Agent's Take: Here's what comes next for Chiefs and how they can build on success

The Chiefs fell just short of returning to the Super Bowl for the first time in 49 years with a 37-31 overtime loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. An offside penalty by Pro Bowl outside linebacker Dee Ford with one minute left in the fourth quarter while Kansas City had a 28-24 lead negated an interception by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady that seemingly would have sealed a victory.

Overall, the 2018 season can be considered a success. A third-straight AFC West crown was captured with 12 regular-season wins. The Chiefs hadn't advanced to the AFC title game since the 1993 season, when the legendary Joe Montana was quarterback.

Second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the 10th-overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft, entered the season as an unproven commodity. He became the game's brightest young star with one of the most prolific passing seasons in NFL history. Mahomes was the second quarterback to ever throw for at least 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards in the same regular season, joining Peyton Manning, who accomplished the feat in 2013. He earned first-team All-Pro honors and is expected to be named league MVP on Super Bowl weekend.

Here's a look at what lies ahead for the Chiefs.

Defensive coaching changes

Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was fired on Tuesday, bringing his six-year tenure in Kansas City to an end. Sutton oversaw a unit which ranked 31st in the NFL in total defense, giving up 405.5 yards per game. Although the Chiefs tied for the league lead with 52 sacks, it was 31st in pass defense, allowing 273.4 yards per game. The run defense didn't fare much better. Kansas City was 27th, with opponents gaining 132.1 yards per game on the ground. Only the Rams were worse than the Chiefs on running plays; K.C. allowed five yards per carry. Kansas City also ranked 26th in defensive efficiency, according to Football Outsiders.

Salary cap

The Chiefs have $159.85 million of 2019 salary-cap commitments with 44 players under contract, according to NFLPA data. Under offseason cap accounting rules, the top 51 salaries (i.e. cap numbers) matter. Just over $715,000 of unused cap room, which is the NFL's second-smallest amount, can be carried over to the upcoming league year.

The NFL's preliminary projections put the 2019 salary cap between $187 million and $191.1 million. The Chiefs will have approximately $26.7 million cap space after factoring in a full complement of players, the carryover of existing cap room, and once tenders for restricted free agents and exclusive rights players with expiring contracts as well as the proven performance escalator for eligible 2016 draft picks are taken into consideration, provided the salary cap is set at $190 million.

Kansas City is top heavy cap-wise. Five players with cap numbers over $10 million are taking up a combined $81,168,400 of cap space. That's slightly over 50 percent of Kansas City's current 2019 cap commitments.

Four players have one of the NFL's five-highest 2019 cap numbers at their respective positions. Outside linebacker Justin Houston has the team's biggest cap number at $21.1 million. It's the fourth-highest figure in the NFL among non-quarterbacks.

Houston's ability isn't the issue. It's his availability. He has missed 21 games in the four seasons since signing a contract in 2015 that made him the NFL's second-highest-paid non-quarterback, including four in the middle of this season with a hamstring injury. Trading or releasing the 30 year old would free up $14 million of cap space.

The Chiefs would have to be comfortable with 2018 second-round pick Breeland Speaks assuming a much bigger role next season in order to part ways with Houston. Speaks started in place of Houston during the four games Houston missed while injured.

Wide receiver Sammy Watkins has the third-biggest wide receiver cap number at $19.2 million. When he signed his three-year, $48 million contract as a free agent last March, $8.21 million of his $11.95 million 2019 base salary was fully guaranteed . Restructuring Watkins' contract for cap purposes would make it more difficult for the Chiefs to move on in 2020, when his $14 million salary doesn't have any guarantees because the $7 million in bonus proration attributed to that year would increase.

The Chiefs haven't gotten much return on their investment in three-time first team All-Pro safety Eric Berry since he signed a six-year, $78 million contract in 2017 to become the NFL's highest-paid safety. He ruptured his left Achilles tendon in the 2017 season opener. A heel injury, which may require surgery, limited Berry to two games this game this season before his return for the AFC Championship.

Berry's $16.5 million 2019 cap number is second among safeties. When he signed his deal, $10.2 million of Berry's $12.4 million 2019 base salary was guaranteed for injury. Last march, $2.95 million of the $10.2 million became fully guaranteed. The remaining $7.25 million is fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2019 league year, which is March 15.

The Chiefs could potentially pick up $9.55 million of cap space by releasing Berry with a post-June 1 designation before the March 15 guarantee date for the $7.25 million. NFL teams can release two players each league year prior to June 1 that will be treated under the cap as if they were released after June 1. With a post-June 1 designation, a team is required to carry the player's full cap number until June 2 even though he is no longer a part of the roster. The player's salary comes off the books at that time unless it is guaranteed. Kansas City would have $6.95 million of dead money, which is cap charge for a player no longer on a team's roster, for 2019. Berry would remain on Kansas City's books in 2020 with an $8 million cap charge that would relate to his $20 million signing bonus.

The heel surgery could compromise Kansas City's ability to release Berry in this manner. An inability to pass a physical by March 15 could put the Chiefs on the hook for $7.25 million depending on the actual language of Berry's injury guarantee. If that's case, only $2.3 million would 2019 cap space would be gained from the post-June 1 designation.

Pro Bowl left tackle Eric Fisher has Kansas City's fourth-biggest cap number at $13.65 million. Three-time All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce's $10,718,400 cap number is the fourth-largest in the league at his position.

Dee Ford's next deal

Ford picked the right time to start living up to the potential that made him the 23rd overall pick in the 2014 draft. The outside linebacker had a breakout season with an expiring contract, which followed an injury-plagued 2017.

Ford's six sacks and four forced fumbles in five October games helped him garner AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors. His 78 quarterback pressures according to Pro Football Focus were third in the NFL and first among edge rushers. He also tied for eighth in the NFL with a career-high 13 sacks.

Ford is a prime candidate for a franchise tag because his 2018 play is an outlier and the immense importance of players who can pressure opposing quarterbacks. The linebacker number is expected to be approximately $15.6 million, with the 2019 salary cap projected to be in the $190 million range. Putting a franchise tag on Ford would reduce Kansas City's cap space to the $11 million neighborhood.

Any reluctance by the Chiefs to hand Ford a lucrative multi-year contract would be justifiable, given that his play this season is an outlier. Ford would be in such high demand if the Chiefs let him hit the open market because he is a highly productive pass rusher in his prime that he would quickly join Aaron Donald, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and Khalil Mack, who won the award in 2016, in the $20 million per year non-quarterback club.

A long-term deal will likely require a bigger commitment by the Chiefs than the one made to Houston in 2015, when he was Kansas City's franchise player. Houston, who was coming off a 2014 season in which he came close to breaking Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22.5 sacks by posting an NFL-leading 22 sacks, signed a six-year contract averaging $16,833,333 per year with $52.5 million in guarantees. The deal, which was done when the salary cap was $143.28 million, is outdated in the current pass-rusher market. It averages over $22 million per year if adjusted to the expected 2019 salary cap environment.

Free agency

The Chiefs have 14 other unrestricted free agents besides Ford, including defensive lineman Allen Bailey, wide receiver Chris Conley, center Mitch Morse, cornerback Steven Nelson, cornerback Orlando Scandrick and fullback Anthony Sherman. Two players, safety Jordan Lucas and linebacker Terrence Smith, are restricted free agents. Lucas is the more likely of two to receive the lowest restricted free agent tender, which should be in the $2.05 million range.

Kansas City probably won't be major players in free agency because of their cap circumstances, especially if Ford is given a franchise tag, although an impact signing on defense could be made by utilizing the same contract structure as with wide receiver Jeremy Maclin in 2015. The Chiefs were able to fit Maclin into a tight cap situation by giving him a contract with a low first-year cap number and a second-year cap figure almost four times as much.

The best bet for the Chiefs to address defensive deficiencies is through the draft. The Chiefs have three of the first 64 picks, where two are in the second round thanks to trading cornerback Marcus Peters to the Rams in the offseason.

Six-time Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas was reportedly on Kansas City's radar screen for a trade before he broke his leg four games into the season. He was playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level prior to his season ending injury. Thomas' contract, which is expiring, made him the NFL's highest-paid safety when signed. Expecting the same thing with a new contract in free agency wouldn't be surprising. The addition of a high priced Thomas would probably mean the Chiefs were able to get the desired cap relief from making Berry a post-June 1 designation.

Center Mitch Morse hasn't given up a sack since 2015 according to PFF although he has missed 14 games over the last two seasons. He should be in high demand on the open market. The Chiefs are accustomed to losing offensive lineman in free agency. Offensive guard Jeff Allen left for the Texans in 2016 after his rookie contract expired. The Texans also signed offensive guard Zach Fulton last March. The Chiefs hedged their bets on Morse with Austin Reiter. The preseason waiver wire pick up earned a two-year, $4.55 million extension (worth up to $5.55 million through incentives and salary escalators) because of his work starting four games when Morse was recovering from a concussion.

Cornerback Steven Nelson held up nicely as the opposition tested him repeatedly. He was targeted more than any other NFL cornerback according to PFF but allowed only 60 of 113 passes thrown at him to be completed (53.1 percent). Nelson isn't the same caliber as 2017 free agent cornerbacks A.J. Bouye or Stephen Gilmore, or Kyle Fuller, who was designated as a transition player last year. T.J. Carrie, Aaron Colvin and Prince Amukamara signed multi-year contracts in free agency last year ranging from $7.75 million to $9 million per year with $15.5 million to $18 million in guarantees, which could be Nelson's market.

Fullback Anthony Sherman was named to the Pro Bowl but was only on the field for 98 offensive snaps this season after taking 180 in 2017. Another one-year deal at $2 million probably isn't warranted since he makes his biggest impact on special teams with his role in the offense diminishing.

Contract extensions

Contract extensions for wide receiver Tyreek Hill and defensive lineman Chris Jones are reportedly offseason priorities. The 2016 draft picks are entering the final year of their rookie contracts.

Hill set a franchise record with 1,479 receiving yards, which was fourth in the NFL. He also set career highs of 87 catches and 12 touchdown receptions. One of the NFL's most explosive playmakers because of his rare speed, Hill led the league with 27 receptions of 20 yards or more. His 17.0 yards per catch was fifth in the NFL.

Watkins' $16 million per-year deal establishes a salary floor for Hill since he is clearly Kansas City's primary wide receiver. Odell Beckham, Jr. signed an $18 million per year extension with the Giants during the preseason, which made him the NFL's highest-paid wide receiver. His deal contains $65 million in guarantees, of which $40.959 million was fully guaranteed at signing. It's conceivable that Hill eclipses Beckham's contract.

Jones got the NFL's attention with his pass-rushing prowess. He was third in the NFL with 15.5 sacks. Jones set an NFL record by recording a sack in 11-straight games this season. His run defense isn't quite on par with his pass-rushing ability. That's not going to hurt Jones financially. A premium is paid to players who can consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks, not those who excel primarily at stopping the run.

Eagles All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is the NFL's second-highest-paid interior defensive lineman with the six-year, $102.6 million extension containing $63.299 million of guarantees he signed in 2016. A long-term deal with Jones will likely be for more than Cox's $17.1 million per year.

2019 is also a contract year for cornerback Kendall Fuller, who was obtained from the Redskins in the Alex Smith trade. Retaining Fuller long-term becomes more important if Nelson is lost in free agency.

Outlook

The Chiefs have solved the biggest piece of the roster-building puzzle by finding a franchise quarterback with Mahomes. His talent should allow the Chiefs to remain competitive for years to come.

The Chiefs have a small window to take advantage of Mahomes arguably being the league's biggest bargain. He will be eligible for a contract extension at the conclusion of the 2019 regular season. The Chiefs most certainly will pick up its fifth-year option for him in 2021, which could be approaching $25 million. If Mahomes doesn't get a new deal until his option year, the Chiefs will have two years to improve the talent on the roster, particularly on defense, before he resets the NFL salary pay scale. It will become more challenging to sustain success when Mahomes is no longer on his rookie contract and is taking up an inordinate amount of cap space.

Former Sports Agent

Joel Corry is a former sports agent who helped found Premier Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches. Before his tenure at Premier, Joel worked... Full Bio

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