The Kansas City Chiefs placed the franchise tag on outside linebacker Dee Ford on Monday, making official a decision the team had been leaning toward throughout the offseason.
Ford is coming off the best season of his career, piling up 13 sacks and forcing an NFL-leading seven fumbles. The Chiefs have expressed an interest in a long-term deal, though they are also open to trading him as they switch from a 3-4 to 4-3 base defense under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
In other words, it's no sure thing Ford plays next season under the roughly $15.4 million tag.
The franchise tag gives the Chiefs until July 15 to agree on a long-term contract, but they may need to free up some additional salary cap space to do so. That's because they have other pressing needs in free agency, not to mention a bevy of stars due to hit free agency soon.
They would like to extend defensive tackle Chris Jones and wide receiver Tyreek Hill before next offseason, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes is eligible for an extension next year.
"Obviously, Dee is a player that has done so much for us, in particular last year," Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said recently. "We have a special thing brewing here and I think everyone wants to keep this thing rolling."
For his part, Ford called it a "no brainer" to sign the franchise tender.
The Chiefs have certainly invested plenty in Ford after selecting him in the first round of the 2014 draft out of Auburn. He went through some growing pains as he adapted to life in the NFL, and he has an injury history that is cause for concern — and that makes the franchise tag a good option.
Ford remains a high-risk, high-reward kind of talent.
"The one thing he can do, and we all know this, he is an explosive football player that makes a lot of plays," said Spagnuolo, who was hired after the Chiefs lost to the Patriots in the AFC title game to turn around one of the league's worst defenses. "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."
The Chiefs are also considering what to do with fellow outside linebacker Justin Houston, who had nine sacks in 12 games last season. The veteran leader carries a salary cap hit of $21.1 million next season, and the Chiefs could free up a significant amount of money by trading or 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."
The problem is the Chiefs have little depth beyond Ford and Houston. Defensive end Breeland Speaks is a more natural fit in a 4-3 system, but he was only a bit player after the Chiefs selected him in the second round out of Ole Miss last year.
That's another reason why the franchise tag on Ford made sense.
"I certainly think that we have a bunch of versatility along the line there. Justin and Dee, both of those guys can play in this scheme and do well," Veach said. "We like the pieces that are in place and we're anxious to get this offseason started."