The Kansas City Chiefs may have started the offseason as Super Bowl champions for the first time in 50 years but their salary cap situation wasn't nearly as celebrated.
At one point, the Chiefs were just $177 below the NFL's limit. Not ideal with defensive lineman Chris Jones needing a new contract and quarterback Patrick Mahomes in line for an extension. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which affected all teams but particularly those like the Chiefs, who were preparing to make significant long-term financial commitments.
Despite uncertainty surrounding future salary caps, the Chiefs found a way get Jones and Mahomes their new deals and now Kansas City is running it back with much the same crew as it had last season.
"We certainly had some obstacles to overcome," general manager Brett Veach said. "We were driven and determined this whole time. ... Our plan was to do a lot of the things that we've done this offseason, but right at the top of that list were Pat Mahomes and Chris Jones.
"That's why this took some time. We were just trying to go through all of the scenarios. We don't know where the cap is going to be, but we have to have plans ready and in place whether it grows [or] stays the same [or] dips. ... We have enough game-planning in place to protect ourselves and we felt good."
Here are three factors that helped them succeed this offseason:
Chiefs lock up DT Chris Jones with four-year deal
Louis Riddick applauds Chiefs GM Brett Veach for successfully keeping the Chiefs' nucleus intact with a four-year deal with defensive tackle Chris Jones worth up to $85 million.
The Chiefs mostly stayed away from the veteran free-agent market, except for backups. Instead, they used almost every penny they had for the long-term deals on Mahomes and Jones. Counting their own free agents and those from other teams, the Chiefs signed 16 veteran players since their Super Bowl victory. All except Mahomes (10-year extension), Jones (four years) and backup quarterback Chad Henne (two) are on contracts that run through just this season. That the Chiefs acquired almost no other long-term debt allowed them the flexibility to sign Mahomes and Jones to expensive deals. The two players in 2021 will cost the Chiefs about $44 million against their cap. That number rises to about $52 million in 2022.
A couple of key players, one of them Mahomes, agreed to restructured contracts or team-friendly deals. Mahomes' salary-cap numbers for 2021 and 2022 increased minimally or not at all even with the new contract. The Chiefs wouldn't have been able to afford Jones had Mahomes' cap number ballooned over the next two years. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins also agreed to reduce his salary to $9 million from $14 million. That extra $5 million gave the Chiefs some room to be active for backups in the early days of the free-agent signing period.
The Chiefs got some good fortune when the markets for some of their own free agents such as wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, cornerback Bashaud Breeland and defensive lineman Mike Pennel didn't materialize the way those players hoped. They were able to retain all of them on one-year contracts.
The result is a roster with just about everyone of significance returning. And continuity figures to be more important than ever in a year when offseason workouts were canceled and training camps will be altered because of the pandemic.
The Chiefs' most significant offseason addition is on offense, where the Chiefs drafted running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round. The Chiefs last year were only the fourth Super Bowl champion not to have a rusher with at least 500 yards.
"I think the kid is just a special kid," offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. "You've seen some of the things he's done on tape as far as running the ball, having the ability to get outside in the open field and make some plays as a receiver. You can create [favorable] matchups with him. He's one of those ideal kids that fits in what we do."
If all goes according to the Chiefs' plan, they will be the first back-to-back Super Bowl champions since the New England Patriots more than 15 years ago.
"We're bringing most of our crew back and we're excited for the opportunity to go out there and compete for it again," Mahomes said. "I think that having that mindset will hopefully keep us from relaxing or anything like that, and I think that's why teams don't repeat. It's such a hard league and there's so much turnover that it's hard to get that same spark and make that same run. But I feel like we have a good chance of at least preparing ourselves to be ready to do that. So I'm excited for that opportunity."