Why Chiefs should re-sign Sean Smith, let Jaye Howard walk in free agency
On the heels of three consecutive winning seasons under Andy Reid, the Chiefs face a tough offseason of decision-making with regard to free agency, especially on defense. Stalwarts such as safety Eric Berry (88.0 overall grade), cornerback Sean Smith (83.8), linebacker Derrick Johnson (87.4), and edge rusher Tamba Hali (87.2, whose contract will likely be voided when the league year starts) will be open to sign with other teams, as will contributors Jaye Howard (80.8), Husain Abdullah (80.2), Mike DeVito (74.2), and Tyvon Branch (78.2). In this article, we discuss a few players the Chiefs should retain, some they should let walk, and a few that they should pursue in free agency.
S Eric Berry and CB Sean Smith
Both Berry and Smith are crucial elements of a defense that has been the Chiefs’ strength since 2013. Berry rebounded from Hodgkin’s lymphoma to post the sixth-highest grade among safeties in 2015, and would likely be difficult to replace, even in a free agent market that includes solid options such as Reggie Nelson (84.2), Rodney McCleod (83.9), George Iloka (82.6), and Tony Jefferson (81.3). The PFF Comeback Player of the Year will probably command Earl Thomas-type money on the open market or via a franchise tag, which would amount to more than a third of the $25-30 million in expected cap space in 2016.
While the Chiefs probably view Berry as their biggest free agent priority, and losing him would indeed be significant, Kansas City played long stretches of the 2014 season without him, and fared okay, with Abdullah and safety/cornerback Ron Parker (74.6) filling in admirably. Given what happened last season, however, one could argue that losing Smith may have at least as big of a negative impact on the back end of the Chiefs’ defense. After a couple of down years in Miami, Smith came to the Chiefs on a relatively economical (3 years, $18 million) deal in 2013, and has had three positively-graded seasons since—including posting the second-highest coverage grade among corners in 2014. When Smith missed the first three games of last season with a suspension, his replacements Jamell Fleming (41.5), Phillip Gaines (67.9), and Marcus Cooper (54.6) combined for a -10.2 cumulative grade, and the Chiefs surrendered an average of 26.3 points per game (versus 15.9 with Smith in the lineup).
Gaines is coming off an ACL injury, which leaves Cooper and Steven Nelson (67.7) as the only healthy and experienced options on the roster to pair with standout second-year player Marcus Peters (73.3). Aside from Josh Norman (84.1), who is likely out of the Chiefs’ price range, the remaining options in free agency would all be downgrades from Smith, making an investment in re-signing him (likely in the $9–$11 million per year range) the Chiefs’ most important free agent priority.
DE Jaye Howard
While Dontari Poe (77.8) and Allen Bailey (75.3) receive more of the notoriety, it was Howard who was the Chiefs’ best defensive lineman in 2015. He led the aforementioned players with more than 50 run snaps from the defensive tackle position, as well as in run-stop percentage last season. He also added seven sacks, four QB hits, and 31 pressures as a pass rusher.
While losing Howard would certainly hurt, 2015 was his first pro season with over 500 snaps. Additionally, the Chiefs run a lot of two-man fronts on defense, have already invested a likely market-level deal for Howard in Bailey (4-year, $25 million with $15 million guaranteed), and would likely want to resign Poe next offseason. A more financially-responsible approach would be to allow Howard to leave and replace him with cheaper veterans such as DeVito, Kevin Williams (77.7), or Brandon Mebane (71.4) in free agency. Notre Dame’s Sheldon Day, Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins, Penn State’s Austin Johnson, Alabama’s Jarran Reed and Ohio State’s Adolphus Washington may be available when the Chiefs pick at 28 in the upcoming draft as well, and would be solid contributors right away along the defensive line in Howard’s stead.
G Evan Mathis or G Richie Incognito
While Alshon Jeffery (94.2) would certainly boost the offense, he will not come cheaply, and it’s difficult to see how Alex Smith’s (73.1) style of play would use him in a way that would make it worth what he would be getting paid. As I alluded to after the Chiefs’ season concluded, offensive line is the biggest offensive concern for the Chiefs.
It appears as though guard Jeff Allen (85.5) will leave via free agency, and with Ben Grubbs (70.9) injury prone and Larry Duvernay-Tardif (50.1) a suspect option to start at the other guard position, the Chiefs would be well-served to upgrade on the interior of their offensive line. Richie Incognito (90.0) and Evan Mathis (89.2) both graded exceptionally well last season, and are at the point in their careers (33 and 34 years old, respectively) where a reasonable deal financially may be in the cards. Mathis, whose run-blocking grade of 96.1 was the best of any guard, signed a team-friendly deal with the Broncos last season in the hopes of winning a Super Bowl. With the Chiefs in a similar position as the 2015 Broncos this coming offseason, he may be willing to take a comparable deal in 2016 to come to Kansas City and help pave the way for Jamaal Charles as he returns from an ACL injury.