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Chiefs have serious cap challenges ahead — but the means to solve them

Kansas City GM Brett Veach talked about the team’s salary cap situation during Monday’s session with reporters.

Chiefs’ Tyrann Mathieu target of million-dollar extortion attempt by a relative Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images

There’s no doubt about it: the Kansas City Chiefs have some salary cap problems that need to be solved.

After the National Football League signed its Collective Bargaining Agreement with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) in 2011, the league’s yearly salary cap has never decreased from one year to the next. After it rose by just 0.5% in 2012 and 2% in 2013, it has never increased by less than 4.4% — and from 2014 through 2020, the average increase was 7.1%.

It was in this environment that teams across the league felt comfortable back-loading player contracts; there would always be more money available in future years. But then came 2020’s coronavirus pandemic, which raised a prospect that had previously been unthinkable: that teams would have less money to spend in 2021.

A little less than two weeks ago, the league announced that the 2021 cap would be no less than $180 million — a $5 million increase from the $175 million floor negotiated by the league and NFLPA last August. At that time, there were reports that the cap might come in as high as $195 million. But more recent reports have been less optimistic, suggesting that the cap could be only two or three million dollars above the announced minimum — an unprecedented decrease of 7% or more, which would put the Chiefs as much as $22 million over the cap.

“I think originally — the last couple of years prior to last offseason — we were banking on a cap of $210 million,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach told reporters during Monday’s Zoom press conference. “You feel about, ‘All right, we’re going to be in a really good position’ — and then all of a sudden, we go through what we went through last year and now you’re at $180 million. It’s certainly not ideal, but I would say that probably half the league is in the same boat, so I think there will be some unusual cuts made within the next few weeks — just because teams have to get creative and find solutions to stay under the cap.”

Veach — along with the rest of the league’s general managers — are facing a hard deadline: 3 p.m. Arrowhead Time on Wednesday, March 17, which is the beginning of the new league year. At that time, all teams are required to be under the salary cap — and it’s possible they won’t know how much money they’ll have available to them until just days before then.

But unlike other teams in similar situations, Veach and his team — including Brandt Tilis and Chris Shea — have designed their recent big contracts with lots of cap flexibility, which gives them ways to move cap dollars around to meet their current needs. Even the half-billion-dollar contract that quarterback Patrick Mahomes signed last season carried a signing bonus of just $10 million — and the long-term contract extensions given to defensive tackle Chris Jones and Travis Kelce had no signing bonuses.

“I think our cap team — Brandt and Chris, those guys — they did a great job of kind of navigating us through these rocky waters last offseason,” said Veach. “The contract that we did with Travis and Chris and Patrick — and our ability to convert them — I feel like we’re in a good position to get underneath the cap and then we’ll address free agency.”

In addition, a more traditional move — extending the contract of star safety Tyrann Mathieu, whose contract runs only through the coming season — could provide additional cap relief. And Veach made it clear that Mathieu is definitely in the team’s long-term plans.

“We’ll have some work to do and to get with him and his agents,” he said, “but enough can’t be said about Tyrann and his importance to this team both on the field and in the locker room. He’s proven to be not just a great player but a great leader — and a great person to have developing the young guys and out in the community. So we’ll certainly go to work with him and his agents and see what we can get done — but needless to say that we hope he’s here with this organization for years to come.”

But once the team can get their own salary cap issues settled, Veach expects there could be some free-agency opportunities that the Chiefs could exploit.

“I do think you’ll see that second wave maybe get a little interesting,” he explained, “because I think that typically in an offseason, you have waves of the top guys doing their deals and the second wave guys into the next week doing their deals. I expect that the first week will be similar, but it’ll be interesting with the second week. You’ll see some teams not be able to do those mid-level deals — or lower-level deals — and I think the market will open for different players at different positions.”

And Veach also realizes that he and his management team have financial challenges to solve in these situations, they also have a pretty valuable card up their sleeves.

“Playing in front of this great fan base and playing with Patrick Mahomes and playing for Andy Reid is certainly appealing — so I feel like half the battle is already won with what we have to offer in regard to playing here and having the opportunity to play for Super Bowls.”