Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach again finds himself navigating a tight salary cap situation with the start of the league year on March 15 quickly approaching.
In spite of significant salary commitments to star players, Veach has continued to put together a strong roster. Among the ways he has skirted spending limits is by taking advantage of two exemptions to the cap.
Five Super Bowl LVII-winning Chiefs played under veteran salary benefit (VSB) contracts. Under this stipulation of the 2020 collective bargaining agreement (CBA), players with four or more credited seasons earning a minimum salary only count against the cap at the rate for players with two years of experience. In addition, a small signing, roster or workout bonus is permitted.
For 2023, such players will earn $1.08 million ($1.165 million for those with seven or more accrued seasons). Regardless of their years of experience, only $940,000 of their base salary (the same as a player with just two credited seasons) is subject to the salary cap. The additional compensation can total $152,500 — equaling a $1.092 million cap hit for the coming season. Expect to see this cap number listed for several free agents Kansas City will sign over the next month.
The Chiefs have also taken advantage of four-year player-qualifying contracts. This version of a VSB contact allows teams up to $1.35 million in uncapped funds to retain in-house free agents. The additional earnings are paid on top of a minimum salary one-year contract to a player who has played with the same team — uninterrupted — for four consecutive seasons. This $1.35 million in uncapped money can be split between two players and the same $152,500 in additional compensation per contract is permitted.
The Chiefs brought back right tackle Andrew Wylie last offseason as a four-year qualifier. Though Wylie’s listed cap number for 2022 was $1,187,500 — $1.035 million for last season’s minimum salary and a $152,500 signing bonus — the Chiefs actually paid the fifth-year player $2,537,500. In 2021, safety Daniel Sorensen was retained for his final season in Kansas City as a four-year qualifier.
Wylie’s decision was an unquestioned success for all involved. The Chiefs paid a bargain price for a starter at the increasingly-expensive right tackle position. Wylie now reenters the market in a much stronger position for his next contract — whether in Kansas City or elsewhere.
A player must complete his prior contract to qualify for a four-year qualifying offer. The Chiefs cannot, for example, cut defensive end Frank Clark and bring him back as a qualifier, even though he has played four seasons in Kansas City.
Other than Wylie, the following pending Chiefs unrestricted free agents appear to meet the criteria for a four-year qualifying contract:
- Quarterback Chad Henne
- Offensive lineman Nick Allegretti
- Wide receiver Mecole Hardman
- Safety Juan Thornhill
- Defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi
- Defensive tackle Khalen Saunders
As mentioned, Wylie is likely in line for a raise this time around in free agency, and Henne recently announced his retirement. Though they never reached the star potential they teased as rookies in 2019, Hardman and Thornhill appear to be targets of other teams in free agency.
So will the Chiefs use the $1.35 million in available uncapped money to retain one or more of Allegretti, Nnadi or Saunders?
Allegretti — a 2019 seventh-round selection — was what a late-round success story typically looked like before Veach’s unbelievable finds in the past two drafts. Though the Chiefs boast arguably the league’s best interior offensive line with center Creed Humphrey and guards Joe Thuney and Trey Smith, the versatile Allegretti has been a key reserve with 12 career starts.
Players want to play, and no one should blame Allegretti for seeking an opportunity where he could at least compete for playing time. He also has already won two Super Bowl rings while playing only 13 total snaps (out of respect for the new father, we will not talk about the time Allegretti played 75 offensive snaps in a Super Bowl).
Should he fail to find a better opportunity, it would not be surprising to see the Chiefs use at least some of the additional funds to top minimum offers from other teams to bring back a trusted backup.
The Chiefs kept Nnadi — their 2018 third-round selection — on a one-year deal for 2022. The results were not exactly inspiring, as the nose tackle finished with a career-worst Pro Football Focus grade of 41.3. The Chiefs may bring back Nnadi, who is only 26, for one more season. However, he is unlikely to generate the interest from other teams that necessitates the Chiefs being aggressive in keeping him.
Saunders is the player who may have the best path to follow Wylie — turning a prove-it opportunity into a better free agency situation a year from now. The 2019 third-round selection battled injuries during his second and third seasons, playing only 10 total games in the 2020 and 2021 seasons.
He played a strong campaign in 2022, appearing in 16 games and registering 3.5 sacks. Saunders also stepped up in the playoffs, forcing Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts out of bounds for a critical stop in the Super Bowl.
Saunders’ market in free agency is difficult to predict. He has flashed the potential teams often believe their staff can maximize. On the other hand, he has never played a complete season. With this year’s draft historically deep at defensive tackle, teams may be less inclined to bet on Saunders’ continued development and overpay for him in free agency.
Superstar Chris Jones is currently the Chiefs’ only 2022 contributor at defensive tackle under contract for next season. If Saunders finds a soft market when free agency begins, do not be surprised if he and the Chiefs use the four-year player-qualifying contract to extend the relationship for one more season.