One way or another, the Chiefs will be making some moves between now and their Sept. 13 opener against the Houston Texans.
Not only do they have to pare their roster down from the offseason max of 90 to the league-mandated 53 by then, but according to salary cap expert and former NFL agent Joel Corry, they will likely have to do so with an eye toward creating a little more cap room for the 2015 season.
As it stands, the Chiefs’ currently have $538,565 in cap space, according to the players association, which is the least in the league and probably not enough to be comfortable heading into the year.
“No (I don’t think that’s enough), because I don’t know if that’s even enough to handle everything once it changes from top 51 to everybody,” Corry said.
During the offseason, only the top 51 contracts on the 90-man roster — plus dead money slated to players already released — count toward the Chiefs’ salary cap number.
But once the regular season begins, every player on the Chiefs’ 53-man roster — plus players` on injured reserve and the practice squad — count against the cap.
“You can probably get by with $2.5 million (in space), just because you want to account for injuries,” Corry said.
Here are some ways Corry thinks the Chiefs could create a little extra room to maneuver:
Restructure Alex Smith’s deal
They’ve resisted doing it so far, but Corry says the Chiefs can create a maximum of $8.175 million in cap room by restructuring quarterback Alex Smith’s deal. His four-year, $68 million extension kicks in this year, and his cap number of $15.6 million is the highest on the team.
“Knock that base down to a million, and that’s what you can get,” Corry said. “(But) you raise his cap numbers in the future, which creates more dead money. That’s been the one that I thought they might do for a long time.”
Also, Corry said the Chiefs can’t reasonably release Smith until after the 2016 season, when they can create $9.7 million in cap space by doing so. So the Chiefs’ passing game — which showed steady improvement throughout organized team activities this spring — should be in Smith’s hands for the foreseeable future.
Work out something with Eric Berry
Corry said if that the Chiefs pay safety Eric Berry, who is battling Hodgkin lymphoma, the $8.3 million he’s owed this year, it counts against the cap and it counts as an accrued year for the player, even if he again ends up on the non-football injury list and doesn’t play this year.
That would make Berry a free agent in March, something Corry wouldn’t recommend after missing a year of football.
“If he doesn’t play football this year, he doesn’t want to be a free agent next year,” Corry said. “You wonder, what’s he going to worth next year if he doesn’t play this year? You don’t know what kind of player he will be.”
Corry said the Chiefs and Berry could also pursue a mutually-agreed upon lower salary to lower his cap number this year. They could also give him a one-year extension to provide immediate cap relief.
“So you could add a year to his contract … and take his base salary this year and convert it into signing bonus, so he’s getting the same amount he would get and then have some sort of base salary next year and create some cap money,” Corry said.
Extend Justin Houston
Corry said the Chiefs could also create cap room this year by agreeing to an extension with outside linebacker Justin Houston, whose one-year franchise tender of $13.1 million is the second-highest on the team behind Smith.
For example, because NFL deals are structured to give teams some degree of cap relief in the first year of contracts, Corry said the Chiefs could save something like $6.5 million by giving Houston a megadeal comparable to Dolphins tackle Ndamukong Suh’s massive six-year, $114 million pact.
“It should cut his cap number at least to half, the way they structure deals,” Corry said. “If they do a deal with him, they gain significant cap room.”
Still, Corry made it clear that he does not anticipate Houston getting Suh’s deal, though he suspects it did drive up his price tag.
“He’s not going to get Suh’s deal — his best comparison, to me, is J.J. Watt,” Corry said. “Suh got that deal as an unrestricted free agent. I know the agent, after Suh’s deal, can say this is the marketplace, this is what we want. But I don’t think the Chiefs ever give him that.
“The only way you can use Suh’s deal is with the whole ‘I transcended my position by what I did last year’ argument. Otherwise, the best bet is (to look at) the whole class of pass rushers, and I’ll throw Watt into the pass rusher category, because if you take Watt out of the equation, Houston is the defensive player of the year because he had a year worthy of that. It’s just that J.J. Watt is the closest thing we’ve seen to Reggie White.”
Watt agreed to a six-year, $100 million with Texas last September. Signing Houston to a deal like Watt’s still would still provide significant cap relief this year.
The good news for the Chiefs is that their cap situation for the 2016 season looks good, as Corry said the Chiefs currently have only $104 million in cap commitments.
And while that number does not include whatever Houston’s number will be — whether it’s a franchise tag or long-term deal — that still leaves the Chiefs with plenty of room to work with, especially if the cap rises to a conservative estimate of $150 million or so.
They’ll need it, too, especially with key cogs such as cornerback Sean Smith (2016) and Dontari Poe (2017) slated for free agency in upcoming years.
“They’re in better cap shape than they’ve been in a while,” Corry said.