Ever since the Kansas City Chiefs applied a non-exclusive franchise tag to their left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. on March 8, the situation surrounding the former Baltimore Ravens tackle has been bubbling in the background for Chiefs observers everywhere.
It all came to a head on Friday morning, when we learned that the two sides had failed to agree to a long-term deal before that afternoon's 3 p.m. (Arrowhead Time) deadline.
Over that four-month arc, there were consistent thoughts that Kansas City had no business offering a market-setting deal for a left tackle who turned in a good (but not great) performance during his single season in Kansas City — and that, with their public statements, Brown (and his representatives) had burned bridges with the team.
But now that the whole story is behind us, we can see both sides did their jobs properly.
From Kansas City's side
When the Chiefs traded for their new left tackle just days before the 2021 NFL Draft, it was obvious to almost everyone that Kansas City would be applying the franchise tag to Brown after he completed the last year of his rookie contract with Baltimore. The trade sent a total of four 2021 and 2022 draft picks to the Ravens in exchange for Brown and two of their 2021 and 2022 picks. As we noted on Friday, that worked out to what amounted to a very early second-round pick for the 26-year-old player.
Unless Brown became a total bust for the Chiefs — and even the most fervent anti-Brown partisan will acknowledge that he at least played competently last season — it would have made no sense for Kansas City to do anything but put Brown on the franchise tag in 2022; they had invested far too much for him to be only a one-year rental.
And most will agree that in the latter part of 2021, Brown's play was improving. So offering him a reasonable long-term contract also made sense.
While the initial reports may have given a different impression, later reports indicated that a reasonable contract is actually what Kansas City offered: one that would have paid Brown a total of $95 million over the first five years of the deal. While that average-per-year (APY) of $19 million might have seemed steep, it was in line with what other mid-to-high-level left tackles currently earn.
But it was in the sixth year of the contract offer where the Chiefs played it smart. It included a $44 million base salary — which would very likely never be paid — which increased the total value of the deal to $139 million, which is an APY of $23.2 million. That would have been higher than the similarly-structured deal given to San Francisco 49ers left tackle Trent Williams in March of 2021. (Over the first five years, Williams' contract worked out to $21 million APY).
It appears that Veach learned a lesson from the Williams negotiation, in which he was involved to the very end: even if it's not borne out in the contract details, sometimes it's enough for a player (or agent) to be able to say that they'd just snagged the largest-ever contract at their position. In order to get the deal done (which would have also given the Chiefs some 2022 salary-cap relief), it was worth a shot.
From Brown's side
Much had been made of the fact that Brown's newly-hired agent Michael Portner was negotiating his first contract for an NFL player; it was just too easy to assume that every move he made was an error.
While it's possible to argue that Brown himself made a mistake by even going into free agency without representation (he fired his previous agent before the NFL Scouting Combine in early March, making it impossible for the Chiefs to sign him to a long-term deal without invoking the franchise tag), there's little evidence that Portner handled things like an inexperienced rookie.
Before Brown retained Portner on June 2, most of the public statements regarding the negotiation had come through Brown's mentor: former NFL offensive tackle Jammal Brown. Once Portner was in the picture, that continued — and from an agent's perspective, that was a wise move. It may seem like an inconsequential difference, but it's better for the public-facing arguments from the player's side of contract talks to come from a third party. That way, it's easier for the team, player and agent to focus on the substantive issues.
Still, in the eyes of many, some of those public remarks appeared counterproductive. In March, Jammal Brown said that his friend wanted to be "the highest paid at his position." Yet, in the context of the full sentence, the phrase seemed more like a goal any player would want — not necessarily a line in the sand with regard to the current negotiation.
“He wants to be a Super Bowl champ, a Pro Bowler, an All-Pro, a team captain, the highest paid at his position — and most importantly, the Walter Payton Man of the Year,” he said.
Thanks to this focus on a single phrase from a sentence spoken four months ago, it was widely believed that Brown was holding out to be the league's highest-paid left tackle. While his mentor's remarks made it clear he sought that, it was less clear that Brown thought he deserved it.
In fact, when the Chiefs offered a contract that actually would have made Brown the league's highest-paid left tackle — at least by the same standard that put Williams at the top of the heap — he turned it down. Portner said that Brown's camp walked away from the deal because it didn't offer him enough security.
“We got really close,” Portner told NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. “We [enjoyed] dealing with the Chiefs and we understand their position as well. I’m not gonna let these athletes sign a flashy contract without the substance or security there.”
As a new agent, Portner avoided what must have been a very strong temptation: to take the bait Veach had offered. It's very hard to describe that as a rookie mistake.
In June — less than a week after hiring the agent — Brown himself seemed to suggest that he might not be willing to play on the franchise tag. "It's not the year to go into the season with a backup left tackle," he told "NFL Total Access." But again, the context in which he made the remark gave it a different spin.
“Very confident. Very confident,” Brown told Mike Garafolo and Shaun O’Hara when asked his level of confidence in regard to a deal getting done. “Especially simply based off the things that have come into effect within our division, the type of defensive ends that have been brought in, the type of players and all of that type of stuff. It’s not the year to go into the season with a backup left tackle. So, I’m very confident that the Kansas City Chiefs will get that done.”
It's fair to criticize Brown for even hinting that he might not sign the tag and play for Kansas City this season. But it's important to remember that a tagged player has virtually no leverage; if it wants to, the team can hold his rights for three full seasons. A veiled threat not to play on the tag — which only a few players have ever actually done — is just about the only card they can play. Brown knew it. The Chiefs' front office (and Brown's teammates) also knew it. Suggesting that the remark poisoned his relationship with the team — or would make Kansas City want to trade Brown — is likely to be an exaggeration.
The bottom line
While Brown might not sign the franchise tag soon enough to report to training camp on time — something that a significant number of players have done — there is a strong likelihood that he will sign it in time to begin the season as the team's starting left tackle. Likewise, once the season is over, there is a good chance that Veach and Portner will return to the table for another round of negotiations about Brown's future in Kansas City. If he has a strong season, it's likely that this time, a long-term deal will get done.