In our initial Salary Cap Analysis, we laid out that the Chiefs need to save $6M against the cap before even considering any re-signings or new player acquisitions. During our roster evaluation we discovered a bunch of players where the combination of performance (or lack thereof), cap hit, and / or roster depth at the position should initiate some serious thoughts about a release or restructure.
However, the conditions are very different concerning each of those players. Thus we will take an individual look at each we identified as a potential cap casualty from various angles. This should provide some insight into the brass' options to navigate the monetary side of building a competitive roster and answer some of the questions where to act, when to act, and how to act.
Nothing triggers decision making as much as deadlines. Two kinds of deadlines need to be considered:
League / CBA-imposed deadlines
The most significant one is March 10, the day the new league year starts. On this day, 4 p.m. ET, all teams have to be under the cap (estimated at $144M for the Chiefs) for their 51 highest priced players. If our initial analysis is correct, the Chiefs should be pretty close to that number right now, as the additional expenses we mentioned in the initial cap analysis (draft picks, training camp, replacements for injured players etc.) will only become due later in the year. So if the Chiefs do nothing at all they should be good but of course, we don't believe that will happen, do we?
The other effect of March 10: Players with expiring contracts become free agents. Justin Houston and Rodney Hudson say hello - they better be under contract by then ... didn't we mention we don't believe the Chiefs will sit on their hands?.
Bottom line: By March 10 the Chiefs will have to have cleared some cap room.
The other important date in the league calendar is February 16, when the period to designate franchise / transition players kicked in. That period will close on March 2, a week before the Top 51 rule enters into force. We should know a bit more about Justin Houston's fate by then. Important to note: Once a player is tagged, the tender counts against the cap immediately, whether the player signs it or not. However, even if that takes the team over the cap immediately, it will only become relevant on March 10 (see above).
Then there are Individual deadlines
These are related to individual roster bonuses and their due dates. To the best of our knowledge, of the players we'll have a closer look at for cap relief, only the following have roster bonuses due this year:
(Note: Donnie Avery and AJ Jenkins were both on this list but they have since been cut as predicted.)
There are two notable players not on this list that we will still need to discuss: Chase Daniel and Dwayne Bowe. Their absence is a good thing. And while Derrick Johnson and Joe Mays have roster bonuses due, we anticipate they will stay for the season, and the team will pay them accordingly.
Tamba Hali is the first key piece to the puzzle we try to put together: His $2M roster bonus is reportedly due March 19, and thus well after the franchise period and the start of the new league year. By that time, the Chiefs should have a very good idea of where they stand with regard to Justin Houston and Rodney Hudson (or any other major free agent signing). This would allow them to decide Tamba's future based on the teams framework, and not solely on monetary considerations, if they manage to clear sufficient cap space to initially cover for Houston and Hudson without touching Tamba's contract.
The situation of Anthony Fasano (roster bonuses of $250k, due date unknown, but probably on or shortly after March 10) is more tricky. With no base salary guaranteed until Week 1 of the regular season, the Chiefs might be tempted to keep him around, at least until the roster is set at critical positions, deliberately accepting the risk of having to pay and swallow the roster bonuses as dead money. However, he has workout bonuses due as well ($50k) which adds to the malaise. Thus, we think Fasano may make it to camp, when his fate will be decided based on his performance, available replacements and the overall cap situation.
That leaves the Vance Walker / Mike DeVito, Chase Daniel and Dwayne Bowe situations to be resolved.
The Chiefs are not bound by any deadline, but they probably need the cap relief they can generate from these players sooner rather than later. Their ability to theoretically keep Bowe under contract until Week 1 (assuming they can manage the roster without touching his contract) may force him into making bigger concessions on a reduced contract than many anticipate - if the Chiefs decide to even evaluate that approach.
Let's get into the numbers just a little bit.
Assuming Houston and Hudson return on cap numbers of $12M and $4.5M respectively (that's only an estimate, but we consider it reasonable, give or take a million or so) the Chiefs need to clear about $16.5 before March 10.
Releasing Avery, Jenkins and DeVito only clears $8.8M, so they need to get one of the big ones done. The logical approach would be Hali, as his positional situation would be more or less resolved by the retention of Houston. His release would solve the situation by clearing another $9M, keeping him on whatever contract would force the Chiefs' hand in other areas as well. Or it could be Bowe, if declared a post-June 1 release. Or even both of them, if the team wishes to keep some of the smaller contracts we discuss, or if they hope to be somewhat active in free agency.
That said, here's the scenario we consider likely after the Avery / Jenkins releases
(Cap space cleared in parentheses)
Houston will be locked up via franchise tag or new contract by March 2.
Hudson will be locked up by March 10, or a replacement will be found immediately thereafter via free agency (how about Stefen Wisniewski from Oakland?).
Walker or DeVito will be released before March 10. ($4M if DeVito is released)
Bowe's situation will be resolved before March 10 - most likely resulting in his release ($5M). Simply reducing his base pay by $5M annually would have the same effect though. But will Bowe accept that? It would result in a 50 percent pay cut. If we were Dorsey we'd try, but again: We don't think Bowe would agree.
The Hali situation will be resolved before March 19. But unless he takes a massive cut and plays thoroughly underpaid (let's say, $3-4M as our threshold for a role player) he will be gone as well ($9M).
Daniel and Fasano will stay through camp as reassurance, but may be released before Week 1 if more cap needs to be cleared (or a trade for Daniel materializes? Nah - that's unlikely, unfortunately). ($5.8M)
Oh, and there will be a decision with regards to Eric Berry as well but we think we likely will not learn about it for some time. Our guess is that the Chiefs will significantly reduce his pay, but keep him on the roster somehow - even if just to keep him covered under the league's health insurance ($4.5M)
So without scrapping the roster the Chiefs have options to clear up to $33M in cap space (deliberately neglecting the option to designate Bowe a post-June 1 release which would clear another $6M). They will need $6M to get through the season, and let's say $17M for Houston and Hudson. That leaves them with about $10M to spend on new players, on players NOT released (like Hali, Daniel, Fasano or releasing Walker over DeVito), or on extending other players on the roster (Sean Smith anyone?).
We are aware that some of our final considerations (such as keeping Hali or Bowe on a reduced contract, keeping Fasano or Daniel through camp and perhaps beyond) may seem contradictory to the outcome of our positional reviews. But it turns out, the Chiefs may have more cap flexibility than initially thought - and balancing cap against talent on the roster is an iterative process.
Playing that flexibility wisely may do the trick to move forward this year while also building for the future. But, ultimately, we do see those four gone come Week 1 in order for Dorsey and co. to max out their options.