LAS VEGAS — At some point, Patrick Mahomes’ contract was going to require some sacrifices, even with some creative work from the salary cap department.
We already saw it once with the Tyreek Hill trade in 2022. Now, a second round of attrition is fast approaching with the team facing a pair of tough free agency decisions with two key defensive players — defensive tackle Chris Jones and cornerback L’ Jarius Sneed — along with a number of smaller question marks after Super Bowl LVIII. In total, the Chiefs have 25 players eligible for some form of free agency after this season. They are not alone when it comes to making some choices.
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. And beyond that foursome, there’s always the possibility of a surprise player blossoming on the Super Bowl stage and raising his profile heading into free agency. If you’re old enough, think back to Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Dexter Jackson in 2003, who parlayed a Super Bowl MVP performance into a huge (for the time) free agent deal with the Arizona Cardinals.
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Many players will have that opportunity on Sunday. The group includes a significant portion of the Chiefs’ defensive players, putting Kansas City in 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 up defensive talent in March. With that in mind, here’s a look at the top 10 players who will either attract significant contracts in March, or at least could draw some eyes and earn some extra free agency money come Sunday.
1. Chris Jones, DT, Chiefs
Not much needs to be said about Jones. He is one of the league’s best interior pass rushers and would be a great perennial anchor for any “win now” free agency prospect. Kansas City wants to keep him. But Jones turns 30 this offseason and is expected to make $30 million to $35 million a year in free agency. The Chiefs also want to keep the other free agent on this roster (see below). A franchise tag for Jones is 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 each season in Kansas City. He just turned 27 and has the length, strength and the kind of coverage ability to put him on the opposing team’s No. 1 and be comfortable. After all, the line in free agency will be long for Sneed. He’s likely to get at least $17 million a year in free agency and is a prime candidate for the Chiefs’ franchise tag if they don’t use him on Jones.
Keep an eye on this guy as the player who can 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 steadily 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 high. If he bursts onto the Super Bowl scene with a big game, an already interesting free agency could generate some extra heat.
Do you sense a trend here? Boss defense is good for a reason. While they’ve drafted and developed some good young key players, they’ve also made some smart decisions with acquisitions, and Tranquill is one that stands out. Signed to a one-year deal after spending his first four seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers, Tranquill fit into defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s detail-oriented scheme. An injury to Nick Bolton opened up starting options for Tranquill and he was used as a versatile chess piece in all the full-back spots. And if you saw him against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC title game, you know why he should make some money in free agency. If he repeats that performance shown across the country in the Super Bowl, he will have a good market in March.
5. Chase Young, DE, 49
There will be some contention about placing Young in the top five of this list. And we get it. He’s certainly struggled at times since being acquired from San Francisco at the trade deadline, and he certainly hasn’t lived up to the hopes that his backup with former Ohio State teammate Nick Bosa would transform him into the unicorn everyone has been looking for. because since it was choice no. 2 in the 2020 NFL Draft. All that said, he’ll turn 25 this offseason, still has tremendous physical and athletic gifts, and hasn’t been a complete bust with the 49ers. Is there work to be done when it comes to sustainability? Yes. But teams are thirsty for defensive ends, and if he has a big Super Bowl, it will only take one team in free agency to convince themselves they have the right mix of personnel and coaching to get the best out of Young.
6. Willie Gay Jr., LB, Chiefs
Gay is a lunch bucket linebacker who, like Tranquill, performed well in Spagnuolo’s complex system. He’s also a full-time, three-year starter, though he’s had a few injuries here and there. He has plus athleticism with good pass coverage ability in twist and coverage. He has also done well against the run despite playing an off-ball defensive back spot. That’s the kind of defensive line teams want in free agency. He’s just a good, solid player who won’t cost elite-level money, and he could be a very respectable piece for years to come.
He would be much higher on this list if he didn’t turn 34 before the start of next season. But he had an extremely productive year, and teams covet veteran safeties who they feel can come in and be a good one- or two-year backup and impact young, up-and-coming. He’s the quintessential adult in the room, showing you how to spend the week preparing as a starter and then simply limiting mistakes on game day. And what will make him extremely interesting in the Super Bowl is seeing how the 49ers use him against Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. This alone could be a monster opportunity for Gipson to show potential free agent suitors that he still has plenty of juice in his legs.
Yes, he is likely in the bottom nine of his career and is not the level of player he was in his mid-20s. But he’s an extremely experienced 30-year-old offensive tackle who will likely move to the right side and still squeeze a few good years out of his career. After all, he’s an offensive tackle who covered 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 who don’t have to learn how to play the position nowadays. Smith is him.
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He will likely start for the injured Joe Thuney at left guard in the biggest opportunity of his career. He has been a rotational backup guard during his five years in Kansas City. That could change this offseason, especially if he starts and plays a high percentage of the snaps and has a great game in the Super Bowl. He turns 28 this offseason, and a good showing on that stage could convince a team in dire need of giving him a modest free agency contract and a starting shot.
10. Javon Kinlaw, DT, 49
Honestly, he probably won’t make many of these lists because he’s a former first-round pick with high expectations who had an extremely poor first three years in San Francisco. But he pitched much more productively in 2023, albeit as a rotation player and then a starter in the final month plus of the regular season. But he’s still young at 26 and has some of the tools that teams will think just needs a reboot. If he has a nice game in the Super Bowl and follows Mahomes with his opportunities, that will help him in free agency.