KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There’s no big ball dropping at 3 p.m. central time on March 15 yet for NFL teams the beginning of the new League Year is much more impactful than anything that happens at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
The start of the new League Year means a new salary cap and the official launch of free agency and the offseason trading period but it also marks an important decision time for many NFL clubs when it comes to formulating their roster for the upcoming season.
Between now and the immediate days after March 15, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach and his front office staff face five impactful decisions that could impact some big names on the roster
Franchise Tag Deadline
Tuesday marked the beginning of the window during which teams can designate franchise or transition players for the upcoming season, and right now it may feel like “Groundhog Day” in Chiefs Kingdom.
The team likely faces a repeat of last season’s drama when the club placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. The player and the club couldn’t overcome a stalemate over contract negotiations, and Brown played under the tag in 2022 with a salary of $16.662 million. A second franchise tag for Brown would come with a one-year salary worth just under $19.95 million in 2023 — or 120% of his base salary last season.
The Chiefs have until 3 p.m. central time on March 7 to exercise the franchise tag on Brown. This doesn’t preclude the remote possibility of Brown and the Chiefs reaching a deal before the deadline — or the even more unlikely outcome of the Chiefs not tagging Brown a second time. But given how far apart the sides were last summer before the deadline on reaching an extension with franchise-tagged players, don’t hold your breath for a quick resolution this time either.
Frank Clark Option
Contrary to the belief of some, the Chiefs don’t necessarily have to part ways with Clark in 2023. What they must do, however, is address the $30.175 million cap hit Clark carries on his current contract for the upcoming season. The restructuring the club negotiated last season freed up cap space for 2022 but the Chiefs remain on the hook for a $9.075 million hit in dead cap space for Clark in 2023.
The Chiefs still have several options with the 29-year-old edge rusher but clearing his current contact off the books frees up $21 million in immediate cap space. That money can be spent anywhere — and some of it could be used to keep Clark in KC for a fifth season.
There’s no cap savings either way for the Chiefs to wait until after March 15 to make a move regarding Clark. There is a significant reason, however, why they may want to make that decision sooner rather than later.
Get Under the Cap
The biggest reason for an early decision regarding Clark is the team’s salary cap situation. Only the NFLPA public salary cap report is the true barometer of how much cap space the Chiefs have, and that won’t update until after March 15 for the new League Year. But trackers such as Spotrac and Over The Cap peg the Chiefs at anywhere from around $500,000 under the 2023 salary cap to $3.5 million above the cap. Either way, the Chiefs have some work to do to fit under the salary cap of $224.8 million with room to be active in free agency.
Clark’s contract is a quick and easy way for the Chiefs to free up cap space but there are other options as well. Patrick Mahomes is guaranteed a $34.4 million roster bonus this season, any or all of which can be converted into a signing bonus and prorated over the next five years. The club could also convert salary and bonuses for left guard Joe Thuney ($15.5 million) among others.
It’s standard for many free agent contracts to include clauses that guarantee salary around the beginning of the new League Year decide to spur action and require teams to commit to players or allow them to hit the market when clubs are flush with cash and cap space.
One such contract belongs to receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who has a clause guaranteeing $6.44 million of his $8.56 million base salary in 2023. The free-agent deal Valdes-Scantling signed last March allowed the Chiefs to exit the deal after one year with just a $4 million dead cap hit. If Valdes-Scantling remains on the roster on March 17, he will count $11 million toward the salary cap this season.
The third day of the League Year should be known as “Mahomes rolling guarantee day,” as this is the day each year that a future roster bonus becomes guaranteed for the MVP quarterback. On March 18, the $38.9 million roster bonus for Mahomes in 2025 becomes fully guaranteed. That’s a contract guarantee the Chiefs are more than happy to activate.
Chris Jones Extension?
A year ago at this time, the Chiefs appeared on cruise control toward an extension for wide receiver Tyreek Hill, an illusion that vanished in a matter of hours on March 23. Could the Chiefs be headed toward a similar showdown with All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones?
It would be foolish to rule out the possibility since there are parallels. Like Hill, Jones is entering the final year of his contract. While he currently has the largest cap hit for any defensive tackle in 2023 at $28.29 million, his total cash coming this season of $20 million trails Aaron Donald ($28.5 million). He’s also finishing up a four-year, $80 million contract averaging $20 million per year, which now ranks third behind Donald ($31.67 million per year) and DeForest Bucker ($21 million). There’s also the possibility that pending free agents Fletcher Cox and Jason Hargrave land lucrative deals in the coming weeks.
Jones is coming off arguably the best season of his career and he turns 29 in July. There’s no better time for Jones to test his market value, so taking a page from the Hill playbook isn’t an extraordinary stretch.