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Finding the salary-cap space the Chiefs need for 2023

As usual, Kansas City general manager Brett Veach has several ways he can move money around.

Super Bowl LVII - Kansas City Chiefs v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

While various sources currently disagree about the Kansas City Chiefs’ current salary-cap space, they absolutely agree the team will need more as it enters the offseason.

Arrowhead Pride currently estimates the Chiefs are $526,000 under the cap — though other analysts believe Kansas City is now somewhat over the cap. As the roster fills and earned incentives are better understood, a clearer picture should emerge.

Chiefs’ general manager Brett Veach will need to manipulate the roster before March 15 — the start of the new league year — when the top 51 contracts for all teams must be below 2023’s $224.8 million salary cap.

Fortunately, Kansas City has several avenues to create cap room for a productive offseason. For our purposes, restructuring possibilities assume a veteran minimum salary. Depending on accrued seasons, that’s $1.08 million or $1.165 million. These possibilities will also assume signing bonuses will be spread over the remaining years of a player’s contract.

All salary information is taken from Spotrac.

The cut candidates

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A year ago, few would have imagined that defensive end Frank Clark would be part of a magical run to the Super Bowl. The widely-presumed cap casualty agreed to a pay cut of more than $15 million to stay with the team. To remain in Kansas City, the eight-year veteran would likely need to agree to a similar salary slash.

The Chiefs can create $21 million in cap room by simply cutting Clark. While the team and player have said the right things during an emotional month, there is a good chance both parties decide to move on this time.

Wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling is the only other player the Chiefs could cut to create substantial cap savings. Releasing him would open $7 million. With few receivers under contract for next season, however, he seems more likely to return. Valdes-Scantling’s breakout performance in the AFC Championship win over the Cincinnati Bengals also suggests it may be wise to develop him further in the offense.

Spending later to save now

Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

The Chiefs have two major contract decisions looming. Both could actually save cap space for 2023 while committing future dollars.

The first involves left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. — who is widely expected to receive a second franchise tag if he and the team cannot agree on a long-term deal. Even if he doesn’t sign it, tagging Brown would instantly count $20 million against the salary cap. This means Kansas City will need to do much of their salary cap lifting before applying the tag.

After paying almost $17 million salary for Brown’s first season on the tag, the Chiefs may prefer a multiyear contract — one that has a low first-year cap hit. But doing so would commit significant future salary. That’s exactly the situation Kansas City now faces with its last franchise-tagged player.

After receiving the tag in 2020, defensive tackle Chris Jones signed a four-year contract worth $85 million. Now entering the last year of that agreement, Jones finds himself with enviable leverage. In 2022, Jones was named a first-team All-Pro — and helped catapult the Chiefs into the Super Bowl with arguably his best career performance against the Bengals.

Jones’ cap number for 2023 is over $28 million. That includes a $19.5 million base salary. The Chiefs could roll up to $18.3 million of his salary into a new signing bonus, spreading it out over an extended contract. Since Jones is Kansas City’s best defensive player and is entering a contract year, both sides should have motivation for an extension — although a year ago, a naïve writer (who looked something like me) made a similar prediction before the Chiefs traded wide receiver Tyreek Hill.

Restructure candidates

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Jacksonville Jaguars at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Last offseason, the Chiefs restructured left guard Joe Thuney’s contract, creating $9.6 million in cap space. $15 million of Thuney’s $22.1 million cap number for this season is tied to base salary, so Kansas City could create up to $9.2 million in cap space with a similar restructure.

But the Chiefs may be wary of pushing an offensive lineman’s salary down the road. The contract for Brown (or a different left tackle) might command a large cap hit in future seasons. Creed Humphrey’s second contract will likely reset the center market, too.

If the Chiefs expect safety Justin Reid to complete the three-year contract he signed last offseason, converting most of his current base salary into a signing bonus could create almost $4 million in cap room. Similarly, the cap savings could be approximately $3.9 million for restructuring — rather than cutting — Valdes-Scantling. Because both players are only signed through 2024, doing so would increase their final-season cap numbers — though neither move would have a large detrimental impact next season.

Tight end Travis Kelce’s contract will likely be a wild card for the rest of his great career. The Chiefs could save up to $7.2 million with a conversion of most of his 2023 compensation. The team may eventually consider carrying dead money for Kelce after he retires, opening the door to more extensive restructuring.

Break glass in case of emergency

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Most Chiefs fans are well aware that the ten-year mega-contract quarterback Patrick Mahomes signed in 2020 gives the team much cap flexibility. Kansas City took advantage of that in 2021, converting a scheduled roster bonus into a signing bonus.

Last season, the Chiefs shocked the NFL world by letting Mahomes’ 2022 cap number ride, finding relief through restructuring Thuney and trading Hill. They would likely prefer to find other ways to be cap compliant this offseason, too.

But by converting most of Mahomes’ $5.5 million base salary (and his already-vested $34 million roster bonus) into a signing bonus, the Chiefs could create over $31 million in cap space. Such a move, however, would also inflate his already massive $60 million cap hit in 2027.

With several top quarterbacks likely to sign lucrative new contracts this offseason, Kansas City should do its best to avoid another Mahomes restructure. The face of the league is likely to receive a new deal before the current 2031 end date, but moving money now could end up forcing the Chiefs back to the negotiating table sooner than they would prefer.

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