When outside linebacker Tamba Hali took a $3 million pay cut to remain with the Chiefs last season, the team did it by adding four voidable years to the contract to spread out his $5 million signing bonus to future salary cap years.
Reworking the final year of Hali’s contract freed up $7 million in salary cap room for the cash-strapped Chiefs in 2015, and Hali was guaranteed to remain with the team another year before becoming a free agent. But the deal also had a flip side; the team would be charged $4 million against the 2016 salary cap if it didn’t reach a contract extension with Hali by March 4.
March 4 passed Friday without an extension, which means the remaining four years on Hali’s contract have automatically been voided, resulting in the $4 million salary-cap charge, The Star has learned.
That means the Chiefs, who also have safety Eric Berry’s $10.8 million franchise tender tying up cap room, should have about $18.75 million to work with when free-agency starts Wednesday.
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Hali, 32, finished with 48 tackles this year and 6 1/2 sacks, achieving his sixth Pro Bowl berth, but he’s played through knee issues the last two seasons. He sat out practice most of last year in an effort to keep him fresh for Sundays.
He indicated a desire to return to the Chiefs for an 11th season in 2016 but made it clear that if he did, he wanted to make sure he could play better. Hali also indicated after the season that his knee would require surgery.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid said at the 101 Awards banquet Saturday that the Chiefs and general manager John Dorsey have maintained constant dialogue with Hali.
“We’d love to have him back, I think, when it’s all said and done,” Reid said.
When asked if some of the decision to let the contract void had to do with whether Hali was still deciding whether to return in 2016, Reid said he believes Hali isn’t ready to retire.
“Yeah, I think he still wants to play,” Reid said. “And hopefully it all works out. We’re just starting the first phase of this thing, and that’s how it goes.”
If Hali does not return — it would have behooved the Chiefs to sign him to an extension before Friday’s deadline — it opens the door for 2014 first-round pick Dee Ford to get more playing time. Ford had 23 tackles and four sacks in 14 games last season, including five starts. Ford played a career-high 565 defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Chiefs have several other key players set to hit free-agency Wednesday, including another team icon in inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, and three underrated starters in cornerback Sean Smith, defensive tackle Jaye Howard and offensive guard Jeff Allen.
Howard, 27, and Smith, 28, particularly appear to benefit by testing the open market. Both are productive starters in their primes, and the NFL salary cap went up $13 million for each team this offseason.
The Chiefs have a handful of other free agents they might like to retain, including quarterback Chase Daniel, safety Tyvon Branch, defensive end Mike DeVito, safety Husain Abdullah, receiver Jason Avant, tackle Donald Stephenson, outside linebacker Frank Zombo, cornerback Jamell Fleming and outside linebacker Dezman Moses.