When Kansas City released three 2017 draft picks last week, it only served to reinforce the importance of its first-round pick from that draft. The Chiefs are all-in on Patrick Mahomes, and neither Andy Reid nor Brett Veach can afford for the young quarterback to be mediocre.
In the copycat NFL, Kansas City is riding the wave of building a roster around a young quarterback, but the plan is far from foolproof. In order for it to work, the coach and GM need to hit on moves beyond just the signal caller.
The Russell Wilson Effect
Kansas City is in the position — like Philadelphia, Chicago, and the Rams — of using the Seattle model. Find a standout quarterback on a rookie deal, build a team around him while he’s (comparatively) cheap, and then start planning for when the QB is eligible for a big extension.
The Chiefs didn’t quite give up the bounty that the Eagles and Los Angeles did to come up with Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, respectively. To get up to the 10th spot in order to take the Texas Tech product, Kansas City moved its 2017 first rounder, a 2017 third rounder, and their 2018 first round pick. That’s a significant amount of draft capital for one player.
Seattle had the benefit of paying Russell Wilson as a third-rounder, which provided plenty of salary cap flexibility. That paid off with an enviable run of success, two Super Bowl appearances, and a championship.
Last season, though, Philadelphia showed that the blueprint can work with a first-round quarterback. Nick Foles might have led the team through the playoffs, but it was the play of Wentz that provided the cushion to allow the team to adjust when he tore his ACL.
Playing Above Par
The common thread here is that Wilson and Wentz played at a high enough level to make the plan work. The Rams have spent a ton of money while banking on Goff continuing to develop into a star. The Bears traded for Khalil Mack with the hope that Mitch Trubisky will make a similar jump in his second year.
The Chiefs have taken a more measured approach to building the team Mahomes will lead, but it still comes down to the quarterback. Mahomes has shown flashes that he could be special. He’s also thrown the ball to defenders often enough to raise concerns.
That last part is significant. Another common thread is that in their second season, Wilson, Wentz, and Goff each threw fewer than 10 interceptions. They also each completed at least 60-percent of their passes and threw more than 25 touchdowns.
In his first year starting, it’s asking a lot of Mahomes to be at that level, but by the end of the season, the Chiefs need him to be trending that way.
Defensive Pay Day
One advantage (or disadvantage, depending on your view) that Kansas City has is that they don’t have a defensive star that they will have to pay. Seattle had a bevy of Pro Bowlers during Wilson’s early career. Los Angeles (Aaron Donald), Philadelphia (Fletcher Cox), and Chicago (Mack) each have players on the other side of the ball that will still have a ton of money owed to them when their young quarterbacks are up for extensions.
The Chiefs have Justin Houston, who signed his big deal in 2016, is making more than $20-million a season. Unless he suddenly returns to racking up more than 20 sacks in a season, though, the pass rusher probably won’t be around when Mahomes is on his second contract. At the very least, his contract is easy enough for Kansas City to get out of after next season.
Of course, the counter is that the Chiefs don’t have a defense that can make up for their young quarterback. That means that drafting becomes even more important, which could be an issue.
2017 Draft Failings
Kansas City hit a home run with their remaining 2017 third-round pick with Toledo’s Kareem Hunt. As a rookie, all he did was lead the NFL in rushing. Second-round linebacker Tanoh Kpassagnon had two sacks in a meaningless Week 17 game last season. Otherwise, the converted Villanova defensive end is running with the second team.
The back half of the draft is now gone. Wide receiver Jehu Chesson (fourth round), linebacker Ukeme Eligwe (fifth round), and safety Leon McQuay (sixth round) were released last week. McQuay, who struggled with a hamstring injury in the preseason, rejoined the team on the practice squad. Considering the team’s needs in the defensive backfield, though, having him play his way onto the 53-man roster would’ve been nice.
Mahomes is left as the draft class savior. No matter how good Hunt is, running backs just don’t make the same impact on the modern NFL as their ’70s and ’80s predecessors. If the quarterback lives up to what Andy Reid thinks he can be — the player that the team cleared out solid starter Alex Smith to make way for — then everyone will forget about late round misses.
The problem with that becomes, if Mahomes does develop into a star, the team must have solid depth once he’s eligible for that massive extension. That requires hitting on at least some late round picks.
You Bet Your Job
The stark reality is that if Mahomes doesn’t become a top-tier, championship level quarterback, both Reid and Veach will pay for it with their jobs.
They can help their own case with some smart decisions, and a little luck. New cornerback Kendall Fuller needs to make people forget Marcus Peters. Inside linebacker Reggie Ragland needs to continue developing. Free agent signees Anthony Hitchens and Sammy Watkins need to make the Chiefs look smarter than their contracts do.
On the plus side, despite sacrificing the first-round pick for Mahomes, the team’s 2018 draft picks look solid. Almost entirely on the defensive side, the group looks like it might supply the kind of depth that 2017 could not.
Mahomes, Reid, and Veach are inextricably linked from here on out. The quarterback has to justify that faith by maximizing his potential. For their part, the head coach and general manager better be ready to take advantage of the opportunity if he does.