NFL Free Agency 2022: Chiefs GM Brett Veach Continues To Use His Salary Cap Tricks

As of the second week of March, Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach has signed 11 players for 2022 — completing a major contract restructuring with defensive end Frank Clark freeing up $12.6 million in cap space, turning a player who was almost universally believed to be a surefire cap victim in someone who gets paid an acceptable amount.

In most of these deals – which began on March 7 with placing the franchise tag on Orlando Brown Jr.’s left tackle. — Veach has kept his form, using every possible advantage (and sometimes thinking outside the box) to get the maximum benefit out of every pay-cap dollar.

The most recent of these smart deals came on Friday, when Kansas City signed free-agent wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who spent the first five years of his NFL career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. A year ago, Veach had gone to great lengths to sign Smith-Schuster for the 2021 season, eventually offering an $8 million one-year contract, which included $3 million in incentives. Despite the offer from the Chiefs — and an even better one from the Baltimore Ravens (which was reportedly $9 million with $4 million in incentives) — Smith-Schuster chose to accept an $8 million contract offer from the Steelers. .

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At the time, many assumed he just wanted to stay in Pittsburgh, where he wouldn’t have to compete against Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill for goals; he was believed to have a better shot at a major contract after another year with the Steelers.

But it turned out that Pittsburgh was just offering more money. The contract was actually for an NFL minimum of $1 million in base salary, plus a $7 million signing bonus. But the Steelers would probably want that contract back; Smith-Schuster played just five regular season games before suffering a shoulder injury that kept him on the sidelines until the team’s Wild Card playoff appearance against the Chiefs. Worse, Pittsburgh had spread that signing bonus over four voidable seasons starting in 2022 — so when his contract was not renewed, $5.6 million of that bonus accelerated in calculating this season’s salary cap.

Given that backdrop, when news broke that Veach had signed the wide receiver to a $10.75 million one-year deal, it was reasonable to wonder if the Chiefs should have worked harder a year ago to bring Smith- to bring in Schuster; his price had risen. But late Friday afternoon, NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported the deal was only for about $3 million — and the rest came in incentives

Full contract details became available on Saturday. Smith-Schuster is again playing for an NFL minimum salary of $1,035 million – and got a $1,455 million signing bonus. His incentives include a $250,000 training bonus and a $30,000 per game bonus for every game he is active. That can add up to a whopping $510,000 ($30,000 times 17 games).

But this is where it gets interesting.

According to the salary cap rules, not likely to earn (NLTBE) incentives are based alone on the player’s previous season. Given that Smith-Schuster played in just five regular-season games in 2021, only $150,000 of that bonus can count toward this season’s cap; if earned, NLTBE incentives will be charged on the next salary cap of the season. While the exact details of the remaining NLTBE incentives are unknown, they will likely be easily achievable as long as Smith-Schuster plays a full season — surpassing the kind of production a player like Byron Pringle did in 2021.

It all adds up to a cap hit in 2021 that’s even lower than Garafolo reported: just $2.89 million — with the rest of the incentives (if earned) counted in 2023. Should Smith-Schuster earn them all, then he will likely become the threat Sammy Watkins represented in 2018 — and the Chiefs offense should be significantly more effective. In such a case, the $7.86 million in potential 2023 cap dollars will seem cheap for the price.

Divisional Round - Houston Texans v Kansas City Chiefs

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But Veach has made other smart moves during free agency. New Security Justin Reid’s three-year $31.5 million deal includes more than $20 million guaranteed – half of that in a signing bonus. That makes his 2021 cap just $4.55 million — leaving just $3.5 million in dead money during the contract’s third year. The rest are guaranteed in the second year of the deal – meaning if Reid doesn’t work, the Chiefs could easily walk away after two seasons.

In addition, Veach continues to make frequent use of the veterans salary benefit (VSB) provision of the 2020 collective bargaining agreement, which allows teams to pay veterans long-term at their regular minimum salary, but have a cap hit equal to a player with only two seasons credited. The Chiefs had six such contracts in 2021, saving them more than $2 million against the cap. Two such VSB contracts — one with fullback Michael Burton and the other with offensive lineman Andrew Wylie — are already on the books for 2022, increasing the team’s cap-room by more than $1.6 million. There will be more.

Takeaways

In retrospect, it’s fair to criticize some of the contracts Veach signed during his first two years as the team’s GM. To many fans, players like Clark – and recently released linebacker Anthony Hitchens – appeared to be underperforming their expensive contracts. While the Chiefs probably felt those two deals were more in line with those players’ contributions than fans did, the criticism was still not unfounded.

But since then, Veach’s salary cap moves have gotten sharper and sharper. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ brilliant (and unorthodox) contract was just the beginning; since then, some of the same mechanisms that allowed that contract to be easily used as a source of cap funds have been used for other deals as well.

Per Spotrac, 13 NFL teams now have a dead limit of over $20 million. Kansas City now carries less than a third of that: $6.5 million. It’s one thing to be short of cap space because there’s a lot of dead money to be carried under the cap. It is yet another to be short of cap dollars as the money is being used for its intended purpose: to pay the players of a team

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