The Kansas City Chiefs are placing the franchise tag on outside linebacker Dee Ford after the best season of his career, though that could be just the first step in their dealings with him.
The decision was made on Saturday, a person familiar with it told The Associated Press, three days before the league's deadline for franchising players. But the Chiefs have discussed signing Ford to a long-term deal, and they are open to trade possibilities as they switch their base defenses.
The person spoke to The AP on condition of anonymity because the move was not finalized as the paperwork awaited filing. ESPN.com was first to report the Chiefs had made the decision. The decision was officially announced Monday.
The franchise tag for an outside linebacker next season is just over $15.4 million, a number the Chiefs could easily fit under the salary cap. But general manager Brett Veach has made it clear since taking over last year that he is open to making any moves that help the overall club.
That could mean a long-term contract – the deadline for doing that with a franchise player is July 15 – or trading away one of the league's top pass rushers.
"He had an outstanding season. He was at the top of his game," Veach said during his year-end discussion with reporters. "When we drafted Dee a few years ago, all those things that we envisioned for him, he kind of showed that he was that player."
But that also came in former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton's scheme, which is built around a 3-4 base. The Chiefs fired Sutton after an AFC West-winning season culminated in an overtime loss to the Patriots, and hired Steve Spagnuolo to implement a 4-3 scheme.
"The one thing he can do, and we all know this, he is an explosive football player that makes a lot of plays," Spagnuolo said recently. "He's had some production and if he is here with us, I'll be excited to have him and be excited to work with him."
Ford was the Chiefs' first-round pick in 2014 out of Auburn, but he struggled with injuries and the adjustment to the NFL his first couple seasons. He only played in six games with two sacks in 2017, but had a career-best 13 sacks and forced seven fumbles this past season.
That performance made the franchise tag a palatable option.
"Obviously, Dee is a player that has done so much for us, in particular last year," Veach said. "We have a special thing brewing here and I think everyone wants to keep this thing rolling."
The Chiefs also have a decision to make with fellow outside linebacker Justin Houston, who had nine sacks in 12 games last season. He carries a salary cap hit of $21.1 million, a number the Chiefs would like to drive down either by restructuring his deal or potentially releasing him.
"I would say that he's under contract for this year and next year," Veach said at the NFL's scouting combine this week. "Again, our plan is to play with him and we look forward to having him on our roster. There's a lot of dialogue and I think everything is fluid for the next few weeks until we get into the start of the league year. We'll kind of handle that – the information we get, what's real, what's not real – and it's a good problem to have because he's a great player."