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Predicting the Chiefs’ decisions on defensive free agents

The face of Kansas City’s defense — and some key contributors — could be leaving town.

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NFL: New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we looked at the 15 pending offensive free agents for the Kansas City Chiefs and made predictions. In this piece, we will examine the 13 players on the Chiefs’ defense entering the market on March 14 — again starting with the most critical decision.

Safety Tyrann Mathieu

NFL: Pro Bowl-AFC Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Mathieu has been the heart and soul of the Chiefs defense for three seasons — and it is hard to imagine a victory in Super Bowl LIV without him. His value to the Chiefs is more tied to calling the defense and being an on-the-field coach than traditional statistics. Per Spotrac, Mathieu is estimated to have a market value of $14.8 million annually — slightly above the contract he signed with the Chiefs in 2019. It appears unlikely the Chiefs and Mathieu will agree on a contract extension that will keep him off the market. The franchise tag is likely not to be a viable option, since Mathieu earned enough in 2021 to make his franchise tag value $17.5 million — substantially more than the projected $13 million franchise tender for safeties. Even approaching age 30, Mathieu is likely to earn a salary competitive with the top safety contracts.

Prediction: Mathieu will leave the Chiefs for another team in the early days of free agency.

Edge rushers Melvin Ingram and Alex Okafor

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Chiefs general manager Brett Veach has already highlighted the defensive line as his biggest priority this offseason. He likely has his sights on higher-upside players than Okafor, who combined for 9.5 sacks in three injury-riddled seasons in Kansas City. Ingram provided a much-needed spark to the pass rush after a midseason trade from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Though his stats were modest, the unit as a whole performed much better with him in the lineup. Ingram, who will turn 33 in April, is likely a candidate to return to the Chiefs — or another contender — on a short deal in pursuit of a Super Bowl ring.

Prediction: The Chiefs will bring Ingram back on a one-year deal, while allowing Okafor to walk.

Defensive linemen Jarran Reed and Derrick Nnadi

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Nnadi is — by far — the most successful selection from Veach’s much-maligned 2018 class, which was his first draft as a general manager. Nnadi finished his rookie deal, seeing his snap count reduced to 40% of defensive snaps in 2021. He also earned a grade of 52.8 from Pro Football Focus, the lowest of his career. While he offers some value as a run stopper, Nnadi does not project to see a healthy market in free agency. Reed signed with the Chiefs last offseason after being released by the Seattle Seahawks. With his one-year contract fulfilled, Reed appears to already know he will not be returning to the Chiefs.

Prediction: Reed will move on in free agency. Nnadi will return to the Chiefs on a one-year deal late in free agency.

Linebackers Ben Niemann and Dorian O’Daniel

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

O’Daniel was a third-round pick in the 2018 draft. As a rookie, he appeared to carve out a role as a rookie, playing 302 defensive snaps. Under Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, however, he has only played 39 total defensive snaps in three seasons. He has played over 70% of special teams snaps in those three seasons, and he is known to be a favorite of special teams coordinator and assistant head coach Dave Toub. Niemann has been a frequent recipient of fan ire due to his limited athleticism, though he enjoys a high level of trust from the coaching staff. Neither O’Daniel nor Niemann will be impossible to replace — nor will they be expensive if the Chiefs want to take one to camp to compete for the 2022 roster.

Prediction: The Chiefs will wait until after the offseason program and the draft before bringing Niemann back for 2022. O’Daniel will attempt to find a new team in free agency.

Cornerbacks Charvarius Ward, Mike Hughes, Deandre Baker (RFA), and Chris Lammons (ERFA)

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Ward, a former undrafted free agent, has been a starter for three seasons since being acquired in a minor trade from the Dallas Cowboys. PFF recently named him the Chiefs’ most improved player in 2021. While he will not receive top-of-the-market dollars for a cornerback, he will likely be paid well on a three-year deal with the Chiefs or a new team.

Baker and Hughes are former first-round selections of the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings. Baker only appeared in eight games as he recovered from a serious leg injury suffered at the end of the 2020 season. With few defensive backs currently under contract, the Chiefs will likely tender him a restricted free agent offer to bring him to camp to compete for a 2022 roster spot. Hughes had a rotational role both as a defender and punt returner, but the Chiefs should prefer a higher upside option in the cornerback room.

Lammons, an exclusive rights free agent and strong special teams player, likely will be non-tendered after being arrested for his role in an assault in Las Vegas during Pro Bowl week.

Prediction: The Chiefs will tender Baker to bring him to camp while allowing Ward and Hughes to leave in free agency.

Safeties Daniel Sorensen and Armani Watts

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Sorensen has been with the Chiefs since 2014 — earning praise for game-changing plays and scorn for giving them up in coverage. Soon to turn 32, the team will likely look for a younger option for his rotational role. Another 2018 draft pick, Watts has spent his career primarily limited to special-teams duty. The Chiefs likely will look to the draft for a safety who can take Watts’ special teams role in 2022 while offering more upside for the future.

Prediction: Neither Sorensen nor Watts will return to the Chiefs in 2022

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