — who is just over a year younger than Johnson — when he signed a three-year, $21.5 million deal with $15 million guaranteed last March.
A better comparison, Corry said, is Cleveland’s Karlos Dansby, who was 33 when he signed a four-year, $24 million contract with $12 million guaranteed.
“That might be the most appropriate deal,” Corry said. “Then maybe you have to factor in the fact that the cap has gone up since Dansby did his deal.”
The franchise tag for linebackers will approach $14 million, Corry said, so he doesn’t consider that a realistic option.
3. Outside linebacker Tamba Hali
Hali, 32, took a pay cut to remain with the Chiefs last season, and he played through knee issues while recording 6 1/2 sacks and making the Pro Bowl again. Provided he’s healthy, Hali wants to be a Chief in 2016 despite the fact veteran pass rushers get paid on the open market.
Corry said Hali has four voidable years on his current contract, which means that if Hali retires, they will be hit with a $3 million cap charge. The Chiefs will be hit with the same charge if they fail to reach an extension. But the years don’t automatically void until March 4. Again, the franchise tag is not a realistic option.
“So if they can get a deal done with him,” Corry said, “they can convert the voidable years into real years.”
4. Cornerback Sean Smith
The Chiefs lured Smith, 28, from Miami before the 2013 season with a reasonable three-year, $18 million contract. The cornerback market has boomed in recent years as Byron Maxwell got $10.5 million per year and $25 million fully guaranteed from the Philadelphia Eagles last offseason.
“You know he’s looking at the Byron Maxwell deal and going ‘I’m better than Byron Maxwell,’ ” Corry said. “He’s also a guy that was in the worst free-agent cornerback market in recent memory. Nobody his year got over $6 million a year, so he’s not taking a discount — he’s a straight, highest-bidder guy.”
Corry speculated that Oakland might be a good fit for Smith, whose first-year cap hit could be reasonable — about $3.5 million — before exploding to $12 million in 2017.
“I think he’s wearing silver and black next year,” Corry said. “He’s a big corner, and (Oakland defensive coordinator) Ken Norton comes from Seattle, and they love big corners. That’s a need.”
The Chiefs also have the option of franchising Smith, but the cornerback position would have a cap number approaching $14 million.
5. Defensive tackle Jaye Howard
Howard, 27, exploded in a contract year, recording career highs with 57 tackles and 5 1/2 sacks. He emerged as one of the NFL’s better young defensive linemen and wants to be paid like one.
Problem is, Corry says, the Chiefs probably don’t have enough salary-cap room to take care of Howard and nose tackle Dontari Poe, who will be a free agent after 2016. The Chiefs already handed defensive end Allen Bailey a four-year, $24 million extension in fall 2014, and most teams can’t afford three well-paid interior linemen.
“You either have to be resigned to the fact you’re going to lose Dontari Poe — who is going to be very expensive — or you could try to get cute,” Corry said.
Corry said the top free-agent interior defensive lineman last year was Dan Williams, who got $25 million over four years from Oakland. Corry said the cost to franchise Howard will approach $13 million, which isn’t reasonable. But the transition tender is a little more palatable; it was $9.3 million a year ago.
A transition tag would allow Howard to negotiate a contract with any club and give the Chiefs the chance to match. Howard could test his worth on the market, maximize his value and give the Chiefs an outside chance at keeping a very strong interior defensive line together.
Other Chiefs’ free agents
G Jeff Allen: Allen, 26, brought experience and nastiness to the offensive line. It’s not a coincidence the Chiefs went 11-1 once he returned to the starting lineup after a preseason knee injury. The Chiefs’ regime has shown a tendency to let offensive linemen walk — guards Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz both left via free-agency in 2014 — but Corry isn’t sure history will repeat itself. “I don’t think they can afford to make the same mistake they did a couple of years ago when they let both guards leave,” said Corry, who could see Allen commanding a multiyear deal worth $4 million per year.
QB Chase Daniel: Daniel, 29, wants to be a starter in this league. Corry could see him gunning for a one-year deal worth a little more than $4 million a year.
T Donald Stephenson: Like Daniel, Corry thinks opportunity will matter more than money at this point. Corry could see Stephenson, 27, getting something like the three-year, $12 million extension that tackle Jah Reid signed with the Chiefs.
The Chiefs can create cap room by cutting or restructuring the following players this offseason:
RB Jamaal Charles: The Chiefs’ running game came alive after Charles, 29, got hurt. They averaged 135.9 rushing yards per game — fifth in the league — in 11 regular-season games with Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, compared with 122.2 per game in the previous 37 games with Charles shouldering the load. “He screams pay cut to me,” Corry said. “Older back, multiple ACL injuries.” Charles has a $2 million report-to-training camp bonus in July. Corry said the Chiefs, if they wanted to be cold-blooded, could ask him to give up the bonus or make him earn it through incentives. “If you got rid of the $2 million reporting bonus, that takes $2 million off the cap and you can turn it into an incentive package,” Corry said.
G Ben Grubbs: Grubbs, 31, missed the last half of the season because of a neck injury. If he retires, the Chiefs are hit with a cap charge of $4.2 million. His 2016 cap number is $6.3 million, but they can save $2.1 million by releasing him. They could also save by restructuring him. “He was making a ton of money in New Orleans, so you’ve got to hope he’s a guy who says I’ve made a ton of money, I’m willing to work with the team a little bit,” Corry said.
The following players have interesting cap situations that need to be monitored:
TE Travis Kelce: Kelce, 26, is under contract for 2016 with a cap hit of a little under $1 million. But as one of the league’s top tight ends, a big-time payday is coming. “He’s thinking (Jacksonville’s) Julius Thomas makes $9 million a year, can’t stay healthy,” Corry said. “He’s looking at $9 million or more because that market is going to change, since (Washington’s) Jordan Reed and (Philadelphia’s) Zach Ertz are going to get paid.” The Chiefs could also put a franchise tag on Kelce next year, but the price will be around $9.5 million.
T Eric Fisher: The Chiefs have until May 3 to execute the fifth-year option on Fisher, which Corry suspects will be anywhere between $11.5 million and $12 million for 2017. The option is guaranteed for injury, so if Fisher, 25, doesn’t get hurt, the Chiefs could cut him any time until the first day of the new league year in March 2017 and eliminate the cap charge.
DT Dontari Poe: The Chiefs exercised Poe’s fifth-year option last year, which carries a 2016 cap hit of about $6.1 million. But in March 2017, Corry believes Poe, 25, will be looking to get paid after Buffalo gave Marcell Dareus almost $16 million a year and $60 million guaranteed. “Anyone who wants to get paid as a defensive lineman needs to be able to put consistent pressure on a quarterback,” Corry said. “I don’t think (Poe) will get Dareus money, but it’s going to be a $10 million-per-year deal or more.” Poe had only one sack this year, but he played through back issues. The previous two years, he recorded 10 1/2 sacks combined.