As of last week, the Chiefs were the proud owners of precisely $177 in cap space.
That's $171, as in your March water-and-sewer bill, as in your bar tab on the night of the College Football Playoffs (assuming you bought a round or two). The Chiefs have enough cap space to download approximately three AAA-title video games if they skimp on the DLC. They have enough cap space to purchase his and hers Patrick Mahomes jerseys from the NFL Shop, but only during the spring sale.
The Chiefs actually have a tiny bit more than $171 in cap space now that they restructured Sammy Watkins' contract; official sources like the NFLPA take longer with their accounting. Over the Cap listed Kansas City's Wednesday cap space at $3,489,548. We normally round cap figures to the nearest $100,000 or so, but when you start with only $171 to get you to the end of the month, you count every penny. The Chiefs needed to clear a few million cap bucks to sign their draft picks. After that, they'll fish through the sofa cushions for loose change.
Speaking of the draft, the Chiefs possess just five picks, because they traded this year's sixth- and seventh-rounders in past deals. So much for cheaply restocking the depth chart in the later rounds.
But really: Who needs money when you have Mahomes? The Chiefs will be just fine in 2020, so long as Mahomes has another MVP-caliber season. And the Chiefs are doing everything they can afford to do to make that happen.
Every NFL offseason is an arms race. The defending Super Bowl champions are rarely in position to save money or plan for three years down the line. The Chiefs need to stay one step ahead of challengers such as the Ravens, who managed to add significant pieces (Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe) to a 14-2 roster. But the entire NFL system is stacked against Kansas City, from the salary cap to the draft order, so the best the Chiefs can do is keep as much of their nucleus together as possible.
And this Chiefs offseason has been all about keeping Mahomes' band together. Watkins, who ate up $19.2 million in cap space to catch 66 regular- and postseason passes last year, is the sort of player most cash-strapped teams would release. But Watkins has special (if not always reliable) talent, and Mahomes needs every weapon available, so the Chiefs finagled his contract.
They also re-signed Demarcus Robinson—an afterthought in the offense for much of last season—for one year at $2.3 million, despite speculation that he would fetch a premium elsewhere. A third-round rookie might be able to duplicate Robinson's 32 catches, 449 yards and four touchdowns as the Chiefs' fourth receiver (fifth, if you count All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce alongside Tyreek Hill, Watkins and Mecole Hardman). But why chance it?
Retaining Mahomes' ancillary weapons comes with a cost. The Chiefs shed starters and useful role players throughout free agency: cornerback Kendall Fuller (Washington), edge-rusher Emmanuel Ogbah (Dolphins), linebacker Reggie Ragland (Lions) and reserve lineman Stefen Wisniewski (Steelers), among others. None are irreplaceable (Mike Remmers was signed to replace Wisniewski), but again: The Chiefs only have five draft picks and enough petty cash for one pair of really good sneakers, so even bottom-of-the-roster replacements will be hard to come by.
Meanwhile, there's talk that the team hopes to re-sign cornerback Bashaud Breeland, and other in-house free agents remain in limbo. The Chiefs can achieve financial wiggle room by signing franchise-tagged defensive tackle Chris Jones to a long-term deal that spreads his compensation across multiple years, but that will be a pricey spend-money-to-make-money proposition. Tom Pelissero of NFL.com reports that the team also hopes to open extension talks with Mahomes himself after the draft, but it's hard to seriously discuss what's sure to become the biggest contract in NFL history when you can barely pay the phone bill.
Add it all up, and the Chiefs' plan for this season boils down to putting Mahomes on the field with an Andy Reid playbook and familiar faces to throw to, hoping he can be even better than he was last year and saving tomorrow for tomorrow.
That's a really sound plan, because Mahomes very likely will improve upon his 2019 season.
It's easy to forget that he missed two-and-a-half games with a dislocated kneecap last year, was hobbled with a sprained ankle for several others and played through a late-season hand injury. Mahomes was rarely at his best, and it showed on the stat sheet. He threw just 26 touchdown passes. He finished third (behind Drew Brees and Lamar Jackson) in Football Outsiders' DVOA, second (behind Ryan Tannehill) in Pro Football Reference's ANY/A, second (behind Jackson) in ESPN's QBR and seventh (behind the guys already listed, plus Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford) in efficiency rating.
Make no mistake: Mahomes had a fabulous 2019 season. But we know he can do better, because he threw 50 touchdown passes and won the MVP award in 2018. He's the NFL's best player, so he shouldn't be finishing second, third or seventh to anyone. The Mahomes we saw in the playoffs—particularly when engineering comebacks in the playoffs—is the one the Chiefs need to see each week next year. Not the hobbled Mahomes. Or Chad Henne.
So the Chiefs are maxing out their credit cards on guys like Watkins and Robinson. They're banking on Hardman to become a more consistent home run threat. They'll do what they can in the draft, perhaps adding a running back in the first round, to press their offensive advantage even further. If their plan works, they'll outscore every opponent by 17 points, so it won't matter if their defense takes a step back.
And when Mahomes eventually asks for $200 million, the Chiefs will figure out a way to pay him, because he's worth it.
But that's tomorrow's problem. Today's problem is finding a way to return to the Super Bowl with only two nickels to rub together. Luckily for the Chiefs, Mahomes is the solution.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.