As the start of the 2023 league year approaches on March 15, the Kansas City Chiefs face many roster decisions.
While much of the focus remains on the team’s impending unrestricted free agents (UFAs) — such as wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and safety Juan Thornhill — the Chiefs must also make decisions on a handful of restricted free agents (RFAs).
These are players who have accumulated three accrued seasons — and have Kansas City contracts that expire in March. The Chiefs’ 2023 RFAs are Tommy Townsend, defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton and linebacker Darius Harris.
Kansas City can retain these players by extending one of three different kinds of one-year RFA contract tenders before the league year begins. Each one allows other teams to make an offer to sign the player — which Kansas City can then match — but if the player ends up signing elsewhere, the team can choose the level of draft compensation it will receive from the player’s new team.
In 2023, a right-of-first-refusal RFA tender — where a team receives no draft compensation if the tendered player signs elsewhere — is set at $2.6 million. As the name implies, a second-round RFA tender requires that a team receive a second-round pick if the player signs elsewhere. In 2023, these are set at $4.3 million. Finally, a first-round RFA tender is now set at $6 million.
RFA contracts are not guaranteed — and players can generally be cut with no salary-cap implications.
Previously, we looked at punter Tommy Townsend’s RFA status, explaining that the price to be aggressive in keeping him will border on the top salaries for the position. Whether it’s in Kansas City or elsewhere, Townsend will likely sign a market-topping deal in free agency.
That leaves RFAs Wharton and Harris.
Wharton is one of Chiefs’ general manager Brett Veach’s greatest finds in undrafted free agency. The Missouri S&T product has appeared in 38 Chiefs games, recording five sacks in a key rotational role.
A big 2022 campaign could have put Wharton in line for a richer second-round tender to dissuade other teams from signing him. But he missed most of the season after tearing his ACL during Kansas City’s Week 5 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders.
The Chiefs should be interested in retaining Wharton — especially since three of the team’s 2022 defensive tackles are set to become UFAs. Whether he receives even a low tender, however, likely depends on the Chiefs’ confidence in his health.
In 2020’s offseason, Kansas City chose not to give wide receiver Marcus Kemp an RFA tender after he missed the season with a knee injury. Once he was healthy enough to practice during training camp, the team did re-sign him. So by mid-March, we will know if Wharton will face a similar path.
Harris signed with Kansas City as an undrafted free agent out Middle Tennessee State in 2019 — although he spent his first season on the non-football injury list as he rehabbed a shoulder injury. He was on and off the roster in both 2020 and 2021. In 2022, he appeared in all 17 games — making four starts.
While he has been a role player on both defense and special teams, Harris is unlikely to get even a right-of-first-refusal RFA tender. This is because the cost to retain an RFA is nearly three times what it costs to sign another veteran to a league-minimum contract.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Kansas City won’t make a move to retain him.
When linebacker Ben Niemann was set to become an RFA in 2021, the Chiefs signed him to a one-year deal worth $1.6 million. Niemann was willing to sign this lower-priced contract because more than half of his reduced compensation was guaranteed.
It’s very possible that the Chiefs will re-sign both Wharton and Harris to similar one-year deals.
The Chiefs can also control three other players as exclusive rights free agents (ERFAs): quarterback Shane Buechele, tight end Jody Fortson and tackle Prince Tega Wanogho.
These are also players with expiring contracts, but who have fewer than three accrued seasons. If offered a one-year contract at the appropriate NFL minimum salary before the league year begins, their rights are retained by their current team — and they cannot negotiate with other franchises. For these Kansas City players — each with two accrued seasons — the Chiefs would have to offer them $940,000 contracts for 2023.
In all three cases, this decision is likely to be a slam-dunk for Veach.
After the Arizona Cardinals attempted to sign Buechele from Kansas City’s practice squad in 2021, the Chiefs have kept him on the 53-man roster for a season and a half — even though he has yet to be active for a game. Since backup quarterback Chad Henne is now a UFA — he announced his retirement after the Super Bowl — Buechele could be the No. 2 option behind Patrick Mahomes in 2023.
Fortson has appeared in 19 games the past two seasons, catching four touchdowns. Though he has missed time with a torn Achilles and a dislocated elbow, he has shown improvement — and should get a chance to show he can handle a bigger role.
Tega Wanogho has spent the last two seasons in Kansas City. He was active for all 17 games in 2022, with most of his action coming during Week 9’s victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars as an injury replacement for right tackle Andrew Wylie. With Wylie set for free agency, Tega Wanogho may have an outside chance to compete for the starting job in training camp.