The Chiefs are letting several starters leave in free agency. Here’s their reasoning
In a moment to himself after Super Bowl LVII, Frank Clark sat on the Chiefs’ bench, unwrapping the protective gear that covered an injured elbow. The tears came quickly.
On the other end of the same bench, his teammate Khalen Saunders also sat all alone, staring at nothing in particular, quietly taking in the celebration unfolding on the field in front of him.
In the middle of that field, Juan Thornhill threw two arms skyward, letting red, white and gold confetti fall into his face.
And in retrospect now, you can’t help but wonder if each of them knew: This was the last stop in a farewell tour.
The Chiefs will look quite a bit different next season than they did that evening in Glendale, Arizona, and let’s not dance around the reason. They’re choosing to look different, a stark contrast from the days of “Run it Back” that followed the first trophy in this era.
If you’re trying to make sense of the chaos that has engulfed the opening week of NFL free agency — of why a Super Bowl-winning team doesn’t seem particularly interested in keeping the band together — pull up a chair. Let’s have that conversation. The process might entail some agony and frustration in the immediacy, but it is more sensible than Run it Back ever was.
The Chiefs have already lost a half-dozen starters in the initial days of free agency. That’s not a small number. The salary cap is a factor, and it will be a significant one as long as the Chiefs are paying the quarterback in the neighborhood of $50 million annually — though they grabbed some short-term relief Wednesday by pushing a portion of that cash forward to future seasons — but it’s misguided to call the cap the only reasoning.
These are calculated decisions that follow a common thread pulled from a different sweater. On Clark, Saunders and Thornhill. On Orlando Brown Jr., JuJu Smith-Schuster and Andrew Wylie too. And the others still to come.
That thread? You can’t afford to become too attached to your own. The objective is to pay for future implications, not reward past success. That shouldn’t be confused with a preference to let everyone walk. Instead, the preference should be to stick to a budget, or in some cases, an individual price.
If the Chiefs want to Run it Back, that should come at the cooperation of the players, not a team stretching the team’s payment. To state the obvious, this is applicable to some players, though not necessarily to all. It’s dependent on the cost and value of potential replacement.
The Chiefs are essentially deciding whether a handful of key contributors on offense are aided by Patrick Mahomes more than the inverse. They can back-date just one year for their evidence. (Hint: It’s usually the former.)
The timing of this is fascinating, given what their counterparts are doing. On Wednesday, not-for-long Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers spent half an hour on the Pat McAfee Show declaring his “intention” to play for the New York Jets next season — none of this is his fault, he really wants you to know. He denied sending the Jets a “demand list” for players to sign, though the report actually called it a “wish list,” and he wasn’t exactly convincing that he didn’t have some suggestions.
The Packers have been employing a handful of them for too long already. Those players are good locker room guys, Rodgers said.
Can’t do it. Can’t go down that road. There’s a reason Rodgers is wearing just one ring.
And there’s a reason the NFL hasn’t celebrated a repeat champion in nearly two decades. While every ensuing roster endures some change, most often don’t make room for enough of it. It’s human nature to believe the players that comprised a championship group are capable of doing it all over.
There’s a lot of truth to it, even.
But at what price?
If the Chiefs are to turn this thing into a dynasty, however we define the word, that’s the question that will need to direct their decisions this offseason, next offseason and all of them for the foreseeable future.
The majority of the aforementioned list —Brown and Smith-Schuster the headliners —is a collection of players not only valuable to the Chiefs in this Super Bowl run but still plenty of capable of providing value in the next one.
The Chiefs wanted some of them back, for the record. They offered Smith-Schuster a contract but were out-bid by New England, and when informed of that, they held firm to their original offer. It was a year ago that they initially presented Brown with a long-term proposal, and even after he helped shut out the league’s best defensive line in the Super Bowl, they informed him their proposal would remain unaltered this March.
Don’t blame the players. In many cases, they are cashing in on their first big payday, lured by the guarantees in a league that has so little of it. They’ve earned it.
Let someone else take care of that. The Chiefs need to avoid the enticement trap that many of their counterparts have fallen into over the past 18 months. While it’s literally true that a certain group of supporting players provided Kansas City another Super Bowl, it’s truer that the process of acquiring that group provided another. The draft got them another, and then developing those draft picks got them another.
Notice how quiet the Raiders, Chargers and Bills are this month one year after throwing resources toward a win-now proposition? Wait until the Dolphins find themselves in a similar spot a year from now. They are acting out of desperation, engaging in an arms race.
The recommendation here isn’t that the Chiefs completely sit out but rather that they should operate with the luxury they have. The luxury most others do not.