Sam Mellinger

Chiefs star Chris Jones’ holdout and what it means for his future

Fun and motivation with Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones

Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones likes to have fun and stay upbeat, but when it comes time to play football Jones like to motivate himself by making up stories and getting mad.
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Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones likes to have fun and stay upbeat, but when it comes time to play football Jones like to motivate himself by making up stories and getting mad.

Chiefs fans, here is the good news: Chris Jones wants to be with the Chiefs, and the Chiefs want Chris Jones.

More good news: there is basically a 100 percent chance he plays for the Chiefs this fall.

Now, here is the current reality, and why this column is being written: the Chiefs and Jones are not particularly close on a long-term contract and the situation figures to grow more contentious before it resolves.

Jones is due a $1.2 million base salary in the last year of his rookie contract. He skipped last month’s voluntary practices, and is skipping this week’s mandatory minicamp. Jones’ agents, Michael and Jason Katz, are not speaking publicly about this. Same with Chiefs general manager Brett Veach.

Last month, Chiefs coach Andy Reid was short when asked about Jones.

“We just go,” he said. “You’re here, you get better. You’re not, you don’t.”

A league source and an agent experienced in similar situations provide the basis for what we might call informed speculation.

From the Chiefs’ perspective, they just gave Frank Clark $63.5 million guaranteed over the next three years and know that Patrick Mahomes will soon be eligible for what could be the biggest contract in league history. Tyreek Hill, depending on the outcome of an ongoing investigation by child protective services, is also in line for a long-term contract.

Since taking the job two years ago, one of Veach’s main charges has been relieving the team’s salary cap stress. That means shorter contracts when possible, and diligent allocation of guarantees always.

The Chiefs will almost certainly want to add at least one cornerback next offseason, for instance. Cap space is at a premium.

The 2019 franchise tag value for a defensive end is $17.1 million. Projecting from there, the Chiefs would likely owe Jones around $42 million over the next three seasons with two franchise tags.

From the team’s perspective, that would likely be the guidepost for an offer: add a little more to retain franchise flexibility going forward and maybe it’s $45 million to $48 million in guarantees over the next three years.

That would give Jones financial certainty without going through the tag process, and the team would retain tag flexibility and be protected against Jones’ price going up over the next few years.

Before we get to Jones’ perspective, a note: some have brought up the Chiefs’ change of defensive coordinators and scheme as an explanation for the team not matching Jones’ ask. At best, that’s a small consideration. Clark was in a different system last year, and it could be soundly argued that Jones faced more challenges succeeding on a bad defense last year than Clark did in Seattle.

OK. Let’s do Jones’ side now, and it starts with the same opening premise: the Chiefs just gave Frank Clark $63.5 million guaranteed over the next three years.

So why shouldn’t Jones expect something similar?

The Chiefs, like most NFL teams, prioritize signing their own stars first. Jones was more productive than Clark last season, finishing third in the league with 15 1/2 sacks while playing inside. Clark had 13 and is a year older than Jones.

Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack have changed the contracts available to defensive players. Donald signed for $87 million in guarantees; Mack got $90 million in guarantees.

If that’s the bar for transcendent defensive stars, then Jones — who turns 25 next month and can still get better — should be in line for a second-tier contract.

The problem is the same as every negotiation, sports and otherwise: leverage.

If we’re using Clark as the comparison, he was in the same situation last year. He entered the final season of his rookie contract set to make $943,938.

He and Seahawks talked through a possible extension but couldn’t agree. The timing of Mack’s contract with the Bears didn’t help, pushing the market to a price the Seahawks couldn’t or didn’t want to afford knowing star quarterback Russell Wilson would be due soon.

Clark played out his rookie deal, dominated, and was in line for the Seahawks’ franchise tag before the Chiefs traded for him and approached his new contract the way they would for a free agent.

The salary cap goes up every year, and conventional wisdom is constantly being challenged, but that’s the general process here.

So in that way, Jones is making this move one year early if he’s aiming for top-tier money.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that the Chiefs have a history of giving in. They walked to the edge and blinked with Dwayne Bowe, Eric Berry and Justin Houston. Each contract was largely seen as player friendly. Each has been regretted by the organization, to some degree.

Veach was in the Chiefs’ front office for those deals, but this is his first negotiation for a major extension as general manager. Functionally, his biggest difference from Dorsey might be prioritizing youth and flexibility over experience and certainty.

The negotiation with Jones, then, becomes the first major test.

There can be no way to know exactly how this will go, but at least at the moment nobody should be surprised if Jones doesn’t show up for the start of training camp.

It appears Jones has a choice: he can take the financial security now and sign for slightly more than he’d be in line for by playing well the next two seasons.

Or, he can take the same risk Clark did and play out the final season of his rookie contract. If he’s as productive and dominant as Clark was last year then he’ll get a contract as big or bigger.

The problem for the Chiefs is that by then, the price will have risen and if Jones follows Clark’s path to the end he’ll get that contract somewhere else.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.
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