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Tyrann Mathieu’s deal looks expensive, but the details matter

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There’s little doubt that the “Honey Badger” can play, but did the Chiefs make the right deal to get him?

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

On Monday — as they telegraphed by releasing Justin Houston on Sunday — the Kansas City Chiefs made a big move in free agency, reportedly agreeing to a deal with former Houston Texans safety Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu agreed to a three-year deal worth $42 million.

On the field, there is much to like about this move. Mathieu is a solid, versatile playmaker who is tailor-made for the defense we believe new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will field for the Chiefs in 2019.

Mathieu solves a lot of problems.

Should the team decide to keep Eric Berry for 2019, Mathieu can serve as a backstop if it turns out Berry is unable to play. If Berry can play — and play at a high level — the two of them could be a fearsome combination at the back of the Chiefs secondary. (Think Berry and Ron Parker in 2015 and 2016 but with Berry in Parker’s role). Mathieu’s versatility would also be a plus if the Chiefs unexpectedly find themselves shorthanded at cornerback.

If, on the other hand, the Chiefs intend to release Berry, Mathieu’s role will be obvious: to serve as a bridge to the day that younger players such as Armani Watts and Jordan Lucas are ready to shoulder the load.

Berry’s status for the coming season won’t be a mystery much longer. On Friday, another $7.25 million becomes guaranteed if Berry remains on the roster. If the team intends to cut Berry using the post-June 1 designation — thereby giving the team an additional $8 million against the salary cap on June 2, but at the cost of an additional $8 million in dead money in 2020 — they’ll have to wait until Wednesday afternoon to do it.

Mathieu also brings intangibles to the team — something we’ve come to expect in Chiefs player acquisitions.

So all of that is good — maybe even great.

But (you knew there was a “but” coming, right?) there are aspects to this deal that are troubling. As we showed you on Saturday, Mathieu’s value on the open market was thought to be around $9 million per year. Yet the Chiefs are reportedly set to pay him $14 million a year on this deal.

What happened?

According to our old friend Terez Paylor, the Chiefs general manager Brett Veach ended up in a bidding war with the Houston Texans — Mathieu’s former team — which started with a long-term deal just a bit above what we thought Mathieu’s value would be: $9.5 million per year. According to Paylor, Veach and the Texans got into a bidding war, and at the end, had similar money on the table.

That prompted this comment from our own Matt Stagner:

Matt was making a good point: it’s pretty easy to get into a bidding war on eBay — one where logic and reason can easily give way to winning at all costs. Speaking as someone who has bought (and sold) quite a bit on eBay, I can confirm that this often happens. In fact, over the years, I’ve made a lot of money banking on this very characteristic of the online selling platform!

On Friday, I wrote that some of the moves we have seen from Veach this offseason are reminiscent of those that New England Patriots head coach (and de facto general manager) Bill Belichick might make. Applying the franchise tag to Dee Ford — and then attempting to make a trade for him — is a very Belichickian move. So is releasing Justin Houston and acquiring a player like Carlos Hyde.

But getting into a bidding war with another team, and paying a player 50 percent more than he’d likely draw on the open market? That is certainly not Belichickian.

On Monday morning, Veach appeared on Adam Schefter’s ESPN podcast and spoke about being under the gun in free agency.

“You’ve got to make sure you have a contingency plan,” Veach said. “But at the same time, you don’t want to just make a contingency plan to make one, right? So you don’t just want to go [down] an avenue that you really shouldn’t have been going down anyway, and do something out of panic.

“So what you do is gather as much information as you can, you have great dialogue, and then you have a primary plan of attack. Even though you feel good about that plan, you know there are certain situations [in which] teams may come out of nowhere and things may happen that no one anticipated that may change or alter your course of action. So you do have a contingency plan in place. Then after that, you have to be able to just walk away, and not make bad decisions just out of the need for feeling like you need to make a move when sometimes the best moves you make are the ones you don’t even mess with.”

Did Veach fail to take his own advice, get carried away in the heat of the bidding war against the Texans and make a dumb move by overpaying Mathieu? If you went into the weekend thinking that the smart move was to avoid going after former New York Giants safety Landon Collins — who reportedly ended up making $14 million a year with the Washington Redskins — did it make sense to pay Mathieu the same money?

I can’t blame you if you think that’s what happened — but as always, the details matter.

We don’t yet know the precise details of Mathieu’s deal, which won’t be official until the free agency period begins on Wednesday afternoon. But if we look at some of the other contracts Veach has made since he became Chiefs general manager, we can get an idea what Mathieu’s contract might look like.

Much has been made about the contract Veach gave Sammy Watkins. The three-year deal Watkins got was worth $48 million — $16 million per year — and that sure seemed like way too much when Watkins missed seven games in 2018 and caught only 40 passes for 519 yards. But it’s important to remember that the Chiefs have guaranteed Watkins nothing in the third year of his deal. If Watkins has similar problems in 2019 and it becomes necessary for the Chiefs to move on from him in 2020, they’ll only be on the hook for $7 million in dead money and will save $14 million against the cap.

We see something similar in the contract given to Anthony Hitchens, which was a five-year deal worth $45 million (or $9 million per year). That seemed like a lot of money when Hitchens performed below our expectations in 2018, but in the third year of his contract, Hitchens is also guaranteed nothing. If he becomes more effective in Spaguolo’s defense in 2019 — which most of us expect to happen — then the Chiefs will be in good shape. But if not, they can let Hitchens go in 2020, eating $8.4 million in dead money but saving $2.9 million against the cap.

Contrast these contracts with the one given to Berry going into the 2017 season. Berry’s guaranteed money wasn’t set up to fall to zero until the fourth year of his six-year contract — which is part of what has led the Chiefs into the salary cap situation in which they now find themselves.

This is exactly the point that Andrew Brandt — a guy who has been there and done that — made on Tuesday morning.

If the contract with Mathieu is structured in a similar way to those of Watkins and Hitchens, the Chiefs could find themselves in a similar position in the third year of his contract and will have minimized the risk they’re assuming by taking on Mathieu, who has started all 32 games in the last two seasons, but had various injury problems in his first four NFL seasons — including two ACL injuries.

So while getting into a bidding war with the Texans may have cost the Chiefs some money, the contracts Veach has been giving out have been structured in a way to minimize risk.

If he can do the same with Mathieu’s deal, the bidding war might not end up mattering very much in the grand scheme of things — especially if Mathieu can be as effective as we think he can be in the new Chiefs defense.