The Chiefs' three-day rookie minicamp has come to an end, and for the veterans, that means it's time to get back to work for organized team activities, as the first of 10 practices will be held Tuesday at the University Of Kansas Hospital Training Complex.
While the start of this year's OTAs lacks the overt drama of last year, when now-departed left tackle Branden Albert finally arrived after skipping the offseason program due to his contract situation, this is probably a good time to note that there are a handful of star players on the roster who might have been quietly campaigning for new deals over the last few months.
Among them are two studs ― outside linebacker Justin Houston and running back Jamaal Charles ― who are directly responsible for last year's 11-5 record. In short, both are incredibly underpaid in relation to their 2013 production, so much so that I think it would be hard to blame either if they chose to make a “statement” of sorts by skipping these voluntary practices.
And before you start screaming about the consequences of such actions, remember, none of these workouts are mandatory until the three-day minicamp that starts on June 17.
So yes, the first thing I'll do when the team lets us walk out to observe practice Tuesday is see if either player is in attendance. But I'll be definitely keeping my eye out for Houston, in particular, who was not presented to speak to the media when offseason workouts began on April 21 (while Charles was).
At 25, Houston he is already one of the best pass young rushers in the game, and after a 12-sack season ― in which he missed five games, by the way ― he is primed for big-time bucks when his dirt-cheap rookie deal runs out after the 2014 season.
Here's the bad news for him. As it stands, he is scheduled to make $1.431 million in 2014, which will make him the second-lowest paid projected starter on the entire defense ― only third-year nose tackle Dontari Poe ($1.419 million) is scheduled to make less. Houston, by the way, posted a Pro Football Focus grade of 32.5 last season, the highest on the entire defense (and tops among all of the league's 3-4 outside linebackers) despite missing over a quarter of a season because of injury.
Still, in my opinion Houston is in a much better position to get paid this year than Charles. As it stands, he can get his money in two ways ― via an extension or the franchise tag. The latter is less than ideal for both sides because Houston would lack the long-term security he likely craves and the cash-strapped Chiefs would have to take on a larger cap hit in 2015.
So, let's just assume Houston is interested in securing a long-term deal. It's safe to say he would want that before the season, because the threat of injury is real in the NFL and nothing is guaranteed. He could conceivably play hardball and just sit out until a deal is reached, and it's certainly reasonable to assume discussions have been had on that front.
Complicating things, however, is the status of several other players who might be looking to get paid. Some are already known ― like quarterback Alex Smith, who is coming off a career year and will become a free agent in 2015 ― while others, like Charles, could make a good case.
Charles, 27, emerged as a versatile, multi-purpose threat in coach Andy Reid's offense last season. No need to rehash all the details ― just remember he scored 19 touchdowns and shouldered a ridiculous load for an offense that lacked consistent play at wide receiver.
After all he did last season, Charles is scheduled to make a paltry $3.9 million in cash this season, which is third among the Chiefs' 11 projected starters on offense. It's also about the same number that new Jaguars running back Toby Gerhart ― who rushed for 1,000 fewer yards and ten fewer touchdowns than Charles did last year and doesn't come close to matching Charles' resume ― will make in 2014.
Unlike Houston, however, Charles has two more years left on his deal, not one. This, plus the general undervaluing of the running back position that has occurred league wide in recent years, hurts his leverage. Still, Charles might be hard-pressed to earn more money in two years (when he's 29), so with this possibly representing his best chance to get paid, I'll still be interested to see if he's there when practice starts at 11:10 a.m. Tuesday.
As for the rest of the roster, most players understand that these camps are what I like to call “voluntary-mandatory.” Yeah, you don't have to show up, per se. But it's understood that blowing off these practices could ultimately cost you an ultra-coveted spot on the 53-man roster when September rolls around.
This is just a guess, but by my count, there are only a few Chiefs who could miss some of these practices, still feel fairly secure about making the team and perform at a high level in 2014, barring injury. Respected veterans like linebacker Derrick Johnson, cornerback Brandon Flowers, safety Eric Berry and outside linebacker Tamba Hali are on that list.
I don’t think there’s much reason to worry about Johnson and Berry, who spoke to the media when offseason training began on April 21. The same goes for Hali, who has been participating in the offseason program and working with all the d-linemen and linebackers (including rookie first-round pick Dee Ford) and will be in attendance.
Flowers, meanwhile, is under contract for the next three years and set to make about $30 million, so I’m not sure what he’d stand to gain by missing the practices (other than the freedom of training on his own).
Anyway, stay tuned to kansascity.com for Chiefs coverage throughout the week. The team will open up practices to the media Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.