In a single offseason, the Kansas City Chiefs’ interior offensive line went from being a lower-tier group to being among the NFL’s very best.
Part of this was due to significant resource allocation undertaken by general manager Brett Veach during the 2021 offseason. Another piece of it was great scouting by the front office staff. Lastly — as is the case with anything great — Kansas City had a little bit of luck on its side.
Left guard Joe Thuney signed a five-year, $80 million dollar contract in March. Center Creed Humphrey and right guard Trey Smith — rookies drafted in the second and sixth rounds respectively — exceeded expectations from rookie minicamp onward. One could make the argument that all three deserved Pro Bowl and/or All-Pro consideration — although somehow, none of them earned an all-star roster spot.
I’ve spent the past few months studying the film of a wide variety of the league’s interior offensive linemen. So now, we can compare how Thuney, Humphrey and Smith performed relative to their NFL counterparts — not just individually, but as a unit that must work together on every play.
Just how good were these three Chiefs last season? Let’s dive in.
It wouldn’t be appropriate to begin a discussion about the team’s pass blocking without immediately giving credit to Thuney. In pass protection, what separates the former New England Patriots guard from 99% of his peers is how rhythmic and in-sync his body movements are. No matter the opponent, he appears to always be in total control.
Not breaking news in any sort of way, but Thuney in pass protection is controlled aggression at its finest. pic.twitter.com/JfUfKZYzoF— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 15, 2022
Take special notice of where he places his hands, how he sinks back into his hips — and perhaps most importantly — his balance. His feet remain smooth and his base is consistent. When Thuney initially loses ground to a pass rusher, it’s still hard for the defender to finish on the quarterback — because Thuney is so good at recovering with his athletic, smooth feet.
Smith also wins in a lot of pass-protection snaps. He just looks different while doing it.
Trey Smith bullying in pass pro, if you're into that sort of thing: pic.twitter.com/j9x0HESTH4— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 15, 2022
Snap to snap, Smith makes things look more like a full-on brawl. Sometimes it’s pretty — and sometimes it isn’t. But when he can get his hands on the defender at the appropriate strike point, Smith often dominates.
However, since he was a rookie who unexpectedly started 20 games, it was never going to be perfect on every play.
To the contrary, there are valleys too at times for 65. pic.twitter.com/I1FRe8Deao— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 15, 2022
Here, we quickly see the difference in footwork between the first-year pro and Thuney, who is an elite technician. Against defenders who possess great lateral quickness, Smith’s feet look more out of control. This can lead to lunging and misfires with his upper body, creating openings for some opposing defensive linemen.
Overall, it appeared Smith might have hit the so-called rookie wall; late in the year, his explosiveness and consistency dipped slightly. This is something fans can expect to improve as he learns to adjust to the longer NFL schedule.
Kansas City was rarely tested with the defensive twists and exotic fronts that NFL offensive lines typically see — but when those did happen, the offensive interior handled them quite well. Against the stagnant three and four-man pass rushes it usually faced, Humphrey was often left to assist either Smith or Thuney in shutting down a defensive tackle — which they did at an elite level.
As individuals, all three players exhibited a high degree of mental toughness — and it became even greater as they created a collective identity.
Saving some of their best collective work for consecutive plays backed up on the 5-yard line; on-brand for 62/52/65 pic.twitter.com/TeRQxZXE5o— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 8, 2022
In the most important moments, seeing these players elevate their games to protect Patrick Mahomes is something we will continue to see.
As run blockers, it’s impressive how much strength Smith, Humphrey and Thuney can display as they jolt off of the snap with tremendous quickness.
3rd & 1 as a DT aligned in front of Creed Humphrey and/or Trey Smith is not the place to be. pic.twitter.com/JH6OjBjdFk— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 7, 2022
Combining that power with the proper timing and sequencing to consistently execute combo blocks is what will enable the offense to pop off big runs in 2022. A healthier version of running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the returning Jerrick McKinnon, the newly signed Ronald Jones — or whoever else might find themselves running behind this offensive line — will be happy to see some rather large openings at the first and second levels.
What makes Humphrey special is that even at such a young age, his strengths are well-balanced. For a center, he shows elite athletic ability — but he is also very powerful and supremely smart. On film, it comes off more subtly than what we might see from Smith — for example — but is still integral to the team’s success.
Gorgeous combo by Smith/Humphrey on 93 up to the LB. Like they'd played together for years already -- but it was only game 4. pic.twitter.com/kNnz7wIwtk— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 8, 2022
Then it was Fletcher Cox's turn pic.twitter.com/Y20clcqsY3— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 8, 2022
While Thuney is still a solid-to-good overall run blocker, he is the least powerful of the three. One-on-one linear blocks are really tough for any offensive lineman — so when negative running plays do turn up between the offensive tackles, it is often in those kinds of situations.
If you're poking a hole in Thuney's game where they're so hard to find, it's drive blocking. pic.twitter.com/RKWUgywqas— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 8, 2022
To this point, we’ve been examining zone running schemes — the staple of Andy Reid’s previous rushing offenses. While this group can handle those assignments at an especially high level, the power/gap run schemes really became more frequent as 2021 unfolded.
These are plays where the ball carrier is supposed to run through a specific gap. Therefore, it is more dependent on offensive linemen physically manufacturing the rushing lanes. While these schemes are harder to execute, the results can be more impactful.
You can tell this was Trey Smith's first pull of the season. pic.twitter.com/lEj0R6Pnot— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 15, 2022
As fun as this play is to watch, it is actually surprising to see how often Smith takes a patient approach as he works to block in space. His body control is good — and he prioritizes executing the blocks more than simply creating a highlight-reel play.
More where that came from pic.twitter.com/7RUNv0069L— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 15, 2022
Moving bodies and making holes in the run game in ways not seen in previous years. pic.twitter.com/TTIpqRS70C— Bryan Stewart (@BryanStewart_) July 15, 2022
So in both gap and zone running schemes, there are a lot of things that look promising. Humphrey’s versatile skill set — which adds good strength and athleticism to the center of the unit as it goes against dynamic defensive tackles — makes this especially true.
Late in the year, the coaching staff started to find what worked best for their offensive line. To ensure greater production in 2022, they simply need more consistent explosiveness from the team’s running backs.
The bottom line
There’s no doubt about it: last season, the Chiefs’ interior offensive line helped them win games in ways most other NFL offensive lines couldn’t execute. It’s been at least five seasons since we’ve been able to say that about a Kansas City offensive line.
The two rookies certainly had to make some adjustments. With experience, that will happen less often — and working next to an All-Pro guard like Thuney will also be helpful. Offensive line coach Andy Heck is highly respected by players — and has clearly established himself as one of the league’s better offensive line coaches.
It will be tough for Thuney, Humphrey and Smith to once again combine for 60-plus starts — but if they do, it will most certainly greatly assist Kansas City in its pursuit of another championship. As hard as it might be to imagine, some minor improvements should also be expected — which is a scary thought for opposing defensive linemen.