The Kansas City Chiefs head into the bye week at 5-2, once again on top of the AFC West.
Of course, the focus is getting healthy and finishing the season, hosting a fifth straight AFC Championship game and ultimately lifting another Lombardi Trophy. But there are a few players whose future with the Chiefs hangs in the balance beyond Super Bowl LVII.
Let's look at five prominent players and the possibility of them being with the Chiefs beyond this season:
LT Orlando Brown Jr.
Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. is playing this year on the franchise tag for $16.7 million after turning down a six-year, $139 million deal — including a $30.25 million signing bonus offered by the Chiefs in the offseason. The 26-year-old Brown chose to bet on himself in 2022 in an effort to get more guaranteed money. Brown and his rookie agent, Michael Portner, felt that the six-year offer only protected Brown for the first two years and left room for the Chiefs to move on if they wanted to.
The Chiefs and Brown voiced that they wanted to keep the relationship going beyond this season and would resume talks once it was over.
The question now looms: has Brown played at a level to render a higher offer in guaranteed money?
Most will say that Brown has had an up-and-down season. You see plays that make him look like a top-five left tackle, then others that make you want to put him on the first flight leaving town. According to Pro Football Focus, he has taken 463 pass-blocking snaps and has only allowed one sack, but at the same time, he has allowed the most pressures. Both numbers can be heavily impacted by the style of quarterback you have. There are times quarterback Patrick Mahomes drops back too deep, which may allow a speed rusher the edge for a quick hurry, but Mahomes' ability to scramble may also be why he only gave up one sack.
How Brown performs over the second half of the season will determine his future with the Chiefs. Hopefully, he becomes more consistent, and the top-five tackle the Chiefs need, and the bet he placed on himself pays off.
Prediction: The Chiefs make Brown an offer similar to the one they made this past season, and if he plays hardball, they franchise tag Brown again to protect themselves. If they find a suitable left tackle early in the draft, they rescind the offer and let him walk.
S Juan Thornhill
Safety Juan Thornhill was drafted out of Virginia in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Thornhill's rookie year turned out to be very good. He was the 16th player in Chiefs history to start all 16 games of their rookie season at the time. He also was named to the Pro Football Writers of America's All-Rookie Team that year. As great as his rookie season went, it ended abruptly in Week 17 when he tore his ACL. Of course, tearing your ACL in Week 17 puts the start of the next season is in jeopardy.
He ended up starting the season in 2020, but you could see he was not still working his way back from such a devastating injury. In 2020, his snap count began to decrease, and he even lost his starting job to safety Dan Sorensen in 2021. It seemed for a while that he was in the doghouse with the defensive coordinator, and fans couldn't understand starting a struggling Sorensen.
Returning to form following a significant injury takes time. Now, midway through his fourth season and contract year, Thornhill is finally starting to look like the athlete the Chiefs drafted in 2019. Through seven games, he has turned in 28 tackles, six pass breakups and one interception. He is coming off his career's best game, where he recorded 11 tackles (nine solo), one interception and two passes defensed during Sunday's 44-23 win over the 49ers.
Will the Chiefs be willing to re-sign Thornhill if he keeps improving and playing at a high level this season? How will the signing of safety Justin Reid and the drafting of rookie Byron Cook who was also drafted in the second, impact things for Thornhill?
Prediction: The Chiefs have already invested a nice-sized contract to Reid this past offseason giving him $31.5 million for three years. That, coupled with drafting Cook so high in the draft, may have been Thornhill's writing on the wall. If the Chiefs trust Reid and Cook to move forward next year, Thornhill may be the odd man out, and the Chiefs will choose to spend their money in a different position. Thornhill will probably be looking to get a contract close to what Reid got, and I don't see the Chiefs investing that much money into two safeties. This is most likely Thornhill's last season as a Chief.
WR Mecole Hardman
Wide receiver Mecole Hardman's career with the Chiefs started with what can be deemed unfair expectations. When the Chiefs moved up and drafted him in the second round of the 2019 draft, the media automatically penciled him in as "Tyreek Hill's replacement." At the time, Hill was going through an off-the-field situation that had his NFL career up in the air, and Hardman was supposed to fill his shoes. The only problem is Hill is a generational talent.
Hardman never played wide receiver until his sophomore year at the University of Georgia. He appeared in 40 games at Georgia but only made six starts. The Chiefs drafted Hardman because he had raw talent and speed.
But Hardman is not Hill, and that is OK. He doesn't need to be.
Each year, Hardman has seemed to progress and get better, but he still shows inconsistencies in route running and making the contest catch. He is not a No. 1 wide receiver, and the signing of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the offseason showed us that the Chiefs do not see him as the go-to guy. That doesn't mean he doesn't bring value to the team. Hardman finished last season with 59 receptions for 693 yards and two touchdowns. He came on late for the Chiefs last year and made some big plays down the stretch.
Coming into his fourth season and a contract season, Hardman suffered a heel injury that seemed to hold him back and led to a slow start which had many Chiefs fans frustrated with the lack of production and progression. He sits at 19 receptions for 218 yards and three receiving touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns.
If he keeps this same pace, he will end the season with around 46 receptions, 529 yards, seven receiving touchdowns and five rushing touchdowns. But if fully healthy, those numbers should be higher.
Will the Chiefs resign Hardman this offseason? Will the wide receiver market shift last offseason make the team overpay and outbid them for his services? Does the trade for Kadarius Toney spell the end of Hardman’s Chiefs tenure?
Prediction: I think the Chiefs will make Hardman a team-friendly offer while allowing him to test the market. The Chiefs will focus the bigger money on trying to lock Smith-Schuster up for the future. Hardman will likely get a bigger and better offer from another team that will value him higher than they should, and Hardman will take it. This could very well be Hardman's last year with the Chiefs.
DE Frank Clark
Defensive End Frank Clark has developed a love-hate relationship with Chief fans.
One might claim, without him, the Chiefs would not have won the Super Bowl in 2019, but others will argue that he has not lived up to his contract or the draft value that the Chiefs gave up for him. In his four years with the Seattle Seahawks. Clark totaled 35 sacks. Midway through his fourth season with the Chiefs, he is sitting at 21.5 sacks.
Following a disappointing season in which he only tallied 4.5 sacks, most fans thought Clark was a sure thing to be released by the Chiefs. Instead of releasing him, the Chiefs restructured Clark's contract this offseason. Clark took a pay cut in the process. Clark will make $24.2 million in base salary over the final two years of his deal and has a cap number of $13.7 million this year (increases to $28.7 million next year as the Chiefs can save just over $9 million by releasing or trading him).
Clark did show up to training camp this year looking healthier and ready for a breakout year. He mentioned that he cut out liquor and red meat to help. He did look noticeably faster off the ball and quicker in training camp.
Through seven games this season, Clark has shown flashes of his old self but has lacked the consistency you would like to see out of your a top edge rusher. He has already tallied 3.0 sacks, which puts him on a clear pace to beat last year's sack total. He had his best game this past week against the 49ers, tallying 1.5 sacks and a crucial safety to seal the game. But then came the bad news: the NFL announced it was suspending him for two games for violation of the NFL's personal conduct policy (more on that here).
So, we will have to wait for two weeks to see if the 49ers game was a breakthrough for Clark or just another up that eventually comes down in the Clark roller coaster.
Will the Chiefs keep Clark for another year, or will this be it?
Prediction: There is no way the Chiefs plan to pay the $28.7 million that Clark is due next year. I think they try to trade him for a mid-round pick or flat-out release him so he can sign with another team. This will be Clark's last year in Kansas City.
DT Chris Jones
All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones is turning in another great year so far. He already had 5.0 sacks on the year and is on pace to total 12 sacks for the season. ESPN has him leading all defensive tackles in pass rush win rate at 23%. Spagnuolo has been moving him all around the line, finding mismatches that have yielded excellent results.
Over the last 3 weeks, Chris Jones has had 4 sacks and 2 forced fumbles rushing from RT (I am counting the Roughing the Passer BS)— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 25, 2022
The package continually get him on an island with the RT, trying to occupy the RG elsewhere pic.twitter.com/AfI5wuDgXs
PFF currently has him rated as the highest-graded defensive player in the NFL at 92.9. Jones looks like a man on a mission and is playing at a very high level. In his seven years with the Chiefs, Jones has a total of 54.5 sacks and is by far one of the best interior Defensive linemen in football.
You would think a player of his magnitude's future with the team would never be in question. But he only has one year left on his current contract. He will be 29 at the start of the next season with a cap hit of $27 million. The Chiefs could save $20 million by trading or releasing him after the season. General manager Brett Veach has shown (via the Hill trade and letting safety Tyrann Mathieu walk) that he is not afraid to move on from a big name if it makes sense for the team's future.
Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald signed a new deal this offseason for three years and $95 million. You would have to think that a Jones extension would have been somewhere in $30 million a year over a three-to-four-year period.
Will the Chiefs extend Jones or trade him? I doubt very seriously that they will release him, but I also don't expect that same value in trade assets to be offered as the Chiefs received for Hill.
Prediction: The Chiefs will find a way to keep Jones around. They do not have enough pass rush along the defensive front to lose him. They will get the 2023 cap hit down to around $21 million to leave some space to add more pieces in 2023. That would leave the following years of his contract above the $30 million mark. They give themselves a way out in Year 4 when Jones is pushing 34 years old.
The bottom line
The Chiefs have some key decisions to make this offseason for some big names.
How they play down the stretch of this season may make the decisions harder or easier. At the end of the day, Veach should have earned the fans' trust that no matter who stays or goes, they should know the Chiefs will be good to go for the foreseeable future.