Chiefs, LJ Playing Poker

As we first mentioned on our premium forum early in March, there was a possibility the Chiefs would shop All-Pro running back Larry Johnson. On Tuesday evening those reports became public, as the Chiefs have had preliminary discussions with at least four NFL teams. But will the Chiefs really trade LJ? And what is LJ's end game?

Johnson is perfectly suited to excel in Herm Edwards' offense. He does things between the tackles that few other running backs can. When he gets to the outside he thunders down the field as if shot out of a cannon. Johnson is tough, physical and runs with a chip on his shoulder as wide as the Grand Canyon.

But he doesn't block well and has had troubles catching the ball out of the backfield. Still, he does enough to make him dangerous and the Chiefs have overlooked these shortcomings, until now.

That's because Johnson wants to get paid. He wants to be the highest-paid running back in the NFL. He wants LaDainian Tomlinson money. Two years ago, the San Diego Chargers signed Tomlinson to an eight-year contract with a street value of $65 million. In actual upfront dollars, Tomlinson received $25 million guaranteed, and it was appropriate compensation for the NFL's best running back.

What separates LT from LJ is obvious. He can run, catch, block and on occasion, throw touchdown passes. LJ can run, and in my opinion is better at it than Tomlinson. But LT earned that contract because of his versatility. LJ wants that paycheck and then some.

Does he deserve it?

To be honest, no. Especially when you factor in that he wants more money than Tomlinson. In fact, we hear that he's asked for the sun and the moon. The Chiefs are willing to pay him the moon, but reserve the right to give the sun to the rest of the players on the 53-man roster.

Once the Chiefs found out about Johnson's latest contract demands they began spreading the word that he might be available via trade. In that time frame, according to the NFL Network, four teams have stepped up to bat - the Cleveland Browns, Tennessee Titans, Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills. We've also heard the New York Giants might be willing to talk turkey with the Chiefs.

Now the fun begins.

Chiefs President/General Manager Carl Peterson has some leverage in this deal. The Chiefs own Johnson's rights for 2007 and will probably franchise him in 2008, when he will be 29 years old and on the downward cycle of his career.

At that point the Chiefs will have beaten him up with another 800-plus carries and received four great seasons from Johnson, all for only the value of his $8 million rookie contract. A portion of that has been voided thanks to the number of carries Johnson took last season, so let's call it $6 million instead

As a franchise running back, in 2008 Johnson will make somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 million. So for $14 million, the Chiefs get LJ's prime NFL years. I call that a bargain.

Peterson knows that this weekend's NFL Draft is full of players that can fill virtually every hole on the roster if the Chiefs acquire a few more draft picks. Kansas City has needs along the offensive line, defensive line, at cornerback and wide receiver.

Imagine what the Chiefs could do if they were able to acquire three picks for Johnson - let's say a first and third this year and a second next year. They could do what the Chargers did two years ago when they traded the rights to Eli Manning.

The only problem is that other NFL teams aren't stupid. They know of LJ's reputation and though he's beyond gifted, he's not a guy you lean on in the locker room. As long as he produces, most can live with his attitude, but sooner or later that rubs some the wrong way.

We don't know if the Chiefs have reached that point, but one thing is clear. Contract talks have taken a sharp turn, and now it appears the Chiefs will call LJ's bluff.

The New England Patriots were in the same position a year ago with disgruntled wide receiver Deion Branch. They let him talk to NFL teams, and most passed, except for one. The Seattle Seahawks gave New England a first-round pick and then gave Branch $39 million and $13 million signing bonus.

The Chiefs have to hope that some team out there takes the bait on the trap they've set. They don't want to trade LJ, but if some other NFL team is so inclined to give the Chiefs a whopping deal in return, they'll consider it a Royal Flush, cash in their chips and move on.

Nobody really knows what Johnson wants but one thing is certain - he's never really played things well in Kansas City. He didn't get along well with Dick Vermeil.

Once again he's misplayed his position - or has he? If he truly wants out of Kansas City as some believe, then he's playing the mega-contract card. It's really his only play, if that's his end game.

If he wants to remain a Chief while becoming the highest-paid back in the NFL, then I suggest he get out on the practice field with the blocking sled and push it around until he drives it into the turf every day.

When he's done with that he should catch 500 footballs every day. He won't have to work on his running skills, because he's reached his peak in that area.

I've always supported Johnson, but maybe it's time he takes a long, hard look at himself and realizes that this is a team game. The only numbers that truly matter are on the scoreboard in the Super Bowl. If he can't understand that, it might be a foregone conclusion that he'll be playing for a new team sometime soon.

Maybe as soon as Saturday.

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