The Chiefs have star nose tackle Dontari Poe under contract for 2016, which should be considered a bit of a relief, considering five other starters from one of the league’s best defenses are currently slated to be free agents on March 9.
However, that doesn’t mean the Chiefs will let his contract situation play out at a later date. Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said at the NFL Combine last week that he has conversations with Poe’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, regarding a long-term deal that could keep Poe in Kansas City.
“We’ve talked, we’ve talked more than once,” Dorsey said. “I have great affection for Dontari Poe. I think he represents everything we want to do, culturally. I think he’s a good football player. We will continue this process. Right now, I’m concentrating on other things. But eventually, we’ll get to that.”
Dorsey has plenty of other things on the docket. He has three Pro Bowl players — safety Eric Berry, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and outside linebacker Tamba Hali — set to be free agents, and two underrated starters — cornerback Sean Smith and defensive tackle Jaye Howard — set to join them. Dorsey has the franchise tag at his disposal, but he can only use it on one player, with Berry seeming to be the most obvious candidate, absent a long-term deal.
But getting something done with Poe could help solidify the defense in the future. Poe doesn’t turn 26 until August, and he boasts a unique combination of size (6 feet 3, 346 pounds) and athleticism (4.98 40-yard dash) that has allowed him to become one of the league’s best 3-4 nose guards, and a rare three-down one.
Poe, a first-round pick in 2011, made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014, but is coming off a season that was disrupted early when he started having back problems during organized team activities in June. Poe was diagnosed with a herniated disk in his back that robbed him of the preseason and raised some doubts about how quickly he could return, though he recovered in time for the season opener against Houston on Sept. 13.
Poe went on to play in 15 games (13 starts), recording 39 tackles and a sack, numbers below his Pro Bowl averages of 42 tackles and five sacks. However, he logged 867 defensive snaps (24 more than any other Chiefs interior lineman) and the Chiefs saw enough improvement in Poe’s performance and physical health to use him as an offensive player on a few occasions — he even scored a rushing touchdown against San Diego in November.
“I think it’s really hard, with the procedure he had, I think it’s hard to all of a sudden come into game one,” Dorsey said. “I applaud him for that, but I thought his best football was the second half of the season, and you could see him getting stronger, more comfortable holding up double teams, and you saw the Dontari Poe of 2014.”
The Chiefs exercised a fifth-year option on Poe’s contract last offseason, which means he currently has a cap hit of about $6.1 million for 2016. But come March 2017, salary expert and former agent Joel Corry says, Poe could be asking for big money, considering Buffalo’s Marcell Dareus recently set the market for elite players at the position by landing a deal worth $16 million a year and $60 million guaranteed.
The Chiefs currently have two key defensive line cogs in Jaye Howard and Mike DeVito set to hit free agency, but all is not lost if one or both bolts during free-agency. Another starter, Allen Bailey, is under contract through 2018 and they also have a pair of young players they like in Nick Williams and 2015 sixth-round pick Rakeem Nunez-Roches.
But the situation does provide some intrigue. If the Chiefs signed Poe to a deal now, it would almost surely be cheaper than if he makes it through the 2016 season injury-free and has a quintessential contract year. They could also franchise Poe next year for a tag that could hover around $14 million.
It’s a decision that would be a lot easier, in many ways, if Poe didn’t have back issues this year. But when asked how to approach a situation like this, Dorsey reiterated that he loves Poe as a player, and that there’s still plenty of time for Poe’s situation to resolve itself.
“I think in that situation, you have to rely on the advice of your medical staff,” Dorsey said. “Moving forward, they will always help you. Then, from my standpoint, I’ve got to watch him move around to see if it’s affecting him. But I think it’s a combination of the group sitting down, discussing these things and seeing what happens.”