LAS VEGAS — At some point, the Patrick Mahomes contract was going to necessitate some sacrifices, even with some creative work from the salary-cap department.
We already witnessed it once with the trade of wideout Tyreek Hill in 2022. Now, a second round of attrition is fast approaching, with the team facing a pair of tough free-agency decisions in two key defensive players — defensive tackle Chris Jones and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed — along with a litany of smaller questions after Super Bowl LVIII. In total, the Chiefs have 25 players eligible for some form of free agency after this season. They’re not alone when it comes to having to make choices, either.
The San Francisco 49ers have 21 players eligible for some form of free agency, including two starting defensive linemen in defensive end Chase Young and defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw. Beyond that foursome, there’s always the chance that an unexpected player could flourish on the Super Bowl stage and raise his profile heading to free agency. If you’re old enough, think back to Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Dexter Jackson in 2003, who spun a Super Bowl MVP performance into a big (for then) free-agent deal with the Arizona Cardinals.
Plenty of players will have that opportunity Sunday. The group includes a significant chunk of Chiefs defensive players, putting Kansas City into a situation that mirrors a problem the Philadelphia Eagles had in last season’s Super Bowl. So many important pieces on defense, so many interested free-agency suitors who will be watching them on this big stage and positioning themselves to pick off the defensive talent come March. With that in mind, here is a look at the top 10 players who either stand to pull significant contracts in March or could at least draw some eyeballs and make themselves additional free-agency money on Sunday.
1. Chris Jones, DT, Chiefs
It’s not necessary to say a lot about Jones. He’s one of the league’s best interior pass-rushers and would be a major multiyear anchor for any “win-now” free-agency suitor. Kansas City wants to keep him. But Jones turns 30 this offseason and is expected to command $30 to $35 million per year. The Chiefs would also like to retain the next free agent on this list (see below). A franchise tag for Jones would be expected to exceed $32 million in 2024. In other words, it could very well be an either/or scenario for general manager Brett Veach and head coach Andy Reid.
2. L’Jarius Sneed, CB, Chiefs
Sneed is a three-year full-time starter who has done nothing but improve his game every season in Kansas City. He just turned 27 and has length, strength and the kind of coverage ability to put him on an opposing team’s No. 1 wideout and rest easy. Bottom line is the length of the line in free agency will be long for Sneed. He’ll likely command at least $17 million per year and is a prime candidate for the Chiefs' franchise tag if they don’t use it on Jones.
3. Mike Danna, DE, Chiefs
Keep an eye on this guy as the player who could really help himself in the Super Bowl. Believe it or not, his consistency and development might even make him a more interesting free-agent defensive end in this game than the 49ers’ Chase Young. Like Sneed, Danna is another young player (26) who has consistently improved as a rotational pass-rusher. Unlike Sneed, this season was his first as a full-time starter. But he was a good, productive player for the Chiefs, and his arrow is still pointed up. If he blows up on the Super Bowl stage, an already interesting free agency could build some heat.
4. Drue Tranquill, LB, Chiefs
Sense a trend here? The Chiefs' defense is good for a reason. While they’ve drafted and developed some good, young, core players, they also made some smart decisions with acquisitions, and Tranquill is the one that stands out. Signed to a one-year deal after spending his first four seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers, Tranquill balled out in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s detail-oriented scheme. An injury to Nick Bolton opened up starting opportunities for Tranquill, and he was used as a versatile chess piece across all the linebacker spots. And if you saw him against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC title game, you know why he stands to make some cash in free agency. If he repeats that showing-up-all-over-the-place performance in the Super Bowl, he’s going to have a nice market in March.
5. Chase Young, DE, 49ers
There will be some griping about putting Young in the top five of this list. And we get it. He has definitely had some struggles at times since being acquired by San Francisco at at the trade deadline, and he certainly hasn’t lived up to the hopes that bookending him with former Ohio State teammate Nick Bosa would transform him into the unicorn everyone has been looking for since he was the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. That said, he’s going to turn 25 this offseason, still has immense physical and athletic gifts, and hasn’t been a total bust with the 49ers. Is there work to do when it comes to consistency? Yes. But teams thirst for defensive ends, and if Young has a big Super Bowl, it will take only one team in free agency to convince themselves they have the right mix of personnel and coaching to bring the best out of Young.
6. Willie Gay Jr., LB, Chiefs
Gay is lunch pail linebacker who, like Tranquill, really performed well in Spagnuolo’s complex system. He's also a full-time, three-year starter, though he’s had some injuries here and there. He has plus athleticism with good turn-and-cover pass-coverage ability. He’s also fared well against the run, despite playing an off-ball linebacker spot. This is the kind of linebacker teams love in free agency. He’s just a good, solid player who won’t cost elite-level money, and he can step in and be a very respectable piece for years to come.
7. Tashaun Gipson, S, 49ers
He’d be a lot higher on this list if he weren't turning 34 before the start of next season. But he had an extremely productive year, and teams covet veteran safeties they think can come in and be good one- or two-year backstops and influences on young, ascending secondaries. Gipson is the quintessential adult in the room who showcases how to go about your week preparing as a starter and limiting mistakes on game day. And what will make him extremely interesting in the Super Bowl is how the 49ers use him against Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. That alone could be a monster opportunity for Gipson to show potential free-agent suitors that he still has plenty of juice in his legs.
8. Donovan Smith, T, Chiefs
Yeah, he’s likely on the back nine of his career and isn’t the level of player he was in his mid-20s. But he’s an extremely experienced, 30-year-old offensive tackle who can likely move to the right side and still squeeze some good years out of his career. Bottom line, he’s an offensive tackle who protected Patrick Mahomes solidly this season from the left side, and he didn’t have a catastrophic level of penalties or sacks. Teams love experienced offensive tackles whom they don’t have to teach how to play the position. Smith is that.
9. Nick Allegretti, G, Chiefs
He’s likely going to start for injured Joe Thuney at left guard in the biggest opportunity of his career. He has been a backup rotational guard all five of his years in Kansas City. That might change this offseason, especially if he starts and plays a high percentage of snaps and puts up a great game in the Super Bowl. He turns 28 this offseason, and a good performance on this stage might convince an extremely guard-needy team to give him a modest free-agenct contract and a starting shot.
10. Javon Kinlaw, DT, 49ers
Frankly, he’s probably not going to make a lot of these lists because he’s a former first-round pick with high expectations who had a severely underwhelming first three years in San Francisco. But he flashed much more productive play in 2023, albeit as a rotational player and then a spot starter in the last month-plus of the regular season. But he’s still young at 26 and has some of the tools that teams will think just need a reboot. If he puts up a nice game in the Super Bowl and gets after Mahomes with his opportunities, it will help him in free agency.