KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Although the deadline for NFL clubs to designate franchise players is still just under 24 hours away, and free agency doesn’t officially open for another eight days, the Chiefs on Monday tipped their hand when it comes to a couple of their biggest offseason decisions.
First came word the Chiefs won’t use the franchise tag on left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., as first reported by NFL Network. Later Monday afternoon, ESPN broke the word the club plans to release defensive end Frank Clark after failing to come to terms on a restructured contract for the 2023 season.
The Brown decision comes as a bit of a surprise. The Chiefs have until 3 p.m. central time Tuesday to exercise their choice of placing the franchise tag on Brown. That would have guaranteed the 26-year-old lineman a one-year contract worth just under $20 million. It also would have kept opening the possibility of the Chiefs entertaining trade offers for Brown if the two sides were unable to come to terms on a new long-term deal.
Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said at last week’s NFL combine that a long-term deal was the team’s first priority for resolving Brown’s contract status.
“It’s an option,” Veach said regarding the franchise tag. “We went through this path last year. As always it’s more beneficial to get something done long-term. That’s why this season is so important for us.”
By declining to use the franchise tag, Brown will become a free agent when the new league year starts at 3 p.m. central time on March 15. Teams interested in signing Brown can contact Brown’s agent, Michael Portner, when the two-day negotiating period for pending free agents starts at 11 a.m. central time on March 13.
This decision doesn’t exclude the possibility of Brown re-signing with the Chiefs. If Brown signs with another club, however, the Chiefs would be eligible for a potential compensation up to a third-round draft choice in the 2024 NFL Draft.
Releasing Frank Clark
The pending release of Clark isn’t as big of a surprise as declining to tag Brown but it does send a similar signal about the state of negotiations between the two camps, indicating less likelihood of Clark staying with the Chiefs for a fifth campaign in 2023.
Clark was set to carry a $28.675 million cap next season, according to OverTheCap.com. Release the 29-year-old edge rusher will save the Chiefs $21 million in cap space. Clark will still account for $7.675 million in dead cap space based on prorated portions of bonus money from his original contract signed in 2019 along with two contract restructures.
The Chiefs and Clark were in a similar contract standing off last offseason but the sides worked out a restructured contract that guaranteed Clark $8.275 million at signing and included incentives padding nearly $4 million on the deal. Unable to come to terms this offseason, however, means Clark will become a free agent once his release is official and free to negotiate with other teams immediately.
Veach last week said he planned to meet with Clark’s agent to have a similar conversation to last season’s negotiation.
“It’s part of the process, it will be like that for a few guys here,” Veach said. “It’s one of those domino effects, and probably starts with Orlando, and from there, you know, you have to just see how that thing is gonna work out and play out, and then you work from there.”
Just as in the Brown situation, however, the release of Clark doesn’t mean a potential reunion with the Chiefs is off the table. It does send the message, however, that the two sides are too far apart on a new contract at the moment for the Chiefs to carry the additional $21 million in cap space entering the new league year.
If there’s any “winner” in Monday’s decision, that person might be Chris Jones. The NFL salary cap guarantees teams must pick and choose. With the pending release of Clark and the decision to decline tagging Brown, the Chiefs will have approximately $17.8 million in cap space for the upcoming season.
One effect of those decisions is freeing up money for new acquisitions once free agency opens next. The Chiefs have room to be players in the upcoming free agent market without restructuring the contracts of quarterback Patrick Mahomes and left guard Joe Thuney, even though both of those remain options.
If the Chiefs aren’t awarding a long-term extension to Brown, however, it also makes it easier for Veach and the front office to work toward a long-term extension for Jones.
The Chiefs’ star defensive tackle isn’t a free agent but he’s in a similar situation as wide receiver Tyreek Hill was a year ago. Jones is entering the final year of his second NFL contract which is due to pay him $21.25 million in 2023 in salary and bonuses. His contract carries a cap hit of $28.29 million including $7.04 million in dead cap space.
It’s no secret the 28-year-old would like a long-term extension, and Monday’s decisions make that option more likely. Veach told Chiefs Digest at the NFL scouting combine he was “hopeful” of reaching terms on a new contract with Jones.
“We’ll certainly have conversations with Chris and his agents,” Veach said. “I think safe to say that doing something with Chris would make sense for us. And I think Chris would want to stay here and retire a Chief.”
There’s also the possibility the Chiefs use the franchise or transition tag on another player. The transition tender offers a player a one-year tender averaging the top 10 salaries at each position. The franchise tag is the average of the top five salaries. While the non-exclusive version of the franchise tag provides two first-round draft picks in terms of compensation, the transition tag gives the player’s team the right of first refusal to match any offer sheets a player signs with another club.
For example, the transition tag for a wide receiver is projected to be just under $18 million. If the Chiefs used the transition tag on a pending free agent such as JuJu Smith-Schuster, the player would receive a tender offer from the Chiefs for that amount. If the player signed an offer sheet with another club, the Chiefs could choose to match it.
At this time there’s no reason to believe the Chiefs will use either the franchise or transition tag on of their other pending free agents but it does keep options open.