They’ve reinvented the team more than once since Patrick Mahomes became the starting quarterback in 2018. After the team’s home overtime loss in the AFC Championship that season, they rebuilt the team’s defense — turning it into a unit that could help close out games. That led to a Super Bowl victory in 2019. The following season, an attempt to run it back failed when injuries decimated the offensive line. In 2021, they rebuilt that unit via trade, free agency and a stellar draft. The 2022 season will forever be known as the “rebuild that became a championship,” with an unprecedented number of rookies playing significant roles.
So how will we remember 2023’s offseason?
We might remember it as the year that no unrestricted free agent re-signed with the team. There has been no buzz about it; we have no real confidence that any one of the team’s 17 UFAs will re-sign. Whether you call it the Super Bowl Tax — or just see it as a consequence of being unable able to pay everyone — the salary cap is going to force some tough decisions on Kansas City players who have earned a raise.
So brace yourself. A lot of familiar faces could be on the move. Let’s look at the UFAs who could be former Chiefs after the league year begins on Wednesday.
The headlining players
They are: wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and left tackle Orlando Brown, Jr.
It seems clear that Kansas City wants both players back.
While Brown didn’t get the franchise tag, offseason Plan A appeared to include signing him to a long-term contract. For the second straight season, he got better as the season wore on. But did he improve enough to reset the tackle market? We’re about to find out.
Meanwhile, Smith-Schuster proved to be a perfect fit (and a productive receiver) when healthy. While there seems to be mutual interest, we’ve seen no actual movement toward a return.
Both players are among the top free agents available at their positions. There should be plenty of interest in the early tampering period (which begins at 11 a.m. Arrowhead Time on Monday) and the following days.
Predictions: Both take better contract offers. Expect Brown to get a five-year deal worth $110 million with $50 million guaranteed (like Laremy Tunsil). Smith-Schuster should come in at around four years for $60 million with $30 million guaranteed (like Allen Robinson, Adam Thielen and Courtland Sutton). But neither player turns out to be as irreplaceable as we thought. The Chiefs bring in a veteran and a rookie for each one.
The up-and-coming players
They are: offensive linemen Andrew Wylie and Nick Allegretti, wide receiver Mecole Hardman and safety Juan Thornhill.
This is a sneaky-good group of contributors who have been inexpensive building blocks in Kansas City.
Returning on a one-year deal, Wiley held down the starting right tackle job all season — playing his best game in the Super Bowl. Allegretti is a valuable (and versatile) offensive lineman. These kinds of linemen are always in demand. Hardman struggled to stay on the field in 2022 — but when healthy, he’s been an impact player. While Thornhill didn’t have the All-Pro breakout season he predicted, he’s been a very good safety for the Chiefs.
Should all of these guys get paid elsewhere, they will be difficult for Kansas City to replace. The team would again need to hit on multiple draft picks — and make other savvy veteran acquisitions to rebuild its depth.
Prediction: Each player could leave. Wylie could be the most likely to return — especially if Brown goes elsewhere; the team might not want to replace both this offseason. On an annual basis, Hardman could get $10 million, Thornhill could command $7 million, Wylie could grab $6 million and Allegretti could get $4 million. The Chiefs could be looking at multiple compensatory picks in 2024.
The bargain-bin players
They are: defensive tackles Khalen Saunders, Derrick Nnadi and Brandon Williams, defensive end Carlos Dunlap, running backs Jerick McKinnon and Ronald Jones, wide receiver Justin Watson, fullback Michael Burton, tight end Blake Bell and safety Deon Bush.
These are some of the 2022 squad’s most important role players. Saunders worked his way into the rotation, displaying some really disruptive moments. Dunlap led the league in batted passes as a solid edge veteran. McKinnon went on a historic touchdown-scoring streak. Watson ate up a lot of wide-receiver snaps, doing the little things that go unnoticed. Burton and Bush’s roles were limited, but both were key special-teams players. Nnadi and Jones had disappointing seasons; it’s likely neither will be back.
Any (or all) of them may end up having more value in Kansas City than anywhere else; many could return without breaking the bank.
Prediction: Saunders (around $4 million per year), Watson and Burton (veteran salary benefit) all return on low-cost deals after free-agency’s first wave. Nnadi, McKinnon and Dunlap sign with new teams.
The retired player
He is: quarterback Chad Henne.
It’s almost certain that Kansas City will not re-sign the last unrestricted free agent on our list. The nine-year NFL veteran (a second-round pick in 2008) had never even dressed in a playoff game before becoming Mahomes’ backup in 2018. Four seasons later, he’s appeared in two — and in each one, he played a significant role in the team reaching the championship game. He announced his retirement immediately after the team’s victory over the Philadelphia Eagles last month. He leaves Kansas City with the lasting friendship of the league’s greatest quarterback, two well-earned Super Bowl rings — and the gratitude of Chiefs fans.