On January 22 — just two days after the Kansas City Chiefs concluded their 2018 season with a 37-31 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship — the Chiefs fired defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. Just two days after that, the Chiefs hired Steve Spagnuolo to replace him.
As anyone would expect after a change at coordinator, a flurry of other coaching changes followed. On February 7, the Chiefs hired Jacksonville Jaguars defensive line coach Dave Merritt as defensive backs coach. On February 9, the Chiefs hired Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly as defensive line coach. After a flurry of will he-won’t he reports, it became clear on February 12 that University of Kentucky defensive coordinator Matt House was being hired as Chiefs linebackers coach.
When the Chiefs publicly unveiled their final defensive staff on February 19. We learned that the rumors were true: Sam Madison — a former cornerback for the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants (under Spagnuolo) would make his NFL coaching debut as defensive backs/cornerbacks coach. And we learned that Daly would also be the run game coordinator for the Chiefs defense — whatever that is.
I’ve run through this timeline for a specific reason: it’s possible these hires might be the most significant moves the Chiefs make before the NFL draft.
Understand... I’m not predicting that this will be how it plays out. But I think we have to at least consider the possibility that it might be what happens.
With all the reports (and rumors) attached to the Chiefs for the upcoming free agency period, that might be a little hard to believe. So bear with me.
As Chiefs fans, we have learned something over the course of many years: to go into each offseason with expectations based on a simple, reasonable idea: many roster changes will need to be made for the team to get to the next step.
This made perfect sense when the next step was getting a winning record... or making the playoffs... or winning a playoff game for the first time in decades... or winning a home playoff game for the first time in decades... or getting to the AFC Championship for the first time in a quarter-century.
But those days — at long last — are over.
Under Andy Reid and John Dorsey, the Chiefs made the playoffs in four seasons out of five, and one by one, moved from one next step to another. With Patrick Mahomes under center in Reid’s sixth season, the last two fell with the gentle touch of Mahomes’ left hand — while he was looking the other way.
All that remains is the last step.
And it might be time for the Chiefs — and their fans — to recognize that reality and adjust their offseason expectations to match it. The Chiefs are no longer on the outside looking in. They’re now on the inside looking out. It’s time for them to make the offseason moves that are appropriate for such a team.
But what kind of moves are those?
We know the answer, don’t we? We have to look no farther than the example set by Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots.
Last week, I presented an analysis of the on-field production Chiefs general managers have received from the players they acquired during their first year on the team. The data I collected for that article can also paint some other pictures. One of those is how Chiefs rosters have been constructed since Carl Peterson became GM in 1989.
In the last article, my goal was to gain some kind of sense of how Veach had performed in the acquisition of players during his first year as Chiefs GM. This time, I’m going to start with the assumption that Veach’s administration of the team is an extension of Dorsey’s.
There is a solid basis for this assumption. Veach, after all, had been a subordinate of Dorsey’s ever since Dorsey arrived, and there is no evidence that Veach made any effort to blow up the Chiefs roster in his first season — something that the data shows has consistently happened with every change at Chiefs general manager since (and including) Peterson.
Total Roster Construction
Just like in last week’s article, Drft represents the percentage of players on each year’s roster that were drafted by the team, UFA shows the percentage of those signed as undrafted rookie free agents, and RFA is for those first signed by another team who joined the team as rookies. The FA column shows those first signed by another team who joined the team after their rookie season, while VFA shows the rest: those who joined the team after contributing significantly to their former teams. The Rook and TFA columns simply add up the rookie and non-rookie columns.
Here we see that the construction of the 2018 Chiefs and Patriots rosters are very similar, and also represent a bit of a departure from previous Chiefs administrations. If we consider the 2018 Patriots team as the gold standard (which we called the Patriot Way between 2009 and 2012), this is excellent news.
If we dig a little deeper, though, we see a few other differences between the 2018 squads of the Chiefs and Patriots.
Roster Construction: Starters
The most significant difference we see between the starting rosters of last year’s Chiefs and Patriots teams is in the proportion of those brought to the team as rookies, and those brought in as free agents — specifically veteran free agents: quality veteran players who were brought in to fill holes in the starting roster.
But getting the proportions right isn’t the only significant piece of the puzzle.
Anecdotally, we already know this is true. Everybody recognizes that Belichick’s Patriots don’t fool around with trying to sign high-priced veteran free agents. When Belichick signs a free agent, it’s one he believes can contribute to his team, but won’t carry a high price tag because other teams are also bidding for their services.
In other words, Belichick doesn’t overpay for talent — whether the player is on his team or someone else’s.
The numbers bear this out. Before Dee Ford was given the franchise tag, both the Chiefs and Patriots had roughly the same amount of cap space for 2019: somewhere around $24M. But that is not to say the two teams are in a similar cap situation. As things now stand, the Patriots have $24M, and the Chiefs have $10M. (all per OverTheCap)
But the situation will change dramatically in 2020. Without any changes, the Patriots will have an estimated $100M in cap space, while the Chiefs will have just $49M.
How do the Patriots do it? By refusing to go after high-priced free agents, avoiding back-loaded player contracts, and heartlessly jettisoning many players before they are likely to command big money in free agency — sometimes by trading them for draft picks.
And while I’m not completely convinced that having a perennial championship contender helps you manage the salary cap, it certainly doesn’t hurt.
So the Chiefs have already done the hardest part: building a contending team while relying on the salary cap tricks used by teams that simply want to get one step closer to the goal. Now with a championship-caliber base of talent, an elite quarterback and a brand-new defensive coaching staff, can they transition to managing the salary cap the way the Patriots do?
Dorsey certainly didn’t do his successor any favors with the contract he gave to Eric Berry. At the time, it pleased the fans to reward Berry for his great play (and his inspiration to others), but it’s hard to see Belichick making a similar move; in his world, emotion isn’t a part of such a decision.
But Veach’s decision to apply the franchise tag to Dee Ford — and casting a net for a trading partner — is very much a Belichick kind of move. If a trade occurs, the Chiefs will be able to afford to find a replacement — perhaps one that is a better fit for what Spagnuolo wants to do — but since Ford is at least a reasonable fit for the 4-3 scheme, they will have a decent chance to get one more good season from the investment they made in their first-round pick from 2013. And then move on.
What about Justin Houston? WWBD — that is, what would Belichick do?
Although he probably wouldn’t have made a deal that would give him a 30-year-old linebacker with a $21M cap hit — that’s exactly the kind of back-loaded contract that the Patriots avoid — he’d probably do exactly what Veach is doing: making it clear that the Chiefs are willing to move on from Houston and his $15M salary for the right price, knowing that even if he could make a trade, he’d likely get little in return. But he’d know that if necessary, he could then cut Houston. He’d have to absorb the $7M in dead money in 2019, but that’s part of the cost that comes from transitioning to a new way of doing business.
WWBD about Eric Berry?
Berry — who essentially hasn’t played for two seasons — would probably get little mercy from Belichick. He’d want to move on — after all, he’d have gotten by with the other safeties on the roster in 2018, and would be able to swap Armani Watts for Ron Parker in 2019 — and then do the best he could to minimize the damage wrought by Berry’s contract by designating him as a post-June 1 cut. But here’s the important part: only if he was strapped for cap room. And if had previously been able to make a trade for Ford — and knew that one way or another, Houston was headed elsewhere — he wouldn’t be.
This is the essence of Belichick’s approach: don’t create future problems. Instead, create future opportunities.
But what would Belichick do next?
Sign former New York Giants safety Landon Collins to a big contract? Given his history... probably not. Instead, as previously noted, he’d roll with the players he had — and if he needed insurance, take his pick from the glut of quality safeties that will be on the free agent market.
He’d have bigger fish to fry, anyway. He’d find a solid (but relatively inexpensive) Sam linebacker — which the Chiefs don’t currently have — and let the draft (and his process) do the rest. He’d hang his hat on Breeland Speaks, draft another 4-3 defensive end, and find a medium-price 4-3 DE as insurance.
Belichick would probably do much the same at cornerback. Charvarius Ward might be just fine across from Kendall Fuller. If not, a decent cornerback shouldn’t be hard to find, the draft is coming, and there’s always the now-healthy Keith Reaser, who might easily be coaxed back to the team inexpensively after his great run in the AAF.
Even with all of these moves, Belichick would still be able to get on to the main business at hand: locking up his two young superstars Tyreek Hill and Chris Jones into fair (but team-friendly) contracts.
Could Brett Veach be planning to approach free agency the same way the Patriots do?
We’ve already discussed some moves that suggest he might be. But there is reason to think that he isn’t all-in, too.
The contracts he gave to Sammy Watkins and Anthony Hitchens are troubling, as they represent the kind of approach we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the last 25 years, rather than a new way of thinking. But in Veach’s defense, Watkins — if he had been healthy in 2018 — would likely be seen as a great move. Playing under Spagnuolo, Hitchens may yet prove to be worth every penny. It would also fair to suggest that going into 2018, Veach still had to operate from the outside looking in — instead of the other way around.
It’s certainly true that the reports and rumors circulating about what the Chiefs might do in free agency — being interested in big-name offensive playmakers and seeing Collins as an offseason priority to name just two — also suggest Veach is sticking to the old way of doing things.
But that could be deliberate misdirection. Like a Las Vegas magician, Veach might be gesturing wildly with his right hand to attract everyone’s attention, while with his left, he palms the ace of spades from a hidden pocket in his tuxedo. No one is likely to disagree that keeping the competition guessing can be part of a solid strategy.
Veach has done well to recognize that it wasn’t necessary to change everything — that the best approach was to continue the work his mentor started. What he has yet to prove is that he can take the next step for a general manager — that he can not only move from the outside looking into the inside looking out but also stay there.