How the Chiefs can do the unthinkable in free agency to keep 2 massive free agents

The Kansas City Chiefs are facing a pivotal offseason as defensive tackle Chris Jones and cornerback L'Jarius Sneed are set to hit free agency. To keep them both, general manager Brett Veach and coach Andy Reid will have to untangle an intricate and complex web of issues.

Houston Texans v Kansas City Chiefs
Houston Texans v Kansas City Chiefs / Jamie Squire/GettyImages

With their Super Bowl LVIII victory in Las Vegas, the Kansas City Chiefs became just the eighth team to win back-to-back Super Bowl titles in NFL history.

There is work to be done before the Chiefs can embark on their quest to become the first team to win three consecutive championships.

Owner Clark Hunt, coach Andy Reid and general manager Brett Veach will have to make difficult decisions to make when the new league year begins on March 13. Those decisions will ultimately define the franchise's future success.

Chiefs DT Chris Jones and CB L'Jarius Sneed are set to hit free agency

Kansas City's defense was the engine behind the team's Super Bowl championship, and it thrived in large part due to the play of defensive tackle Chris Jones and cornerback L'Jarius Sneed. Both players are set to be free agents heading into the 2024 NFL offseason.

Jones was arguably the best pass-rushing defensive tackle in the league. In the past two seasons, the 29-year-old game-wrecker has compiled 152 pressures, 26 sacks and 58 quarterback hits.

While Jones was named an All-Pro for the fourth consecutive year, Sneed didn't receive the recognition he deserved for a remarkable 2023 campaign. The former fourth-round draft pick moved to the perimeter cornerback spot and spent his contract year shadowing the league's top wide receivers. He didn't allow a single touchdown across 90 targets as the nearest defender during the regular season. Opposing quarterbacks had just a 45.2 passer rating while targeting Sneed, and Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Davante Adams was the only player to surpass 40 receiving yards against him.

The Chiefs have 19 unrestricted free agents this offseason, but Jones and Sneed will take priority. Some of Kansas City's key contributors have already seen the writing on the wall and said their goodbyes to Chiefs Kingdom.

"Sometimes I look at our situation and I'm like, 'I don't know how we're going to do this,' but we usually work through things systematically and have a list of the priorities," Veach told ESPN's Adam Teicher. "Certainly, Chris [Jones] and [L'Jarius Sneed] are at the top of the list. It's extremely hard because you have two keystone players there.''

Chiefs salary cap space

The Chiefs currently have around $23.7 million in salary cap space for the 2024 NFL season, per Spotrac. Approximately $7 million of that cap space will be reserved to sign the incoming 2024 NFL Draft class, which leaves Kansas City somewhere between $15 million to $16 million in available salary cap. Some cap space will also need to be reserved for mid-season signings and transactions.

Spotrac estimates place Jones' market value at $85.4 million over three years for an average of $28.4 million per year. Sneed's market value comes in at $65.3 million over four years for an average of $16.3 million per year.

While fans will take to social media to conjure up ways for Kansas City to retain the services of both Jones and Sneed, it won't be quite that simple and Sneed seems to know it.

"I don't think they got enough for both of us," Sneed said. "Hopefully they got enough for both of us. But you know, they gonna make it happen. I hope so."

The issue isn't just about signing the two defensive stars. The Chiefs also need to address other free agents, as well as areas of concern such as left tackle and wide receiver.

How to re-sign Chris Jones

The Chiefs can expect tough negotiations ahead with Jones, whose prolonged holdout last offseason ended with a one-year compromise that ultimately came out to be worth $22.6 million. To retain Jones, Kansas City will have to pay a much higher average annual salary than that.

The first-team All-Pro declined a two-year, fully guaranteed extension worth $54.5 million last year, per The Athletic. It's unlikely that Jones would accept that after adding another stellar season to his résumé.

Prior reports suggested that he was seeking an average annual salary of $30 million, which would put him in the same range as Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. The best-case scenario for the Chiefs would be another compromise that results in Jones being the second-highest-paid defensive tackle in the league.

How to re-sign L'Jarius Sneed

The best deal for Sneed could be a three-year deal, which would allow Sneed to become a free agent at age 30. If negotiations don't go as planned, Kansas City has the option to place the franchise tag on their star cornerback, which would prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent.

It's difficult to repeat as Super Bowl champions in the free agency and salary cap era. Some teams struggle to keep complacency at bay, while others don't have the luck to avoid key injuries. Fatigue can also play a factor due to the shortened offseason for playoff teams, and an offseason of parades and parties doesn't help either.

For many players, a championship presents an opportunity to capitalize financially. Tight end Martellus Bennet made that clear after winning Super Bowl LI with the New England Patriots

"I'm going into free agency as a Super Bowl champion," Bennett said. "You know they overpay Super Bowl champions!"

Sneed echoed similar sentiments on the Up and Adams Show when he was asked if he had a message for the Chiefs general manager. "Man, pay me," Sneed said. "Pay. Me. Pay me. That's all I got to say — pay me."

Chiefs franchise tag options

The NFL's franchise tag window officially opens on Tuesday, Feb. 20 and closes on Tuesday, Mar. 5. The franchise tag would give the Chiefs time to agree on terms for a contract extension prior to the league's extension deadline in July. Without a deal by then, the franchise-tagged player would have to play the next season on a one-year deal.

During their compromise with Jones at the start of the 2023 NFL season, the Chiefs reserved the right to use the franchise tag on Jones again this year. Franchise tagging Jones would cost the Chiefs a whopping $31.16 million. At that price, the Chiefs would be better suited to just offer Jones a long-term extension. It's possible that Kansas City could tag Jones and then attempt to trade him.

For Sneed, a franchise tag would be worth $18.4 million. The issue with placing the franchise tag designation on Sneed is that Jones would hit free agency without any restrictions. Jones is arguably the more important player of the two for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's scheme. The Chiefs have depth at cornerback with Trent McDuffie, Jaylen Watson, Josh Williams and Nazeeh Johnson. McDuffie even earned an All-Pro selection in 2023.

"I hope I'm here [in Kansas City], but you never know how it goes," Sneed said. "I hope I'm here, but I'm gonna just do what I do and just play ball." 

To even use the franchise tag on Sneed, Kansas City would first have to free up more cap space.

Contract restructures and other options to create cap space

There are a few viable paths for Kansas City to create some breathing room. Restructured contracts typically convert a base salary to a signing bonus, which is then spread out over the remaining years on the contract. The player's new base salary becomes the league's veteran minimum salary, which is set to be $1.21 million for players with seven or more accrued NFL seasons.

Left guard Joe Thuney, who made adjustments to his contracts in each of the past two seasons, can once again restructure his contract to provide the Chiefs with cap relief. By restructuring Thuney's contract, the Chiefs could create $7.4 million in cap space.

The Chiefs technically have the ability to create $74 million in cap space with restructured contracts, but doing so would almost guarantee a dark future. Restructuring contracts has its consequences, and aggressive restructuring could place the Chiefs' long-term plans in peril. For example, another restructure to Thuney's contract would leave the All-Pro guard with a massive $34 million cap number for the 2025 NFL season.

Right tackle Jawaan Taylor's salary is fully guaranteed for the next two years, so restructuring wouldn't cause any long-term effects. The Chiefs can create up to $12.6 million by converting his salary into a signing bonus.


Tight end Travis Kelce could also provide cap relief by pushing some of his current $15.5 million cap hit into 2025. Doing so would result in a larger dead cap charge if Kelce decides to retire after the 2024 NFL season.

Due to last year's contract restructure for quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs have until May 5 to decide how much of their franchise quarterback's roster bonus will be converted into a new signing bonus. The Chiefs could technically create up to $35.6 million in cap space, but it's unlikely they'll push that much of the money down the line.

The next apparent way to create more space would be to address the contract of wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling.

Though the deep threat made a significant impact during the Chiefs' postseason run, his disappointing season will make it difficult to justify his $13.9 million cap hit for the 2024 NFL season. Releasing Valdes-Scantling would save Kansas City $11.9 million in cap space due to a $2 million dead cap charge. The Chiefs could also elect to reduce Valdes-Scantling's cap hit by $8.4 million with a contract extension.

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