KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs are sitting pretty at the top of the AFC in their bye week in the 2023 season.
At 7-2, the defending Super Bowl champions are the no. 1 seed in the AFC and set for another AFC West title as well.
But the story of the season is about the defense playing at an all-time level — and the offense looking the poorest it has under head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Patrick Mahomes to start a season.
Despite the optics of the offense, Mahomes is top five in the NFL in touchdowns, passing success rate and QB rating, and is one of the least sacked in the league.
While the Chiefs rest before they face several top teams, they have several players in the last year of their contracts.
Some are playing well and worthy of a new contract from Kansas City or another team. In any sports league, players have notoriously played their best while in the final year of their contract in hopes of getting a long-term and more lucrative contract.
First let’s look at key players that the Chiefs could bring back or let walk in free agency.
P Tommy Townsend
The Chiefs’ punter was a PFWA All-Rookie Team member in 2020 and was a Pro Bowler and First Team All-Pro selection last season leading the NFL in punt net yards per punt besides having some of the least punts among starting punters.
This season, Townsend is in the top 10 in NY/P, has a touchback percentage of 6.9% and his punts land inside the 20 at 37.9%.
Townsend has been a pivotal part of the Chiefs’ special teams and hired super agent Drew Rosenhuas over the summer, likely in anticipation of getting a lucrative, long-term deal.
LT Donovan Smith
The former Tampa Bay Buccaneer has seen better days but has been dependable as the team’s veteran left tackle on a one-year deal.
Pro Football Focus credits Smith with giving up six QB hits and 22 hurries but they gave him an overall grade of 57.9 (66.1 pass blocking, 41.8 run blocking).
While PFF grades are taken with grains of salt, the Chiefs’ run game has been a bit less efficient to start the season and it is only compounded by a sporadic passing game. Smith also has garnered seven penalties, tied for sixth in the league.
The Chiefs’ Week 9 win over the Miami Dolphins was Smith’s first game without allowing a pressure, sack or QB hit. Smith is doing his job which is what the Chiefs signed him for at $3 million this year.
RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire
The LSU product has been one of the more disappointing draft picks for the Chiefs. After getting off to an outstanding rookie season as a first-round pick in 2020 and a solid 2021 season, CEH has had a steep decline since.
Since the arrival of Isiah Pacheco last season, Edwards-Helaire has rushed for 411 yards, four touchdowns and caught three touchdowns.
He did not play in the last 10 games of the 2022 season, including being inactive for Super Bowl 57.
With the Chiefs having declined his fifth-year option over the offseason and no trade candidates, CEH’s NFL career looks bleak once this season ends.
WR Mecole Hardman
The Chiefs chose to let Hardman test free agency this past offseason, and he got a one-year “prove it” deal from the New York Jets.
Once their season ended before it started with Aaron Rodgers’ torn Achilles and the rise of rookie Xavier Gispon, he disappeared from their offense only managing a single catch and 28 offensive snaps.
The Chiefs swapped some late-round picks with the Jets to get Hardman because of their issues at receiver — and they also got a returner back in the absence of Richie James.
With James’ return coming soon, he will likely go back to being their full-time returner, letting Hardman help the offense with his veteran presence and knowledge of the system.
His impact has been minimal in three games with his most memorable moment being a muffed punt when the Denver Broncos snapped their KC curse.
With the way this season has gone, if Hardman puts together an impactful back half of the season, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibilities for the Chiefs to give Hardman a deal similar to Justin Watson’s 2-year, $3.4 million deal he signed this offseason.
CB L’Jarius Sneed
If there is a player that the Chiefs should sign long-term, it’s Sneed.
But with the front office having such an eye for drafting productive corners, it’s almost inevitable that he will get a solid long-term deal elsewhere like Charvarius Ward.
He has consistently gotten better since he was a fourth-round pick in 2020 and his versatility gives him extra value in the market.
DE Mike Danna
The 2020 fifth-round EDGE is having the expected contract-year explosion.
He has a career-high 5.5 sacks and 20 tackles through just nine games. His pass-rushing prowess as an inside rusher has been on full display but he has also made some plays as an EDGE as well.
Danna is beneficiary of playing next to All-Pro Chris Jones and with his best plays coming from the inside, it would take a specific defense for him to maximize his talents.
With George Karlaftis and Felix Anudike-Uzomah as young up-and-comers on the EDGE for the Chiefs, Danna likely only comes back to the Chiefs on a short-term deal.
DT Derrick Nnadi
The 2018 third-round pick is a steady, run-stuffing defensive tackle for the Chiefs and one of the few players who have been with the team for both recent Super Bowls.
Nnadi has returned to the team on back-to-back one-year contracts since his rookie deal expired after the 2021 season and has always been a reliable player who knows the system.
He could return on another one-year deal but he also could look elsewhere for a longer deal if it’s feasible.
LB Drue Tranquill
If the Chiefs extend any of these players to a long-term deal, Tranquill would likely be number 1 outside of Chris Jones.
The former Los Angeles Charger on a ‘prove it’ deal was already flashing his promise when the Chiefs were fully healthy on defense but he has turned it up since stepping in for injured Nick Bolton.
The 28-year-old leads the team with 55 tackles and has made several touchdown-saving plays throughout the season. He also has 3.5 sacks (fourth on the team) and is a solid coverage defender as well.
Like Townsend, if the Chiefs don’t give Tranquill a long-term deal, another team will.
LB Willie Gay Jr.
One of the most puzzling stories of this defense is the unwillingness to keep their most athletic LB on the field.
Since he began getting occasional snaps in his rookie year in 2020, Gay has only played more than 70% of the defensive snaps in 11 of his 50 NFL games including only twice this season. Sometimes Gay gets the least snaps of all LBs in a game.
But everything is in context.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo loves Dime packages against passing teams and leaves Bolton as the sole Dime linebacker and now Tranquill. Even when the Chiefs aren’t in Dime, Spags likes to shuffle linebacker combinations and that leaves Gay in or out of the game. Some defensive formations also put more defensive backs on the field than LBs.
It could be a trust issue or it could be a preference but it shows how much they value other LBs over Gay since he has only played 57% of his available defensive snaps this season.
Gay still plays a lot and is sixth on the team with 35 tackles and has 210 total tackles in his career, fits the run very well, eats up lots of space in zone coverage and is the Energizer Bunny always being loud and bringing good vibes to the team which makes him a fan favorite.
Just feels like he’s only scratched the surface of his potential and he likely won’t reach it in KC.
S Mike Edwards
Another key veteran free agent signing during the offseason that has panned out is this rotational safety.
Edwards has been a good veteran presence and has made several plays as the third safety none bigger than his lateral to Bryan Cook that resulted in a game-winning TD against the Miami Dolphins in Germany.
Like Donovan Smith, Edwards is doing the job he’s been brought in to do. With rookie Chamarri Conner already slowly garnering snaps, he may be the third safety next season.
DT Chris Jones
Last but certainly not least is the center of the Chiefs defense. First, the football side.
Kansas City’s defense showed how good they were without Jones in the season opener against the Detroit Lions and his addition only made the engine go from 0 to 60 in three seconds.
Jones is having a contract year surge with 5.5 sacks, six TFL and leading the team with 13 QB hits in eight games.
The 29-year-old has always been a ferocious player and his playing for a lucrative, long-term contract just adds a bit more fire to his play. He has consistently disrupted the line of scrimmage in every game and if he isn’t sacking the QB or getting a hit, he is certainly getting pressure or helping others get pressure while he’s being double-teamed.
And now, the contract side.
The offseason holdout pretty much lost Jones more money than it made him since he racked up more than $2 million in fines sitting out all of training camp, the preseason and the first game of the season. His base salary stayed the same at $19.5 million and he can earn up to $25 million total with incentives.
His goal has reportedly been to make at least $30 million a year and with the way the past offseason has gone, that contract likely is not coming from the Chiefs.
Maybe the Chiefs will budge if Jones performs higher than expectations in the back half of the season. Maybe Jones will give the Chiefs a ‘hometown discount’ just to stay with the same franchise his whole career like he has said he wants to.
The Chiefs could also franchise tag him next season but that would cost them $30.6 million.
But again, history tells us the Chiefs will not pay big bucks for anyone besides Mahomes.
First, a look at contract-year players who are currently on injured reserve.
- OT Prince Tega Wanogho (torn quad, RFA)
- CB Nazeeh Johnson (torn ACL, ERFA)
- WR Richie James (MCL injury, UFA)
- TE Jody Fortson (shoulder, RFA)
PTW is a solid backup tackle who can play either spot and got injured against the Chicago Bears in Week 3. The four-year Nigerian native is in his third season with the Chiefs after spending his first season in the NFL (2020) with the Philadelphia Eagles on the practice squad.
Tega Wanogho will be a restricted free agent. A restricted free agent has three accrued seasons and an expired contract. RFAs can negotiate and sign with any team, but their original team can issue a qualifying offer with the right of first refusal and/or draft compensation.
An accrued season for an NFL player is six or more regular season games on a team roster.
Johnson suffered his injury in training camp in the indoor training facility at Missouri Western State. He was taking reps with the first-team defense in camp and was a key special teamer as a seventh-round rookie last season.
Johnson would be an exclusive rights free agent since he has less than two accrued seasons on his belt.
James is a free agent signee who was the team’s primary returner and a veteran presence in a young wide receiver room before his injury. His 21-day window to return from IR has opened and could return to action after the Chiefs’ bye week.
Fortson has flashed his playmaking ability in his short time with the team, but injuries have hampered his ability to stay on the field.
After spending 2019 and 2020 on the practice squad, Fortson made the active roster in the next two seasons but has only played in 19 games since 2021 and dislocated his shoulder in training camp. He has 14 catches and two touchdowns in those games.
The next phase of contract-year players are backups, rotational players that don’t see many snaps. But in the case of long snapper James Winchester, it’s a position that’s pretty replaceable albeit very important.
- DE Malik Herring (ERFA)
- DT Tershawn Wharton (UFA)
- DT Matt Dickerson (UFA)
- G Nick Allegretti (UFA)
- LS James Winchester (UFA)
- LB Darius Harris (UFA)
- G Mike Caliendo (ERFA)
- LB Jack Cochrane (ERFA)
- QB Blaine Gabbert (UFA)
- TE Blake Bell (UFA)