While he receives proper credit for the draft selection of quarterback Patrick Mahomes in 2017, Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach didn’t have full control of the organization’s drafting process until 2018. That year, he used his first-ever pick as a general manager — a second-round selection that was traded up for, dropping 22 spots in the third round as part of the deal — on Ole Miss defensive end Breeland Speaks.
Almost two and a half years later, Veach cut his inaugural draft pick, along with 24 other players — five days before the season opener. When asked about it during his Sunday press conference, Veach cited the level of competition Speaks faced.
“Of all the positions, that defensive line position is probably our deepest position,” Veach acknowledged. “With Breeland [Speaks], it was a different scheme when he got here, and our staff really thought his rookie year he did some things you can lay a foundation on. We all know he came in a little out of shape the next year, and then he had the injury. When you get behind the eight-ball in professional football, it’s tough. When you get behind the eight-ball on a roster with a deep defensive line, it’s even tougher.”
Veach might have had to swallow his pride a bit to make this move. He hasn’t missed on much in his young career as an executive, but cutting a second-round selection before he reaches his third season is a big miss. Players picked that high should have a shot at an immediate impact — as we saw in the following year’s selections of safety Juan Thornhill and wide receiver Mecole Hardman.
Veach deserves credit for working with the coaching staff to determine the best way to shape the roster — regardless of the cost. Speaks’ carries a dead cap number of $1.3 million that will be split and accounted for evenly on each of the Chiefs’ next two years of cap space, according to Spotrac.
“Our staff — both coaching and personnel staff — are always committed to doing what we feel is best for the team and playing the best players,” Veach declared. “The guys that are on the active roster, we felt that day-by-day and the way it graded out, they just performed better and they deserved to be on the team.”
Speaks suffered multiple right knee injuries during the third preseason game of 2019. His timetable to recover was initially three months, but that eventually turned into the entire season as he remained on IR through the conclusion of the playoffs. He had a year to work on rehabilitation and be ready for 2020.
“Guys certainly handle rehab situations differently in how they come back,” Veach began. “Everyone progresses at different rates. Without having any medical documentation in front of me, I would say that bigger people — offensive linemen and defensive linemen — are probably a little bit slower to come back in regards to skill players, running backs, receivers, safeties. He did come back into camp and lost weight, he was healthy, and he was able to practice throughout the course of the preseason. He worked hard to put himself in that position.”
What didn’t help Speaks’ cause was the performance of other young players looking to prove themselves — defensive ends like former first-round pick Taco Charlton, rookie Mike Danna, and undrafted free agent defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton.
“Not having a year of football is tough, then when you throw in the factor of having [Frank] Clark, Tanoh [Kpassagnon], [Alex] Okafor, Taco [Charlton] had a good camp he obviously made the roster, and Mike Danna had a really good camp,” Veach emphasized about his fifth-round selection.
“Wharton’s been a great story,” Veach excitedly stated about the rookie from Missouri S&T in Rolla, Missouri. “He certainly jumped out for us as a staff at the East-West game... When you go back and watch his college tape, it was a little bit choppy, then you do some digging and homework and you realize he was battling through a high-ankle sprain and he wasn’t quite right the whole season.”
Wharton started to prove Veach and his staff’s excitement true from his initial steps on the Chiefs practice field.
“The first day we had players in the building and went out there and watched group work, he just stood out,” Veach recalled. “He was really twitchy, athletic, worked his tail off. So the next question is, ‘Wait until we put the pads on.’ He carried that over and was able to make plays. Then it was, ‘All right, let’s see how he does against better competition, he’s been doing this against the three’s, so let’s put him up there against the twos and the ones.’ The kid just found a way to make plays and continue to get better, answer the bell at each step... now the next question will be, ‘Can he do it in a game against a team that is schematically doing things to put these guys into unfavorable positions?’ That will be the next challenge.”
Whether it was the overall depth of the position, the excitement of the unknown with newer players, or Speaks’ general lack of performance, the Chiefs made a bold move breaking away from him before getting to see game action of him in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s system.
As much flack as Veach warrants for picking Speaks, no general manager is perfect in the draft. The great ones move on as soon as they understand their mistake and continue on with better players.