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Identifying the Chiefs who will be the foundation of the next Patrick Mahomes era

2021 marked the end of one era. Which players will be the foundation for the next one?

Indianapolis Colts vs Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Change can be hard, but it’s also necessary. The New England Patriots are a perfect example.

Between 2001 and 2018, the team won six Super Bowls — and went to the AFC Championship 13 times. But during that nearly two-decade stretch, how many different versions of the Patriots did we see? Quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick were there the entire time, but the core group of players seemed to turn over every five years or so.

Throughout this offseason, Kansas City Chiefs fans have been baptized into this cold reality. The team made it to the AFC Championship in each of quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ first four seasons as the team’s starting quarterback. They did so because they had an offensive core built around Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill — which became one of the best passing trios in NFL history.

But now, it’s over. The offense is changing. The Chiefs are moving on from many of the core players who helped lead them to the most successful run in franchise history.

This is the start of the next Patrick Mahomes era.

Think about the identity of those early 2000s Patriots teams. They won behind a dominant defense, a strong running game and some clutch performances from Brady. The core group of players included Kevin Faulk, Matt Light, Troy Brown, Richard Seymour, Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Ty Law and Rodney Harrison.

By 2010, the only players from that group who still held prominent roles were Brady and Light. In 2007, the team’s identity flipped completely: it added Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte’ Stallworth to the receiver room, making the Patriots one of the most explosive offenses in NFL history.

The offense changed once again in the early 2010s, featuring two young tight ends whose names will be familiar: Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Then in 2014, the final transition took place. With Julian Edelman carving up defenses across the middle — and Gronkowski dominating after the catch — the New England offense became what it was through 2018.

The Patriots didn't sustain their success because they had the same players around Brady. Instead, New England succeeded by remembering that it’s better to move on from a player a year too early — rather than a year too late.

I didn’t think the Chiefs were going to go down this path; I always assumed Mahomes would spend the vast majority of his career throwing deep balls to Hill. But it just wasn’t meant to be. And now — just as it did in New England — the Kansas City offense is going to change.

This is the most significant churn of the Chiefs’ roster that we’ve seen since Mahomes took over. He — like Brady — is going to be the constant over at least the next decade. Kelce is to the Chiefs what Gronkowski was to the Patriots.

Which other current Chiefs players will be viewed as core members of the team over the next three to five years?

Offensive Line

Orlando Brown Jr., Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

The work that Kansas City general manager Brett Veach did to revamp the offensive line last offseason was nothing short of spectacular. Brown was exactly as advertised, Thuney is as consistent a guard as you’ll find in the NFL, Humphrey played at a legitimate Pro Bowl level as a rookie — and Smith might have the highest ceiling of any of them.

This group has a chance to be the type of offensive line that the Patriots built with Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen and Steve Neal from 2005 through 2010. Having such a talented and consistent group play together for years is immensely valuable — and as long as the Chiefs are able to re-sign Brown after the 2022 season, that’s exactly what they could have.

Linebacker

Nick Bolton

NFL: JAN 16 AFC Wild Card - Steelers at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Since the 2000 season, here are the NFL players who have finished with at least 110 total tackles and 10 tackles-for-loss in their rookie seasons, according to Pro Football Reference:

  • Darius Leonard (2018)
  • Kiko Alonso (2013)
  • Lavante David (2012)
  • Luke Kuechly (2012)
  • Brian Cushing (2009)
  • DeMeco Ryans (2006)
  • D.J. Williams (2004)
  • Brian Urlacher (2000)

That group has combined for 22 Pro Bowls and 13 All-Pro selections — and in 2021, Bolton added his name to that illustrious list.

To go back to the Patriots comparison, New England always had a stud linebacker roaming the middle of the field. In every season from 2001 through 2019, either Tedy Bruschi, Jerod Mayo or Dont’a Hightower was New England's inside linebacker. For the foreseeable future, Bolton will be that player in Kansas City.

Cornerback

L’Jarius Sneed

Dallas Cowboys v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Maybe I’m a bit early on the Sneed hype train — but I would rather be too early than too late. Sneed is one of the league's better corners against the run. He’s a tremendous slot corner — and this season, I think we’ll see him used in even more unique ways. The Chiefs are going to have to piece together a way to replace departed safety Tyrann Mathieu. Sneed will likely be part of that plan.

Over the past two seasons, he is one of just nine players with at least nine tackles-for-loss and five interceptions. The others are Jalen Ramsey, Budda Baker, Jordan Poyer, Kenny Moore, Eric Kendricks, Adrian Phillips, Logan Wilson and Mike Hilton. Wilson, Hilton and Sneed are the only ones who have not made a Pro Bowl or been selected as an All-Pro. That could be changing sooner rather than later.

Safety

Justin Reid

NFL: MAY 26 Kansas City Chiefs OTA Offseason Workouts Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Kansas City signed Reid to a three-year contract worth more than $31 million for a reason: they believe the 25-year-old safety has a chance to be a significant part of the defense's next version. I firmly believe that Reid's former team — the Houston Texans — was such a dumpster fire that it would have been impossible for him to be the best version of himself.

If you haven’t seen any of Reid’s press conferences yet, I would recommend checking them out. He has a quiet confidence about him that oozes off the screen.

Others in consideration

WR Skyy Moore, DE George Karlaftis, CB Trent McDuffie and DT Chris Jones

NFL: JUN 02 Kansas City Chiefs OTA Offseason Workouts aPhoto by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Chris Jones is probably the biggest question mark. Nobody questions his performance — he’s an outstanding football player — but I do wonder if the Chiefs will be willing to pay what it will take to keep him in Kansas City.

In 2023, Jones’ contract will count $27 million against the cap. The Chiefs could trade him and save $20 million — or they could look to extend him in order to bring down his cap number. That might sound like an easy choice, but will the Chiefs pay a 29-year-old defensive tackle more than $20 million per season into his early 30s? In the past, that’s typically been the point where Kansas City has said goodbye to its veterans.

But in the coming years, the Chiefs’ 2022 draft class could add multiple players to the roster's core performers. According to reports from our own Pete Sweeney, Moore has already impressed observers in training camp.

Karlaftis is the type of defensive end that coordinator Steve Spagnuolo dreams about. And I think Veach is still shocked he actually had a chance to draft McDuffie.

It’s indeed possible that in back-to-back drafts, Veach has added multiple franchise building blocks. That would be quite the improvement over his first draft in Kansas City.

The bottom line

There you have it. My official foundation for the next Patrick Mahomes era includes Travis Kelce, Orlando Brown Jr., Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith, Nick Bolton, L’Jarius Sneed and Justin Reid. That’s a very solid group — and depending on what we see in 2022, even more players could be added to it.

Who would you have on your list?