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The Chiefs have the draft capital to trade up — but should they?

Kansas City’s GM can be aggressive, so smart money says he might move up the board. Whom would he be targeting?

Purdue v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

You’ve seen it. You might love it. Or maybe... you hate it.

But however you feel about it, you’ve likely seen (and heard) all the buzz suggesting that the Kansas City Chiefs could make a significant trade-up during the NFL Draft, which begins a week from Thursday.

Will it be for a wide receiver? Maybe a defensive end? Is general manager Brett Veach finally ready to make a significant investment at cornerback?

The anticipation is almost too much to bear.

Where is it coming from? Is it real? Is it simply a consequence of the Chiefs having as many first-round picks this season (two) as they possessed from 2016 through 2021 combined?

Here’s what we know: Veach is aggressive. He has a history of targeting specific players in the draft. He is a staunch believer in the player evaluations that he and his staff have assembled. He’s not afraid to bet on those — even at the expense of what he deems to be surplus draft capital.

It’s not a leap to suggest Veach could get antsy as he’s watching players come off the board — and this time, he finally has the draft capital to make a move to get “his guy.”

The Chiefs currently hold the 29th and 30th picks in the first round, the 50th and 62nd picks in the second round and the 94th and 103rd picks in the third. While that’s a whole lot of draft capital, the team is entering the draft with more needs than at any time during Veach’s tenure.

Kansas City has needs at wide receiver, defensive end and cornerback. The team would be wise to add more talent at offensive tackle, linebacker and safety. It wouldn’t hurt to add some depth at running back, tight end and defensive tackle.

You get the picture. Before the roster is set, a lot of tweaking is still left to be done. Hence the intrigue.

That brings us back to the chatter about trading up. With so many needs, is it really in the team’s best interest to make a significant move up the board?

The answer depends on whom you ask.

Making a significant trade-up would cut against the grain. In the decade since the NFL’s rookie wage scale took effect, there have been only two instances in which teams moved up from the back end of the first round (picks 25-32) into the top 15 for a non-quarterback. In 2011, the Atlanta Falcons did so to select wide receiver Julio Jones. Then in 2018, the New Orleans Saints moved up to select defensive end Marcus Davenport. Both teams gave up multiple first-round picks to make those moves.

In that same span, the only teams to trade from the bottom of the first round into the top 20 for a non-quarterback were the Green Bay Packers (for cornerback Jaire Alexander in 2018), the Saints (for wide receiver Brandin Cooks in 2014) and the San Francisco 49ers (for safety Eric Reid in 2013). Those trades required a late first-rounder and the equivalent of a late second-rounder.

So what we’re discussing is obviously rare. Most general managers (and most analytically-driven members of the media) generally believe it’s best to collect the most picks possible. They believe the draft is like a lottery — so the more picks you have, the better your chance of hitting the jackpot. In their eyes, shedding yourself of those picks places a too-costly bet on your own ability to evaluate players better than other teams.

But in the past, this counter-argument hasn’t seemed to bother Veach. He’s been more than willing to trade picks for veterans — and he’s made draft-day trades to get Breeland Speaks (2018), Derrick Nnadi (2018), Khalil McKenzie (2018), Mecole Hardman (2019), BoPete Keys (2020) and Noah Gray (2021). None of those are the kinds of moves he might be making this time around — but the point remains: Veach likes trading up. He only rarely trades down.

He zigs while others zag.

It creates what feels like a perfect storm. The Chiefs — with a general manager who possesses a history of trusting his evaluations — have the draft capital to move up. The buzz is getting louder. It feels more like a “when” than an “if” that Kansas City will trade up.

So what would such a move take? And just how high would Veach be likely to go?

Based on the NFL Draft trade value chart (it’s a real thing, and teams use it religiously), the Chiefs could trade the 29th and 30th picks in order to move into the top 10-12 selections. If they used one of their first-round picks — along with the 50th overall — they could get into the top 15. A first-round pick paired with the 62nd overall could move them into the range from 18-20. A first-rounder and the 94th pick would put Kansas City into the early 20s. And if they want to leap the Buccaneers or Packers for a specific player, a first-round pick paired with the 103rd selection could move the Chiefs up a few spots.

But teams don’t just move up for no reason. They move up when they have a specific player in mind. In the past, Veach has talked about how he views positions in pockets. This year’s draft has a number of those pockets (I prefer to call them tiers) at Kansas City’s primary positions of need: wide receiver, defensive end and cornerback.

Defensive ends Aiden Hutchinson, Kayvon Thibodeaux and Travon Walker are consensus top-10 picks. In any scenario, it seems unlikely they would be available to the Chiefs. The same is true for cornerback Ahmad Gardner. It’s likely that at least one of the top wide receivers will be selected in the top 10, but the grades are all over the place; it’s hard to know which one it would be.

The first pocket of players who could be among Kansas City’s trade-up targets comes in the 10th through 15th picks. That tier includes cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (LSU), defensive ends Jermaine Johnson (Florida State) and George Karlaftis (Purdue) and wide receivers Garrett Wilson (Ohio State), Drake London (USC) and Jameson Williams (Alabama).

Stingley, Johnson or Karlaftis would be my choices from this group. Once those three players are gone, it’s hard to imagine a sensible trade-up for a cornerback or defensive end. The next pocket of players at both edge rusher and corner should have a player fall to the Chiefs at 30. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just the way this particular draft is likely to fall. And it means that if the Chiefs want a Day 1 contributor at defensive end or cornerback, it could very well require a significant trade-up into the top 15.

Wide receiver, however, is a different story. Evaluations are all over the place. George Pickens (Georgia) is a great example of this phenomenon. Some draft analysts have Pickens as the top wide receiver on the board — while others view him as a second-round pick. In varying degrees, the same could be said about Treylon Burks (Arkansas) and Chris Olave (Ohio State). There are smart analysts who really like Skyy Moore (Western Michigan) and Jahan Dotson (Penn State).

I mention all this to make an important point: there’s plenty of talent at wide receiver, which differentiates that position group from the edge rushers and cornerbacks in this draft class. Are the Chiefs willing to trade into the top 15 for a wide receiver such as Wilson, London or Williams — when they know they could take a high-level prospect late in the first round?

Trading up in the draft is a calculated risk. While Veach has taken those kinds of risks before, they’ve never been in the first round. This is his first real opportunity to do so. His history of drafting from pockets suggests a move into the middle of the first round — likely for the last remaining second-tier defensive end. Moving up for a wide receiver might sound exciting — but given the depth at the position, it just wouldn’t make much sense.

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