Many Kansas City Chiefs fans were surprised by the release of the team’s starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz on Thursday.
But the signs that this was coming were there to see.
1. The logic of the move
Back in mid-February — when we created a list of roster moves the Chiefs could make to free up cap space before the new league year began — these releases topped the list. At the time, we didn’t know whether either player would be healthy enough to play when the season began; Brett Veach’s comments that both could be ready for the Week 1 were still two weeks away.
Their contracts count for $25.2 million against the cap. If the Chiefs believe neither could be ready to 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.
When I wrote those words, I was careful to include the caveat that the Chiefs could make these moves if they felt neither player would contribute significantly in 2021.
But in a year where the salary cap has fallen 7.9% — 1.3% lower than we presumed in mid-February — there was a strong argument that it really didn’t matter if they could be ready to play. Both had just a year left on their contracts, would be on the wrong side of 30 in Week 1 and together accounted for 12% of the team’s 2021 contracts. Add the possibility that either (or both) might be unavailable to begin the season — creating the need to use additional assets to acquire backups — and these moves seemed inevitable.
2. Releases > restructures
In that same article, we presented four other moves the Chiefs could make to clear cap space. Three of them involved converting either salary or roster bonus to signing bonus on the contracts of Patrick Mahomes, Chris Jones and Travis Kelce. These moves are super-easy to make. They don’t require any negotiation with players or agents, because you’re simply reclassifying money a player is already expecting to receive, which allows teams to spread the cap hit for a payment made this season over the remaining years of the contract.
But there’s a problem with that: each time this is done, you’re kicking the can down the road. That’s a less-than-ideal alternative. Over the space of a few seasons, a GM can go from being hailed for “miraculously” creating $20 million in cap space to being fired for putting their team into salary-cap jeopardy.
On the other hand, releasing players who carry big salaries — and are going into the last year of their contracts — carries no such salary-cap risk. The current year’s obligations simply disappear. Naturally, any remaining dead money must be absorbed into the cap — but in subsequent seasons, there’s no mess to clean up.
All other things being equal, this is why a release of a late-contract player often makes more financial sense than making adjustments to the contracts of other players. Of course, “all other things” are only rarely equal — but given all the other circumstances, it’s not hard to see why the Chiefs would consider these moves as the first to make before free agency.
And let’s be clear: this isn’t to say the Chiefs won’t make some (or even all) of those other moves. But by first making this one, it will be easier to keep the rest from being problematic later.
3. Brett Veach’s statement
A more-careful reading of Veach’s words about Fisher and Schwartz on March 1 make it pretty clear that the Chiefs were not counting on both Fisher and Schwartz to be ready for the season.
“Mitch just recently had his disc worked on,” said Veach. “We’re hopeful for him to return at training camp, and the same thing with Fish... We’re hopeful both guys will complete the rehab and be available for training camp and to start the 2021 season. I would probably say Patrick Mahomes is ahead of them because of that type of injury and probably a quicker recovery, but hopeful to have all three ready to go by training camp.”
That’s three uses of the word “hopeful” in one paragraph. But many Chiefs fans seem to have taken Veach’s words to mean that the two tackles would be ready to play.
The trouble is that if you’re an NFL general manager, using multiple instances of words like “hopeful” with regard to the availability your bookend tackles is not a recipe for success. This is especially true if there has only been one game over the last three seasons in which both were unavailable — and in that game, your team suffered what was far and away its worst defeat of those years.
To put it another way... it’s one thing to be hopeful. But it’s quite another to plan on that basis.