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What the Chiefs’ recent wide receiver signings say about their draft strategy

Two relatively minor signings may have given Kansas City flexibility in the draft.

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

Less than two weeks before the NFL Draft, wide receiver is often seen as the Kansas City Chiefs‘ most pressing remaining need.

Though both were far from the premium move many fans have been hoping to see, the team recently made a pair of additions to the position group. On April 7, the Chiefs signed free agent Richie James, who played for the New York Giants in 2022. One week later, the team re-signed Justin Watson to a two-year contract.

Per Spotrac, James agreed to a veteran salary benefit deal. He was given a $152,000 signing bonus and will earn $1.1 million in 2023. $400,000 of that salary is guaranteed. Should he make the final roster, James will count $1.1 million against the cap — but releasing him will leave $552,000 in dead money.

While specific terms have not yet been released, Watson reportedly signed a two-year, $3.5 million contract that included $1.4 million guaranteed. Per ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, incentives can drive the total value to $6 million.

Watson should be in line for a guaranteed $1.1 million base salary, which is the league minimum for a player with his five accrued seasons. The remaining $300,000 in guarantees will likely come via some combination of signing and/or workout bonuses. The remaining non-guaranteed $2.1 million is likely intended to give the Chiefs a cost-controlled option if Watson remains in their plans next season.

Watson played 43% of Kansas City’s offensive snaps in 2022, catching 15 passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns. Given this limited production, we can assume the incentives Fowler mentioned will be categorized as not likely to be earned — meaning that if reached, they will apply to the 2024 salary cap. That will give Watson a $1.4 million cap hit this season.

Neither of these signings, however, satisfies the burning itch many Chiefs fans have for a big move at the position. Nor should either player be expected to replace the 900 receiving yards Kansas City lost when JuJu Smith-Schuster left for the New England Patriots in free agency.

Still, the Chiefs likely had reasons for inking James and Watson to contracts before the draft — where general manager Brett Veach will almost certainly acquire at least one additional wideout.

New York Giants v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Though the Chiefs’ special-teams units were strong in the postseason, punt returns were a source of stress for almost the entire regular season.

While winning a Super Bowl makes criticism of the front office and coaching staff seem petty, the Chiefs clearly erred by giving punt return duties to rookie wide receiver Skyy Moore. Lacking college experience in the return game, Moore fumbled three kicks — and Kansas City was forced to find replacements for the rest of the season.

While James has never topped 600 receiving yards in his five NFL seasons, he has averaged 7.3 yards on 75 career punt returns. He has also returned 47 kickoffs — including a 97-yard touchdown return as a rookie in 2018.

So James’ presence implies that after 2022, the Chiefs would prefer not to trust a rookie with return duties. While $552,000 in guaranteed money does not lock James into a roster spot, it would still make it fairly difficult for him to be played off the team. His signing also came pretty late in the scouting process, suggesting that the team doesn’t have strong feelings about draft prospects similar to James.

Meanwhile, Watson — with a year’s experience in head coach Andy Reid’s offense and a demonstrated ability to take on different receiving roles — gives Kansas City flexibility in the draft. While his guaranteed money essentially assures him a roster spot, his presence is not likely to negatively impact the development of a young draft pick.

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

After Moore seemed to be buried on the depth chart for his first season, some fans may find cause for concern about Watson’s return. But with Smith-Schuster’s departure leaving such a large hole, a rookie receiver may get a larger role out of pure necessity. Watson’s value may be seen as allowing a first-year player to begin with a specialized role that puts him in the best position to succeed — rather than expecting a young player to master the entire offense in his first training camp.

Now with former Giants first round pick Kadarius Toney, deep threat Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Moore, James and Watson under contract, the Chiefs appear to have one more opening in their wide receivers room. Unless Veach unexpectedly orchestrates a trade with the Arizona Cardinals for superstar DeAndre Hopkins — or some other yet-unknown player — we should expect that this addition will come from the draft.

Expect the Chiefs to identify a receiver they want in the first three rounds — and if necessary, to use some of their 10 picks to move up to get them.

The bottom line

Kansas City needs to fill a single vacancy at wide receiver. The team’s recent signings make it appear unlikely it will repeat last year’s successful strategy of overhauling the secondary with five drafted rookies. Receivers available on Day 3 would face long odds to make the 53-man roster — just like 2021 fifth-round wideout Cornell Powell, who has fallen short in each of his two seasons.

With Watson and James expected to play significant roles on special teams (while guaranteed a total of almost $2 million for the season), do not be surprised if Veach makes a single decision to finalize the receiving corps — and then leaves the rest of the position group alone.

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