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Projecting the 2021 Chiefs offensive line

Trying to answer one of the offseason’s biggest questions.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Las Vegas Raiders Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

For Kansas City Chiefs fans, figuring out what the team would do on the offensive line for 2021 has been the number one topic of offseason conversation. There's been no shortage of opinions about it.

So it's very likely that you will disagree with at least some of what I'm going to say. But I think it's important to remember that it's possible to overreact to the Chiefs' loss in the Super Bowl. To be sure, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defensive line completely dominated the trenches in the championship. Yet absent the loss of left tackle Eric Fisher two weeks before, it was essentially the same line the team had been using ever since Week 7 — and with which they hadn’t lost a single game.

So here’s how I think the line will shake out — ranked from my belief of most certain to least certain.

Left guard: Joe Thuney

New England Patriots v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

This one could hardly be more obvious. The former New England Patriots guard is being paid as a starter; he’ll certainly be one. There’s also no doubt in my mind (and apparently in anyone else’s, either) that he’ll play on the left side. We’ll return to that thought.

Right guard: Laurent Duvernay-Tardif

AMFOOT-NFL-SUPERBOWL-LIV-CHIEFS-49ERS Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Some are assuming that former All-Pro Kyle Long will take the French-Canadian physician’s place in the starting lineup. I don’t.

Could it happen? Of course. Both players have been out of the game for a year. Either — or both — could easily come back rusty. But Long has said he always intended to come back; Duvernay-Tardif was under contract to return. On that basis, I’m more prepared to believe that Dr. Larry will be ready to go.

Besides... he is already familiar with the Chiefs’ system and has a well-established relationship with the team’s coaches. Then there’s the matter of his contract: he’s more expensive to release than to play — and had a no-trade clause, too. In my mind, it’s his job to lose.

Right tackle: Mike Remmers

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

I believe Remmers’ start at left tackle in the Super Bowl has unfairly impacted his perception among fans. After Mitchell Schwartz went down in Week 6, he turned in solid performances as the team’s right tackle — enough so that the Chiefs not only wanted to bring him back but give him a raise, too. I don’t believe the Chiefs would have done that if they intended for him to be a backup player — so like Duvernay-Tardif, I think it’s his job to lose.

He will certainly face competition. Lucas Niang, Martinas Rankin, Yasir Durant and Prince Tega Wanogho will all be fighting for a chance to start. But if he is outplayed and displaced in camp — which could definitely happen — the Chiefs didn’t give him a contract for so much money that they’d be overpaying for a solid backup.

Center: Austin Blythe

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Coming out of 2020, I believe the Chiefs intended for this to be a battle between last year’s starter, Austin Reiter, and third-year player Nick Allegretti. Some have suggested that Thuney’s signing indicated dissatisfaction with Allegretti’s play. I don’t. To borrow a draft term, I think the Chiefs simply saw Thuney as the best player available in free agency. He was also young enough to be signed to a long-term deal — and the signing had the additional benefit of opening up the camp battle at center.

I think they offered Reiter a contract in the same range as the one they gave Remmers — one that might entice him to stay, but wouldn’t be out of line for a backup. Then it would be up to Allegretti — still with two years remaining on his rookie deal — to either win the job or become the backup. But Reiter likely said no — and now we have a very similar player (albeit with different strengths) to battle Allegretti for the starting gig.

I think Blythe’s experience will win out — but only by a small margin.

Left tackle: a player to be named later

The Chiefs went after San Francisco 49ers left tackle Trent Williams — and then couldn’t reel him in. Like with Thuney, I think the Chiefs simply saw Williams as the second-best available player. But when faced with the prospect of guaranteeing three years of a 33-year-old’s contract — and paying a $30 million signing bonus that would have cost the team no less than $7.5 million per year in pro-rated signing bonus alone — they walked away.

I think general manager Brett Veach did exactly what he should have done: go after the best option to solve a big personnel problem before the draft — and then bail out when the deal no longer fit into his long-term plan. Sometimes the best thing a GM can do is to simply say, “No.”

So that leaves us with Niang, Rankin, Durant and Wanogho — along with the offensive tackle the team will almost certainly select in the first or second round — competing for the starting job. I wouldn’t presume to say who will win that camp battle — although it would be tough to bet against a tackle selected within a handful of spots on either side of the draft’s 31st pick.

And I won’t blame you if the prospect of one of those players — even a first-round rookie — protecting quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ blind side fills you with dread. In fact, I share your concerns. But at some point, you have to put young players on the field. Here, the Chiefs have even lucked out a little bit: this situation is occurring in a year in which there are plenty of good tackles available — and it’s more than possible that Kansas City could snag one of them by standing pat at 31.

I’m not the guy from whom you should get draft predictions. But personally, my money is on Texas tackle Samuel Cosmi with the 31st pick — or even better, at somewhere around the mid-to-high 30s.

And for the record, I don’t now believe the Chiefs will sign a veteran left tackle before the draft. While it would make us all breathe more easily to have a veteran stopgap available, there’s no longer any downside in waiting; with each passing day, such a player will cost less — not more. Furthermore, any veteran signed after the draft will not impact the team’s chance to land compensatory draft picks in 2022. The Chiefs could still sign a vet to play left tackle — but if they do, it’s now more likely to happen after the draft.


The bottom line

In the final analysis, this is why I believe the Chiefs considered Joe Thuney as the best player available in free agency — and also why I think he will start at left guard: because the Chiefs knew there was a good chance things would play out just this way.

It’s no accident they went after Thuney immediately. If they had been unable to come to terms with him, they would have pushed harder to land Williams — and could have afforded to do so. But since they had signed Thuney, they knew he’d be manning the left guard position, making it easier for an inexperienced left tackle to find his way. If they then couldn’t come to terms with Williams... well, no big deal. He was likely to be too expensive anyway.

I know that some will argue that the left tackle is one place where you simply cannot afford to put an inexperienced player. But I think that’s exactly why they tried to get Williams — and also why they drafted Lucas Niang a year ago. It wasn’t the team’s fault that the coronavirus pandemic upset their plan to replace one of their starting tackles in 2021 — or even 2022. Now that the plan has been overtaken by events, the only option is to make the best of it.

And loading up the rest of the offensive line with experienced veteran players — just as I have described here — is exactly how you do that.

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