Chiefs mailbag: Looking ahead to the offseason

With the 2015 season in the books, the Chiefs shift focus to the offseason with a view to improving the roster for the 2016 campaign.

The Chiefs have tools to utilize to accomplish that goal in the coming months, including free agency and the draft, but free agency headlines this edition of the mailbag.

The Chiefs indeed have a long list of pending unrestricted free agents: Safety Eric Berry, linebacker Derrick Johnson, cornerback Sean Smith, guard Jeff Allen, defensive end Jaye Howard, quarterback Chase Daniel, offensive tackle Donald Stephenson, wide receiver Jason Avant, safety Husain Abdullah, safety Tyvon Branch, defensive end Mike DeVito, linebacker Frank Zombo, cornerback Jamell Fleming and linebacker Dezman Moses.

And the group doesn’t include outside linebacker Tamba Hali, whose contract can be voided after the Super Bowl.

There are a lot of hard decisions to make leading to March 9, the start of the league’s new calendar year.

Coach Andy Reid, however, appeared optimistic during his end-of-season press conference that not everyone will leave via free agency.

“I know some of these guys are going to return,” Reid said on Jan. 17. “That’s how it rolls. Which ones and how it works into the cap and all that, that’s Dorse’s (general manager John Dorsey) baby there.”

Of the group, it would be wise to lock down Berry, especially when considering there are three safeties scheduled to be free agents: Berry, Branch and Abdullah.

The 27-year-old Berry won’t come cheap, of course, but losing a first-team All-Pro safety still in his prime could prove difficult to replace for the long haul.

The Chiefs will have some flexibility with an estimated $32 million in available cap space to address free agency. But any potential deal requires two parties to tango, specifically the Chiefs and a player’s agent.

And that scenario applies to Smith, who should command a good amount of suitors when considering 6-3, 218-pound press-man cornerbacks are hard to come by.

Smith, who turns 29 in July, could be signing his last major long-term deal from a financial point of view, so it only makes sense if he and his representatives seek a premium contract.

Is it possible for the Chiefs to re-sign Berry, Johnson, Smith, Howard and Hali given the estimated cap space?

For that answer, I turned to Joel Corry, a former NFL agent who currently serves as a salary cap/contract analyst for CBS Sports and the National Football Post.

“Possible to retain most using Jeremy Maclin structure – $3.4 million 2015 cap number and never under $12.4 million for rest of deal,” Corry said.

Meanwhile, the Chiefs have a tool to consider when it comes to free agents – the franchise tag.

Teams can designate a franchise player starting Feb. 16 and the deadline is March 1, but it remains to be seen if the Chiefs go this route.

Dorsey indicated during a conference call with Chiefs beat writers on Jan. 21 that he will evaluate the roster before making a decision.

“You know what, I would like to assess every situation,” Dorsey said. “I haven’t played the assessment game, where I can go and assess every different option available yet, so I haven’t really done that yet. I will do that here within the next five to seven days, and I can give you a more concrete answer on that.”

Outside linebacker Frank Zombo has proven his value on defense and special teams the past three seasons, and he finished the 2015 season ranked second in special teams tackles (8) and snaps (361).

Defensively, the Chiefs relied on Zombo to fill in for Tamba Hali the final two games of the regular season and he started the playoff game against the Houston Texans.

Zombo joined the Chiefs in 2013 on a one-year deal, and then signed a two-year contract in 2014.

He appeared in all 48 regular-season games with seven starts during that span, totaling 45 tackles (39 solo), five sacks, an interception, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries during that span.

While he flies under the radar when looking at the pending free agents, Zombo is more than worth bringing back because teams can never have enough role players.

Zombo can start and be productive in a pinch and is a mainstay on special teams.

Left guard Ben Grubbs, whom the Chiefs acquired in a trade with the New Orleans Saints in March 2015, landed on injured reserve on Dec. 2 because of a neck injury suffered in Week 7.

Health will be a consideration, of course.

But Joel Corry, who I consider the go-to guy on contract/salary cap matters, was more than gracious to take a few moments to also address cap implications for a retirement scenario.

“Ben Grubbs had $1 million of his $4.8 million 2016 base salary fully guaranteed when he signed,” Corry said. “The entire $4.8 million is guaranteed for injury. Another $1 million is fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2016 league year (March 11).”

Corry points out the contract could see Grubbs, who signed a four-year deal after the trade, return.

“He has no incentive to retire because of the guarantees,” Corry said. “Reasonable best-case scenario for the Chiefs is $5.2 million in dead money with Grubbs – $4.2 million in bonus proration and $1 million salary guarantee – unless Chiefs give him a post-June 1 designation so $2.8 million of bonus proration counts in 2017.”

By the way, Corry is a must-follow on Twitter.

After watching how the Denver Broncos dismantled the New England Patriots in the AFC Conference championship game, the short answer is in the affirmative.

It is clear the Broncos did everything the Chiefs couldn’t accomplish the week before, specifically consistently pressuring Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and taking away the underneath routes.

The largest head-scratching moment on defense for the Chiefs occurred after the Patriots’ initial scoring drive when Brady threw 11 straight passes, all of the short variety with the Chiefs cornerbacks playing back.

With the Chiefs unable to get any pressure up front, Brady finished the game averaging a 2.13-2.16 release from snap, according to analytical websites.

Not only is that quick release tough to defend, but not adjusting coverage to have the corners press at the line of scrimmage allowed Brady to pick apart the secondary en route to completing 28 of 42 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns.

Increasing touchdown conversions in the red zone appears an issue after the loss to the Patriots.

Statistically, the Chiefs offense finished the game going a respectable 2 of 4 (50 percent) in red-zone touchdown opportunities.

Two red-zone opportunities in the first half, however, stand out when the Chiefs settled for two field goals to head into halftime down 14-6 before eventually losing 27-20.

While red-zone touchdown opportunities fall under the microscope, especially in a playoff game, the Chiefs have actually been consistently above 50 percent in red-zone touchdown percentage the past three seasons:

• 2015: 57.4 percent conversion rate, ranking 14th in the league
• 2014: 58.3 percent, ranking eighth in the league
• 2013: 57.9 percent conversion rate, ranking eighth in the league

Ultimately, scoring touchdowns over field goals boils down to play calling and execution.

Coach Andy Reid, not one to shy from accountability, often says he has to put the players in better position when it comes to making the most out of plays.

And when it comes to converting touchdowns in the red zone, Reid is 100 percent correct.

While quarterback Alex Smith missed connecting with tight end Travis Kelce twice in the red zone against the Patriots, it wouldn’t hurt to see the 6-5, 260-pound Kelce more involved when the team is close.

Granted, the Chiefs offense spreads the ball around in the passing game, but Kelce should have more than five touchdowns on any given season.  

Short of putting in ear plugs or the team calling for a new fan vote, “Hey, Kansas City!” isn’t likely to go anywhere.

The best way to embrace the song is hoping the Chiefs score touchdowns in bunches at Arrowhead Stadium so the tune grows on folks.


Herbie Teope is the lead Chiefs beat writer for and The Topeka Capital-Journal. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @HerbieTeope.