Sam Mellinger

Cutting Tamba Hali is only the start of what the Chiefs need this offseason

The Chiefs can save $9 million by releasing outside linebacker Tamba Hali, but he is coming off another Pro Bowl season.
The Chiefs can save $9 million by releasing outside linebacker Tamba Hali, but he is coming off another Pro Bowl season. The Kansas City Star

The NFL is a cold business, where players are replaced by younger and cheaper models on a continuous loop and that burden is almost always carried by the players.

The Chiefs, if they are to maximize a shrinking window to push toward postseason success, will have to wear the consequences of an uncomfortable business decision — by cutting Tamba Hali.

If this happens, the Chiefs will be making a painful choice. They will be telling one of the best pass rushers in franchise history goodbye, next seeing him either in someone else’s uniform or in a suit for his Ring of Honor ceremony.

Hali is a model teammate and employee. Hard-working, smart, talented, team-first. Hali had just six sacks in 2014, his lowest total since 2008. Yet deeper analysis through video and Pro Football Focus indicates he is still a very good player.

Salary cap expert Joel Corry points to big contracts for DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen and Julius Peppers as indications that Hali could get even more on the open market than the approximately $9 million the Chiefs would owe him for 2015.

That’s all good news for Hali, but business is business. The Chiefs’ best future is with the $9 million in cap space they’d get by releasing Hali instead of the good-but-no-longer-elite production they’d get by keeping him.

Hali is a luxury the Chiefs can literally no longer afford. Justin Houston is today’s elite pass rusher, and Dee Ford may be tomorrow’s. With the roster improvements the Chiefs need, they just can’t have a first-round pick be effectively benched — not only on Sundays, but with practice reps, too — for two years. Ford is talented, hard-working, cheap and eager. The Chiefs owe it to him and themselves to give Ford a chance to work opposite Houston.

This is the highest-profile move, but hardly the only important one, that the Chiefs must make to give themselves the best chance of finally winning in the playoffs.

As it stands right now, the Chiefs are effectively out of cap space for 2015. But the shell game that is the NFL salary cap would give the Chiefs a little more than $8 million for restructuring Alex Smith’s contract, and $5 million more for bringing Dwayne Bowe’s salary to a level more commensurate with his production.

Combined with cutting Donnie Avery ($3.5 million) and A.J. Jenkins ($1.3 million), the Chiefs can begin their offseason with about $27 million in cap space. They could also see if Mike DeVito or Derrick Johnson are open to restructuring, though that might be a dead end.

Either way, this should be plenty of money to do what they need, starting with arranging a long-term contract extension for Houston. Cutting Hali would make it possible for the Chiefs to use the franchise tag on Houston, but they would be better off in many ways just giving him an extension.

Houston’s price went up, of course, as he broke Derrick Thomas’ franchise record with 22 sacks this season. The Chiefs spent last summer thinking Hali’s contract (five years, $35 million guaranteed) was too high, but now realize that would’ve been a bargain for Houston.

Depending on how Houston’s new contract is structured, the Chiefs should be able to give him a signing bonus of around $25 million and guarantees of about $40 million, and still keep his 2015 cap number at or below $7 million (as opposed to around $13 million on a franchise tag).

If you figure they’ll allocate $6 million or so for their 2015 draft class — which should fill some needs — that leaves about $14 million to spend in free agency.

The top priorities will be wide receiver and offensive line. With Bowe playing like a No. 2, the Chiefs should be among the most active teams for free-agent receivers.

Jeremy Maclin is sending signals that he will stay in Philadelphia and, if we can assume that the Broncos and Cowboys won’t let Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant hit the open market, then the top targets may be Randall Cobb, Torrey Smith and Michael Crabtree.

Here it’s probably worth mentioning that last year’s top free-agent receiver, DeSean Jackson, signed for a $4.25 million cap hit in the first year and $9.25 million in years two and three.

Chiefs general manager John Dorsey knows Cobb well from his time in Green Bay, obviously. Cobb and Smith have the speed and talents to stretch the field vertically, which at least in theory would give Bowe, the tight ends and running backs more space in intermediate and short routes.

Rodney Hudson, the Chiefs’ center and by far their best offensive lineman in 2014, is a free agent. Corry says it’s reasonable to expect a new contract for Hudson to come with a first-year cap number of around $3 million.

If the Chiefs are able to do everything we’ve talked about so far, that leaves them with a No. 1 receiver, their best lineman re-signed, their best defensive player locked up, and a large draft class that should include help at receiver, offensive line, and perhaps linebacker and secondary.

And they’d still have between $6 million and $7 million in cap space to fill in other spots — depending upon what happens in the draft, the Chiefs should be serious players for an inside linebacker and an offensive lineman or two.

Just as there are no perfect teams in the NFL, there are no perfect solutions to an NFL team’s problems. Losing Hali — not just his production, but his presence — would make the Chiefs a lesser team.

But using that cap space for a better offensive line, a true No. 1 receiver and help elsewhere around the roster would make it worthwhile.

Winning teams have to make painful cuts, and it’s been proven over and over that the best NFL teams walk away from top players a year too soon rather than a year too late. Unfortunately, it’s time for the Chiefs to do that with Hali.

They’ll be better off for it.

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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