Chiefs training camp starts this week and one of their five or so most important players won’t be there. Technically, that statement is not an absolute. Chris Jones could show up. He hasn’t publicly said he won’t. Neither has either of his agents, Jason and Michael Katz.
But plenty is being said without words. Jones embodies all the familiar signs of a training camp holdout: skipped the offseason, vastly underpaid in the last year of his rookie contract, and posting workout videos where he looks like a very capable villain from a Marvel movie.
Before we get too far let’s make sure we don’t bury the lead: Jones is required at camp in early August to accrue the season required to enter free agency.
The Chiefs have switched defensive coordinators and scheme this offseason. Andy Reid, the head coach, has expressed (for him, anyway) frustration at Jones’ absence. But, come on. Let’s not get carried away.
Jones is paid largely to beat the man (or men) in front of him. He’s been doing that well for three years now. He will be as motivated as ever now. There is little reason beyond paranoia to think this holdout will have any negative impact on the 2019 Chiefs.
But it is a good moment to talk about the future for club and team.
Let’s start with the short version of the current situation. The Chiefs want to give Jones an extension based on three years of possible club control that would total about $42 million. They would likely give him a total package between $45 million and $50 million in guarantees, much of it up front in a bonus.
Jones wants an extension based on the contract given to Frank Clark after trading with Seattle for him. That deal carried $63.5 million in guarantees.
Every situation is unique, but this is the time of year when sides that are within a few million of each other get a deal done and sides that aren’t don’t.
So, worth noting: There has been no movement from either side or discussion between the two, according to a source.
The situation is complicated by several factors, including that each side has a point. Jones is in Clark’s class as a player, and typically teams prioritize paying their own guys. Then again, to get that contract, Clark had to do exactly what the Chiefs are asking Jones to do for it — play out the rookie deal.
Jones is a star defender, if an imperfect one. His 15 1/2 sacks ranked third in the league last year, behind only Aaron Donald and J.J. Watt and ahead of Clark and Von Miller. He also has relative deficiencies against the run when compared to other star defensive linemen.
The choice for Jones, then: take a guarantee of generational wealth immediately (he’s made just under $5 million in his career so far) or bet on himself to play for the deal he wants now or perhaps even bigger in a year.
Either way, the path forward will fundamentally alter the Chiefs and how they’re able to do business.
Patrick Mahomes will be eligible for what will likely be a record-setting extension after this season. Clark’s contract will account for some 12 percent of salary cap next year. Tyreek Hill will be in line for an extension, though likely for less money up front than was once expected.
The Chiefs could clear $14 million in space next year by cutting Sammy Watkins. Anthony Hitchens could be cut or redone. Eric Fisher’s contract could be reworked. Smart NFL teams always have cap space hidden under rocks, but one of general manager Brett Veach’s most critical charges has been to improve the efficiency of spending.
Several factors could be in the Chiefs’ favor. First, their worst-case scenario would be that Jones plays as well or better this season and pushes his value beyond what’s possible with the Chiefs’ salary cap situation.
But even then, they would have received another year of dominance for relative scraps, could still use the franchise tag on Jones in 2020 (and 2021 if they want to get nuts). If forced to trade, they would at least get draft capital in return.
Second, the cap goes up every year and depending on the CBA negotiations could rise dramatically after next season. Kicking the metaphorical financial can down the road might be smart business.
Third, Mahomes’ contract will be justifiably enormous — but it also could be abnormally long. If that’s the case, the impact of the cap might not be the same as shorter deals for other star quarterbacks.
Fourth, even if Jones continues to follow a sort of Aaron Donald Lite path and signs that huge contract next year the Chiefs will have saved around $20 million in 2019 with a CBA that allows space to be rolled over.
The risk then wouldn’t be the size of the contract as much the length — they’d effectively be paying Jones big money a year (or two) closer to his 30th birthday. That risk is real, but it’s not the same as Pay Jones Now Or Lose Him Forever.
So, the Chiefs can find leverage and justification for patience.
The complications rest in the fact that Jones can find the same leverage, and the same justification for patience.
He is a homegrown star and emerging locker room presence for a team desperate for enough defensive talent to maximize their championship window with Mahomes.
Jones tore his MCL in the playoff loss to the Titans after the 2017 season but has not missed a game in three seasons. If he’s healthy, he’s going to produce, and if he produces he is likely to achieve the production that would demand the guarantees he’s asking for now.
With Clark and Jones the Chiefs retain the template of multiple star pass rushers that force offenses into bad situations.
In that context, who among us wouldn’t want the confidence required to bet on ourselves?
Jones has never lacked confidence. He was a five-star recruit and still available to the Chiefs with the 37th pick in 2016 because some scouts had questions about his consistency and motor. Those traits haven’t been asked since, and would seem to be the least of the worries for a guy entering a season that will determine the financial future of himself and family.
So, the Chiefs are in a good spot. So is Jones. Which is the problem.
Neither feels the need to give in, finding plenty of reason to believe in their current stance. That’s usually how franchise tag showdowns begin.