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Moves the Chiefs could make to close 2021’s salary-cap gap

The Chiefs find themselves in a salary-cap pickle. But with GM Brett Veach in charge, there are moves that can be made.

Cincinnati Bengals vs. Kansas City Chiefs John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Since the Kansas City Chiefs’ 31-9 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl, we’ve already published a number of articles about personnel moves the team might make in the offseason. More will be be coming.

In some of these, we’ve touched on ways could solve their salary-cap problems. Let’s take a closer look at some we’ve already mentioned — and others the Chiefs might try before the new league year begins at 3 p.m. (Arrowhead Time) on March 17.

The big picture

At this writing, the salary-cap site Spotrac shows the Chiefs projected to be $18.1 million over the cap when the league year begins. That’s a very large number that the Chiefs must get whittled down over the course of the next month.

Spotrac’s figure includes all the players currently under contract for the coming season. This now includes 29 healthy players who were on the the team’s final 2020 active roster — plus three others still on the team’s reserve/injured list and three more who were on 2020’s reserve/opt-out list. All are under contract at least through 2021. It also includes 21 other players who have been signed to reserve/future contracts since the end of the regular season.

Not included in Spotrac’s figure are the Chiefs’ pending free agents. Four 2020 players enter the new year as exclusive rights free agents (ERFAs). Six more are becoming restricted free agents (RFAs). 23 others will become unrestricted free agents (UFAs).

You can find a complete list of Chiefs players broken into these specific groups on our Chiefs roster page. It’s a handy, up-to-date reference that is always available under the Resources tab at the top of every Arrowhead Pride page.

The big caveat

It’s important to remember that Spotrac’s figure depends on where the salary cap will land. Their projection is based on a per-team figure of $185 million. But we don’t know if that’s what it will be — and it’s likely that we we won’t know until just before the league year begins.

In their talks to get the 2020 season off the ground amid the coronavirus pandemic, the league and the NFL Players Association agreed that the cap would be no less than $175 million. Informed speculation has suggested that it could be as high as $195 million — which would put the Chiefs $10 million closer to their mid-March goal. But if it ends up being $175 million, that puts the team $10 million farther away.

During Super Bowl week, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said that he and his contract and cap specialists Brandt Tilis and Chris Shea have worked through numerous scenarios within that range. He told reporters that according to his experts, “anything over $185 million and we’re in pretty good shape. But we’re prepared if it’s $175 million, too.”

So don’t forget: every time you’re pounding the table for a particular Chiefs free agent to be retained — or calling for them to sign another team’s free agent — you’re suggesting the Chiefs spend money they don’t yet have.

But we’re talking about Brett Veach and his team. If there’s a way for the Chiefs to navigate this problem, they’ll find it.

Let’s look at some of the moves they could make.

Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz

Kansas City Chiefs v New Orleans Saints Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Both Fisher and Schwartz officially remain on injured reserve — and are under contract only through the coming season. Their contracts count for $25.2 million against the cap. If the Chiefs believe neither could be ready have a significant on-field impact in 2021 — which is entirely possible — releasing both would clear $18.3 million in cap space ($12 million from Fisher and $6.3 million from Schwartz) which would leave $6.9 million in dead money that would all be absorbed in the coming year. Since neither contract extends beyond 2021, they cannot be designated as post-June 1 releases.

But this would leave only one player on the roster with significant NFL experience — Martinas Rankin — available for the line’s two most important positions. It seems unlikely that the Chiefs would want to pencil in unproven players like Lucas Niang, Yasir Durant or Prince Tega Wanogho — the only other tackles currently on the roster — as the starters for 2021.

This means that the team would likely want to extend Mike Remmers’ cap-friendly veteran salary benefit contract for another season — and probably find another veteran tackle like him to sign a similar deal. Two such VSB contracts would come in at no more than $987,500 each. Under Top-51 salary-cap rules — where they would likely replace a $780,000 contract among the 51 most-expensive cap hits — each would reduce the team’s cap space by only $207,500.

Or the team could choose to sign a higher-cost free agent tackle to a one year deal to help fill the gap until their younger tackles are ready to start. That would likely cost $4-5 million in 2021.

This means that the total cap space increase from releasing Fisher and Schwartz would come in at between $13.1 and $17.9 million.

Tyrann Mathieu

It’s likely that Kansas City will want to extend its star safety — one of the team’s most significant defensive players — before he enters the final season of his current contract. Mathieu carries a cap hit of $19.7 million this year, including a base salary of $14.5 million and a workout bonus of $250,000 — so any extension will have to pay him at least that much in 2021.

The Chiefs might not want to sign Mathieu — who will be 29 this season — to an extension of more than three years, so a deal that paid him a signing bonus of $14 million on top of a $1 million base salary would give him a cap hit of $9.5 million this season. (Mathieu already carries a $4.9 million bonus charge from his original three-year contract).

So the total cap savings for this year would be somewhere around $10 million.

Travis Kelce

Kelce carries a 2021 cap hit of $13.3 million. But his $7.8 million roster bonus in 2021 could be converted into a signing bonus that could be spread from 2021 through 2024. With the stroke of a pen, this would give the Chiefs $5.8 million in additional cap space.

As we will see, there are other players with whom the Chiefs could make such a move — but because Kelce’s contract has four years into which a signing bonus could be spread, it would be relatively risk-free, carrying just under $2 million in additional cap hit into the later years of his contract.

Chris Jones

Jones carries an even larger 2021 roster bonus than Kelce: $20 million. But while it would be tempting to convert that into signing bonus this year and carry it forward, that probably isn’t practical. Jones’ 2020 contract extension only runs through 2023 — giving just three years into which a signing bonus could be spread — and he will already carry a cap hit of $22.3 million in 2022.

That said, the Chiefs could make a less invasive move with Jones’ contract. By converting just $6 million of his roster bonus into signing bonus, they’d clear $4 million of cap space this season and add just $2 million to his cap hits for 2022 and 2023. Or they could convert $9 million, clearing $6 million this season and increasing his cap hit in future years by $3 million. And so on.

Patrick Mahomes

Super Bowl LV Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Like Jones, Mahomes has a large roster bonus due in 2021: $21.7 million. But also like Jones, it’s probably wise to avoid going all-in with it; Mahomes’ 2022 cap hit is already set to be $31.5 million — and there’s no guarantee that a year from now, there won’t continue to be salary-cap issues related to the coronavirus pandemic.

While Mahomes’ contract extends through 2031, a conversion of roster bonus to signing bonus can only be pro-rated through the five years from the original signing — that is, through 2024. The math works out in a similar way to Jones’ deal; there’s just an extra year into which a signing bonus could be spread.

So converting $6 million of Mahomes’ roster bonus nets $4.5 million of cap space in 2021 and increases his yearly cap hit by $1.5 million in the three years after — while a $10 million conversion creates $7.5 million this year and increases his cap hit by $2.5 million in the next three seasons.

Taken together, these moves could free up between $37.4 million and $47.2 million for the coming season — giving the Chiefs between $19.3 million and $29.1 million with which to work. They’re not likely to make all of them — but this examination of the moves they could make shows that there is a way the Chiefs can find the cap space they need in 2021.

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