The problem with the party is the hangover, and that’s as true for your night out as it is an NFL team that’s trying to build.
The Seattle Seahawks are the most obvious example of this. The Super Bowl champions’ star quarterback and cornerback are still playing under their rookie contracts, but they also have some bloated cap numbers and 15 unrestricted free agents. That includes defensive end Michael Bennett, who had the great line when someone asked if he’d take a discount to stay with the champs.
“This isn’t Costco,” he said.
Here in Kansas City, without the shine of the Lombardi Trophy, the Chiefs are planning through their own obstacles as they approach the new league year, which officially begins March 1. The Chiefs received some good news this week, with a bigger-than-expected rise in the salary cap, but they are starting this race behind most of the teams they’re competing against.
Every bit of the current discomfort and challenge they face should be welcomed with open arms, of course, like being a little sore after a good workout. This is the consequence of the Chiefs dragging themselves from the civic embarrassment of 2012 to the playoffs in 2013.
It’s just that the bill on that improvement is now due. For all of the success delivered by first-year head coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey, what the Chiefs do in their second offseason will be just as important — and much more difficult — than what they did in their first.
That’s especially true this week, as Reid and Dorsey and the rest of the Chiefs’ football-operations brain trust visit the NFL combine in Indianapolis for an in-person look at one of the strongest draft classes in years.
And because they were so aggressive last offseason — specifically, giving up this year’s second-round pick for Alex Smith and a stack of money for Dwayne Bowe’s contract — the Chiefs put themselves on the fringe of the party.
Which means they have to force their way inside.
Dorsey and Reid will again have to be aggressive, but this time in very different ways. Instead of just building right away, they must surgically tear down parts of the roster in order to build back up, and they have to do all of this quickly.
The Chiefs have a lot of needs, especially for an 11-win team. Free safety, wide receiver, pass rusher, cornerback, tight end. And those are just the immediate, and most obvious, needs. If Tyson Jackson doesn’t return, defensive line depth moves up the list of worries.
Without much cap space — as it stands at the moment, their contract total for 2014 is the sixth-highest in the league — they will have to be precise and creative. Without a second-round pick, they will need to knock this draft out of the park.
Without the flexibility of last offseason — when they had cap space left over from the previous front office, and no contract situations that couldn’t be managed with the franchise tag — Dorsey and Reid must be even better than they were last year in earning executive and coach of the year awards.
The whole situation is infused with additional urgency, too, because stars like Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, Bowe, and maybe even Jamaal Charles, are at the points in their careers when the view through the back window is longer than the one ahead.
That means the Chiefs’ first-round pick better not require an incubation period like tackle Eric Fisher, whom the Chiefs selected first overall out of Central Michigan last year. The Chiefs should and will listen to offers about trading out of the 23rd pick if it means adding inventory in a deep draft.
It also means stretching some players beyond what they’ve proved capable of so far. Most notably, Fisher and Donald Stephenson will be the team’s starting tackles after Branden Albert is released to pursue a contract the Chiefs just can’t afford.
If the Chiefs are going to finally take advantage of a talented nucleus still largely drafted by former general manager Carl Peterson and VP of player personnel Bill Kuharich, they will also likely need to restructure the contracts of some of their stars — especially Bowe and cornerback Brandon Flowers, neither of whom performed up to his cap number last season.
Hali turned 30 in November and is scheduled to eat up $11.5 million in cap space in 2014. Bowe drastically underperformed in his first year of that new contract and represents the Chiefs’ biggest cap hit in 2014 ($12 million).
Letting Albert walk will help free up some room, and if the Chiefs can restructure a big contract or two, they’ll have a much easier time filling holes on the roster. Making the right moves in the next few months can take them from a good team in 2013 to one that can (finally) win in the playoffs in 2014.
As it stands, with a toughening schedule, a few glaring holes on the roster and the natural rhythms of the NFL, the Chiefs look an awful lot like an 8-8 team in 2014.
Dorsey and Reid deserve every bit of praise they received in helping revive a lost franchise last year. Things happen quickly in the NFL, and a step back this season will mean a missed opportunity for a nucleus that’s running out of opportunities.
Dorsey and Reid were terrific in their first offseason together. The longtime friends will have to be even better their second time around.