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NFL free agency: Chiefs face significant questions at OL, WR, DL

Steelers Chiefs Football
Posted at 4:16 PM, Feb 20, 2023

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nine Kansas City Chiefs players who were on the field for at least one-third of the offensive or defensive snaps last season are headed for free agency.

That includes two starting offensive linemen, two wide receivers and three defensive linemen along with safety Juan Thornhill and running back Jerick McKinnon.

Kansas City currently sits roughly $3.5 million over the cap with only 48 players signed for next season, according to Over the Cap, so something’s got to give.

The Chiefs can create space by reworking Frank Clark and/or Chris Jones’ contracts or moving around some of Patrick Mahomes’ money, but it may impact the team’s ability to retain key players.

Here’s a breakdown of the biggest names from the reigning Super Bowl champs set to hit free agency:

LT Orlando Brown Jr.

Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. is the Chiefs’ biggest-name free agent for the second straight offseason. He and right tackle Andrew Wylie are both free agents.

Kansas City traded for Brown in the days leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft and he’s been a Pro Bowler in both seasons with the club.

The Chiefs used the franchise tag on Brown last March, but long-term contract negotiations stalled as he searched for a new agent and the sides ultimately couldn’t agree on a multi-year deal.

While Brown has had his struggles, which has made him something of a polarizing figure among Chiefs fans, he projects as the top free-agent tackle in 2023 and probably remains Kansas City’s best option for protecting Mahomes’ blindside next season.

With Brown likely to get franchise tagged again, according to The Athletic, if the teams remain at an impasse on a long-term deal, it will cost the Chiefs $20 million — well, $19,994,400 to be exact, based on 120% of his 2022 salary after playing on the tag last season.

That’s a big hit that more than devours the $16.6-million jump for next season to a record-high salary cap of $224.8 million.

The franchise-tag window opens Tuesday and ends at 3 p.m. Central time on March 7.

Free agency begins March 15.

RT Andrew Wylie

Wylie also was a free agent last season and returned to Kansas City on a one-year deal.

He’s been incredibly valuable in five seasons with the Chiefs — starting at right guard, left guard and right tackle for long stretches from season to season.

After stepping in during the 2021 season when Lucas Niang was injured, Wylie locked down the starting job in training camp and started 95% of the offense’s snaps last season.

Wylie has made 59 starts — nearly 12 per season — during his NFL career.

If the price is right, Kansas City would love to have Wylie back, but salary-cap constraints could factor into the equation and another offensive-line needy team could swoop in and sign him.

“Those guys obviously had good years for us,” Reid said of Brown and Wylie. “All these contract things I haven’t gotten with (General Manager Brett) Veach on at all. I kind of stay out of that world, but I think both guys are very well-liked here and I’m sure that Brett will make a strong attempt to keeping them here. We'll see how that goes.”

S Juan Thornhill

Thornhill is coming off arguably his best season with a career-high 71 tackles, including a career-high four for a loss, to go with a career-high nine passes defended and three interceptions, which tied the career-high he set as a rookie in 2019.

That’s a lot of career-bests.

After struggling to regain his form for a few seasons after suffering a torn ACL late in his rookie season, Thornhill may be in the same situation as Charvarius Ward last offseason.

He’s been productive and the Chiefs like him, but he’s probably going to be able to find a bigger payday — potentially much bigger — on the open market.

WR JuJu Smith-Schuster

Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was as advertised in his first season with the Chiefs.

He complemented tight end Travis Kelce well from the slot and became Mahomes’ favorite target among the receivers, finishing with 78 catches for 933 yards and three touchdowns.

Smith-Schuster’s 9.2 yards per target were the second most of his career. He did miss time with a concussion in November, but played through a knee injury in the postseason after having trouble staying healthy in Pittsburgh, especially in his last season with the Steelers.

The Chiefs’ comfortability with Smith-Schuster’s durability will dictate any contract offer, but he proved his value in the offense when available.

RB Jerick McKinnon

For a guy who didn’t start a single game, McKinnon made an immense impact, including NFL-record touchdown production for a running back in the passing game late in the season.

McKinnon finished with only 291 yards rushing, but he added 512 receiving and his 803 total yards from scrimmage were the second-most of his nine-year career.

He also had 10 touchdowns, including nine receiving, and served as Mahomes’ personal protector in pass blocking with some legendary blitz pickups.

McKinnon’s $1.2-million contract last season should be largely replicable.

DE Carlos Dunlap

If the Chiefs invest in a defensive end in the draft again, veteran defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who signed late in camp last summer, may get squeezed off the roster.

Depending on other moves, a reunion can’t be ruled out but only if it remains a glaring need as camp approaches and he hasn’t signed elsewhere. Think Melvin Ingram last offseason.

WR Justin Watson

With 15 catches for 315 yards and two touchdowns, Watson was moderately productive and relatively cheap. He could return in a similar role

DT Khalen Saunders

Defensive tackle Khalen Saunders gets to test the open market for the first time and his athleticism could entice some NFL teams to offer a multi-year deal.

Saunders was healthy for the first time in his career and responded with 48 tackles, including three for a loss, and 3 1/2 sacks as a backup, playing one of every three snaps.

That’s solid production, but his injury history might limit the offers Saunders receives and could bring a reunion between the St. Louis native and Kansas City on a short-term deal into play.

DT Derrick Nnadi

In his fifth NFL season, defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi started all 17 games but played barely one-third of the defensive snaps as a run-stuffing one technique on the Chiefs’ defensive interior.

That’s his role, but he’s seen his snap count dip three consecutive seasons and his production bottomed out with a career-low 25 tackles last season.

Still, re-signing Nnadi, who played on a one-year deal worth $2.75 million last season, won’t break the bank.

Unless the Chiefs invest some draft capital in young rotational defensive tackles, Nnadi remains a candidate to return on a similar deal to last year.

Other notable free agents

Punter Tommy Townsend, who made his first Pro Bowl and was a first-team All-Pro, is in line for a hefty raise, but figures to remain in Kansas City.

The more interesting questions swirl around wide receiver Mecole Hardman Jr. and guard Nick Allegretti.

The timing of the first significant injury of Hardman’s career probably hurt his value on the open market. He was still finding his role in a post-Tyreek Hill Chiefs offense, but there were signs he was poised for a career year down the stretch.

Hardman had already tied his career-high with six touchdowns from scrimmage.

Hardman missing the last nine games might soften the speedster’s market, which may increase the chance he returns.

But then again, will the Chiefs have to pick between Hardman and Smith-Schuster because of salary-cap constraints?

Allegretti started nine games at left guard in 2020 due to injury and started three games last season.

Does he want a starting job in the NFL? Is the new father comfortable with the role as a frequently used backup and insurance policy behind center Creed Humphrey and left guard Joe Thuney?

Allegretti is a versatile road-grader interior offensive linemen who has earned the right to explore his value outside Kansas City.

Chiefs 2023 free agents

Off/Def snap %ST snap %2022 contract valueAge (2023 season)
LT Orlando Brown Jr.98.4%19.6%$16,662,00027
RT Andrew Wylie95.0%19.1%$2,537,50029
FS Juan Thornhill84.8%1.1%$3,134,13928
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster66.6%0.0%$3,760,00027
RB Jerick McKinnon46.6%27.8%$1,187,50031
DE Carlos Dunlap45.4%0.0%$3,000,00034
WR Justin Watson42.4%14.6%$1,035,00027
DT Khalen Saunders34.8%11.7%$1,218,79527
DT Derrick Nnadi33.8%14.8%$2,750,00027
P Tommy Townsend*28.1%31.1%$897,50027
WR Mecole Hardman Jr.26.4%2.2%$4,399,19125
LB Darius Harris*25.3%38.7%$895,00027
OG Nick Allegretti24.7%19.6%$1,002,98827
TE Jody Fortson**16.0%39.4%$825,00028
DL Tershawn Wharton*13.0%3.5%$896,66825
S Deon Bush6.2%68.9%$1,187,50030
FB Michael Burton6.2%51.7%$1,272,50031
DT Brandon Williams5.7%0.0%$1,390,00034
RB Ronald Jones II3.3%0.0%$1,500,00026
TE Blake Bell2.8%2.0%$1,272,50032
OT Prince Tega Wanogho*0.0%19.6%$825,00026
QB Shane Buechele**0.0%0.0%$825,00025

* indicates a restricted free agent, while ** indicates an exclusive-rights free agent.