They say football is a game of inches and, in the Chiefs’ divisional playoff win over the Jaguars, there’s real proof of that going back more than 16 months before the ball was snapped at Arrowhead.
It was late August 2021. The Chiefs, with a reworked offensive line room, had a surplus at tackle. Tackles are always valuable on the end-of-camp trade market, and the Patriots had a need at the position and were in talks to acquire Yasir Durant, who Kansas City had developed as an undrafted free agent over the year prior. The Giants came in late, offering a conditional seventh-round pick. The Chiefs went back to the Patriots, saying a hard seventh would get it done.
New England forked over the pick and, based on the conditions set, there’s no guarantee the Chiefs would’ve gotten that pick from the Giants had Durant gone there.
That seventh-rounder became Washington State corner Jaylen Watson, who started against Jacksonville on Saturday. He played 49 of Kansas City’s 61 defensive snaps (80%), and 10 more on special teams. And with 3:48 left in the divisional playoff, he skied over Jags receiver Zay Jones to pull down a one-handed, game-sealing interception with his team up 27–17 and Trevor Lawrence & Co. driving.
These are the sorts of guys the Chiefs have needed to find, and then rely on, because Kansas City’s reality in 2022 is very different than the one it was working with when its run of five consecutive home AFC title games started in '18. And it’s probably not even a stretch to say it wouldn’t be here without guys like that, or the transactions that brought them to town.
Every year, in this space, we do a roster analysis on the conference finalists and, as a result, we have data on how the Chiefs have evolved through the past half-decade.
Much of the top layer remains the same. Travis Kelce. Chris Jones. Most of all, of course, Patrick Mahomes. But much of what’s around them has changed completely. Just eight guys are left from the 2018 team that lost to Tom Brady and the Patriots in overtime—Kelce, Jones, Mahomes, long snapper James Winchester, kicker Harrison Butker, tackle Andrew Wylie, defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi and backup quarterback Chad Henne. And the shift in the rest of the roster hasn’t just happened through the faces in the building changing.
How the team is put together is, well, very different than it was at the start of all this. The 2018 Chiefs had 25 homegrown players on their 53-man championship-game roster, 21 of them drafted, and four of them undrafted. The next year, when the team won its first Super Bowl in a half-century, just 21 homegrown players dotted the 53-man roster.
As it stands now, 32 of the 53 rostered Chiefs are homegrown, including 27 draft picks, which is no accident.
Before we get back to the Chiefs, here’s the overview with this observation—for the first time since I’ve done this, the results are relatively homogenous. All four of the teams left in the tournament are heavily homegrown.
Homegrown on the 53: 31 (26 draft picks, 5 college free agents).
Outside free agents on the 53: 14.
Trades/waiver claims on the 53: 8.
Quarterback acquired: Drafted Joe Burrow with the first pick in 2020.
Last five first-round picks: DB Daxton Hill (No. 31, 2022), WR Ja’Marr Chase (No. 5, 2021), Burrow, OT Jonah Williams (No. 11, 2021), C Billy Price (No. 21, 2018).
Top five cap figures: DE Trey Hendrickson $14.49 million, DT DJ Reader $13.67 million, S Jessie Bates $12.91 million, RB Joe Mixon $11.42 million, WR Tyler Boyd 10.10 million.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Homegrown on the 53: 32 (27 drafted/5 college free agents).
Outside free agents on the 53: 17.
Trades/waiver claims on the 53: 3.
Quarterback acquired: Drafted Patrick Mahomes with the 10th pick in 2017.
Last five first-round picks: CB Trent McDuffie (No. 21, 2022), DE George Karlaftis (No. 30, 2022), RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (No. 32, 2020), Mahomes, CB Marcus Peters (No. 18, 2015).
Top five cap figures: Mahomes $35.79 million, DT Chris Jones $29.42 million, OT Orlando Brown $16.66 million, DE Frank Clark $13.29 million, TE Travis Kelce $8.40 million.
Homegrown on the 53: 32 (26 drafted/6 college free agents)
Outside free agents on the 53: 12.
Trades/waiver claims on the 53: 9.
Quarterback acquired: Drafted Jalen Hurts with the 53rd pick in 2020.
Last five first-round picks: DT Jordan Davis (No. 13, 2022), WR DeVonta Smith (No. 10, 2021), WR Jalen Raegor (No. 21, 2020), OT Andre Dillard (No. 22, 2019), DE Derek Barnett (No. 14, 2017).
Top five cap figures: DT Javon Hargrave $17.80 million, OT Lane Johnson $10.91 million, CB Darius Slay $9.73 million, DE Brandon Graham $9.41 million, C Jason Kelce $8.051 million.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Homegrown on the 53: 33 (28 draftees/5 college free agents).
Outside free agents on the 53: 15.
Trades/waiver claims on the 53: 5.
Quarterback acquired: Drafted Brock Purdy with the 262nd pick in 2022.
Last five first-round picks: QB Trey Lance (No. 3, 2021), DT Javon Kinlaw (No. 14, 2020), WR Brandon Aiyuk (No. 25, 2020), DE Nick Bosa (No. 2, 2019), OT Mike McGlinchey (No. 9, 2018).
Top five cap figures: QB Jimmy Garoppolo $13.99 million, S Jimmie Ward $12.94 million, McGlinchey $10.88 million, Bosa $10.81 million, DT Arik Armstead $9.58 million.
One thing you’ll notice about the Chiefs is the cap numbers—because of Mahomes’s contract (the other three teams have quarterbacks on rookie deals), Jones’s deal and Brown’s franchise tag, the Chiefs are pretty top-heavy (Kelce’s number is managed down a bit). And those players, to be sure, are worth the freight.
But while the cap can be massaged and worked, in the end, it is a zero-sum game, which means having really big numbers in one place means needing to have small numbers in a bunch of others.
So over the past four years, the Chiefs have had to become more draft-centric as a rule, and the effort to do so has been an all-hands-on-deck effort. And that starts, of course, with stories such as the circuitous one that landed them Watson in the seventh round—the point of that one being not that they’d find a starter that late in the draft, but that the extra pick gave them the extra swing at getting another guy on a cheap rookie deal who could play.
Maybe the best illustration of the strategy would be last March’s Tyreek Hill trade.
Negotiations early that month heated up over a five-day stretch, but the Chiefs and Hill couldn’t quite get over the hump, and there was a growing belief in the building that Hill really wanted to be elsewhere (namely, Miami), and that was what was bogging down negotiations. That led to a simple conceptual discussion on which guys they wouldn’t be able to keep if they extended Hill, and how they had a crying need for youth on defense that could be addressed with more picks. Eventually, the idea of a trade became more enticing.
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Once they allowed for Hill to be shopped, a team came along offering a high first-round pick. But in discussing the situation, the Chiefs decided they wanted volume, rather than a single high-end asset—with the example of the Vikings trading Randy Moss in 2007 for the seventh pick, and it becoming Troy Williamson, as a cautionary. So the Jets and Dolphins came with packages of picks, and Kansas City settled on Miami’s first-rounder, second-rounder and fourth-rounder in 2022, and fourth- and sixth-rounders in 2023.
The idea was that the Chiefs didn’t need stars. They had those. They needed players who could balance out the roster, and add speed on defense, and by the time all the wheeling and dealing was done, they had 10 picks to address needs.
Of course, picks aren’t worth much if you can’t turn them into players, and the Chiefs have been purposeful and collaborative on that end, too.
That starts with how GM Brett Veach has run his end of the building—with doors open, and people and departments mixing in ways that more siloed-off organizations don’t. The office of lead negotiator Brandt Tilis, the team’s VP of football operations, is wedged between those of assistant GM Mike Borgonzi and senior director of player personnel Mike Bradway.
So where with some teams, the cap guy might give parameters to the GM, and the GM might then dictate those to the personnel folks, in Kansas City, negotiations and trades such as Hill’s are the result of open dialogue between good people with different strengths.
And so too are things such as the drafting of Trey Smith in the sixth round in 2021—the Tennessee guard who had a life-threatening situation with blood clots and came off a lot of draft boards as a result. The Chiefs worked with team physician Dr. Mike Monaco on that one. Through their research, they found that a dip in his play in '20 was the result of missing practice—he wasn’t able to participate because of a medication he was taking for the clots. They figured if he came off the medication, he could be the player he was in '19.
Monaco thought that Smith would get there, which, again, would allow him to be the first- or second-round-type player he’d been before, and advised the scouts of that. So the Chiefs took him, Monaco was right, and Smith has started every game of his career, and looks like a burgeoning Pro Bowler at guard.
Then, there was the work last year of director of player personnel Ryne Nutt, who’s been a star for the scouting group in his background-character work on prospects. With a high bar set by Mahomes and Kelce and Jones and crew, the Chiefs resolved in early 2022 to focus in on finding guys with a strong football makeup that would allow them to find their way on to the field faster, and seamlessly assume important roles on the roster.
Of their 10 picks, the Chiefs took maybe one real risk (fifth-round offensive lineman Darian Kinnard). The result: One Kansas City staffer told me he didn’t think any of those 10 rookies missed a single practice during training camp, and Reid’s camps are tough and physical. All 10 picks made the roster. Nine of the 10 (with Kinnard the one exception) were active for the Jaguars playoff game, four started (Watson, Isaiah Pacheco, and first-rounders Trent McDuffie and George Karlaftis), and all of them played at least 14 snaps.
That’s staggering production for a rookie class on Super Bowl-contending team.
Even better, all those guys will be around on the cheap for the foreseeable future, thanks to Veach, of course, but also a balanced, stacked front office with everyone having their hands in the pot in some way.
Of course, we all know what ties the five conference-title game appearance together.
“He’s the best player in the league,” said one rival GM. “To trade the best receiver in the league and not have any drop off, I don’t think anyone else could do that.”
He, as you all know, is Mahomes and, yes, that’s probably true.
But here’s the thing about it—no one in Kansas City has fooled themselves into thinking otherwise.
“No one is under any illusion on that,” said one staffer. “Our job is to let Pat and Andy cook.”
Reid and his staff, and Veach as their proxy, are very clear in what they’re looking for in players. So whether it’s finding a young receiver who fits a need (Skyy Moore), offensive linemen ready to play (Creed Humphrey, Smith) or linebackers who fit Steve Spagnuolo’s defense (Nick Bolton, who was actually drafted with one of the picks that came back with Orlando Brown in the Ravens trade) there’s no confusion over the vision for how the team should be put together.
Ultimately, all of it widens the window for stars such as Mahomes, Kelce and Jones, with a long-term supporting cast coming up around them.
But Saturday, as afternoon became night, it showed itself to be more than just that. When Mahomes went down, the Chiefs had weapons for Henne to throw to, a line rebuilt completely in 2021 for the skill players to work behind, and a back in Pacheco who could make a 39-yard run largely on his own to make life easier on everyone else. That group was good for 98 yards on the drive Mahomes missed, and good enough to support a hobbled quarterback thereafter, when Mahomes came back in limping and Henne exited.
And on the other side of the ball, you had the seventh-round pick that may have never been had it not been for a minor trade in the summer of 2021 putting the game away.
It’s not like the Chiefs drew it up that way when they traded Durant or drafted Watson. No one could’ve expected that.
But they figured they’d give themselves a better chance at something like that.
So here they are again.