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The Chiefs’ 2021 draft class just became more expensive

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By: Jared Sapp

Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images

Kansas City has just been reminded that success sometimes carries a price.

Last week, the NFL dropped a bombshell: in 2024, the league’s salary cap would be set at $255.4 million.

After this record-setting increase, we calculated that the Kansas City Chiefs would have about $28 million in cap space to begin the offseason.

The salary-cap site Spotrac — generally the source for our contract numbers — began Tuesday with the Chiefs’ cap number at $28.3 million. But by the end of the day, their estimate had been reduced to $17.5 million.

So what is to blame for Kansas City’s incredible, shrinking salary cap? It turns out that the Chiefs themselves are responsible — simply because they are so successful.

Four players the team selected in the 2021 NFL Draft — linebacker Nick Bolton, center Creed Humphrey, tight end Noah Gray and guard Trey Smith — have developed as significant contributors on a team that has won the last two Super Bowls. As these players enter the final seasons of their rookie contracts, their play has earned them mandatory raises under the NFL’s Proven Performer Escalator for rookie contracts.

Begun in 2018, this program is designed to eliminate a previously existing loophole: that drafted players who outperform expectations are at a disadvantage relative to undrafted free agents — who could negotiate new contracts earlier in their careers. All players drafted after the first round are eligible for the incentive.

The extra money players can earn is based on the cost to tender a restricted free agent (RFA). While the Chiefs have had some recent draft picks earn escalators, four players getting them in a single year has a much more noticeable impact on the team’s salary cap. In addition, the RFA tender amounts have also risen significantly with the two recent salary cap increases, making the raises much more noticeable to the bottom line.

By beating combined offensive or defensive snap thresholds (60% for second-round selections, 35% for the third round or later) in two of their three seasons, Bolton and Gray have earned Level One pay raises. They must now earn a salary equal to $3.1 million — the price to maintain the right of first refusal for an RFA. Bolton’s $125,000 workout bonus is counted against his new salary on the various salary-cap websites.

Smith has earned a Level Two escalator because he has exceeded 55% of the Chiefs’ offensive snaps in each of his seasons. His new $3.4 million salary is the same as the tender amount for a right of first refusal RFA plus $250,000.

Kansas City Chiefs v Jacksonville Jaguars
Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Kansas City’s big winner is Humphrey. Eligible players who make the Pro Bowl in any of their first three seasons — as the center has now done twice — are eligible for a Level Three escalator. Humphrey’s 2024 salary has jumped to $4.8 million — the cost to place a second-round tender on a restricted free agent. Like Bolton, Humphrey’s earned salary breakdown on contract websites is reduced by a $75,000 workout bonus.

The bottom line

While a loss of cap space may be hard for fans to swallow, these players have exceeded expectations and have rightfully earned enhanced salaries. With 2021 representing the first of hopefully many stacked draft classes, the Proven Performer Escalator may be something for which Kansas City salary cap nerds should start planning.

Cornerback Jaylen Watson and running back Isiah Pacheco have already played the required snaps to earn escalators for their 2025 salaries. Safety Bryan Cook, linebacker Leo Chenal and cornerback Joshua Williams are also strong candidates to make extra money by repeating or exceeding their 2023 workloads in their third seasons

Because all offensive linemen fall under the same franchise tag tender (set by exponentially increasing left tackle salaries), Humphrey would not have been a candidate for a franchise tag upon reaching unrestricted free agency after the coming season. But now — with a much larger salary — an extension for the center may become more of a priority for general manager Brett Veach during this offseason.

Gray seems to be a big winner in this program. The money, however, does not appear to be guaranteed. So because he now carries a large salary for a rotational tight end, he might (ironically) be more likely to become a salary-cap casualty — especially if Kansas City addresses his position in free agency or the draft during the offseason.

Under the new salaries for these four players — along with releasing wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling and placing the franchise tag on cornerback L’Jarius Sneed — we now estimate that the Chiefs currently have $9.5 million in salary cap space.

Originally posted on Arrowhead Pride