Jamaal Charles’ deal was easy, now comes the hard part for the Chiefs

07/23/2014 6:20 PM

07/23/2014 7:22 PM

Jamaal Charles is a legitimate NFL superstar. He is more than that to the Chiefs.

He is their best player. No team relied more on one offensive player last year than the Chiefs did with Charles. He is a model teammate. A hard working, low-maintenance, self-made star. There is not a better type of player to pay.

The first man to restructure a contract with the Chiefs this year is the one who generated the least amount of buzz about it. There is surely some symbolism here. Like all NFL teams, the Chiefs view distractions the way most of us view measles.

He was also underpaid on a Sal Perez-ian level, a guy who, depending on your point of comparison, was set to make at least $10 million less than NFL market value the next two years before agreeing to a contract extension just ahead of the start of full-squad training camp Thursday at Missouri Western.

Charles has earned every cent. The shelf-life of running backs is cruelly short, and Charles is absolutely right to get paid while he can. From the team’s point of view, giving up a very large check is not just the right thing for Charles, but for his teammates as an example of what happens when you work hard and outperform your contract.

More important for the Chiefs’ future, this does not hinder their ability to work out more complicated contract situations with Justin Houston and Alex Smith.

Because for the Chiefs, the real work begins now.

Without getting into the minutiae of the NFL’s salary structure, the Chiefs were able to give Charles more money — both now and in the future — without affecting the $9.4 million they still have under the cap. The bill on Charles’ contract extension will come due after this season and next, but in the NFL, delaying a problem is often as good as solving a problem.

Giving Charles more money without sacrificing cap space is a bit like getting a new car without increasing your payment.

But now the Chiefs must work through new deals with Houston and Smith, and both are more important to the team’s future.

Justin Houston was, is and will continue to be the top priority. He is the youngest of the three and the most important defensive player on a team built on defense.

Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s system is disproportionately dependent on pressuring quarterbacks. Houston is Kansas City’s best pass rusher. He is proven in ways that top draft pick Dee Ford is not, and he is versatile in ways that Tamba Hali never was, even at his peak. Houston is a rare commodity, a top-shelf pass rusher who can also play the run and drop into coverage.

Houston is playing on a third-round rookie deal, and projected to be the third-lowest-paid starter on defense. He has outperformed his current contract as much as Charles outperformed his old one, but Houston has a longer future and had no choice but to sign his outdated deal.

Smith’s contract situation is also more complicated than Charles’. Smith isn’t nearly the player that Charles is, obviously, but quarterbacks are more important and harder to replace than running backs. Charles turns 28 in December, and Smith turned 30 in May. Quarterbacks are often at their best into their 30s. Running backs often fade into their 30th birthday. This is math and business, not star-power and emotion. NFL teams have to pay based more on what they expect will happen than what they’ve seen happen.

Charles needed to be paid, but it’s not going to matter much if the Chiefs go back to the days of Matt Cassel and Tyler Palko at quarterback.

The Chiefs are negotiating from a position of strength with Houston and Smith, but only if they use it. Agreeing to just one new contract between the two is probably good enough, because the team could use its franchise tag to keep the other through the 2015 season and continue negotiating something longer.

If the Chiefs can’t solve either contract problem before the season starts, they will likely have to choose between paying more after the season or losing a crucial piece.

Similar to Charles’ deal, the Chiefs can probably restructure Smith’s contract in a way that wouldn’t significantly raise his cap number for 2014. But the sides are likely to quibble not just over money, but various clauses and other structures that would affect the realistic length of the deal.

If you’re looking for optimism, Chiefs general manager John Dorsey has good relationships with the agents for both Smith and Houston. Business is business, but at least these negotiations have a base of mutual respect.

For now, the organization is able to make its best player happy without affecting its ability to keep its star pass rusher and quarterback.

The rub is that all these new deals may mean walking away from Dwayne Bowe or Tamba Hali — or both — after this season, but one problem at a time.

With Charles happy, the Chiefs have secured and rewarded a essential part of their future without sacrificing their ability to do the same for others. NFL teams aren’t often able to solve problems so cleanly.

Good for Charles. Great for the Chiefs.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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