Brett Veach surprised a lot of Kansas City Chiefs fans on day one of the 2020 NFL Draft by taking a running back. With the selection of Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Veach seemed to be signaling that the Chiefs would focus on “running it back.” However, over the next few days of the draft, the Chiefs’ selections signaled something somewhat different. The main ideology of the 2020 Chiefs draft is a simple one: start preparing for the Mahomes mega-deal.
As a follow up to last week's look into the Chiefs possibly building for the future in the 2020 draft and what that would look like, how did the actual Chiefs draft fit into this long-term team-building philosophy? In looking at the draft pick by pick, the Chiefs seemed to be cognizant of the future while bolstering the team for the present, though, for each pick, that strategy manifested itself in different ways.
Round 1, Pick 32 - Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB
When the Chiefs selected Clyde Edwards-Helaire at pick 32 in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, it seemed to signal to the NFL that the Chiefs were all-in on 2020. It is true that on average rookie running backs can contribute early and often, unlike many other positions, so the Chiefs taking Edwards-Helaire could be seen as a short-term selection.
However, one thing needs to be remembered when talking about running backs taken where Edwards-Helaire was taken in the draft. Contracts these players will sign are dirt-cheap compared to their peers. In 2020, for example, Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s cap hit ranks 40th out of all NFL running backs. Due to running backs having a quick transition from the college ranks to the pros, this means that if Andy Reid and Brett Veach picked the right player in Clyde Edwards-Helaire, they could have a great player immediately at a bargain. These types of players will be valuable when Mahomes is on his new contract, which lines up well with Edwards-Helaire’s rookie deal.
Plus, it helps that Clyde Edwards-Helaire can do this.
Round 2, Pick 63 - Willie Gay Jr., LB
The selection of Willie Gay Jr., like a few of the Chiefs’ mid-round picks in the 2020 draft, is a pick at a position of need that could give the Chiefs cap flexibility if he plays well.
If Gay realizes his potential and has a good rookie campaign as the presumptive starting weakside linebacker in 2020, then the Chiefs will have some much-needed flexibility at the linebacker position going forward. The way this flexibility could manifest is in moving on from Anthony Hitchens with a post-June 1st cut in the 2021 offseason, a move that would save $6.5 million in cap space. And the Chiefs will need all the cap space they can get for Mahomes' upcoming extension.
Round 3, Pick 96 - Lucas Niang, T
As highlighted in my piece heading into the draft, the possibility that the Chiefs could take a tackle high in the draft came to fruition.
Early indications on why the Chiefs drafted Lucas Niang seem to point at him eventually playing tackle. While Veach has said Niang could contribute at guard in 2020, he seemed to indicate from his comments that the main position the Chiefs see him at for the future is tackle.
What does this mean long-term for the Chiefs?
Well, it is not good news for either Eric Fisher or Mitchell Schwartz. One of the Chiefs starting tackles seemed to have their replacement potentially drafted with the selection of Niang. While this year he is secure, the player likely in trouble is Eric Fisher.
After the 2020 season, Fisher will be entering the final year of a contract extension he signed with the Chiefs in 2016. In that final year, Fisher will be paid over $14 million in total and only carries around $3.2 million in dead cap if released. The Chiefs can save over $11 million in cap space if the team moves on from Fisher in 2021, a year that could have a large cap hit on the books from Mahomes’ inevitable contract extension.
Niang would have likely been a higher pick in the NFL draft if teams could have examined the hip labrum tear that Niang suffered through for over a year before having surgery. He believes he should be cleared for football activities when teams resume practices later this year. Niang was considered by some to have one of the highest ceilings of the tackle prospects in the class, but needed to be coached up, as he was unrefined in some aspects of his game. The Chiefs can offer him this possibility as an heir apparent to Eric Fisher.
This type of draft pick is possible due to the Chiefs returning 20 of 22 starters for the 2020 campaign and is a prime example of how good teams prepare for the future at premium positions like left tackle. The Chiefs aren’t projected to pick high in the draft for a while because of Patrick Mahomes, so finding a successor at left tackle would have always been a challenge. The Chiefs might have found their next franchise left tackle at a fraction of the cost teams usually spend in the draft. If they did find their next left tackle, then this provides a great deal of cap flexibility to the Chiefs for extensions to Patrick Mahomes and Chris Jones. This flexibility is the most important thing Lucas Niang could offer the Chiefs if he develops well.
Round 4, Pick 138 - L’Jarius Sneed, CB and Round 7, Pick 237 - Thakarius “BoPete” Keyes, CB
L’Jarius Sneed and BoPete Keyes are cut from the same cloth when it comes to how the Chiefs are building their roster. A theme with many of the Chiefs draft picks through Veach’s three-year tenure as Chiefs GM is that he seems to value traits and innate talent first and foremost. Veach seems to trust the coaching staff when it comes to coaching up these talented, but usually raw, rookies.
Sneed and Keyes fit that mold. Both have the needed athleticism and frame to make it in the NFL as a cornerback, but they will need to be coached up.
Both cornerbacks speak to a broader team-building fact about Brett Veach over his three years as Chiefs GM. He has spent very little in the way of money or draft capital on cornerback. It is a peculiar thing in an NFL that is throwing more and more, but if these bargain-bin cornerbacks play well, the Chiefs will be at an advantage due to having a premium position filled by players on a bargain.
In double-dipping at the cornerback position, the Chiefs are set up better after Bashaud Breeland potentially leaves in 2021. The Chiefs went from having only two cornerbacks under contract in 2021 to four. While the Chiefs might need a starter if Breeland leaves, the depth at cornerback is already there, and that depth will be dirt-cheap.
Round 5, Pick 177 - Mike Danna, DE
When you get later in the draft, not every pick will be about a grand scheme of team-building.
Danna projects to be a decent depth contributor at defensive end, which is something Steve Spagnuolo has always valued.
If Danna does play above expectations, that could give the Chiefs flexibility with regards to Alex Okafor’s contract in 2021 and Tanoh Kpassagnon's upcoming free agency in 2021. While both aren’t huge needle-movers in the grand scheme of things, every little bit helps in order to bend the cap to fit Mahomes’ mega-deal.
In examining the Chiefs 2020 draft, the Chiefs blended the strategies of maximizing the 2020 season while also preparing for the future. Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Willie Gay Jr. can give the Chiefs much-needed talent at positions that were talent-deficient while giving the Chiefs future cap flexibility with inexpensive contracts and opportunities to shed expensive contracts. Lucas Niang gives them a cheap heir apparent to Eric Fisher. L’Jarius Sneed, Mike Danna, and BoPete Keyes give the Chiefs depth at important positions on defense.
The main underlying theme of the 2020 draft seemed to be looking for impact players at important positions that give the Chiefs ways to create cap space soon. Considering the projections for Mahomes’ contract, this was probably a wise draft strategy by Brett Veach, as he continues to show how he will shape the Chiefs roster going forward.