Top free-agent priorities for Chiefs after re-signing Tamba Hali
The Chiefs’ executed the first element of their free-agency strategy by retaining Tamba Hali on a three-year deal. Kansas City has a number of tough decisions still to make, however, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Ideally, the team would come to terms on a long-term deal with Eric Berry, freeing up some of the $10 million cap number from his franchise tag. Berry is the star of the secondary, but the Chiefs could do with the flexibility of spreading their resources, considering three key contributors are set to hit the market. The holes emerging in Kansas City’s defense are not limited to the secondary, either—ILB Derrick Johnson and DE Jaye Howard also have expiring contracts that must be addressed. The Chiefs key free agents are listed below, in order of priority.
1. Derrick Johnson, ILB
Inside linebackers might lack the positional value of cornerbacks, but Derrick Johnson has been the cornerstone of the Chiefs’ defense for a number of years. Johnson also remains amongst the most productive at his position in the league. He graded sixth amongst inside linebackers, and could have been higher but for a negative pass-rushing grade. Johnson was seventh against the run (88.1) and fifth in coverage (85.3). The numbers are particularly impressive, suggesting Johnson still has a few good years left in him. He finished with 35 stops against the run while missing just 6-of-62 attempted tackles. In coverage, he avoided giving up a touchdown while picking off two passes and adding a further six pass deflections. Overall, the 68.1 QB rating he allowed was sixth amongst inside linebackers. Kansas City can ill-afford to allow their defensive captain to depart this offseason.
2. Jaye Howard, DE
The Chiefs were almost entirely dependent on their edge rushers to generate pressure in 2015; each of their defensive lineman recorded negative grades as pass rushers. Jaye Howard was the best of the bunch, however, even if he still graded negatively. He generated six sacks, four hits, and 29 hurries from 470 snaps. Importantly, Howard’s career trajectory is pointing upward. He was particularly excellent early in the year, but tailed off toward the end. Still, he’s at the age where defensive lineman start to develop, and there appears plenty of improvement left to come. Howard already makes his presence felt against the run, where he recorded an 84.4 grade in 2015. With the financial investment unlikely to prove excessive, it makes sense for Howard to remain in Kansas City going forward.
3. Sean Smith, CB
The addition of Smith after the 2012 season was something of a risk. That risk, however, became a reward. After three excellent seasons, Smith is looking to cash in again. His size enables him to match up with the physical specimens at wide receiver, unlike the majority of corners. Despite all the plaudits handed to teammate Marcus Peters, Smith outperformed him. A bit of a gambler himself, Smith allowed 42 catches on 79 targets (53.2 completion percentage) for 575 yards, five touchdowns, two picks, and eight pass deflections. He’ll want to reduce the touchdowns allowed in 2016, but he still recorded a respectable 87.3 QB rating allowed. There’s no doubting Smith’s talent—the issue is the pay. Long press-man corners are hard to find, suggesting Smith is going to cash in. The Chiefs may well find themselves unable to match the offers he receives. However with Peters on one side and Ron Parker dropping down into the slot against three wide receiver sets, Kansas City has the makings of a solid secondary. The Chiefs may decide to replace Smith with a cheaper veteran.
Smith, Howard, and Johnson are not the only valuable contributors set to hit free agency. Productive safeties Husain Abdullah and Tyvon Branch are also set to shake free tomorrow at 4 p.m. Retaining either would leave the Chiefs with only one cornerback slot to fill. Smith is clearly talented, but Kansas City currently lacks the personnel to mitigate for the loss of Johnson or Howard. Expect a bidding war for Smith’s services—and a new team in the not-too distant future.