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Midseason check-in: five Chiefs in a contract year

Five players have the rest of the campaign to prove their worthiness of a deal this offseason.

Carolina Panthers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

With seven games remaining on the Kansas City Chiefs’ 2020 regular-season schedule, certain players will feel the pressure to solidify their role and establish themselves as a part of the future due to their contract situation.

From expiring rookie contracts to veteran role players hoping to re-sign, there are significant decisions the team will need to make in the offseason. The projection of a reduced salary cap in 2021 could make these decisions even more important than they already were.

I highlighted most of these players in an offseason article about contract years, but I took a closer look at the performance so far of five Chiefs playing on expiring contracts this season:

Dan Sorensen

Kansas City Chiefs v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

When I awarded defensive tackle Chris Jones with the midseason defensive MVP award, I noticed one name pop up constantly in the comment section and replies to social media posts from the readers. Safety Dan Sorensen — who received one vote from staff writer Tom Childs — has stood out enough to warrant that kind of praise from fans. That’s important for him, as that means the 30-year-old is standing out in a contract season.

Sorensen has the fourth-most defensive snaps on the team. That tells you how often they are in nickel — where safety Tyrann Mathieu becomes the slot cornerback and Sorensen comes in at strong safety, paired with free safety Juan Thornhill. Sorensen is trusted to be the deep safety at times, but 46% of his snaps come inside the box for a reason.

Sorensen is uniquely explosive and coordinated enough to turn that into effective open-field tackling. In the 2014 NFL Draft process, Sorensen ran a 6.47 second 3-cone drill — putting him in the 98th percentile of safeties at the combine all-time. You’ve especially seen it this year in his play against the run, which has led to him being the team’s leading tackler.

His faults come mainly in pass coverage, and he will get targeted by the opposing passing games. That ability doesn’t start improving going into an eighth NFL season, and the skill of pass coverage is as important as ever with modern offenses. That being said, Sorensen is a team leader and a staple of one of the league’s top defenses right now.

If the coaching staff insists that he’s significant enough, he may become a priority to re-sign.

Sammy Watkins

NFL: New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

After restructuring his contract for 2020, wide receiver Sammy Watkins had a lot of reason to put up big numbers this year. The new part of the deal was incentives for statistical season totals, up to $7 million in addition to his $5 million base salary.

Through four games, Watkins was on pace for 76 catches, 792 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Those totals would not hit his incentive requirement, for what it’s worth. He did manage to score his second touchdown of the season in Week 5 before limping off the field with a hamstring injury. He was never placed on injured reserve but has not been active for a game since.

The offense hasn’t experienced any noticeable drop-off in performance with Watkins out of the lineup. They also haven’t played any challenging defenses in that stretch. In the final seven games of the regular season, they will need all hands on deck offensively, so it will be significant to see when he returns after the bye week.

If he comes back and plays like he did in the final games of the 2019 championship run, there’s every reason in the world to make another short-term, incentivized deal work.

Tanoh Kpassagnon

Denver Broncos vs Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

In the first contract year of his NFL career, defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon has not put up a big number in the one statistic that garners the big pay day: sacks. Kpassagnon has only managed one sack so far this season. That being said, he has been a dependable starter opposite defensive end Frank Clark.

Kpassagnon has played the third-most snaps of any defensive player on the Chiefs this year; he’s played the most out of the defensive linemen on the team. In fact, he’s been on the field for 81% of the defense’s snaps — the ninth-highest percentage among NFL defensive linemen this year, per Football Outsiders.

He’s made some plays, but he doesn’t make enough with his snap volume. Kpassagnon has the third-most pressures on the team despite out-snapping Clark and defensive tackle Chris Jones ahead of him. He has used his incredible length to bat down two passes this season, but he does not consistently win against pass blocking.

He has been stout against the run; his 15 run stops are tired for most among Chiefs’ defensive linemen.

Behind Jones’ dominance this season, no other pass rusher has stepped up on a regular basis. If Kpassagnon can prove to be a quality pass rusher every game and not just in spurts, he’d be a quality candidate to re-sign. He’s proven his reliability — but in today’s game, starting defensive linemen need to affect the quarterback’s passing efforts.

Austin Reiter

Kansas City Chiefs v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

After starting all 19 games in the 2019 season for the Super Bowl champion Chiefs, center Austin Reiter has lost his grip on the starting spot. He started the first five games of the season, but the team decided to start veteran center Daniel Kilgore for Week 6 against the Buffalo Bills. Kilgore started the following two weeks as well.

Head coach Andy Reid cited knee soreness as a reason for Reiter’s absence from the lineup, but he was active for the three games he was benched and played special teams as well. He did return to the starting lineup for the Week 9 win over the Carolina Panthers. It will be significant to see who comes out after they bye week as the starter between him and Kilgore.

The swapping is an indicator that the Chiefs are not satisfied with their situation at center. It’s hard to imagine either of Reiter or Kilgore being on the team in 2021, but if one of them does anchor down the job for another deep postseason run, it could turn into a cheap solution for a starter.

Damien Wilson

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs’ linebacker group gets some deserved flack for being soft at times, but it’s hard to say that about linebacker Damien Wilson. The starting SAM linebacker, who will also play off-ball in the base nickel package, shows flashes of great strength and power in the run game. He’s produced to back that up.

Wilson is the team’s second-leading tackler, and is tied for first in run stops with Sorensen. He’s also one of only three players with one or fewer missed tackles despite playing 300 or more snaps.

Wilson just isn’t very fast sideline-to-sideline — and he’s asked to do that when he is played as an off-ball linebacker. Opposing offenses game plan to take advantage of those faults every week. Rookie linebacker Willie Gay Jr. projects to eventually replace Wilson’s position as an off-ball player; Wilson could still be the SAM position — but with how little true base defense is played in today’s NFL, the Chiefs may not feel like it’s worth giving a new contract to a player that’s strictly a SAM linebacker.

The 27-year-old linebacker could price himself out in the open market, regardless; the shine from being on a championship team can be valuable for a free agent.