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Chiefs’ offensive line rebuild signals next phase of Patrick Mahomes era

By revamping the offensive line this offseason, Brett Veach and the Chiefs intend to see immediate impacts on the field, but the long-term effects of this strategy could be even more beneficial to the franchise. 

Patrick Mahomes drops back to pass for the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Since Super Bowl LV, most conversation about the offensive line of the Kansas City Chiefs has stayed at the surface level, and anyone who watched that game understands why.

Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs’ franchise quarterback and arguably the most exciting player in the National Football League, scrambled for four quarters like he was the last man standing in a game of dodgeball. According to Next Gen Stats, Mahomes faced pressure on 52% of his dropbacks and ran 497 yards before throwing the ball or being sacked in that game.

The result? A 31-9 loss and a clear to-do list for the Chiefs’ front office.

Patrick Mahomes and pressure

While the Super Bowl likely accelerated their plans, Brett Veach and company knew it was far from the first time Mahomes was under heavy pressure during the QB’s time in Kansas City. He has faced it off and on since he first stepped on the field. The pressure rate Mahomes faced in Super Bowl LV was only the third-highest of his career. The second highest was in Week 5 of the same season — when the Las Vegas Raiders pressured him on 57% of his dropbacks despite only blitzing on 6% of them.

Besides a few games last year (against teams with pirates on their helmets), Mahomes has been so good that the pressure has not mattered.

The 2018 season was a microcosm of what Mahomes can do against pressure. That season, his first starting full-time, he was pressured on approximately 34% of his dropbacks, one of the highest rates in the league. Yet, he set the NFL ablaze in 2018, throwing 50 touchdowns and over 5,000 yards en route to an AP NFL Most Valuable Player award. With a 7.6% Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) while under pressure, Mahomes was better with the defense in his face than Josh Rosen was with a clean pocket (-2.5% DVOA). That’s pretty good, to say the least.

Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good GIPHY

When a franchise has a young quarterback the caliber of Mahomes, prioritizing offensive weapons in free agency can prove to be a sensible way to capitalize on his rookie contract. The Chiefs did precisely that when the team emptied its pockets to add wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the roster in advance of Mahomes’ first full year under center. Regardless of your thoughts on Watkins, the personnel strategy of the front office worked well enough to notch Mahomes an MVP trophy in 2018, the Chiefs a Lombardi Trophy in 2019 and a follow-up Super Bowl appearance for the team in 2020.

The strategy shifts after the contract

Once a team signs a franchise quarterback to a long-term deal, his production on the field is no longer the only indicator of success for the front office. It has to ensure he is healthy and happy for the long haul. That isn’t exactly breaking news, but front offices still struggle to capitalize on the flexibility the skill set of an elite quarterback provides without exploiting it.

Since quarterbacks like Mahomes can produce and win despite the potential shortcomings of their team, general managers have carte blanche to pursue splashy additions to the roster over addressing holes they believe the quarterback can overcome with his high level of play anyway. However, if the front office makes roster moves that make the quarterback’s job needlessly difficult, he is more susceptible to frustration and possibly even injury.

Two prominent quarterbacks expressed their discontent with their respective franchises publicly this offseason, citing personnel decisions among their primary grievances. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks mended their relationship — at least they are claiming as much in the media — but the stand-off between Aaron Rodgers and the Packers continues.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

For Chiefs fans, these situations feel far from home. Mahomes is entrenched in Kansas City, and — from where we stand right now as fans — comparing his outlook to that of Rodgers or Wilson seems like apples and oranges. To be sure, each of these quarterbacks is his own man. However, they share at least a few commonalities based on their play on the field.

The first is competitive fire. Quarterbacks cannot become elite without it. Therefore, when a glaring need comes to the forefront, as one did with the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, elite quarterbacks want their franchises to take the actions they believe are necessary to win.

The second commonality is the power they wield within their franchise, whether or not they choose to exercise it. Quarterbacks face immense pressure entering the league to prove they are worth the capital expended to draft them. Most are not, and the trust in them wavers within their first few years of play. Resultantly, when a franchise drafts a quarterback on the level of Mahomes, Rodgers, or Wilson, the power dynamic starts to shift as the quarterback continues to elevate his play. Once he proves his worth to the franchise, the franchise must prove its worth to him.

Marrying the quarterback

As soon as Mahomes put ink to paper on a 10-year contract extension, much like a marriage, the real relationship and the real work began. Despite stretches of solid offensive line play during his first three years as a starter, Mahomes sustained more hits and injuries — and injury scares than fans or the front office cared to see. He sprained his ankle in Week 1 of 2019 and re-aggravated it throughout the season. In Week 7, Mahomes dislocated his patella in a scary scene on Thursday Night Football.

(Author’s note: I was at that game; it was the saddest I’d ever been to see the Chiefs stomp the Broncos.)

In 2020, Mahomes entered concussion protocol after a collision that knocked him out of the Divisional round game against the Browns. That same game, the quarterback also suffered a turf toe injury, which he played through in the AFC championship game and the Super Bowl before undergoing surgery this offseason.

Some of these injuries occurred on plays in which Mahomes was fighting for a first down, and they could happen again regardless of the front office's actions. Nevertheless, they happened in only three years. Mahomes has 11 more seasons in Kansas City before he becomes a free agent, and he’ll get older during every one of them. At a certain point, the Chiefs’ front office needed to show him it would do everything in its power to keep him clean. The mental assurances are just as important as the physical.

Mahomes Sacked in Super Bowl LV by three Buccaneers defenders Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

As it did three years ago with Watkins, the team had an opportunity this offseason to write a blank check to upgrade the receiving corps; it prioritized the offensive line instead. The depth along the line was depleted by the end of the season, and Watkins was injured, too. Opportunity cost matters in the NFL, and the team could not sacrifice its depth to pursue one expensive receiver again.

The offensive line facelift

While Eric Fisher and Mitch Schwartz remain quality players, they are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. Their injuries became a concern to the team and their time in Kansas City predated the Mahomes era. The Chiefs’ front office brought Joe Thuney, Orlando Brown Jr., Lucas Niang, Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith to Kansas City specifically to protect Mahomes and to grow the offense alongside him in the years ahead. They represent much more than a reaction to the Super Bowl; they are another investment in the franchise quarterback.

The push and pull between capitalizing on the current window to win and trying to keep it open long into the future will define the Mahomes era, and shoring up the offensive line strikes a nice balance. In the short term, the Chiefs addressed the team’s most apparent need. Fortifying the trenches should open up the productivity of the backfield and give Mahomes a clean pocket. In the long term, the team invested in the health and happiness of its quarterback, and — by pursuing multi-year solutions over one-year rentals along the offensive line — gave itself the flexibility to restock its arsenal of weapons each offseason.

Regardless of the moves Brett Veach makes, he must continue to communicate his vision for the team to Mahomes, even as it shifts and evolves over the years. Communication is an undermentioned skill set for general managers until it’s the reason their quarterback wants out of the franchise.

Fortunately, the Chiefs have demonstrated they excel in this area, beginning even before the Mahomes era. On his recent media circuit, Alex Smith confirmed he was in communication with the Chiefs about the plan for Mahomes before the team selected him and throughout the following season. This contrasts with the developments in Green Bay, where, reportedly, the front office did not inform Rodgers of its intentions to draft and groom Jordan Love as his successor.

Despite their high level of play on the field, Mahomes and Rodgers may be diametrically opposite. Mahomes could remain loyal to the Chiefs even if he reached a momentary impasse with the team regarding its personnel decisions. The goal of the front office is never to find out.

If this offseason is any indication, Veach and company are off to a good start, leaving the Chiefs’ most important player to focus on his golf game and the season ahead with his teammates in Kansas City.