Before the 2019 season gets underway, Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach has a lot of work to do.
Two significant starters — Dee Ford and Mitch Morse — have contracts that expire this offseason. Two more — Tyreek Hill and Chris Jones — will have contracts expiring after the 2019 season. These last two — along with Ford — have been identified in a recent report as the team’s three top priorities for getting their contracts settled during this offseason.
And then there are the contract issues for two more Chiefs starters: Justin Houston and Eric Berry. Both have big contracts, and questions about whether the production from either of them will be enough to offset the substantial chunk of the salary cap their contracts will consume in 2019.
All of this was up for discussion on Thursday afternoon when former sports agent (and current CBS Sports analyst) Joel Corry appeared on 610 Sports’ The Drive, where he was interviewed by host Carrington Harrison.
Harrison first asked what kind of contracts Hill and Jones could command.
“Kansas City may have unwittingly compounded a problem by signing Sammy Watkins — who is really a second receiver — to a $16 million per year deal,” Corry said. “Because as long as Tyreek Hill was going to be more productive, that was going to set a floor for Hill’s contract. He set a franchise record for receiving yards for the Chiefs, breaking Derrick Alexander’s [record]. So you’re potentially going to have to pay him more than Odell Beckham Jr., who right now sets the receiver market at $18 million per year, $65 million in guarantees and $41 million fully guaranteed at signing.”
But Corry said the receiver market was going to change this year.
“Not only is Tyreek Hill in a contract year, [so is the New Orleans Saints’] Michael Thomas — who has the most catches through three seasons in NFL history — and the Atlanta Falcons [have] committed to giving Julio Jones a new contract with two years left on his deal, [which is] already a shade above $14 million per year, and he’s going to want to be right up there as well.”
Corry said that Jones — whom he would consider an interior defensive lineman for negotiating purposes — will be able to demand big money after setting an NFL record by recording a sack in 11 straight games.
“You pay guys who put pressure on quarterbacks consistently,” he said. “So you’re going to have to pay him a pretty penny as well. Aaron Donald [of the Los Angeles Rams] set the market for non-quarterbacks before [the Chicago Bears’] Khalil Mack topped him at $22 million per year. The second-highest paid interior defensive lineman is Fletcher Cox [of the Philadelphia Eagles] on a deal that was done in 2016 [for] $17.1 million per year. That’s now a three-year-old deal.”
Corry said that the fact Jones isn’t a great run defender will have little impact on his potential salary.
“You don’t pay a guy just to stop the run — otherwise, Damon Harrison [of the Detroit Lions] would be one of the highest-paid interior offensive linemen, and he’s not”, Corry said. “You’re probably going to have to go above that Fletcher Cox deal — there was $63 million guaranteed in that one, and $37 million fully guaranteed at signing — and we haven’t even gotten to Dee Ford.”
Ah, yes. Dee Ford. He had his long-awaited breakout season in 2018, but many Chiefs fans aren’t convinced he can consistently match his production, and would prefer to see the team place the franchise tag on Ford in 2019, and see if he can continue to produce before committing to a long-term contact. But Corry said given the Chiefs’ salary cap situation, that might be tough to do.
“If you do that, you’re going to be down to basically $11-12 million, because his franchise tag is going to be about $15.5 million,” Corry explained. “What’s that’s going to mean is that you may not have an opportunity to keep Mitch Morse, who’s going to probably be one of most attractive centers on the open market. Maybe that’s why you gave the extension to Austin Reiter for the way he played while Morse was injured, so that’s going to hedge your bets that way.”
Corry said that putting the franchise tag on Ford might also make it hard to keep Houston.
“He’s got a $21 million cap number,” Corry said. “He can’t stay healthy consistently. When he is healthy, he’s very good. But you drafted Breeland Speaks for a reason — to ultimately replace either Dee Ford or Justin Houston. And with Ford finally having a true breakout year and being younger, maybe Houston is going to be vulnerable.”
So would it then make sense to try and sign Ford to a long-term deal — one that had a smaller cap hit in 2019?
”Good luck with that,” laughed Corry. “If you let one of these young pass rushers on the open market that are probably not going to get there — that’s your Jadaveon Clowney, Frank Clark, DeMarcus Lawrence, Dee Ford — they’re going to be the one guy that every team that needs a pass rusher are going to come after, and then you’re going to see those guys quickly be over $20 million per year [with] more than $70 million in overall guarantees and more than $50 million at signing, because guys who can consistently put pressure on quarterbacks are paid a premium.”
Just the same, Corry said there might be a way to sign Ford to a long-term deal — but it will have to be done soon.
“If Kansas City wants to make sure that they keep Dee Ford, they can’t let him hit the open market,” he said. “[The Chiefs] do have a history of getting deals done before the franchise deadline. Eric Berry didn’t get franchised the second time. It happened to Dwayne Bowe once. So maybe they put the best foot forward and avert that. The benefit of that is that is you have a $15.5 million cap hit hanging around, because the first-year cap number is probably going to be less than half of that. That will give you flexibility to do other things or keep a player that you potentially wouldn’t otherwise.”
Can all of this be done and still keep Berry and Houston?
”Eric Berry’s kind of tough one,” Corry said. “He already has almost $3 million of his 2019 base salary fully guaranteed. The amount fully guaranteed will increase to $10.2 million on March 15th, which is the third day of the league year. Now... it’s already injury-guaranteed to $10.2 million. If he has to have heel surgery and he can’t pass a physical — and depending on what the actual language if the injury guarantee is — that could be problematic. If you were going to release Eric Berry and you take the injury guarantee out of the equation, it’s going to have to be with what we call a post-June 1st designation. We have to carry his cap number to June 2nd. Then you’ll get the cap relief when it comes off the books, and you pick up $9.5 million in cap room.
“It’s hard to imagine that both [Houston and Berry] would be gone, but that’s something that the Chiefs may have to consider,” Corry continued. “The thing is, in 2015, they didn’t have cap room, but they were able to make a high-profile free agency signing with Jeremy Maclin, and if they’re willing to structure a contract [with a] low first-year cap number [and a] a looming second-year cap number, then maybe they can get an impact defensive guy in there doing it that way, and worry about the cap charge consequences in 2020.”
So many problems to solve, and so many moving pieces to consider. As often happens early in the offseason, it’s hard to see how the Chiefs can manage all of it. And these high-profile players are just the beginning. If you check Spotrac, you find that many other Chiefs players also have contracts that expire this offseason.
What about Allen Bailey, Harrison Butker, Spencer Ware, Demetrius Harris, De’Anthony Thomas and Anthony Sherman?
Or Chris Conley, Steven Nelson, Jordan Lucas, Orlando Scandrick and Kelvin Benjamin?
Or Jordan Devey, Marcus Kemp, Frank Zombo, Jeff Allen, Charcandrick West, Justin Hamilton, Terrance Smith and Alex Ellis?
For many fans, decisions on a lot of these players would be easy. Others would be harder. And depending on whom the Chiefs could bring in through the draft, it’s possible that some of the other decisions could be made easier. But there are still a lot of difficult choices to make — further complicated by the fact the Chiefs will be using another defensive scheme in 2018 under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
”Yeah, they’re going to have some tough decisions to make,” said Corry.