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Ways the Chiefs can upgrade in 2014 and stay under the salary cap

With the Chiefs' playoff loss to the Colts firmly in the rearview mirror, general manager John Dorsey has started to build his 2014 team.

Dorsey believes in doing so through the NFL Draft, and he and other members of the front office will be in Mobile, Ala., this week to scout several prospects playing in the Senior Bowl next Saturday.

But free-agency also has a role in building a champion, and the best franchises at managing the cap -- those who restructure, cut and extend players at the right time -- tend to be the most successful.

The new league year begins in March, so when asked about the status of the Chiefs' 2014 cap situation, Dorsey smiled and played coy.

"I think we'll have the resources to go where we want to go in this thing," Dorsey said.

But according to one salary-cap expert, the Chiefs' top 51 players currently count right at the tentative 2014 cap of $126.3 million. The Chiefs will have $2.5 million of salary-cap space that carried over from 2013, however.

"That number might be finalized at $128 million, but for now, they'll only have the $2.5 million . . ." said Joel Corry, a former agent who now writes for the National Football Post. "That just doesn't look good."

Corry thinks it will require maneuvering by the Chiefs to fit their 2014 draft picks, which should take around $5.5 million to sign, under the cap, let alone sign an impact free agent.

But he said the Chiefs could create upwards of $24 million in cap room, though that's a best-case scenario that involves extending the contract of quarterback Alex Smith, cutting cornerback Dunta Robinson and restructuring the contracts of four players: Tamba Hali, Brandon Flowers, Dwayne Bowe and Eric Berry.

"You're just changing the accounting of the money but not changing the money that's paid to the player," Corry said of restructuring. ". . . . The downside is, if he doesn't continue to perform well, it's going to accelerate his departure because his cap number in future years increases."

The Chiefs are expected to target four positions in the draft and free-agency. Here's a look at each including their salary-cap situation.

1. SAFETY

The need: Starting free safety Kendrick Lewis is a free agent, and ESPN analyst Louis Riddick says the Chiefs should make an upgrade at a crucial position in Bob Sutton's press-man scheme.

"When you saw Kendrick Lewis and you saw Quintin Demps back there . . . they're not starters," Riddick said. "They have issues, they have limitations, and you saw teams repeatedly take advantage of it."

One of those teams was the Colts.

"T.Y. Hilton just ran right past Kendrick Lewis, and he just stood there looking at him. And even the back-side safety, who was Demps at the time . . . that should be an easy back-side play to help out your front-side safety and his angle was just atrocious," Riddick said. "Those are the things that, no matter how much you coach players, sometimes they just can't do it."

Riddick said a free agent such as Buffalo's Jairus Byrd, who played this season under a one-year franchise tender, is a middle-of-the-field player who could help make Sutton's defense sing.

"He's perfect for what they need," Riddick said.

The cap situation: Riddick and Corry are unsure the Chiefs would be willing to meet Byrd's price, especially because they already have a safety, Eric Berry, who has a huge cap number at $11.6 million. Corry said Byrd probably will be seeking the money Dashon Goldson received from Tampa Bay, which approaches a little more than $8 million a year.

2. PASS RUSHERS

The need: NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock likes Bob Sutton's press-man scheme and thinks the Chiefs have standout front-seven players with Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Dontari Poe and Derrick Johnson.

But the Chiefs lacked an interior pass rush when they used extra defensive backs and struggled as a whole when Hali and Houston were injured.

This, Mayock says, is the biggest difference between the Chiefs and a team such as Seattle.

"Seattle has more pass rushers than any team in the league, and they've got really good cover guys on the back end . . ." Mayock said.

Riddick said the Chiefs' declining pass rush exposed the limitations of their secondary.

"They need some more players on the outside, they need some more rushers," Riddick said.

The cap situation: While the Chiefs have Houston under contract next season for an incredible value of $837,000, he is poised to cash in after the season. The Chiefs would be wise to keep him off the market and avoid the possibility of being forced to franchise him, but Houston may be willing to wait on an extension.

Meanwhile, Hali, 30, is coming off a strong season, but his cap number is $11.4 million. The Chiefs could lower his base salary from $6.25 million to, say, the minimum of $855,000, and create roughly $2.7 million of cap room. They could also release him and save nearly $6 million.

3. WIDE RECEIVER

The need: Riddick believes the Chiefs need someone to complement Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery and Dexter McCluster, who is a free agent.

"Do they need more playmakers? Yes, they do," Riddick said. ". . . A more well-rounded route runner and dependable third-down, between-the-numbers, move-the-chains type of slot receiver."

That could also come through an upgrade at tight end, though Mayock thinks a receiver should be the priority.

"From my perspective, if (third-round rookie Travis) Kelce is the tight end they think he can be, then they just need another playmaker at wideout more than anything," he said.

The cap situation: This is a huge offseason for Bowe, who needs to get in better shape so he can bounce back in 2014. Corry says he could be in trouble if he doesn't; if the Chiefs cut him before June 1 of next year, they stand to save $3.5 million on the salary cap. If they do it after June 1, they stand to save $9.5 million.

"That's why he's not going to be there unless he plays well," Corry said.

As far as free agents go, Corry says former Missouri star Jeremy Maclin, who tore his ACL before the season and was drafted by Reid in Philadelphia, could be a perfect fit.

"I'd give him a decent one-year salary and give him upside through incentives," Corry said. "Andy knows him, so he shouldn't have a problem with the offense, and that's another potential playmaker."

4. CORNERBACK

The need: Though you can do worse than Brandon Flowers, Sean Smith and Marcus Cooper, Riddick said the Chiefs lack speed at corner.

"All of them need to play fundamentally sound, technique-focused football," Riddick said. ". . . Because if they get in a footrace type of deal, they're gonna lose. All of them."

Riddick said Smith can improve by getting better jams at the line of scrimmages, while Cooper needs to refine his technique because teams exposed it later in the season.

The cap situation: The Chiefs could save $3 million, according to Corry, by cutting Dunta Robinson, who was benched midway through the season and carries a 2014 cap number of $5.3 million.

Flowers has a cap number of $10.5 million but is a Pro Bowler whose contract the Chiefs may try to renegotiate.

Corry said the Chiefs might be better off releasing Sean Smith, who carries a cap number of $5.75 million. They would save $1.25 million if he's released by Feb. 7, according to Corry, otherwise his $3.45 million salary becomes guaranteed.

Indianapolis' Vontae Davis and Tennessee's Alterraun Verner could be free agents that fit the Chiefs' scheme.

"They may all be out of their price range," Corry said. "The selling point will be 'We're a contender, and you can be the missing piece to championship puzzle.' But if you go that route, you probably have to let Sean Smith go and call that a one-year mistake."

(c)2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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