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Why Frank Clark might take a pay cut — just like Sammy Watkins did

For the second time in three offseasons, the Chiefs have a large contract decision looming.

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NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs expect to enter the offseason with a fluid salary cap situation. After all reported 2022 signings are accounted for, their current cap space should be approximately $2.7 million. They do, however, have multiple paths to clear a large amount of room — which would allow them to be active when free agency starts in March.

Due to his sizeable salary-cap hit, armchair general managers frequently cite cutting defensive end Frank Clark — who is under contract through 2023 — as the most obvious move. Per Spotrac, Clark has a 2022 cap number of $26.3 million. Releasing him would open up $13.4 million in cap room, while leaving $12.9 million in dead money for the upcoming season.

By any standard, he has not met expectations in Kansas City. In 2019, the Chiefs traded a first and a second-round draft pick for the veteran defensive end before signing him to a contract worth more than $100 million. In three seasons in red and gold, Clark has played in 43 games, recording only 18.5 sacks — and in each season, his sack totals have declined. Although he has added eight more sacks in nine playoff games, he didn’t bring down a quarterback during 2021’s postseason. Clark ended 2021 with a Pro Football Focus grade of 54.3 — down from his Kansas City high of 63.0 in 2019.

Moving on from a monster contract that has not paid dividends seems like a no-brainer. But in 2020, the Chiefs faced a similar predicament with wide receiver Sammy Watkins. In an offseason in which the team was said to be down to $177 in cap space, Watkins was set to count $21 million against the cap. Releasing the oft-injured wideout would have cleared $14 million of that figure — so he was widely expected to be cut before the start of free agency.

But weeks went by. Even though releasing him appeared to be the most obvious move to alleviate a tight cap situation, Watkins remained on the roster. Then — three weeks after free agency started — Watkins took a pay cut to stay in Kansas City. He reduced his base salary by $5 million, instantly opening up those funds for the team. In the following offseason, Watkins left the Chiefs to sign with the Baltimore Ravens.

NFL: SEP 19 Chiefs at Ravens Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As speculation about Clark’s situation runs rampant, it is fair to ask if his situation might play out similarly.

The six-year veteran may be motivated to avoid free agency. After the season ended, he confirmed that he wanted to stay in Kansas City, where he has purchased a home. In 2019, he missed time with a recurring illness — and in 2021, he missed more games after suffering multiple hamstring injuries. When paired with disappointing production, that’s hardly an ideal background for entering free agency. Clark also faces legal troubles in California stemming from a pair of firearms arrests. Thus far, he has avoided league discipline — but as his case advances through the court system, a suspension is still possible.

These issues could frustrate Clark’s efforts to find a satisfactory contract — especially since there is a deep group of edge rushers available in both free agency and the draft.

But just as they did with Watkins, the Chiefs could offer Clark ways to earn back portions of any salary he might agree to give up — such as tying money to high sack totals or playing every game of the season. Under salary-cap rules, such incentives would be classified as not likely to be earned — which means that if they are earned, their impacts would be counted against the 2023 cap.

However, there are signs that this situation is likely to end with a divorce between player and team.

Clark’s 2022 base salary is $19 million. For the Chiefs to get cap savings, he would have to agree to reduce that figure. It would be unrealistic to ask him to eat the entire amount the Chiefs could save by cutting him — but it’s likely he would have to agree to a more significant pay cut than Watkins took in 2020. Rarely does a soon-to-be-released player, their agent and team agree on that player’s fair-market value.

The Chiefs may also regret their decision with Watkins. His injury woes continued in 2020, when he missed six regular-season games — and two more in the playoffs — during his worst statistical season in Kansas City. There is little reason to believe that at 29 years old, Clark will improve upon his previous three seasons.

The situations are different in other ways, too. When the Chiefs strained their finances to retain Watkins, they had just won Super Bowl LIV — and had prioritized continuity as they prepared to defend their title. But in 2022, the Chiefs enter the offseason still hurting from a disappointing playoff exit. The team appears to be signaling an introspective tone — particularly in the defensive line room.

Last week, in his press conference, Kansas City general manager Brett Veach identified the defensive line as the team’s biggest offseason priority — implying impending group turnover. The Chiefs also announced that former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Joe Cullen — who has no previous ties to Clark — will be coaching the defensive line in 2022. Meanwhile, Brendan Daly — Clark’s position coach during his time in Kansas City — will now be coaching linebackers.

At this point, signs appear to point more strongly to the Chiefs and Clark parting ways than they did with Watkins in 2020. Past experience, however, suggests that we shouldn’t count on a move until the Chiefs actually need the cap room — and that we should not rule out a last-minute agreement that would keep Clark in Kansas City for another season.

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