(AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs are bringing back some major pieces from their Super Bowl championship team.
At least, for the time being.
The Chiefs placed the nonexclusive franchise tag on Pro Bowl defensive tackle Chris Jones on Monday, then exercised club options on running back Damien Williams and linebacker Damien Wilson as the NFL’s negotiating period opened with a frenzy ahead of free agency later in the week.
The nonexclusive tag means Jones must be offered a one-year contract for at least $16,126,000, the average of the top five salary cap hits at defensive tackle for the previous five years. It also means that if Jones signs an offer sheet from another team, the Chiefs can match that offer or let him go and receive two first-round picks as compensation.
“We had dialogue last offseason. We had dialogue prior to the season starting,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said at the scouting combine. “Chris did a great job of blocking that all and tackling the season. He handled it like a true pro and we have an opportunity now that we’ve come around to pick up those talks and try to get something done.”
None of which means Jones will play for the Chiefs, especially at that salary.
The club is strapped for cap space heading into free agency and would like to sign Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes to a potentially record-setting extension. That might only be possible if the Chiefs signed Jones to a more flexible long-term deal — something the sides have discussed for more than a year but have failed to accomplish — or trade him to a team with more cap space and the need for a pass-rushing defensive tackle.
That would be similar to what the Seahawks did last season with defensive end Frank Clark. After tagging him, they sent him to the Chiefs for a pair of draft picks, and Kansas City proceeded to sign him to a $105.5 million, five-year extension.
Now, could the Chiefs potentially afford two pass rushers making that kind of money?
“It’s challenging,” Veach acknowledged, “but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible, and I think working through the breakdowns and dispersal it’s always a challenge. But I think when you have guys as talented as Chris and these other players, you’re going to turn over every scenario to see what exactly can be done.”
Jones had 15 1/2 sacks two seasons ago, which drove up his market for a long-term deal. He wound up skipping the entire offseason when that didn’t happen, but Jones returned in time for training camp and started 12 of 13 games.
He finished with nine sacks, but he was instrumental in helping the Chiefs win their first Super Bowl title since 1970. He was at the forefront of holding the 49ers’ ground game in check, and his ability to pressure quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo — and knock down a key pass attempt late in the game — helped preserve the Chiefs’ 31-20 victory.
The 27-year-old Williams, who missed five games to a rib injury last season, still ran for nearly 500 yards and five TDs while giving Mahomes a valuable playmaker out of the backfield. Williams was at his best in the postseason, too, carrying 46 times for 196 yards and four TDs while scoring the go-ahead and clinching touchdowns in the Super Bowl.
That performance in Miami made Williams’ return to the Chiefs a foregone conclusion.
“Damien was banged up just a little bit early. That’s what he’s capable of doing,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “As long as he’s healthy, that’s been the only thing the last couple years. But he stays healthy and he’ll do fine.”
Wilson started all 16 games and finished second on the team with 81 tackles last season. But his return was less certain because the Chiefs could have freed up $4.5 million with only $875,000 in dead money by letting him go.
The Chiefs also declined to pick up their option on backup offensive lineman Cameron Erving.
The moves made Monday are only the start of what should be a busy offseason for the Super Bowl champs. They have to decide what to do with wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who carries a prohibitive $21 million cap hit for next season, and continue to work with Mahomes’ agent Leigh Steinberg on a market-setting contract extension.
They also need to replenish their defensive backfield, either through trades, free agency or the draft. Cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland, Keith Reaser, Morris Claiborne and Kendall Fuller all become free agents this week, leaving the Chiefs with only Charvarius Ward and Rashad Fenton on the 53-man roster.
“I think Charvarius Ward and the things he was able to do the last two years speak for themselves. Rashad, because of the injuries he had, he stepped up and played an important role for us. We’re excited for both those guys,” Veach said, “but the volume will be low if we don’t retain all these corners. We’ll try to address that as we move into the offseason.”