Fresh off their fourth consecutive AFC West division title, the Kansas City Chiefs are again viewed by many as a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2019. But as the team heads into the offseason, a primary focus will be on retaining as many core contributors as possible, while adding fresh talent through free agency and the NFL Draft.
As it currently stands, the front office will need to make decisions on 24 expiring contracts at the end of this season. The Chiefs are projected to have approximately $21.3 million in 2020 salary cap space – less than half of the league average of $48.5 million, per Spotrac. Keeping the core intact moving forward becomes even more of a necessity when you consider that all three AFC West foes have between $55-70 million in cap space next year.
Aside from pending free agents, the team will likely be forced to make difficult decisions on key players who are under contract past the 2020 season.
Here are five key contributors who are most likely not to return to Kansas City next season.
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WR Sammy Watkins
While the 26-year-old receiver has improved upon his numbers from his first season in Kansas City, it may not be enough to warrant his rising salary cap hit. Should the Chiefs choose to keep the former No. 4 overall pick around, they’ll be on the hook for a $21 million hit next season, up from his current total of $19.2 million.
Watkins has not played a full 16-game season since his rookie year in Buffalo in 2014 and has missed 20 games throughout his six-year career. The veteran receiver’s game day availability remains a question mark, but the Chiefs could also value the opportunity for young receivers like Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson to earn more snaps. Cutting Watkins would cost the team $7 million in dead cap money, but create $14 million in savings.
RB LeSean McCoy
Another former Bills player, the 11th-year back signed a one-year, $3 million deal with Kansas City in early September following his release from Buffalo. The 31-year-old has not set the football world ablaze like earlier in his career, but McCoy has been Kansas City’s leading rusher in a shuffled backfield in 2019.
From Jamaal Charles to Spencer Ware to Kareem Hunt, the Chiefs have typically had a bell-cow rusher for much of the past decade. While McCoy remains a fine veteran player to keep around at a reasonable price, his expiring contract could give Kansas City the opportunity to hand the reins to one of their younger backs or add another versatile talent through the draft. The Chiefs will also need to make a decision on re-signing Ware, but the 28-year-old should be a more cost-effective option.
OL Cameron Erving
The former first-round pick of the Cleveland Browns has been forced in starting action in over half of the team’s games this year due to a lingering injury to LT Eric Fisher.
Erving is signed through the end of next season after signing a two-year, $8.2 million extension last September. However, his cap hit will reach its peak in 2020 to the tune of nearly $4.7 million. Parting ways with Erving via trade or release would not cost Kansas City a dead cap penalty. While the 27-year-old offers flexibility to play all across the offensive front, the Chiefs could elect to go younger and cheaper through the draft.
DE Emmanuel Ogbah
Similar to Erving in 2017, the Chiefs brought Emmanuel Ogbah over in a trade with the Cleveland Browns this past offseason. Among the team’s two dozen free agents to-be, the fourth-year pass rusher is arguably the most intriguing. The 26-year-old was well on his way to a career-best season before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season in early November. In 10 games (four starts), Ogbah racked up 32 total tackles and 5.5 sacks, tying his single-season high from his rookie year in 2016.
Young, productive pass rushers don’t frequently hit the open market, so when they do, bidding wars are likely to ensue. Given the Chiefs current cap availability, they could quickly be priced out of Ogbah’s range, especially if he commands a deal worth $8-10 million annually as Arrowhead Pride has suggested.
LB Anthony Hitchens
Since signing a five-year, $45 million free agent contract with Kansas City in 2018, Hitchens has led the team in tackles over the past two seasons. His 135 total tackles last year were the fifth-most of any defender in the entire NFL. Make no mistake about it, Hitchens is a quality starter currently in his prime, but his services are about to get a whole lot more expensive.
In 2020, his base salary is projected to increase by $7 million while his cap hit will more than double from $5.2 million to $12.7 million. If the Chiefs front office finds itself strapped for cash as it looks into contract extensions for star DT Chris Jones and QB Patrick Mahomes, Hitchens’ deal is one worth looking into.
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