The success of Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey this offseason will largely be determined by his ability to keep superstar linebacker Justin Houston and at what cost. The Chiefs currently have $4.1 million in salary cap space and already have $140.1 million devoted to player salaries, according to Spotrac, with the league maximum expected to be roughly $143 million next year.
Houston’s pending free agency will be the Chiefs main point of attack, but they’ll have to reach a deal that also gives them options when linebackers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson, cornerback Sean Smith and defensive tackle Dontari Poe hit the open market in 2016. Poe also represents a bit of a conundrum for Dorsey, since the Chiefs could decide to exercise the fifth-year option on his rookie deal for 2016, or lock him down long-term.
The cost of retaining the 26-year-old, Houston, who led the NFL with 22.0 sacks last season and has accumulated 48.5 sacks over his four year career, could also be measured by the players Kansas City is forced to release or even let walk in free agency this year. The Chiefs have already released tight end Anthony Fasano and receiver Donnie Avery, converting $2.75 million into dead money, and waived receiver A.J. Jenkins.
But Dorsey is unlikely to pass on the three Chiefs offensive linemen hitting free agency on March 10. Starting left guard Jeff Linkenbach, right tackle Ryan Harris, and center Rodney Hudson will all be free agents, as well reserve Mike McGlynn. The matter is made even more difficult with all four in their late 20s.
Letting even one go puts the Chiefs No. 10 rushing offense in jeopardy, specifically the overall effectiveness of Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles.
Of course, Dorsey and the Chiefs could forgo such difficult decisions like cutting players with high salary cap hits next season, and use the franchise tag on Houston. While the league hasn’t announced the salary cap ceiling for next season yet, early estimates put it in the $140 million to $143 million range and that would translate in to a linebacker tag of $13.17 million to delay Houston’s free agency.
The one-year deal is certainly a huge bump for Houston, who registered a $1.5 million cap hit last season, but it could cause a rift between him and the Chiefs since they are delaying his chance of signing a long-term contract with gobs of guaranteed money.
Still, the tag does allow the Chiefs time to continue negotiations with Houston and his representatives into the season and allows Dorsey time to tend to the offensive line while contemplating the best ways to use their seven picks in April and May’s draft. Kansas City has until Monday to use the tag on Houston.
Dorsey and Chiefs could also free up some cap space to find a suitable No. 1 receiver for quarterback Alex Smith. No Chiefs receiver caught a touchdown pass last season, with Smith’s 18 strikes divvied up between tight ends Fasano and Travis Kelce, and Charles.
Several big name receivers could be available for the Chiefs, including Philadelphia’s Jeremy Maclin, Denver’s Demaryius Thomas, and possibly even Dallas’ Dez Bryant. But again, finding the requisite cap space is Dorsey’s first battle.
The health of defensive back Eric Berry will also certainly play a significant role in the Chiefs’ plans going forward. Late last season Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and head coach Andy Reid told the Kansas City Star at the NFL scouting combine the two have been in touch.
“He’s doing well,” Reid said. “He’s definitely headed in the right direction, as far as the actual medical part of it goes. His spirit is strong. He’s a stud, anyway you look at it. Anybody that’s got to fight that, they’ve got a special place in my heart.”
Kansas City boasted the No. 6 pass defense in the league last season, and should field an equally solid secondary next year even with Berry possibly out. Including Smith, they have free safety Husain Abdullah and cornerback Phillip Gaines to oppose receivers.
But both of the Chiefs strong safeties, Ron Parker and Kurt Coleman, will be free agents next month. Parker was second on the team with 94 total tackles, and ranked second with 12 passes defended. Serving as Parker’s immediate backup, Coleman led the Chiefs with three interceptions and defended six more passes.
Parker, 27, was only a $645,000 cap hit last season and he’s likely seeking a lucrative long-term deal. Coleman is in the same situation after making $570,000 in 2014.
Allowing both to leave is unlikely to be part of Dorsey’s plan, but the Chiefs could find a suitable replacement in this year’s draft. It could also be where Kansas City finds some depth on the offensive and defensive lines.
Holding the No. 18 overall pick in the first round, the Chiefs could go after Alabama’s Landon Collins, the top rated safety in the draft, or wait until the second or third round to pick up Virginia’s Anthony Harris or Samford’s Jaquiski Tartt, based off projections by CBS Sports.
This year’s draft is particularly loaded with solid defensive tackle prospects like Washington’s Danny Shelton, Texas’s Malcom Brown and Oklahoma’s Jordan Philips. The first three figures to go in the first round, but other options like Ohio State’s Michael Bennett could be had in the second.