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What we learned from the Chiefs’ trade for linebacker Darron Lee

The day after, let’s sort through what we know — and what we don’t

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at New York Jets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday night, we got a surprise: the Kansas City Chiefs traded their 2020 sixth-round pick to acquire New York Jets linebacker Darron Lee.

What can we learn from this move?

The Chiefs saw linebacker as a need — but not a big one

Their most significant move at the position so far this year was signing 26-year-old Sam linebacker Damien Wilson, who previously played for the Dallas Cowboys. Per OverTheCap, Wilson carries a cap hit of just $1.9 million in 2019, and is guaranteed nothing in 2020; if he is cut after this season, the Chiefs would have to absorb only $875,000 in dead money from his signing bonus.

The Chiefs also signed former Jets outside linebacker Jeremiah “Jerry” Attaochu to a one-year veteran minimum deal that will cost $805,000 against the cap in 2019.

The Chiefs didn’t expend a draft pick at linebacker but did sign undrafted rookies Gary Johnson of Texas and Darius Harris of Middle Tennessee. Harris — coming off an injury — might not be available in 2019.

None of those moves required a significant investment in cap space or draft capital — and that remains unchanged with Lee’s signing. Lee’s rookie contract will remain in force with the Chiefs. The Jets had previously chosen not to to exercise their fifth-year option on his contract, so Lee is essentially on a one-year prove-it deal that will cost $1.8 million against the cap; the Jets will be on the hook for what is left of his original signing bonus.

The starters at Sam, Mike and Will remain unknown

Here at Arrowhead Pride, we mostly think Wilson will start at Sam (strong-side linebacker), Anthony Hitchens will start at Mike (middle linebacker) and Dorian O’Daniel will start at Will (weak-side linebacker) in Steve Spagnuolo’s 4-3 Under scheme. But there’s still a lot of speculation about it; opinions vary.

Lee’s signing doesn’t give us much clarity. Like Attaochu, Lee has been playing in a 3-4 scheme with the Jets, so there’s no obvious indicator of where he would fit in a 4-3. For the Cowboys, Wilson and Hitchens played Sam and Mike respectively — one of the factors we’re considering when penciling them in as Chiefs starters at those positions — but were required to learn all three.

The Athletic’s Nate Taylor says he’s been told Lee will be competing with O’Daniel to be the starting Will linebacker, but the fact remains that most of Lee’s snaps for the Jets were at inside linebacker. We’ll just have to see how it plays out.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs might (or might not) be done with splashy moves

Per OverTheCap, the Chiefs had about $16.7 million of available cap space before the trade. With it, the figure will drop to about $15.4 million — Lee’s contract will consume $1.8 million, and $570,000 will be added back in as Zack Golditch’s contract drops below the 51-player cutoff. On June 2, Eric Berry’s contract will come off the books, and that will add another $9 million to the total — $9.5 million in cap savings, less Golditch’s contract when it moves back up above the cutoff.

So there’s enough cap space there for the Chiefs to make a big move. Many fans want one. There’s been speculation that the Chiefs would be an ideal landing spot for reportedly-disgruntled Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson — but so far, it’s nothing but speculation. It appears to have started with an article by CBS Sports’ John Breech a week ago, which listed a trade to the Chiefs for a first-round pick among seven possible NFL trades.

And now that Peterson has been suspended for the first six games of the season for violating the league’s policy for performance-enhancing drugs, trade offers for Peterson could be smaller.

At least for the moment, all we know for sure is that the Chiefs are being careful to conserve both their cap and draft capital. Whether that’s because they intend to make another big move — or are conserving cap space for the upcoming contract they want to sign with Chris Jones, or even for the bigger one with Patrick Mahomes — remains to be seen.

This move went under the radar

Although there were plenty of New York (and national) writers who were speculating that Lee could be a trade target after the Jets declined to exercise his fifth-year option — even John Breech’s aforementioned article suggested a Lee trade to the Cincinnati Bengals — there appears to have been no significant reporting that this deal was in the works.

But according to Sports Illustrated MMQB writer Albert Breer, the Chiefs had been in negotiations with the Jets for “a few weeks.”

BREER: The previous regime had discussed a Lee trade with the Chiefs for a few weeks and was holding firm in asking for a fifth-round pick. Shortly after Maccagnan was fired, Kansas City sensed opportunity, and called to offer their 2020 sixth-round pick for Lee, who the Chiefs view as one of the best pure cover linebackers in football. As interim GM, I’m told Gase was indeed the one who did a deal that quickly finalized.

So this shows that the Chiefs were willing to hold up the deal over the difference between a fifth- and sixth-round pick for a player they “view as one of the best pure cover linebackers in football” — another indication they’re being careful with their resources. And it also demonstrates that while we often hear about deals being negotiated before they happen, if they want to, NFL teams can keep these kinds of negotiations under wraps.

Brett Veach loves to take fliers on former early draft picks

There are now five former first-round picks on the Chiefs roster — and three of them have been picked up from other teams. Lee will be joining Sammy Watkins and Cam Erving in Brett Veach’s First-Round Castoff Club — of which Reggie Ragland (drafted 41st in the second round by the Buffalo Bills in 2016) and Frank Clark (drafted 63rd in the second round by the Seattle Seahawks in 2015) are honorary members.

Lee will need a new number

As a member of the Jets, Lee wore 58. That’s not going to work in Kansas City. 43 seems to be available — and Lee wore 43 at Ohio State. Slam dunk!


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