KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Two Pro Bowl players were missing at the start of the Chiefs' mandatory minicamp, one of them hoping to land a new contract and the other let go so that the team might be able to afford it.
Justin Houston, their talented young pass rusher, is entering the final year of his rookie deal. He's due to make only $1.4 million, a bargain for a linebacker who has piled up 26 1/2 sacks in three seasons. And in what's believed to be a negotiating ploy, Houston not only skipped three weeks of voluntary workouts, but he's also skipping this week's three-day minicamp.
The Chiefs practiced Tuesday for the first time since releasing cornerback Brandon Flowers. The move last Friday saves the Chiefs about $7.25 million against the salary cap this season and $7.5 million next season, money that could be used in a deal for Houston.
Of course, the Chiefs have two other pending free agents in quarterback Alex Smith and center Rodney Hudson. That means they might have to get creative if they want to keep all of them.
In the meantime, first-round pick Dee Ford got first-team reps in place of Houston during Tuesday's practice. Marcus Cooper and Ron Parker split time at cornerback in place of Flowers and fellow starter Sean Smith, who was excused from the workout with an illness.
"Every day I go out there as if I'm the starter, so I can't say it's any different if (Flowers) is here or isn't here," Cooper said. "Just keep grinding, getting better every day."
Cooper was a revelation early last season, a seventh-round pick claimed off waivers from San Francisco who wound up starting six games and picking off three passes. He went through a rookie lull midseason, but came on toward the end, giving the Chiefs' front office a sense of confidence that they would be able to withstand Flowers' release.
Still, the change brings even more instability to the defensive backfield. The Chiefs already had allowed starting free safety Kendrick Lewis and backup defensive back Quintin Demps to sign elsewhere, opening a couple of holes they are hoping to fill internally. Husain Abdullah and Sanders Commings appear to be the first in line.
"We have guys who can step up," Commings said.
Tight end Travis Kelce, wide receiver Kyle Williams and cornerback David Van Dyke did individual workouts and the install period, but were otherwise limited. Kelce is coming off knee surgery, Williams a torn ACL and Van Dyke a hamstring injury.
Rookie running back De'Anthony Thomas appeared to be overcome by the heat and humidity on a warm afternoon. He chugged water on a knee after one series of plays, then took a swing pass to the end zone, where he collapsed. He wound up walking to the shade and spent several minutes with a trainer before heading to the locker room. He did not return to the field.
Thomas, a fourth-round pick out of Oregon, has been unable to join the Chiefs for workouts since rookie minicamp because of an NFL rule that prohibited him from working out until his school graduates. Oregon is on the quarter system, so that didn't happen until this past weekend.
The Chiefs also had four players in for tryouts on Tuesday: former Rutgers wide receiver Mark Harrison, Cal Poly wide receiver Cole Stanford, Utah State cornerback Quinton Byrd and Missouri cornerback Kip Edwards.