Chiefs plan to franchise L'Jarius Sneed unless long-term deal can be reached: sources

INDIANAPOLIS — The first step on their roster this season, as back-to-back champions, is to use perhaps the most popular mechanism in the NFL's collective bargaining agreement: the franchise tag.

The Kansas City Chiefs have informed cornerback Larios Snead, one of the team's best defenders, that they will use their franchise tag on him if they cannot reach an agreement on a long-term deal, according to league sources. The expected move will prevent Snead from becoming an unrestricted free agent for the first time, a chance for him to see the limit of his earning potential as a 27-year-old cornerback who last season was the leading force in the Chiefs' impressive secondary.

Snead knows he's the Chiefs' hottest free agent prospect. A former fourth-round pick, Snead had the best season of his career. In the regular season, he finished with two interceptions, 14 pass breakups and no touchdowns allowed in coverage. The Chiefs also know it would be easier to keep Sneed — or trade him — by using the franchise tag on him rather than pass rusher Chris Jones, the team's best defender.

“It's definitely a possibility,” general manager Brett Veach said Tuesday at the NFL Combine. “Chris Jones' mark is huge. We're going to work on that and try to see if we can get those two guys done.”

When the Chiefs place the franchise tag on Sneed, before the 3pm CT deadline on March 5, he will be scheduled to play the 2024 season on a one-year salary of $19.8 million — unless he and the team agree to an extension before the start of the league. July deadline for franchise tag players. The team could also trade Sneed before the draft.

Veach and Chris Shea, the Chiefs' vice president of football operations, met in person Tuesday afternoon with Snead's agent, Michael Hugo.

Snead has expressed several times over the past two years his desire to continue playing for the Chiefs. He wants a three- or four-year contract, according to a league source. If an agreement is not reached before the draft, the team is comfortable completing the deal, according to league sources. The Chiefs will also allow Sneed to reach out to teams interested in acquiring him. If Snead is traded, he expects to sign a multi-year contract with his new team.

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Earlier this month, after the Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII, Sneed appeared on “Up & Adams” with host Kay Adams, expressing a clear message to Veach.

“Dude, pay me,” Snead said with a smile, doing his best Rod Tidwell impression from “Jerry Maguire.” Snead repeated himself: “Pay me! Pay me! Me!”

In 2019, the Chiefs placed the franchise tag on outside linebacker Dee Ford, then traded him to the 49ers for a second-round pick. Once he arrived in San Francisco, Ford signed a five-year, $85.5 million contract. If the Chiefs were to engage in advanced trade discussions for Snead, they would seek at least a second-round pick.

The Chiefs could let Sneed go because of their success in identifying talented linebackers and selecting them in the draft. Without Snead, the Chiefs will still have three quality players: Trent McDuffie, Joshua Williams, and Jaylen Watson.

“You want to try to get it done within this stinking salary cap thing where you can get it done,” coach Andy Reid said of Snead. “But you have certain (monetary) limits that you go to and keep the team. That's just the reality of it. It's not about whether you want to get rid of a guy here or there. You like to keep everyone.”

One issue the Chiefs face is that they used the franchise tag on Jones, 29, in 2020, a decision that led to a four-year contract extension. If the Chiefs — who entered Tuesday with $16.9 million available in salary cap space, according to Over the Cap — tag Jones again, he would receive a one-year salary of $32.16 million, the most expensive non-quarterback franchise tag in History of the NFL.

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“Every outdoor season is a series of contingency plans,” Fitch said. “Things usually don't go exactly the way you want. You have to prepare for opportunities as they come will Go exactly how you want. But at the same time you have to be realistic.

“It would be great to get (the deals with) Chris and LG done. That's our goal and our intention, but we also know it's not 100 percent. It may not even be 75 percent. It may be 50 percent. We'll have a backup plan.”

During training camp last summer, Snead told defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo that he wanted to be a quarterback for the Chiefs — a defender who covers the opponent's best receiver — because he knew McDuffie, a second-year player, could excel as a nickel defender. Sinead was right. As the closest defender in coverage with 90 targets in the regular season, Snead did not surrender a touchdown. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 27.7 percent of their passes with 10 or more air yards when targeting a receiver defended by Snead, the lowest percentage in the league, according to Next Gen Stats.

Operating from the slot, McDuffie led the Chiefs with five forced fumbles, in addition to recording seven pass breakups, three sacks and nine quarterback hits. He led all defensive backs with 14 unblocked pressures.

“We would love to have those guys back,” Reid said of Snead and Jones, who led the Chiefs with 10 1/2 sacks. “I know Brett is doing what he has to do to do it. (Team owner) Clark Hunt is doing what he has to do to do it. All these guys have heard me talk about it being a team sport, and they know what we're trying to do.”

Last week, the NFL announced that the salary cap for next season has been set at $255.4 million, an unprecedented increase of $30.6 million per franchise.

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Fitch explained that NFL revenue led him to become more optimistic that the Chiefs could keep Snead and Jones — and remain competitive in free agency.

By March 5, the Chiefs could take about $62 million off the salary cap after three moves. Receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling is the most logical candidate to take a cut in the salary cup. This decision would create $12 million in cap space with only $2 million in dead money, according to Over the Cap. The Chiefs could also convert a large amount of the roster bonus on quarterback Patrick Mahomes' contract into a signing bonus. The same could be done with left guard Joe Thuney's contract.

“On the one hand, when you see that, you get very excited,” Fitch said of the salary cap increase. “But you always have to temper your expectations. The next question now is: Does that automatically guarantee 6 percent growth next year? It won't necessarily be $270 (million). The growth may be slower. You may get a lot more this year, but after It will get less in the next two years.

“What helps, at least this year, is the teams that have to use the (franchise) tag. Maybe some teams will assume (next year) that it will grow at a normal rate, but I tend to think that won't happen. It will probably be scaled back somewhat.” We just have to be on the conservative side so we don't get ahead of ourselves.

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(Photo: Jay Biggerstaff/USA Today)

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