The writing is on the wall for Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones
By Scott Loring
It’s plausible that Steve Spagnuolo sees Chris Jones as a luxury on his rookie contract, but not worth the cap expense he’ll command on the open market.
As the dust settles around the Kansas City Chiefs’ 53-man roster, one position with a surprising stockpile is defensive tackle.
The Chiefs enter the regular season with five players at the position, a jolting number considering the maximum number of players ever on the field at one time is likely just two.
Here are the players currently listed as defensive tackles.
- Chris Jones, starter
- Derrick Nnadi, starter
- Xavier Williams
- Khalen Saunders
- Joey Ivie
There were no questions about Jones and Nnadi making the roster. It is widely known that Jones, a second-team All Pro in 2018, is in the final year of his rookie deal. Nnadi played well as a rookie and still has three years remaining on his contract.
Williams played a fair amount of snaps in 2018 and is in the final year of his contract for his hometown team. There was some speculation that he might not make this year’s roster because of his relatively high cap number (he’ll earn over $3.5 million this season), but when the cards fell, the Chiefs kept him on the 53-man.
Saunders was a sure bet to make the team because of his high draft status as a third round pick, however he registered only one solo tackle, two assists, and zero sacks in his four preseason appearances. There’s a good chance that Saunders is “redshirted” and designated inactive for a majority of the Chiefs’ 2019 contests (a la Khalil McKenzie in 2018).
Ivie has been employed by four NFL teams but has yet to play in a pro game after stints with Dallas, Atlanta and Seattle. He showed a good push in the preseason and an ability to collapse the pocket. He will be an exclusive-rights free agent in 2020, so Kansas City will be able to re-sign him at a good price.
It should also be noted that Kansas City rotated DE Tanoh Kpassagnon inside on some nickel and dime packages during the preseason, and Kpassagnon made the most of his opportunity. With six different players the Chiefs could use along the defensive interior, how do you justify rostering them all?
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this roster decision is one that is not being talked about very much: Does the Chiefs’ decision to keep so many at the position indicate that Chris Jones will be the odd man out when his contract expires after this season?
A quick glance at the Chiefs’ major cap hits in 2020:
- Frank Clark $22.7 million
- Sammy Watkins $21 million
- Tyreek Hill TBA but expected to be between $15 and $20 million
- Tyrann Mathieu $16.3 million
- Eric Fisher $12 million
- Anthony Hitchens $11.3 million
- Mitchell Schwartz 10.8 million
- Travis Kelce $10.4 million
- Laurent Duvernay-Tardif $9 million
- Eric Berry $8 million in dead money
That’s over $135 million dollars tied up in just nine players on the roster. And that’s not counting *ahem* another contract discussion on offense that is expected to end up being the biggest of them all.
It should go without saying, but let’s make sure this is out there: Jones is a great player, one of the three best at his position in the NFL. He is a record-setting disruptive force in the middle of the Chiefs’ front. The question is whether there is room in Steve Spagnuolo’s system for a defensive tackle to earn the kind of contract that Jones will ostensibly command.
Jones is the best defensive tackle Spagnuolo has ever had at his disposal. Historically, Spags has never invested a great amount of assets into the position. Here is a glance at the players he has deployed at defensive tackle as a coordinator and head coach: Fred Robbins, Barry Cofield, Clifton Ryan, Gary Gibson, Justin Bannan, Cullen Jenkins, Johnathan Hankins, Damon Harrison, and Dalvin Tomlinson.
Outside of Harrison, none of these players will alter an offense’s gameplan. But comparing Jones to Harrison is not easy; the 350-pound run-stuffing Harrison is an early-down A-gapper, while Jones offers a completely different skill set as an interior lineman whose strength is as a pass rusher.
Spags likes to create a pass rush with his front four using exotic twists and stunts, and certainly, Jones may thrive in that in 2019. Even if he does, Spagnuolo has a strong belief that his system can manufacture a pass rush, and that belief might preclude a need for Brett Veach to invest top dollar into a defensive tackle. If you’re on a budget, why drive a convertible if the sedan gets you to work efficiently?
The most likely path the Chiefs can take if Jones is not part of the long-term plan is the tag-and-trade. This past offseason, the Chiefs franchise tagged OLB Dee Ford before trading his rights to San Francisco. The Seahawks of course did the same with Clark.
Re-signing Jones is not out of the realm of possibility, but it will take some work for Veach and his calculator. The team can save $14 million by cutting Watkins. Getting safety Dan Sorensen and offensive lineman Cam Erving off the books could save another $8 million.
It’s plausible that Spagnuolo views Jones as a great luxury while on his rookie contract, but not worth the cap expense he will command on the open market next summer. Whether the Chiefs choose to extend (or franchise tag) Jones remains to be seen, but the decision to keep five d-tackles combined with the landscape of the Chiefs’ cap in 2020 seems to indicate that 2019 may be Jones’ final season in a Chiefs uniform.