The Tyrann Mathieu trajectory doesn’t look promising for Chiefs fans. As reported, Mathieu hasn’t received a single contract offer from the Chiefs so far this offseason. Although just rumors, it seems a foregone conclusion that the All-Pro safety will test free agency this offseason. The Chiefs are unlikely to enter any bidding wars for the free agent’s services with extensions on the horizon for tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and wideout Tyreek Hill.
The Chiefs officially placed the franchise tag on Tackle Orlando Brown Jr. this week, clearing the path for Mathieu to test free agency. Without a contract agreement, Mathieu will not return to Kansas City. Of course, much of the discourse surrounding Tyrann Mathieu this offseason is just outside sources and predictions from afar. However, Mathieu has been very vocal on Twitter, leading many to believe that perhaps the desire for a Honey Badger return isn’t as mutual as we all once thought it to be.
Mathieu’s departure is still rumored, and there’s still a possibility he returns to the Chiefs for 2022 and beyond. However, the closer we get to free agency, the less likely it will pass. He’s been linked to the Saints and Ravens so far this offseason. With Tyrann’s pending departure, what options could the Chiefs consider when looking for his replacement this offseason?
Jordan Whitehead was a fourth-round selection by Tampa Bay in the 2018 NFL Draft. In his first four seasons in the NFL, Whitehead has started 55 games for the Buccaneers. In that span, he has five interceptions, 25 pass defends, two forced fumbles, two sacks, 292 tackles, and 22 tackles for loss. Whitehead is still just 24-years old and has flown mostly under the radar in his time with Tampa Bay. Spotrac lists Whitehead’s market value at $7.8 million annually. Their expected contract for him comes in at three years, $23.6 million. Whitehead earned a 74.9 PFF Grade in the 2021 season, including an 81.5 run defense grade.
Not only is Whitehead outstanding in run coverage. He also provides the defense with a hard-hitting option over the middle of the field. When pairing a new safety with Juan Thornhill, the Chiefs will have to consider how those two options can play together. Thornhill hasn’t shown a strong ability to lay down the hammer over the middle, so it will be necessary for the Chiefs’ new safety to bring that ability to the secondary.
Whitehead checks many boxes on defense. He’s young and still developing. He’s going to be cost-effective, likely coming in under other top options in the market, such as Mathieu. The biggest question mark will be his leadership ability. The Chiefs will be losing the heart of their defense in Tyrann Mathieu and will need to find new leadership somewhere. That’s the largest question I have in Whitehead.
In our underrated free agent profiler, we wrote about Keanu Neal earlier this offseason. Neal, 26, mainly played as a linebacker last season for the Dallas Cowboys. He entered the league as the 17th overall pick by the Falcons in the 2016 NFL Draft. Neal made a name for himself as the defensive leader for the Falcons, culminating in a Super Bowl Appearance his rookie season. Neal was a hard-hitting, hybrid safety for the Falcons before facing injury troubles in 2018 and 2019. Neal suffered a torn ACL and ruptured Achilles in back-to-back lost seasons for the Falcons.
Neal returned to the NFL last season for the Cowboys. He played mostly in a linebacker role, primarily thanks to his hard-hitting ability. Neal is a strong tackler, logging 100 or more tackles in three of his four full seasons to this point in his career. The biggest selling point on a Neal signing is his versatility. Much of what made Tyrann Mathieu attractive to Kansas City was his ability to play anywhere on the field. He could play corner or safety, hit over the middle, play at the line of scrimmage, and rush the quarterback. Most of those things are true for Keanu Neal as well.
Neal provides the Chiefs with a leadership presence that can fill multiple roles on the defense. Neal signed a one-year, five million dollar contract to play for the Cowboys last season. A contract for him could come in somewhere around three years, $28 million. Again, a cheaper cost than what the Chiefs would pay for a top-dollar free agent like Mathieu, but still a substantial investment in the position.
Jabrill Peppers is, much like Keanu Neal, another high-risk/high-reward option for the Chiefs at the safety position. The Giants are already over-the-cap and highly unlikely to reach a contract extension with the free-agent safety. Peppers entered the league as the 25th overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft by the Browns. Most notably, Peppers was included in compensation for the Odell Beckham Jr. trade.
In October 2021, Peppers suffered a 2021 ruptured ACL. Even before his injury, he struggled last season. PFF graded Peppers a 58.7 overall with a 53.2 coverage grade. In his final season with Cleveland, Peppers graded 77.7. The Chiefs’ hope with Peppers would help him get back to what made him successful on the football field. The Giants utilized Peppers more in the pass rush (where he graded well), hindering his coverage ability. In Kansas City, Peppers could focus more on his role in coverage and get back to his ball-hawking ways as a Safety that made him a first-round pick years ago.
There are some savings to be had in a potential Peppers contract due to the ACL Recovery timeline and his overall poor performance last season. Even still, Peppers should command a strong contract. Spotrac lists the Market Value at $12.5 million for an estimated four-year, $51 million contract. With the high-risk factor, this may price the Chiefs out on Peppers. If the market is slow for safeties, look for the Chiefs to capitalize by bringing in Peppers.
Of course, not all replacements for Mathieu have to come via free agency. There are safety prospects to be found in the NFL draft as well. Kyle Hamilton out of Notre Dame is the clear top safety in the draft. He’s not likely to be available for the Chiefs at pick 30. Daxton Hill, the number two safety prospect in the draft, is much more likely to be there when the Chiefs make their selection. Hill is a 21-year-old safety who attended the University of Michigan before entering this year’s NFL Draft.
At the Combine, Hill posted a 4.38 40-yard dash time. The time ranked 14th among all players at the combine. He also ranked the very best at the safety position in the 20-yard-shuttle and three-cone drill time. In his final season at Michigan, Hill accounted for 42 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, and eight pass defends.
Hill profiles as day one starter with eventual plus-starter potential in the NFL. Of all safeties in the draft, Hill reminds me most of Mathieu. He is great in pursuit in the run game and plays with a great eye for zone defense. He carries strong man-coverage ability as well and profiles as a true hybrid safety. Dax’s versatility should pique the Chiefs’ interest in replacing the very versatile Tyrann Mathieu. He has a rare blend of speed and power at the safety position, not giving away any strength in return for speed.
The biggest question I have with Dax Hill is his ability to stick at the safety position. With his elite speed and coverage ability, he profiles very strongly as a cornerback in the NFL, much like current Chief L’Jarius Sneed. At times he can be hesitant in pursuit within the run game, and sometimes he tends to overplay his position. These are both things that can be taught but are somewhat concerning when replacing a player with the talent of Tyrann Mathieu.
Jalen Pitre will certainly be a name to watch for the Chiefs at pick 30 in the upcoming NFL draft. Pitre played college at Baylor. Initially an LB, Pitre changed safety as a junior in 2020. In 2021, Pitre logged 75 tackles, two interceptions, 18.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. I wouldn’t be surprised if Pitre were the Chiefs’ best grade at the safety position in the upcoming draft due to his elite tackling ability and strong football IQ.
What Pitre lacks in speed and size, he makes up for with smart playmaking ability and elite tackling ability. The biggest question with Pitre will be his ability to cover the Safety position at the NFL level. He lacks the top-hand speed needed to succeed in coverage against NFL wideouts. The best role for Pitre could be a replacement to Daniel Sorensen paired with a free agent signing at the safety position.
Pitre could truly change the depth in the Chiefs’ defense, giving them much stronger coverage ability in levels one and two, although leaving a little behind in level three (deep and over the top). As with any rookie, Pitre has a question on his ability to enter an NFL locker room as a leader. It’s far too much to ask a rookie to learn the pace of play in the NFL and lead the locker room simultaneously. If the Chiefs look to replace Mathieu via the draft, they will undoubtedly need to find additional veteran leadership in free agency as well.
Who do you think will replace Tyrann Mathieu if the Chiefs cannot re-sign him? Leave a comment down below to join the discussion.
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