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5 Chiefs start on 2021’s ‘best NFL team money can buy’

An exercise about building an NFL team under the current salary cap reveals a lot about the Kansas City roster — and the man who built it.

NFL: FEB 02 Super Bowl LIV - Chiefs v 49ers Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Monday, NFL.com’s Anthony Holzman-Escareno took on a project: building the best 53-man NFL roster that would fit under the league’s 2021 salary cap of $182.5 million.

There were some rules to follow. Among them: he could use no more than 24 players who were on rookie contracts — and there were limits on how many he could select from particular rounds. He was allowed to use one player who was on a franchise or transition tag in 2020 — and he could sign one free agent to a veteran salary benefit contract.

He came up with a team — and still had over $12 million in cap space. Here are the 22 starters he chose. Five Kansas City Chiefs — more than from any other team — are among them.

POS OFFENSE POS DEFENSE
QB Patrick Mahomes
Chiefs
IDL Aaron Donald
Rams
RB Alvin Kamara
Saints
IDL Chris Jones
Chiefs
WR Justin Jefferson
Vikings
EDGE Myles Garrett
Browns
WR DK Metcalf
Seahawks
EDGE Chase Young
Washington
TE Travis Kelce
Chiefs
LB Darius Leonard
Colts
TE George Kittle
49ers
LB Fred Warner
49ers
LT Trent Williams
49ers
CB Jalen Ramsey
Rams
LG Joe Thuney
Chiefs
CB Tre'Davious White
Bills
C Rodney Hudson
Cardinals
CB Jaire Alexander
Packers
RG Wyatt Teller
Browns
S Justin Simmons
Broncos
RT Orlando Brown Jr.
Chiefs
S Minkah Fitzpatrick
Steelers

Of course, Holzman-Escareno chose 31 other players (including Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed) to round out his 53: a total of three quarterbacks, four running backs, six wide receivers, four tight ends, eight offensive linemen, five interior defensive linemen, six edge rushers, five linebackers, five cornerbacks, four safeties and three specialists.

His comments about his picks began with the quarterbacks...

In last year’s edition of this exercise, I started this section with the following sentence: The best team money can buy has a quarterback on a rookie contract. This year? Patrick Mahomes remains QB1 despite his historic extension. It just so happens that the decline in the salary cap also forced many teams to restructure contracts to lower 2021 cap figures. Mahomes is cheaper than Ryan Fitzpatrick and Joe Burrow. And honestly, that’s just the icing on the cake; Mahomes would be this team’s QB1 no matter what. He’s that valuable, regardless of the price tag. Still just 25 years old, Mahomes has already won a Super Bowl and MVP award, while averaging the most passing yards and touchdowns per game in NFL history.

then the tight ends — which included Rob Gronkowski behind Kelce and Kittle...

Stacking Kelce and Kittle makes this offense almost impossible to defend. In 2018, Kittle set an NFL record with 1,377 receiving yards at tight end. Last season, Kelce eclipsed that mark with 1,416 receiving yards in just 15 games. The Chiefs star outpaced every wide receiver outside of Stefon Diggs (1,535) in the category. Kittle missed eight games in 2020, but he still averaged 79.3 receiving yards per, good for second among tight ends behind Kelce (94.4). Kittle can provide elite receiving and run-after-catch ability, while also being a devastating run blocker. Gronkowski is a shell of his former self, but he can still contribute as a receiver (see: two touchdowns in Super Bowl LV) and as a blocker. Plus, a locker room with Kelce, Kittle and Gronk would be a happy one.

the offensive linemen...

Williams just became the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history, but he comes with a very manageable Year 1 cap hit. Since 2012, the only season he missed the Pro Bowl was 2019, the year he did not play. In his first campaign with the 49ers, Williams was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded offensive tackle. Now a Pro Bowler at both tackle positions, Brown goes back to his undesired RT position on this roster. Getting Thuney, the NFL’s highest-paid guard and another Chiefs offseason acquisition, for $4.5 million made filling the LG spot an easy proposition.

and the interior defensive linemen.

Donald had a $25 million cap hit last season. A thrift-store bargain at $14 million for 2021, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year is the most expensive player on this roster for the second straight season. He’s the best defensive player in the NFL today — and may end up as the best of all time. He leads the NFL in sacks (85.5), quarterback hits (201) and tackles for loss (131) since entering the NFL in 2014. Jones is another spectacular interior pass rusher, ranking behind only Donald at the position in sacks since 2018.

Holzman-Escareno also said that one of his tough decisions was not picking an “elite WR1 like Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill or DeAndre Hopkins.” Instead, he went with youth in his wide receiver corps. He called Chiefs cornerback Sneed a “value add” with a fourth-round contract of under $1 million, noting his three picks and two sacks in just nine 2020 games.


Let’s be fair: the primary reason there are so many Chiefs on this list is Kansas City general manager Brett Veach’s foresight in structuring the contracts of his main contributors: Mahomes, Kelce and Jones.

All three players signed contract extensions during the height of the pandemic in 2020. While all three deals were designed to make sense for the team over the long term, they also allowed Veach to clear very large amounts of cap space with the stroke of a pen — which turned out to be necessary for 2021.

To be sure, Mahomes and Kelce — and perhaps even Jones — might have been chosen as starters on this team, anyway. But because their extensions were structured the way they were, Veach made them bargains in 2021 — which allowed him to completely rebuild the team’s offensive line while dealing with a historically low salary-cap figure; the presence of two of the team’s new linemen among this squad’s starters tells you a lot about how well Veach did it.

While it’s true that eventually, all of those dollars must be accounted for under the cap — in future years, the piper will still need to be paid — as long as the Chiefs can find quality players in the draft, the team’s future should remain bright.