The Kansas City Chiefs entered the 2021 offseason with some very distinct positional needs — most obviously along the offensive line, given what transpired in Super Bowl LV. Down to the backups of their backups, quarterback Patrick Mahomes was pressured by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on 29 of his 56 dropbacks.
Even Kansas City’s Superman could not prevail under the constraints of such kryptonite, as the Chiefs lost 31-9. Since then, the public’s focus has been on what the Chiefs and their personnel staff will do to address the issue. They have begun their plan — which we will get into — but first, let’s identify the two in-house goals for the Chiefs this offseason.
“Convert to rollover, allowing flexibility for years to come”
It is easy to look at the Chiefs’ interest in players such as offensive tackle Trent Williams and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (or more recently, nickel cornerback K’Wuan Williams), see them sign contracts elsewhere and wonder if there is a serious recruiting problem in Kansas City.
Fans reasonably note the listed $21.67 million worth of 2021 cap space and wonder why or how the team can’t manage to come to terms with its targeted players. The simple answer is that the organization’s outlook does not begin and end with the 2021 season. The team very much wants to get back to its fourth-straight AFC title game and third-straight Super Bowl appearance in 2021 — but it wants to do so while also ensuring it can accomplish the same in 2022 and beyond.
When the league finally announced that the reduced 2021 salary cap number came in at $182.5 million, the Chiefs, in actuality, had $188 million to play with due to the long-forgotten cap wrinkle: rollover. The Chiefs had rolled over somewhere estimated at around $5 million from the 2020 season. According to Spotrac, the Chiefs owe their rostered players north of $174 million for the 2022 season.
This is not a win-one-year operation — and with the 25-year-old Mahomes on the team, it won’t be for a very long time. Even with the Super Bowl loss, this organization's goals revolve around dynasty building, and that can only happen when you manage the cap for the long term.
Thus the idea: rollover, which equals flexibility, which equals sustained winning. The 2022 cap is thought to land somewhere between $210 million and $220 million, and that number is still not known as the world and NFL rebounds from the impossibly unexpected coronavirus pandemic. So when the Chiefs reworked the deals of Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Chris Jones and unveiled a sparkly $21 million to throw around, it hasn’t been thrown around because even with the room, the Chiefs are forever looking for value.
While sometimes hard to swallow, that is the mark of this regime and why the promise of yearly success is still on the table.
The offensive line
The Chiefs knew when free agency opened, they wanted to go after two positions: interior offensive line and offensive tackle. They targeted and landed the best guard on the market in Joe Thuney, who they knew wanted to get his contract done quickly and had the league-wide interest to do so.
Almost immediately after the tampering period opened, word broke of the Chiefs agreeing to a five-year deal worth a total of $80 million, with $32.5 million guaranteed in the first two seasons. Boom. Need met — and with Thuney being an elite player at the age of 28 locked up for the prime of his career — so was the value. For the Chiefs, Thuney checks off all the boxes: he’s the “dirty tough” Andy Reid always talks about, he can play multiple positions and be a leader in the offensive line room — something the team needed with Eric Fisher and Mitch Schwartz having been released.
After Thuney, the Chiefs turned their attention to another big fish: 32-year-old Trent Williams. Despite his age, the Chiefs saw value in Williams because of the disparity between him and the other available tackles on the open market, such as Russel Okung, Riley Reiff or Alejandro Villanueva.
It may be difficult to wrap your head around paying a 32-year-old as much as the San Francisco 49ers did to secure his services (six years, $138 million, $55.1 guaranteed), but the Chiefs were also willing to do so because of his elite play over the past few seasons. In a video about the signing, Williams admits he “thought Kansas City was the place,” but 49ers head coach “Kyle Shanahan came through.”
#49ers LT Trent Williams admits that he came real close to signing with the #Chiefs in free agency: "It's like a rollercoaster because I thought Kansas City was the place. ... Luckily my boy (Kyle Shanahan) came through and I'm back."— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) March 23, 2021
Digging into the details of the contract, it equates to a “three-year, $60.75 million deal,” with the 49ers holding an option to pick up the final three years at $77.31 million. Perhaps the Chiefs were unwilling to give a player — though elite — three full guaranteed years considering he will be 33 years old when the season begins. Seeing Williams in the wrong red and gold will no doubt hurt in 2021 considering how close the Chiefs were, but it may very well turn out to be smart business.
So how does the starting offensive line project?
As it stands right now (before the draft), the Chiefs see competition at left tackle including Lucas Niang, though the signing of a veteran or a draft pick at tackle would push him to the right side — as would Fisher, who may still wind up back with the Chiefs (careful spending factors into that, too). The Chiefs would like to keep Joe Thuney at his All-Pro position at left guard. Thuney may be considered for the center position based upon how things shake out, with third-year player Nick Allegretti or Austin Reiter — if he is retained — as an option. Kyle Long, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Andrew Wylie are all options at right guard. Mike Remmers and the aforementioned Niang are options at right tackle.
A dark-horse player to watch is Prince Tega Wanogho, who showed out in practice late last season and could be a “Mr. Steal Your Job” candidate for 2021. He’s currently on the 90-man roster.
The second wave for wide receiver
The Chiefs were indeed interested in wide receivers Josh Reynolds and Smith-Schuster — but again, situation and value matter. With the Baltimore Ravens and Chiefs in the mix, the 24-year-old Smith-Schuster opted to sign back in Pittsburgh, where he made it very clear he wanted to be after all. The deal came in at one-year for $8 million, with the Chiefs reportedly offering that and incentives.
Can’t say it enough, I love you Pittsburgh. Came in here a young 20 year old and you guys embraced me from the moment I got here. So much love. Had my back thru everything, all the struggles and success. So hard to leave. See you this Fall in Heinz WE’RE GOIN CRAZY!!!— JuJu Smith-Schuster (@TeamJuJu) March 19, 2021
In the end, going above the reported $9 million guaranteed number the Ravens offered maybe gets it done, but the Chiefs were again being intelligent with their money. With so many needs and certain interest in retaining players like wide receiver Demarcus Robinson — whom they brought back on Thursday — defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon, center Austin Reiter and linebacker Damien Wilson... while wanting money to rollover... did it make sense to overpay when the NFL Draft next month is wide receiver-rich? Likely not.
Reynolds was a simple matter of situation. The 26-year-old who had 618 yards and two touchdowns in the Sean McVay Los Angeles Rams offense signed a one-year deal to go to the Tennessee Titans. The one-year deal indicates that Reynolds is playing the market, delaying free agency to next offseason when teams collectively are to have at least $896 million more to spend. Being in an offense with Mahomes is attractive; what is not attractive is playing with Kelce and Tyreek Hill when you are looking to be paid on the basis of 2021 production.
Reynolds just watched Corey Davis sign a three-year deal with up to $37.5 million with the New York Jets after Davis had more than 950 yards and five touchdowns in Tennessee. Is that production likely to happen in Kansas City with Hardman, Byron Pringle and Robinson potentially in the mix — on top of target-eaters Hill and Kelce? Almost assuredly no.
Smith-Schuster is 6’1 and Reynolds is 6’3, similar to Sammy Watkins, who is 6’1 and likely to move on. The Chiefs were not so interested in T.Y. Hilton, who went back to the Indianapolis Colts, or Golden Tate, who has expressed interest in Kansas City. Both Hilton and Tate are smaller targets; the Chiefs did have interest in Kendrick Bourne (at 6’1), for example; Bourne went to the Patriots on a three-year, $15 million deal.
Other needs that remain
As the free agency stands on Thursday, the Chiefs have identified their needs at starting left tackle, SAM linebacker (if Wilson does not return) defensive end depth and nickel cornerback.
Pass rusher Melvin Ingram left without a contract on Wednesday, but perhaps the book is not closed there. Regardless of what happens with the nine-year veteran, the Chiefs want to continue to load that position.
With K’Wuan Williams going back to the 49ers, expect the Chiefs to turn their attention elsewhere. The team would like to ideally move L’Jarius Sneed to outside cornerback, so he can take on the opposing team’s best wide receiver. We have joked on these pages about “Sneed Island.” The Chiefs see that as a reality.
On the mend
In the midst of free agency, two players have gotten a bit lost in the shuffle: cornerback Deandre Baker and linebacker Willie Gay Jr.
The Chiefs really like what they saw in limited looks at Baker, who fractured his femur in Week 17. Odd to note, but the break was so clean, the Chiefs don’t foresee any future problems for the young cornerback. Baker reportedly had successful surgery in early January and could push for an integral role in 2021.
Linebacker Willie Gay Jr. — who tore his meniscus preparing for the Super Bowl — is expected to be ready by training camp.
The bottom line
After going 38-10 the past three regular-seasons, playing in three straight AFC title games, two Super Bowls, winning two AFC titles and a championship, doesn’t general manager Brett Veach and the front office deserve at least an offseason of the benefit of the doubt?
While fan frustration early in free agency is more than understandable, there is a long way to go before the first week in September. The Chiefs have been true to themselves, not sacrificing the plan to make a move in which they feel would hurt the future.
The Chiefs have two goals to which they want to remain true.
Despite the cap room they have right now for 2021, they have a desire to roll at least some money over so that they may be able to take care of their own (such as defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu and Charvarius Ward) while still being able to sign free agents (for the right value) in 2021 and future seasons. If another Thuney, regarded among the elite, makes it to unrestricted free agency in 2022, the Chiefs will need capital to spend. There are no elite players still currently available.
We have been through regimes in Kansas City where the organization was careless with money; this is not one of them.