KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs got off to an uncharacteristically slow start in 2021 by losing four of their first seven games. Turnovers were a big problem, as was a leaky defense that allowed a lot of big plays. The Chiefs managed to fix both problems and turned their season around by winning their next eight games.
They eventually wound up the regular season tied for the AFC's best record at 12-5. After winning a couple of playoff games, their season ended in bitter disappointment in the AFC Championship Game, when they wasted a 21-3 lead and lost in overtime to the Cincinnati Bengals. Their undoing was a lousy second half from quarterback Patrick Mahomes and a pass rush that couldn't finish against Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow.
The Chiefs finished 29th in sacks last season, so making significant improvements there will be an offseason priority. The Chiefs have a lengthy list of free agents, and combined with a tight salary-cap situation, it's almost guaranteed significant changes are coming.
Projected salary-cap space: $5.3 million
Top free agents: OT Orlando Brown, CB Mike Hughes, DE Melvin Ingram, S Tyrann Mathieu, LB Ben Niemann, DT Derrick Nnadi, WR Byron Pringle, DT Jarran Reed, S Daniel Sorensen, RB Darrel Williams, OT Andrew Wylie
Potential cut candidates: Defensive end Frank Clark and linebacker Anthony Hitchens. Clark hasn't lived up to the contract the Chiefs gave him three years ago after acquiring him in a trade with the Seahawks. The Chiefs would save about $12.7 million against their cap by releasing him. The Chiefs prepared for life without Hitchens by drafting a linebacker in the second round in each of the past two years. Cap savings for releasing Hitchens is about $8.4 million.
What you need to know: The Chiefs appear headed for a rebuild of their defensive line that won't match that of last year's offensive line overhaul, but will still be significant. Ingram, Nnadi, Reed and Alex Okafor played a lot last season but are potential free agents. Clark could be released. That would leave Chris Jones along with two others who are productive but better off as rotational players in Mike Danna and Tershawn Wharton. The Chiefs were 11th in sacks in 2019 when they won the Super Bowl but fell to 20th the next season and 29th last year. The Chiefs did a nice job in getting pressure after a slow start in that category but couldn't convert that into sacks. Burrow escaped pressure a number of times in the AFC Championship Game, a big factor in the Bengals' victory.
The big question: Do the Chiefs re-sign Mathieu? He's been the heart of everything they do both on the field and in their locker room since signing three years ago and would be difficult to replace with one player. His versatility includes lining up in a variety of positions, including in slot coverage, and has been essential to the Chiefs. He left the divisional round playoff game against the Buffalo Bills on one of the first plays after receiving a concussion. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said afterward the Chiefs had to scrap a defensive package they planned to use against the Bills because they had no one else to adequately handle Mathieu's role. But Mathieu will be 30 by the time next season begins. It hasn't been general manager Brett Veach's way to invest in players that late in their careers. If there was a player valuable enough for Veach to break his rule, it's Mathieu.
Best-case scenario for the offseason: The Chiefs find enough cap room to sign left tackle Brown and Mathieu. They also improve their pass rush and acquire a wide receiver capable of helping immediately.
Worst-case scenario for the offseason: The Chiefs fail to have a draft as impactful as last year's. Despite not having a first-round pick, the Chiefs found solid players in the second (linebacker Nick Bolton and center Creed Humphrey) and sixth (guard Trey Smith) rounds. Finding young and inexpensive players to play significant roles regardless of position is essential for the Chiefs, who need to continue to fill in the roster around their many highly paid players.
Early look at the NFL draft, from ESPN analyst Jordan Reid: The Chiefs were in search of another starting wide receiver last offseason, and general manager Brett Veach could continue that trend this offseason. Edge rusher and defensive back are the team's biggest areas of concern. With both of those positions among the strongest in this draft class, the franchise will have multiple options.
Top needs: WR, EDGE, DB
Top pick: No. 30