Chiefs mailbag: Spotlight falls on free agency

Free agency is set to begin when the NFL’s calendar year begins Wednesday, March 9.

And with the annual event come questions on players the Chiefs should look to re-sign or positions to target when the market officially opens at 3 p.m. CT, as evidenced in this latest edition of the mailbag.

Easily the cornerback position, especially if Sean Smith doesn’t re-sign.

The Chiefs drafted three cornerbacks the past two seasons – Phillip Gaines in 2014, then Marcus Peters and Steven Nelson in 2015 – and their selections on paper could soften the blow of potentially losing Smith.

It is clear the Chiefs struck gold with the selection of Peters, but there are some questions with Gaines and Nelson.

Gaines, who enjoyed a strong training camp in 2015, returns from a torn ACL and Nelson spent his rookie year developing into a nickel role, so the Chiefs need to evaluate depth.

As the roster stands now before the start of free agency, the Chiefs have eight cornerbacks: Smith, Peters, Gaines, Nelson, Jamell Fleming, Marcus Cooper, Keith Lewis and Deveron Carr.

Fleming’s contributions can’t be overlooked as he is also set to become an unrestricted free agent. The Chiefs would have a hole on special teams, where Fleming ranked third on the unit with eight tackles and played the fourth-highest amount of snaps (273).

An NFL team can never have enough cornerbacks in a pass-happy league, and the Chiefs would be wise to bolster the position either through free agency or the draft if the team can’t retain Smith and Fleming.

Ultimately, any signing comes down to finances and Jaye Howard is set to get paid.

While Howard made it clear he would like to return, he also told ChiefsDigest.com and The Topeka Capital-Journal in the locker room after the loss to the Patriots on Jan. 17 what he is looking for.

“Ultimately and truthfully, I got to take care of my family at this point,” Howard said then. “I want to be paid like one of the top D-linemen in this league, and I felt like I deserve that. I played well enough to get that and hopefully we can get something done. I’d love to be back here.”

Brad Biggs of The Chicago Tribune recently reported that Howard is “looking for a contract averaging between $8 million and $9 million per year.”

ChiefsDigest.com and The Topeka Capital-Journal aren’t able to confirm that asking price, but the figures Biggs point out are in line with some of the league’s top-earning defensive ends playing in a 3-4 scheme.

For examples, Denver Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe signed a four-year, $36 million contract extension in January, while Tennessee Titans defensive end Jurrell Casey signed a four-year, $36 million extension in 2014.

Of note, Howard and Casey are represented by Drew Rosenhaus.

In the meantime, Howard offered an update on the negotiations between his camp and the Chiefs during a Thursday night guest appearance on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

“It’s kind of up in the air,” Howard told the radio station. “Kansas City is, you know, it became home for me and my family. And me and my wife and my two boys, they embraced this.

“I love the fans there, I love the organization. The front office staff is great, my teammates, I’m surrounded by great players. I would love to be there, but, ultimately, at this point in my career it’s about me and my family now.”

Free agency is a game of chess and Howard made his move the past season by appearing in 16 games (14 starts), totaling 36 tackles and career-high 5½ sacks.

Check. It’s the Chiefs’ move.

Agreed that cornerback Sean Smith is too valuable to lose and the proof is in how the pass defense looked in Weeks 1-3 the past season without Smith, who served a three-game suspension to start the season.

But Smith will not come cheap and it takes two sides to negotiate to come to an agreement.

Joel Corry, a salary cap/contract expert with CBS Sports, projects Smith’s next contract as a four-year, $44 million deal.

And whenever Corry, a former NFL agent, offers an opinion, it’s wise to listen because he’s normally right on the money – no pun intended – when it comes to projected contracts.

In a perfect world, the Chiefs would have accomplished a multiyear deal on safety Eric Berry and used the franchise designation on Smith to prevent the cornerback from hitting the open market.

That scenario, of course, didn’t happen.

Speaking of Berry:

That is a best-case scenario, but the NFL is a deadline-driven league.

Don’t be surprised if the Chiefs take this situation all the way up to the July 15 deadline to have a multiyear contract done with safety Eric Berry, who was designated as a non-exclusive franchise player.

Look back to 2015 when the Chiefs and outside linebacker Justin Houston, who was also designated as a non-exclusive franchise player, hammered out a six-year, $101 million deal on the deadline.

Reports out of Dallas suggest the Cowboys are set to part ways with cornerback Brandon Carr, who originally entered the league in 2007 out of Grand Valley State as a fifth-round pick of the Chiefs.

When then-Chiefs coach Herm Edwards drafted Carr in 2008, the Chiefs often utilized a Cover-2 scheme with Carr and Brandon Flowers. But the 6-0, 210-pound Carr is capable of playing press-man.

While Carr, who turns 30 in May, has the size this Chiefs regime covets, any potential return depends on the Chiefs viewing Carr as a fit in the defensive scheme.

The first part of the question was previously discussed (see question above).

Now as to the second part on inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, signs point to a reason for optimism before the start of free agency or at the onset when the league’s calendar year begins on March 9.

General manager John Dorsey was pretty clear at the recently-concluded NFL Scouting Combine how he felt about Johnson.

“We’re going to move this thing forward,” Dorsey said of negotiations with Johnson’s agent. “Any time you become the all-time leading tackler for the Chiefs, we’re not going to let good football players go in this thing.”

Given that response, it sure sounds like the Chiefs want Johnson.

Backup quarterback Chase Daniel is set to be an unrestricted free agent, and the Chiefs appear resigned to the fact that Daniel may not return given his desire to be a starter in the league.

“I understand the business of the game of football and he’s going to want to be able to see if he can start,” general manager John Dorsey said of Daniel at the Combine. “I do believe he’s capable of doing that, so that process will be ongoing. It will take a couple weeks here before we sit down and talk with his agent some more.”

In the event Daniel signs elsewhere, the Chiefs are left with Alex Smith, Aaron Murray and Tyler Bray and Dorsey said at the Combine he believed the No. 2 quarterback was already on the roster.

Smith is the clear starter, obviously, and the Chiefs like Murray and Bray, who signed a two-year extension in August 2015 despite not ever playing a regular-season snap since joining the team in 2014 as an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee.

Murray or Bray could be groomed as the heir-apparent, but if we’ve learned anything about this current regime in the past three seasons is the Chiefs will not maintain the status quo.

Dorsey believes in boosting competition, so the team’s future quarterback may not be on the roster.

The answer depends on if cornerback Sean Smith signs elsewhere, but the player I really like is Green Bay Packers cornerback Casey Hayward, who entered the league in 2012 out of Vanderbilt as a second-round pick while John Dorsey was in Green Bay.

Outside of the obvious connection to Dorsey, the 5-11, 192-pound Hayward has the versatility to play outside and inside, which would be huge given Phillip Gaines’ return from an ACL injury and Steven Nelson’s development.

If Smith returns, the Chiefs should stay in the defensive secondary and look for depth at safety if Tyvon Branch and Husain Abdullah, both scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, sign elsewhere.

A safety who could make sense for the Chiefs in that scenario is Walter Thurmond of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Thurmond, who originally entered the league in 2010 out of Oregon as a cornerback with the Seattle Seahawks, has the versatility to play different positions, an attribute this Chiefs regime covets.

The second part of the question was addressed above with Casey Hayward and Walter Thurmond, so let’s lock on the first part.

While the Chiefs placed the franchise tag on safety Eric Berry, the team has a host of players set to become unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Derrick Johnson, cornerback Sean Smith, guard Jeff Allen, defensive end Jaye Howard, quarterback Chase Daniel, offensive tackle Donald Stephenson, wide receiver Jason Avant, safety Husain Abdullah, safety Tyvon Branch, defensive end Mike DeVito, linebacker Frank Zombo, cornerback Jamell Fleming and linebacker Dezman Moses.

And there’s also outside linebacker Tamba Hali, whose contract can be voided, to consider.

The Chiefs experienced a magical run to the postseason last year with each of those players playing a significant role. But the business side of football means not everyone will return as offers for bigger paydays and opportunities arrive.

If the price is right, the Chiefs should retain Smith, Johnson, Hali, Allen, Howard, DeVito, Abdullah, Branch and Zombo.

• Smith is a huge part of what the Chiefs like to do on defense, and 6-3, 218-pound cornerbacks don’t grow on trees.
• Johnson, the heart and soul of the defense, just wouldn’t look right in another uniform after spending 11 seasons with the Chiefs. Ditto to Hali, who has played 10 seasons in Kansas City.
• The Chiefs’ running game truly took off when Allen, who has versatility to play tackle and guard, was inserted in the starting lineup last season. He brings nastiness and provides insurance at the guard position when considering Ben Grubbs returns from a neck injury.
• The biggest worry is Howard could price himself out of the Chiefs’ range.
DeVito told ChiefsDigest.com and The Topeka Capital-Journal he wants to return to Kansas City, and it makes sense for the Chiefs to bring him back.
• Abdullah plays a vital role in the Chiefs’ defensive sub-packages and has underrated coverage skills.
• Branch signed a one-year “prove it” deal in 2015 and arguably more than did his part to show he was worth the contract.
• Zombo’s contributions fly under the radar, but he can start in a pinch and is a special teams ace.

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Herbie Teope is the lead Chiefs beat writer for ChiefsDigest.com and The Topeka Capital-Journal. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @HerbieTeope.

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