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How the Chiefs won the AFC Championship in March — when no one was looking

It looked like the AFC would belong to teams that made big splashes in free agency. Kansas City’s GM beat them all.

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

On a Friday night before the Kansas City Chiefs started their 2022 postseason run against the Jacksonville Jaguars, I decided to be miserable.

For some reason, my brain was focused on the Chiefs’ Super Bowl LV loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the 2020 season. I rewatched the game, looked at some of the stats and absorbed some of the podcasts and videos about that game. I guess I was trying to get a feel for why that game turned out as badly as it did.

At one point, I looked at the Kansas City players who were on on the roster for that game, comparing their status at that time to where they are two years later. What I found was astonishing.

Offensive starters

Pos Player 2022 season
WR Demarcus Robinson Ravens backup
TE Travis Kelce Starter
LT Mike Remmers Jets backup
LG Nick Allegretti Backup
C Austin Reiter Practice squad
RG Stefen Wisniewski Out of league
RT Andrew Wylie Starter
WR Tyreek Hill Dolphins starter
WR Byron Pringle Bears backup
QB Patrick Mahomes Starter
RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire Backup (IR)

Just three starters from Super Bowl LV finished the 2022 regular season in those same roles for Kansas City. Two others remain with the team as backups, while another is on the practice squad.

Offensive backups

Pos Player 2022 season
WR Sammy Watkins Ravens practice squad
WR Mecole Hardman Backup
WR Marcus Kemp Practice squad
TE Nick Keizer Out of league
TE Deon Yelder Out of league
TE Ricky Seals-Jones Out of league
T Martinas Rankin Out of league
T Yasir Durant Saints backup
C Daniel Kilgore Out of league
QB Chad Henne Backup
QB Matt Moore Out of league
FB Anthony Sherman Out of league
RB Darrel Williams Arizona backup
RB Le'Veon Bell Out of league
RB Darwin Thompson Seahawks practice squad

Just three of the offensive backups remain with the team — two as backups and one as a practice squad player.

Defensive starters

Pos Player 2022 season
DE Tanoh Kpassagnon Saints backup
DT Chris Jones Starter
DT Derrick Nnadi Starter
DE Frank Clark Starter
LB Anthony Hitchens Out of league
LB Damien Wilson Panthers backup
CB Charvarius Ward 49ers starter
CB Bashaud Breeland Out of league
CB L'Jarius Sneed Starter
S Dan Sorensen Saints backup
S Tyrann Mathieu Saints starter

Four of the defensive starters have retained their Kansas City jobs through 2022.

Defensive backups

Pos Player 2022 season
DE Alex Okafor Out of league
DE Tim Ward Packers practice squad
DT Khalen Saunders Backup
DT Michael Danna Backup
DT Tershawn Wharton Backup (IR)
DT Mike Pennel Bears backup
LB Ben Niemann Cardinals starter
LB Dorian O'Daniel Out of league
LB Darius Harris Backup
CB Rashad Fenton Falcons backup
CB Antonio Hamilton Cardinals starter
CB BoPete Keyes Out of league
CB Chris Lammons Backup
S Juan Thornhill Starter
S Armani Watts Out of league

Five of the defensive backups still fulfill those roles in Kansas City — and one other backup is now a starter.

Special teams starters

Pos Player 2022 season
K Harrison Butker Starter
P Tommy Townsend Starter
LS James Winchester Starter

Special teams is the only phase where the main players remain the same

The Chiefs’ roster was nowhere near as good as you might remember it. Sure... stars like Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyrann Mathieu, Chris Jones and Tyreek Hill made the top of the roster look insane. That quintet of stars — not even including Hall-of-Fame tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who was injured before Super Bowl LV — rival any quintet the league has ever seen.

But the roster depth was another story. Only two years later, more than half of the team’s starting players are now backups — if not out of the league altogether. After their top five, Kansas City had one of the league’s worst collections of talent. They simply lacked the depth to compete with the league’s top teams.

Over the course of multiple years, general manager Brett Veach’s goals were simple: get younger, get cheaper and get deeper. The Chiefs had the luxury of having the league’s best quarterback making less than 7.5 million over his first five seasons. This allowed Kansas City to build the top end of their roster with expensive, blue-chip talent.

But against the Buccaneers in that Super Bowl — and during the 2021 season — the team hit a wall. While the roster still had elite players at the top, the bottom of the roster was too weak for players at the top to counteract.

None of this is a criticism of the front office. The team’s strategy had led to a Super Bowl win. But unfortunately, a team can’t live that way forever.

That’s why the Chiefs traded Hill. It had nothing to do with his talent — or even what it would have cost to retain him. He was phenomenal in 2022, revitalizing the Miami Dolphins’ offense with his all-time gravity and speed. His sheer presence can make an offense efficient — simply because of the way opposing teams must adjust to him. The Chiefs could have justified paying Hill what he was worth.

But the team chose a different path. It gambled that Andy Reid and Mahomes could continue to make the offense succeed without Hill, allowing the team to use the assets gained through the trade — Hill’s salary and the draft picks the team received in trade — to build the roster along the margins. Flexibility, youth, and depth would be emphasized.

This bet doesn’t always work. Just consider the Green Bay Packers. In 2022, the team made essentially the same wager, trading wide receiver Davante Adams for two premium picks from the Las Vegas Raiders. It used those picks on defensive players, strategizing that those selections would make the team’s defense elite. Like the Chiefs, they believed quarterback Aaron Rodgers could keep the offense going.

That bet, however, couldn’t have turned out more badly. The defense didn't make a leap — and the offense regressed significantly. Now there are reports are that Rodgers might be traded. By trying to hold it open just a little bit longer, the Packers may have closed their Super Bowl window.

But for Veach and the Chiefs, the wager paid off handsomely. It allowed the team to make three big moves.

1. Replace Hill’s production through free agency

Wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling were brought in to maintain a veteran presence. Skyy Moore was drafted in the second round. Kadarius Toney joined the team through a midseason trade. While there was no star wideout of Hill’s caliber, these receivers — along with tight end Travis Kelce and running back Jerick McKinnon — significantly increased Kansas City’s passing yardage (and receiving touchdowns) over its 2021 season with Hill.

And on Sunday, the group’s depth was severely tested. Smith-Schuster, Toney and Mecole Hardman all left the AFC Championship game with injuries. Valdes-Scantling — the lone remaining veteran — showed his value to the team by being the game’s top receiver in a 23-20 win featuring not only Kelce, but also the Cincinnati Bengals’ wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins.

2. Replenish the roster with draft picks

Kansas City selected cornerback Trent McDuffie and defensive end George Karlaftis with their two first-round picks in April. Although McDuffie’s season was limited by an injury, that pick looks like an absolute home run. Karlaftis has reached every goal a rookie defensive end could reasonably be expected to make, finishing the season with six sacks. Both made plays on Sunday, too. McDuffie nearly brought in an interception on the first drive and Karlaftis collected a sack. Both look like cornerstone pieces for the term of their rookie contracts.

But the Chiefs did well with defensive picks in the later rounds, too. Safety Bryan Cook and cornerbacks Jaylen Watson and Joshua Williams all played significant snaps (and important roles) throughout the season. On Sunday, Watson had a terrific pass breakup at the end of the half and collected an interception, while Williams stepped into injured cornerback L’Jarius Sneed’s role and held up. He also notched a pick. Cook has played his best two games over the last two weeks.

On offense, running back Isiah Pacheco has been awesome. His toughness, physicality and speed have all been tremendous. On Sunday, Kansas City desperately needed a third option behind Kelce and Valdes-Scantling. Pacheco made huge plays in the flat that contributed to the season’s most important victory.

3. Continue the development of the best young players

With so many rookies making contributions, it was easier to move on from existing players who weren’t contributing enough — and give larger roles to other young acquisitions like Willie Gay Jr., Mike Danna, Creed Humphrey, Nick Bolton and Trey Smith. All of them have been playing crucial roles on the team.

In hindsight, Veach’s 2018 and 2019 drafts weren’t great. But in the past three years, he’s replenished many of the roster’s weakest areas with young talent, rebuilding the offensive line, linebacker corps and secondary almost entirely with youth. Veach has also improved the depth of the defensive line — while still giving Mahomes enough weapons to thrive on offense.

The job certainly isn’t finished. Kansas City’s next hurdle will be figuring out how to pay all of these young players. But in a conference where the Bengals, Los Angeles Chargers, Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos were all seen to be making offseason pushes to make them contenders in 2022, Veach’s offseason gambles led the Chiefs to their fifth consecutive conference title game — and now, their third Super Bowl in four seasons.

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