Among the 20-plus impending free agents the Kansas City Chiefs will need to make decisions on in the coming weeks will be two of the team’s most veteran linebackers: Damien Wilson and Ben Niemann.
Despite his intangible value to the defense as a captain and primary play-caller, seventh-year linebacker Anthony Hitchens has also been called one of the club’s “most likely” cut candidates due to his bloated $10.6 million cap hit this coming season.
Like a few other position groups in Kansas City, including the offensive line and secondary, the linebacker position could take on a much different look in 2021 than in 2020. The primary driver of change will be the Chiefs’ salary cap standing, which currently sits approximately $23 million above the new projected team cap of $180 million, according to Over The Cap.
In a recent exercise to select perfect free agent matches for all 32 NFL teams, Pro Football Focus identified Buffalo Bills linebacker Matt Milano as a sensible replacement for the AFC champions should they move on from their top in-house options.
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Milano Thrives in Coverage…When He’s on the Field
Milano, a 2017 fifth-round pick who turns 27 years old in July, is set to hit the open market for the first time since entering the league. The Bills, like the Chiefs, won’t exactly have an influx of cash to spend in free agency as they’re currently just $1.9 million below the new projected ceiling with a few key contributors to re-sign. As a result, the 6-foot, 223-pounder could be in line for a payday and a one-way ticket out of Buffalo.
In terms of Kansas City as a potential landing spot, PFF’s justification for the hypothetical signing leaves a lot to be desired despite the on-field ability Milano has shown to date:
Milano is a very good coverage linebacker, and with the Chiefs holding leads in almost every game they play with Patrick Mahomes, these types of players are essential.
While Milano does miss tackles in the run game, that’s not as important an aspect of the position right now. He had the NFL’s 12th-highest grade at linebacker in 2018, at 76.1, but his play has dropped over the last two years, when he’s graded at 65.6 and 54.5, respectively.
Even if the scheme fit is justifiable, the financials likely won’t be, as is the case with most free agent “matches” for the Chiefs this offseason. Spotrac currently lists Milano’s market value at $13.8 million annually, which would be the sixth-highest average salary among outside linebackers, comparable to players like Anthony Barr, Shaq Thompson and Myles Jack. However, that number could come down as the market becomes more saturated with top talent this offseason in what is expected to be a free agent “bloodbath.”
Considering Hitchens is being thrown on the proverbial chopping block due to his contract, the Chiefs replacing him and/or Wilson with an even more expensive option doesn’t make a ton of financial sense. Not only that, but Milano’s history of injuries is more concerning than that of Hitchens, who has started all but four games during his three seasons in Kansas City (one of which was to rest in Week 17 last season).
Milano notched a career-high 3.5 sacks in career-low 10 games last season while dealing with lingering hamstring and pectoral injuries. In 2018, a broken leg also forced him to miss the final three weeks of the season. His most productive campaign as a pro came in 2019 when the Boston College product tallied 101 combined tackles, 1.5 sacks and nine pass breakups in 15 starts.
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Bills GM: ‘We’ll Do Our Best to Retain Him’
When Milano is healthy, it’s clear he is a difference-maker worthy of pursuit.
“Buffalo’s defense was noticeably improved with Milano on the field and he was a key factor in its defensive turnaround over the past five games of the season, when the Bills ranked in the top 10 in yards allowed per game (307.2), rushing yards allowed per game (97.6) and passing yards allowed per game (209.6),” ESPN’s Bills reporter Marcel Louis-Jacques noted last month.
During his end-of-season press conference following Bills’ AFC Championship loss to the Chiefs — Buffalo’s first loss last season with Milano in the lineup — general manager Brandon Beane was candid about how much the team values the soon-to-be free agent.
“We’d love to be able to get Matt back. He knows that,” Beane told reporters on January 28, via ESPN. “I shared that with him and I’m sure [coach] Sean [McDermott] has as well. The business side matters. He’s earned the right to go to free agency and see what his market bears. … We’ll do our best to retain him and as many guys as we can. There’s going to be some tough decisions, unfortunately, for us. Whether it’s letting guys go on this roster or having to watch guys leave.”
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Chris Licata is an NFL contributor covering the Kansas City Chiefs from enemy territory in Denver, Colorado. Follow him on Twitter @Chris__Licata or join the Heavy on Chiefs Facebook community for the latest out of Chiefs Kingdom!