Expectations for the Kansas City Chiefs have never been higher — both this season and in the future. The team finally has a franchise quarterback they can build around — and the Patrick Mahomes era promises hope of a Super Bowl championship in the near future.
The Chiefs can begin extension talks with their quarterback at the end of the coming season. They’re likely to keep their MVP happy. As Mahomes’ salary cap impact rises, howver, creating and maintaining a pipeline of affordable contributors under club control is essential to the health of the franchise. For this reason, the team needs to be able to count on players at certain positions so that their need to invest in them requires less capital.
Players currently slated to be unrestricted free agents in 2020 include defensive tackles Chris Jones and Xavier Williams; defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah; linebackers Reggie Ragland and Darron Lee, cornerbacks Kendall Fuller, Bashaud Breeland and Keith Reaser; safety Jordan Lucas; wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Demarcus Robinson, fullback Anthony Sherman; running back Carlos Hyde and quarterback Chad Henne.
That list is obviously subject to change, but it still represents a lot of the players the Chiefs will depend upon in 2019.
It stands to reason that the Chiefs will not be able to retain all of these players. So the players competing with them (and working behind them) on the depth chart can help alleviate the pain from losing some of them — if they show growth in 2019.
Here are five players the Chiefs will need to count upon as reliable contributors by the end of the season in order to make the 2020 picture more... 20/20.
Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle
The wide receiver position is one of the deepest groups on the team. The construction of that group, however, makes it a largely fluid situation both this year and next. Hill could certainly be extended this season, but unless he restructures his deal, that would likely spell the end of Sammy Watkins’ tenure in Kansas City. Robinson is likely to move on after this season.
Whatever way you cut it, there will be turnover at this position next year, so if Hardman and Pringle can show growth and promise during 2019, that could help give the Chiefs enough depth to withstand the changes.
Gehrig Dieter is also an exclusive rights free agent next season, so the Chiefs have claim to him for additional depth as well. Both Pringle and Hardman present the athletic upside that Dieter doesn’t possess, and could develop into solid contributors if they put in the work.
Saunders and Derrick Nnadi are the only two interior defensive lineman under contract in 2020. The group is thin — and regardless of Saunders’ development and the contract status of Chris Jones, this group will need to be addressed in the offseason. How much the Chiefs have to invest will largely depend on Saunders — especially if they can’t get something worked out with Jones.
Saunders seems like a perfect fit to play in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme. He fits the density profile and has the athleticism to execute the stunt game employed by Spagnuolo and defensive line coach Brendan Daly. If he builds confidence within the building, Saunders could make decisions a little easier for the Chiefs.
Wylie is an exclusive rights free agent in 2020, so the Chiefs have control of him next season. Last season’s Mack Lee Hill award winner as the Chiefs’ best first-year player looks to build upon a great season by establishing himself as team’s starting left guard. If he can continue to play as he did last season, Wylie could not only secure himself a nice extension, but could also give the Chiefs confidence they would need to move on from a player like right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif if he misses more games due to injury or doesn’t take a step up in his own performance. Cutting Duvernay-Tardif would save the team $5 millon — or $7 million with post-June 1 designation.
A move like that may seem surprising, but if Wylie and center Austin Reiter prove themselves next year, you could see cost-cutting measures on players like Duvernay-Tardif, who has yet to live up to the contract extension he received from former general manager John Dorsey. Stability along the rest of the line could help the Chiefs massage the roster with a cheaper, potentially healthier option at right guard — perhaps a player like Kahlil McKenzie.
Regardless of whether players like Fuller or Breeland (or both) are extended, the Chiefs will certainly need to invest in cornerback for 2020. In fact, cornerback is the Chiefs’ biggest need both this year and next.
If Ward can be a prove himself as a third cornerback this season, that at least helps the team build a little depth for the future; it could be problematic and difficult to replace either Fuller or Breeland (or both) along with Ward. The Chiefs need the entire cornerback room to develop and elevate their game this season, but Ward is in the pole position to make an on-field impact; his growth would help improve the bleak 2020 outlook at his position. If he regresses or doesn’t look the same in Spagnuolo’s scheme — which is certainly a possibility — the Chiefs are in a world of hurt at that position for the future.