In the words of the great Terez Paylor — the former Kansas City Star beat writer and current Senior NFL reporter at Yahoo! Sports — “the contract year is undefeated.”
Time and time again, NFL players prove that playing on the last year of a deal motivates them to bring out their best. A great, recent example is former Kansas City Chiefs edge pass rusher Dee Ford. After an injury-riddled start to his career, Ford went into the last year of his rookie contract in 2018 and set a career-high in sacks (13) and led the NFL with seven forced fumbles.
If his play in 2018 had resembled any other season in his career, he probably doesn’t earn anything close to the five-year, $85 million contract that the San Francisco 49ers gave him — although only $20.5 million was guaranteed with his medical history in mind.
The point is this: an NFL player recognizes how important it is to play at the peak of their abilities in their contract year. For the Chiefs, there are five key players that are facing this situation heading into the 2020 season:
I start with soon-to-be-26-year-old defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon because he may have the most to gain out of the five Chiefs on this list. He is entering the final season of his rookie contract after originally being drafted in the second round of the 2017 draft.
Kpassagnon was initially a reserve edge defender in 2019 — but injuries put him in a bigger role during the postseason run. He averaged three pressures per contest in the three-game stretch — with his best performance coming in the AFC championship. He tallied two sacks, two run stops and a pass batted down in the win over the Tennessee Titans.
Looking ahead to 2020, it appears that he may be the third defensive end behind Frank Clark and Alex Okafor — but there is no guarantee that the 29-year-old Okafor will beat out Kpassagnon. Okafor suffered a hip injury early in 2019 then had to prematurely end his season with a torn pectoral muscle in Week 15.
If Kpassagnon can earn more playing time in his second season under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s tutelage, an improvement of his six-sack total in 2019 to a double-digit result is within the realm of possibility. That stat alone could make him a very well-sought after free agent next offseason — especially considering the importance that NFL teams put on finding quality pass rushers.
It took an impressive four-game stretch of starts in 2018 for 2015 seventh-round pick and center Austin Reiter to earn a two-year extension from the Chiefs before that season even ended. 19 consecutive starts and a Super Bowl ring later, Reiter is the incumbent starter at center — but he’ll once again need to prove himself in 2020 as he hits unrestricted free agency next offseason.
He won’t be without competition this summer. Second-year lineman Nick Allegretti and undrafted rookie Darryl Williams look to push him during training camp — but the “run it back” mentality that the Chiefs have adopted would suggest that Reiter will retain his position. Continuity is important along the offensive line, and especially at center for familiarity with quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
But continuity must end sometime — and Reiter’s 2020 performance may be a double-edged sword in terms of being re-signed by Kansas City. If he plays exceptionally, the Chiefs likely won’t have the cap room to bring him back. If he plays poorly, it will be an easy decision to move on.
It was just last offseason that former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Damien Wilson was signed by the Chiefs. The two-year deal expires after 2020 — meaning the 27-year-old versatile linebacker has another opportunity to earn a multi-year contract next offseason.
Initially, the starter at SAM linebacker last season, Wilson had to make the transition to the more off-ball focused WILL linebacker position. This may have exposed his inability to cover well, but he excelled at playing the run from that position, evidenced by his team-leading 36 run stops — according to Pro Football Focus.
Although Chiefs defensive coaches have said otherwise, Wilson could be moved back to his natural spot at SAM and have rookie linebacker Willie Gay Jr. take over at WILL. The issue with this switch is that it would prevent Wilson from being on the field as much as he would be at WILL — and potential suitors in free agency will absolutely take into account snap counts when evaluating the deal they’d offer him.
If he does retain his WILL spot and improves in pass coverage, he may earn an even bigger deal than he originally signed with the Chiefs.
A contract year probably won’t change much in terms of motivation for six-year safety Dan Sorensen. He has been a popular candidate to be cut this offseason and last — but the former undrafted 30-year-old continues to prove his worth.
Not only does he excel in his role as a versatile, third safety that plays in the box and in coverage, he’s also one of the most important pieces on the Chiefs’ special teams unit. He was third on the team in special teams snaps and earned a 84.6 PFF special teams grade in 2019 — the highest of his career.
His age and lack of starting experience will probably turn teams away from offering him multi-year deals next offseason. If Sorensen is once again reliable and makes a few crucial plays in a championship run — like the tackle on the fake punt against the Houston Texans — it’s very possible that he ends back up in Kansas City on a reasonable deal.
Similar to Reiter, it was a short-stretch of impressive play in 2018 that earned running back Damien Williams a two-year extension. That performance in the 2018 postseason — along with his heroism in last season’s playoff run — has made him an all-time Chief no matter how the rest of his career goes.
He will become an unrestricted free agent after 2020. The team has seemingly set themselves up for life after Williams, as evidenced by their first-round selection of LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Running backs coach Deland McCullough told the media that backfield reps will be openly competed for in training camp — but you don’t spend a top draft pick on a running back to have him split touches.
Williams is 28 years old. The Chiefs, along with every other NFL team, are pushing to get as young as possible in the backfield. Another year of wear and tear for Williams will only diminish the number of capital teams want to invest in the aging running back.
He will have to be spectacular in 2020 if he wants to change that.