With the 2021 season behind us, let’s reflect on the job that Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach did while putting together a team that hosted yet another AFC Championship game at Arrowhead Stadium.
The broad strokes
- Major departures: tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, wide receiver Sammy Watkins, center Austin Reiter, cornerback Bashaud Breeland, linebacker Damien Wilson, defensive end Tanoh Kpassognon and fullback Anthony Sherman.
- Key free agent acquisitions: guard Joe Thuney, defensive tackle Jarran Reed, running back Jerick McKinnon, fullback Mike Burton and offensive linemen Kyle Long and Austin Blythe.
- Trades: tackle Orlando Brown Jr., cornerback Mike Hughes and defensive end Melvin Ingram.
- Draft acquisitions: linebacker Nick Bolton, center Creed Humphrey, defensive end Joshua Kaindoh, tight end Noah Gray, wide receiver Cornell Powell and guard Trey Smith.
The first test: offensive line
Leaving Super Bowl LV in Tampa, the Chiefs had a glaring weakness that had to be fixed. Veach used every possible measure to repair the offensive line that gave up 29 pressures on 56 dropbacks in the championship game — a Super Bowl record.
Veach began with a tough decision, releasing longtime bookend tackles Fisher and Schwartz on March 11. Both were coming off season-ending injuries.
Fisher – who had suffered an Achilles injury in late January — signed with the Indianapolis Colts, but did not play to the standard we had been accustomed to seeing. In the regular-season finale, he was benched after allowing multiple pressures on Colts quarterback Carson Wentz. Schwartz — who had missed every game after Week 6 — has not made a return to the field. He still lives in Kansas City, but his social media posts — along with other media appearances — suggest his playing days may be over.
For Chiefs fans with sentimental memories of these two players, this was a hard move — but based on what they did in 2021, it paid off.
Now with holes in nearly every spot on the line, Veach went right to work by signing Thuney on the first day of free agency — a splash move that made him the NFL’s highest-paid guard.
Sold as a reliable, blue-chip offensive lineman who was more technician than mauler, Thuney’s 2021 season was nothing less than phenomenal. He started in every game — at one point, playing through a broken hand — ending his season as a Pro Bowl alternate who also placed third in All-Pro voting at left guard.
Veach then added depth by bringing Long out of retirement and signing Blythe, but neither ended up seeing meaningful 2021 snaps — although before sustaining an injury in training camp, Long appeared to have been penciled in at right guard. Reiter was allowed to look for playing time elsewhere, but spent the season jumping from one practice squad to another.
So going into the draft, there weren’t as many holes — but there was still a large one at left tackle. In a blockbuster trade just days ahead of the draft, Veach acquired Brown by trading a package of picks centered around Kansas City’s 31st overall selection to the Baltimore Ravens. Nominally a right tackle, Brown had put in a Pro Bowl season filling in at left tackle in Baltimore — but given the differences in scheme and quarterback, Veach was making a gamble.
Brown missed only one 2021 game after suffering a calf injury in pregame warmups. Following a rocky start getting acclimated to the new offense, Brown and Mahomes seemed to learn how to play off one another. Brown’s performance earned him a third consecutive trip to the Pro Bowl and a third-place finish in All-Pro voting at left tackle.
Throughout the draft process, the Chiefs were linked to many offensive linemen. Ultimately, they decided to select Humphrey and Smith.
Humphrey was selected for his incredible football IQ — along with athletic testing that was off the charts. Right from Day 1 of OTAs, he started at center — and never looked overwhelmed. He started every game, earning a Pro Bowl alternate selection, ranking third in All-Pro voting and gaining All-Rookie honors — and more importantly, becoming a cult hero to Kansas City fans.
Because of medical concerns, Smith ended up being a sixth-round selection who got his starting opportunity after Long’s offseason injury — and never relinquished it. His season didn’t begin as smoothly as Humphrey’s, but the highlights speak for themselves. Smith played every offensive snap, earning his first Pro Bowl selection (as an alternate) and a place on the All-Rookie team.
One under-the-radar move that had a meaningful impact was Veach’s decision to tender restricted free agent Andrew Wylie. After a poor Super Bowl performance at right tackle, many wanted to see Wylie move on. But Veach decided to bring him back for depth — and after season-ending injuries to both Mike Remmers and Lucas Niang, Wylie returned to right tackle, playing admirably in 13 games that included seven starts.
Ultimately, Veach poured more resources into the offensive than any other position group — and the moves panned out. Four of the five new starters on the offensive line were recognized for the Pro Bowl — and the team had enough depth to prevent the dropoff we observed in 2020. After the painful releases of fan favorites, Chiefs fans found new heroes along the offensive line.
The bottom line
Veach’s 2021 moves for the offensive line can be seen as a double-edged sword. While the line clearly improved — going from a Super Bowl joke to a top unit in a single offseason — most of the team’s resources were spent on a single unit. This left holes elsewhere. For the team to continue to be successful in 2022, Veach will need to spread his resources more widely.