Going in to free agency, which starts in just over a month, the Chiefs have just over $13.7 million in cap space. With the Chiefs having key players hitting the market: Kendall Fuller, Bashaud Breeland, Demarcus Robinson, Emmanuel Ogbah, and Chris Jones- and a contract extension coming for Super Bowl LIV MVP Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs are going to need to find cap space to keep their star players and add talent.
Here are three ways for the Chiefs to free up cap space going into free agency:
Restructure, Release, or Trade Sammy Watkins
The most-mentioned name as a candidate for restructuring is Sammy Watkins. The Chiefs want to bring Watkins back for the final season of his contract. Watkins loves it in Kansas City and wants to stay. However, Watkins knows his value. He has not ruled out the idea of taking a pay cut to stay with the Chiefs but also mentioned the possibility of taking the 2020 season off to get healthy as he has missed 20 games over his six-year career. Watkins is due $16 million next season and accounts for $21 million against the cap. By releasing Watkins, the Chiefs would save $14 million. Watkins will also have the league’s highest cap number among wide receivers this year. Watkins had three games throughout the season with over 80 yards receiving. Two of the three games came in the playoffs, with the other game coming in Week 1 of the regular season against Jacksonville. Watkins has missed eight regular season games over his two seasons with the Chiefs. Watkins has proved he has the playmaking ability when he is given the ball in space. For his production and health, Watkins is not worth the $16 million he is due this upcoming season. With WR Demarcus Robinson hitting free agency, losing Watkins and Robinson would hurt the depth of the WR core. Watkins set a franchise-record 288 receiving yards in the playoffs this season with one touchdown. Watkins had a great playoff campaign, but the only way for him to stay in KC is to take a pay cut. The only way to sign star Chris Jones, who is the biggest free agent for the team, is to get Watkins to take a pay cut. If Watkins won’t take a pay cut, then the team will look to trade or release him. The Chiefs could trade Watkins and get a mid-round draft pick for him, due to his injury concerns. If there is no trade partner, the Chiefs will save the $14 million by releasing him. Both sides want Watkins on the team but the only way he will be in a Chiefs uniform next year is by taking a pay cut and restructuring his contract.
The Offensive Line
The Chiefs have a lot of money wrapped up in the offensive line. The team is in really good shape at OT with Pro Bowlers Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz. The Chiefs should not and will not release Schwartz as he is one of the best right tackles in the league, if not the best. Eric Fisher renegotiated last year, turning some of his salary into a signing bonus. The Chiefs can ask Fisher to restructure again this offseason, as his cap number is over $15 million.
RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is making $9 million next season; if the Chiefs were to cut him, they would save $5 million. Cutting LDT doesn’t seem likely as he committed only three penalties all season while allowing only two sacks. Releasing Tardif would be a bad idea, as it would affect the culture that Veach and Reid have created, but he could be a restructure candidate as he has three years remaining on his deal.
OG Cameron Erving is a release option. The Chiefs have a player option on his contract, as he has around a $4.7 million cap hit. By not picking up the option, the team would save $3.25 million. With the ability to save money, it doesn’t seem feasible to pick up his options when he doesn’t start and struggled when he played at the left tackle position when Fisher was injured.
Other Restructure Candidates
There are multiple players the Chiefs can look to restructure contracts.
The first player is Daniel Sorensen. Dirty Dan evolved as a key part of Spagnuolo’s defense this season. Sorensen made a game-changing open-field tackle on the fake punt against the Texans in the Divisional Round and proved to be there when he was needed most. Sorensen has one year remaining on his deal, which has a $4.75 million cap hit. If the Chiefs were to release Sorensen, the team would recoup $3.75 million. With the injury to rookie safety Juan Thornhill, the Chiefs are probably going to keep Sorensen, but try to get him to take a pay cut. If Sorensen were to take a pay cut, then it gives the Chiefs more flexibility to sign Jones and other free agents.
Another option is DE Alex Okafor. Okafor played in ten games this season, before suffering a season-ending torn pectoral muscle. In his 10 games, Okafor tallied five sacks and a forced fumble. Okafor was very effective in putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Next year his cap hit is over $7 million. The Chiefs could easily go to him and make part of his salary a signing bonus to free up cap. Okafor is likely to be back with the Chiefs next season, but it is also possible that the Chiefs make him a target for a restructure or pay cut.
The third option is LB Anthony Hitchens. There is no point in releasing Hitchens as nearly all of his cap hit would transfer as dead money but the Chiefs could ask him to restructure for the second straight year. The Chiefs turned a portion of his salary into a signing bonus last season and could do the same thing to free up some cap space.
The Chiefs have their offseason cut out for them as they need to find ways to shed cap to keep key free agents and add talent that enters the free agency pool.