The first thing to note about the Kansas City Chiefs and the franchise tag is that they probably don't have the money to use it.
ESPN reporter Adam Teicher offers a possible pleasing update:
The Chiefs have salary commitments of $122,249,251 for their top 51 players. That’s the sixth-highest total in the league. They have 68 players under contract but only the 51 highest salaries will count against their cap when the free-agent signing period begins.
The NFL's salary cap hasn't been finalized but has been estimated to be slightly more than $126 million. The Chiefs also have a salary-cap carryover of $2,381,518 they will add to the league’s limit, buying them some extra room.
But that still won't leave enough money to slap the tag on any one of their five most obvious candidates. That quintet is comprised of left tackle Branden Albert and safety Eric Berry, both Pro Bowlers in 2013.
They are joined by Brandon Flowers, who despite dipping below normally high standards last season, remains the best cornerback on the roster.
But the really pressing and troubling questions involve the long-term futures of quarterback Alex Smith and rush linebacker Justin Houston. Both are scheduled to be free agents in 2015.
Albert is the most frequently mentioned candidate to receive the tag. But that possibility is fraught with issues—not the least of which is cost.
ESPN's Teicher, in another report, puts the cost of using the tag on Albert for a second season in a row at $11 million.
Jeffrey Flanagan of Fox Sports believes the Chiefs don't need to commit to such a deal because they already have replacements for Albert waiting in the wings:
There is nothing official yet from the Chiefs, but all signs point to the team letting Albert walk through free agency.
The development of Blue Springs, Mo., native Donald Stephenson at the tackle position would allow the Chiefs to feel comfortable parting ways with Albert. Stephenson, a second-year man, could conceivably step into a starting role at left tackle, or the Chiefs could switch last year's first overall pick, Eric Fisher, to the left side and move Stephenson to right tackle.
Going with Fisher, for whom the team used the top pick in the 2013 NFL draft, or Stephenson, who impressed in the latter stages of last season, would be a hugely cost-effective move, according to Teicher:
Fisher wasn’t anyone’s idea of a Pro Bowl tackle last season. He struggled as a rookie on a few occasions to the point he probably deserved to be benched. But the Chiefs believe Fisher has Pro Bowl potential. Another year in their weight program should help him progress as a player next season.
Likewise, Stephenson will never be a Pro Bowler, but he is an adequate player who will cost the Chiefs a little more than $750,000 against their cap next season. There’s isn’t more than $10 million worth of difference between Albert and Stephenson.
While Teicher hardly offers an endorsement of the quality of either young tackle compared with Albert, it's important to highlight that the Chiefs have options.
Those options form part of a twofold argument for not using the tag on Albert and letting him test the market. The other side involves prioritising re-signing a group of free agents who contribute to a strong overall roster.
This is something Flanagan makes clear:
The Chiefs also are in dire need of financial freedom to sign some of their own free agents.
By not franchising or re-signing Albert -- he would receive a little over $11 million this season if tagged -- the Chiefs could free up money to consider re-signing other pending free agents such as Dexter McCluster, who made the Pro Bowl as a punt returner last season, or versatile offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz.
The Chiefs also have several other soon-to-be free agents: defensive back Husain Abdullah, guard Jon Asamoah, defensive back Quintin Demps, defensive end Tyson Jackson and safety Kendrick Lewis.
Quality depth is one of the main reasons the Chiefs produced such a spectacular turnaround in 2013. The likes of Schwartz, McCluster and Asamoah are key members of the rotation at their respective positions.
If the Chiefs want to manufacture cap space, letting shaky performers like Jackson, Lewis and Demps head for the exit door, along with Albert and his hefty salary, would surely be the best bet.
With Albert likely destined for pastures new, the Chiefs can focus on Berry and Flowers. The latter presents an intriguing potential problem for the Chiefs.
Flowers at his best is still a fine cornerback. But after some struggles in 2013, it's easy to wonder how well he fits defensive coordinator Bob Sutton's press-based coverage schemes.
Flowers has always looked most effective employing zone and off-coverage techniques that let him read quarterbacks and jump the ball.
As good as he has been, the Chiefs can't really afford a square peg in a round hole, especially one that costs $10.5 million against this year's cap and $11.5 million in 2015, per Spotrac.com.
A restructured, prove-it deal would be appropriate for Flowers this offseason.
Berry meanwhile, is arguably the most important player on the Kansas City defense. The do-all safety is identified by Teicher as a candidate to have his contract restructured:
The Chiefs could create cap room by restructuring or extending the contracts of some of their highest-paid players. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe ($12 million) , safety Eric Berry($11.62 million), linebacker Tamba Hali ($11.5 million) and cornerback Brandon Flowers($10.5 million) have the largest individual salary-cap figures.
It makes sense to work on Berry's deal now. Not only will it pry some more space under this year's cap, it also could help the Chiefs focus on two other pending deals.
Both Smith and Houston will be free agents in 2015. New contracts for both will be deemed high priorities by head coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey.
Smith will likely get the new deal this offseason. He has developed in Reid's offense, with his play toward the end of last season certainly showing he has outgrown "game manager" status.
Sam Mellinger of The Kansas City Star offered some figures that reveal an extension now for Smith is the best thing for the Chiefs, rather than slapping the tag on him:
The Chiefs, meanwhile, can continue to progress with a core group built to win now, with the added benefit that a long-term deal with their quarterback could, literally, buy extra cap space in the short-term.
Smith is due about $7.5 million this season, with a corresponding cap number, and then would become a free agent. The Chiefs could use their franchise tag on Smith for up to two seasons, but among other downsides is the cost: one league source expected it to be around $17 million in 2015, then around $22 million in 2016, with corresponding cap hits.
Committing Smith long-term to continue directing an offense that is actually more creative and expansive than many would acknowledge is indeed the smart play.
It would also draw focus away from Houston, who could be the trickiest tag decision for Reid and Dorsey. His rookie deal will be over by next offseason, and Houston is certainly a player who could command a fortune on the open market.
He has been utterly dominant in the last two seasons, notching 21 sacks and breaking up 10 passes. Sutton's risky coverage concepts only work when Houston and fellow outside 'backer Tamba Hali are both causing havoc.
That obvious reality will put Houston in a strong negotiating position when it's time to lobby for a new deal. Fortunately, the 25-year-old is not currently pushing to see the dollars.
If he was, that might force Reid and Dorsey to use the tag now. Joel Corry of CBS Sports suggests the tag for outside linebackers like Houston will likely carry a figure close to $11 million.
That is the same as what the Chiefs would pay to keep Albert in Kansas City one more season. But there is a fundamental difference between the two scenarios.
While the Chiefs have options at left tackle, they are threadbare at outside linebacker behind their bookend stars. That was amply proven last season when both Hali and Houston missed time and the Kansas City defense collapsed.
A premier pass-rusher is now arguably the most valuable commodity, behind only quarterback, in the modern NFL. But with Houston not making noises, at least yet, Reid and Dorsey will rely on tweaking some of their front-loaded salaries to create room for a new deal next year.
So don't expect the Chiefs to use the tag at all this offseason, unless Houston suddenly gets very restless.