This year’s franchise tag deadline passed without the Chiefs re-tagging Orlando Brown Jr. They will take their chances on the market, with the veteran left tackle seemingly unlikely to sign before seeing what else could be out there for him. The defending Super Bowl champions are, however, interested in retaining at least one of their notable free agents.
The plan remains for the Chiefs to re-sign JuJu Smith-Schuster. After making substantial changes to their receiving corps in 2022, the Chiefs want to keep Smith-Schuster in the fold, James Palmer of NFL.com tweets. It will take a fairly significant raise to keep Smith-Schuster, though the allure of returning to Kansas City’s Andy Reid– and Patrick Mahomes-led offense will be a factor in the seventh-year receiver’s free agency. Smith-Schuster has said he wants to return to the Chiefs, but after playing on an incentive-laden deal, he will command a nice contract in what will be his third run at free agency.
Although the Chiefs carved out some cap space via the Frank Clark release, they remain a few million over the salary ceiling as of Tuesday afternoon. Teams have until 3pm CT March 15 to move under the 2023 cap. On that note, the Chiefs are viewing Mecole Hardman as a likely departure candidate. They are expecting Hardman’s market to be out of their price range, Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com notes. Palmer doubles down on that, with the former second-round pick who missed Super Bowl LVII due to injury likely to leave Kansas City (Twitter link).
Hardman, 25 on Sunday, submitted an inconsistent four seasons with the Chiefs. The Pro Bowl return man did, however, eclipse 500 receiving yards in each of his first three seasons as a tertiary Mahomes target. He has totaled 18 touchdowns; three of those came in a Chiefs rout of the 49ers last season. A groin injury that required surgery shelved Hardman shortly after, and although he suited up for the AFC championship game, an aggravation led to a Super Bowl absence and a surgery.
Hardman, however, is not in danger of missing 2023 time, and Fowler adds some teams believe he will do well in free agency. This promises to be a thin market, headlined by the likes of Smith-Schuster, Jakobi Meyers and Odell Beckham Jr., the latter of whom having not played since Super Bowl LVI. The Panthers are believed to be one of the teams interested in Hardman, Joe Person of The Athletic notes (subscription required). Carolina traded the now-Chosen Anderson last season but still has D.J. Moore and Terrace Marshall under contract. Hardman would make for an intriguing complementary piece in Frank Reich‘s offense.
The Chiefs have big plans for their most recent receiver addition as well. They are viewing Kadarius Toney as a No. 1 wide receiver candidate, Palmer adds. Toney’s substantial injury history clouds that vision. Hence, the Smith-Schuster interest. Marquez Valdes-Scantling also remains under contract, and Skyy Moore should be expected to make bigger contributions in 2023. But Toney has a first-round pedigree and often flashes when he gets the ball. He set a Super Bowl punt-return yardage record and scored a walk-in touchdown in the narrow win. The high-variance speedster will also have a full offseason to acclimate in Reid’s offense, pointing his arrow up despite the injury troubles.
Kansas City may also lose safety Juan Thornhill in free agency, Fowler adds. The Chiefs drafted Thornhill in the 2019 second round as well. This is a fairly crowded safety market, but Thornhill has 52 career starts and made steady contributions for two Super Bowl-winning teams. Some teams view him as this class’ No. 2 safety, behind only Jessie Bates. That is high praise considering Jordan Poyer, Vonn Bell, Julian Love, John Johnson and Adrian Amos join Thornhill in free agency. Pro Football Focus rated Thornhill as a top-30 safety in each of the past two seasons.
Circling back to Brown, the Chiefs are taking the chance they will lose a central part of their O-line rebuild. The team brought in Brown, Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith in 2021, fortifying an O-line that had a brutal night in Super Bowl LV. Rather than another Brown tag, Albert Breer of SI.com notes the Chiefs want to solidify their long-term tackle spot this offseason (Twitter link). A Brown tag could have tabled matters to 2024 and created a Kirk Cousins-like situation, when a tag — at 144% of his 2023 salary — would have been untenable. Brown leaving this year, however, will make the Chiefs a candidate to draft a tackle or trade for one; this left tackle market is not particularly deep, Donovan Smith‘s Tuesday addition notwithstanding.