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Seeing the future in the Chiefs’ offensive line moves

Kansas City’s free-agency moves may seem mystifying — but when viewed from the proper altitude, a picture begins to emerge.

NFL: FEB 07 Super Bowl LV - Chiefs v Buccaneers Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Speaking to reporters back on March 1, Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach had been asked about addressing the team’s defensive needs.

In a 350-word answer, he first acknowledged that what the team would be able to do would be “largely dependent on what becomes available to us.” But before getting to the reporter’s question about specific positions on the defense, he said something else — something that in retrospect, we probably should have given more weight.

“From a 1,000-foot view — when you look at our roster composition — we certainly want to build back our offensive line.”

The headline-inducing takeaway from that media session turned out to be Veach’s answer to a later question, in which he said that injured starting offensive tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz could be back for the 2021 season.

But he had already said that the team wanted to build back the offensive line. And apparently, no one — including me — realized what he really meant.

So 10 days later — less than 24 hours after the league had set the 2021 salary cap to $182.5 million — we shouldn’t have been surprised when the Chiefs unceremoniously released Fisher and Schwartz, clearing the first $18.3 million of what would turn out to be $55 million in cap space over a whirlwind five-day period, moving the Chiefs from $21.2 million over the cap to $33.8 million under it.

Cleveland Browns v New England Patriots Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

With Fisher and Schwartz gone — and now with money to spend — it also wasn’t a surprise that when the league’s legal tampering period began last Monday, the Chiefs looked like they would be big players. They signed former New England Patriots guard Joe Thuney — an elite player at his position — to a five-year deal worth $80 million. Until the bitter end, they were in the battle to sign free agency’s top target — San Francisco 49ers tackle Trent Williams — before the 49ers signed him to a six-year deal worth $138 million.

But since then? Crickets. Outside of guard Kyle Long — who retired in 2020 — the Chiefs haven’t signed a single free agent from another team.

I can’t blame you if you’re wondering what Veach is thinking.

What’s the point of clearing all that cap space if you’re not going to spend it? How can the Chiefs possibly compete by overpaying a single guard — albeit an excellent one — to replace two Pro Bowl tackles?

To answer that question, we’ll have to fly much higher than the 1,000 feet Veach suggested three weeks ago. We’ll have to climb all the way up to 30,000 feet, where commercial airliners crisscross the sky. Only from there can we really take in the big picture.

And from that altitude, the only thing you can see is the Chiefs’ quarterback. All the way to the hazy horizon, Patrick Mahomes’ $500 million contract dominates the landscape in every direction. For better or worse, every move the Chiefs make over the next decade (or more) will be influenced by how much they’re paying their star quarterback.

To be sure, Mahomes’ contract does do as originally advertised: it gives the Chiefs some flexibility to sign free agents. Converting his $21.7 million 2021 roster bonus into a signing bonus accounted for $17.1 million of the cap space they cleared before the new league year began — but at the cost of adding $4.3 million to his cap hit from 2022 to 2025. His unusual contract structure — and particularly its length — potentially allows the Chiefs to pull this roster-to-signing-bonus trick again and again.

But sooner or later, everything Mahomes is paid must eventually be counted against the cap. Should the Chiefs do the same thing in each of the next two seasons, they could clear a total of $49.4 million in cap space — but Mahomes’ additional cap hit would increase to $9.9 million in 2022 and $16.8 million from 2023 through 2025. After that, the moves would add $12.4 million in 2026 and $6.9 million in 2027.

It’s just not enough to say that cap increases will absorb these additional amounts. The new league’s just-signed television contract paints a rosy picture for the future, but it won’t go into effect until 2023 — meaning that it won’t hit the salary cap until 2024. And as it rises, so will salaries for free-agent players — as will Mahomes’ cap hits. With this season’s bonus conversion, it’s already set to be $35.8 million in 2022, $46.8 million in 2023 and $44.3 million in 2024.

Ultimately, this means that we’re going to have to adjust our expectations about what Kansas City will do in free agency. 2021 might be the last year in which we see the team even consider the possibility of being in the market for big-name players.

In turn, that means that the Chiefs must transition to becoming largely dependent on the draft and undrafted free agency, with early-round picks slated to become immediate starters — or, at worst, players who could start in their second year — while later selections and undrafted players will be expected to develop into starting-caliber players on a somewhat longer timeline.

On the offensive line, the Chiefs have already been thinking that way for a while. Acquiring Nick Allegretti and Lucas Niang in the draft were clearly moves intended for the future. Even if the Chiefs had been in a position to keep Fisher and Schwartz for the final seasons of their contracts, it’s likely they would have entered the 2021 draft with an eye towards finding at least one replacement tackle for 2022.

So why go after big-money deals for Thuney and Williams? Because an NFL general manager’s job is always is to find the balance between being successful both now and in the seasons to come; it makes little sense to build for a future in which some other GM will be running the show.

But Veach can never can never lose sight of the view from 30,000 feet. Just like in the draft, whatever few free-agent players he acquires had better be the right ones — and make total financial sense for the franchise.

At 28, Thuney had a history of being available for full seasons, so a five-year deal made sense — especially since his $17 million signing bonus would leave just $6.5 million in dead money over the last two seasons. His $16 million average per year may be expensive for a guard today, but during the second half of his contract it will be a reasonable deal for an elite player — and he will cost just $4.5 million against the cap in 2021.

Williams, however, was another story. The Chiefs clearly saw him as a top-tier talent, but he was 32 years old; the long contract he wanted to make little sense for them. Even the structure of the deal the 49ers signed with him made it clear they didn’t expect him to play much more than three seasons — and even then, he’ll be leaving $12 million in dead money behind. That — and the $30 million signing bonus that gave him a 2021 cap hit of $8.2 million — wasn’t a deal that made sense for Kansas City.

So the Chiefs will move on, looking for the best deal they can get for at least one veteran tackle they will only need for a season or two as they develop their long-term starters. As for the money they cleared for 2021, it can always be carried forward to 2022; if you don’t actually spend it, there’s no downside in borrowing money from future cap space. While NFL rules require you to account for every dollar you spend, salary-cap loans are interest-free.

It’s reasonable to be concerned about the Chiefs going from having two solid tackles to having question marks at each position. But for a period of years, Kansas City has made its offensive lines work with two or three solid players out of five. Even where things stand right now, the Chiefs have that. Is it so unreasonable to think the Chiefs could now find success by building the line from the inside out, rather than the outside in?