As Patrick Mahomes’ contract grows, the Kansas City Chiefs’ team-building strategies need to change.
Over the past two years, the Chiefs have heavily invested in the present when building out their roster. Resulting in a Super Bowl win and another Super Bowl appearance, it's hard to argue against this strategy — up to this point. These moves consisted of aggressive moves like the trade for defensive end Frank Clark, high-dollar signings like the acquisition of wide receiver Sammy Watkins, and an organizational desire to keep the band together.
That team-building strategy might not work quite as well going forward.
This is not to say the Chiefs can't sign expensive free agents or make aggressive trades in the years to come, but the margin of error for any of these moves is going to be much tighter than it was when Mahomes was making roughly $5 million per year.
Even though Mahomes’ contract is actually a pretty good deal for the Chiefs, as I have written about before here on Arrowhead Report, the Chiefs will have to be smarter and safer in order to keep the roster strong into the future.
To build towards this future, the Chiefs may have to look at some of their blockbuster contracts.
Currently, the Chiefs have six players who average top-10 salaries at their positions: Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Mitchell Schwartz, Chris Jones, Tyrann Mathieu and Frank Clark. With Mahomes about to join their ranks, carrying seven contracts of this stature is a tough thing to realize if Veach wants to field a roster with quality depth. They won't have to make too many cuts at the top, however. Trimming down the top contracts to around five top earners should be fine, but that does mean a few of the Chiefs' highest cap hits will have to depart soon. Schwartz and Clark seem to be the leading candidates to be the odd men out as of now.
One way to help supplement the loss of these high-dollar players is to look at the tier-two market in free agency for players to add. Alex Okafor was an example of this type of signing, and the Chiefs might have to exclusively live in this market for a while with the salary cap in flux.
Another safer team-building strategy that the Chiefs could employ is changing how they view draft pick trades.
Over his first three years as general manager, Brett Veach has traded up in the draft five times to take a player, selecting Derrick Nnadi, BoPete Keyes, Mecole Hardman, Breeland Speaks and Khalil McKenzie after trading up to get them.
Over those same three drafts, Brett Veach has traded down zero times.
While having the moxie to trade up and "get your guy" is commendable, the value lost in giving away draft capital to do so is a risk. Unless a team is aggressively looking to trade down or a rare fleecing happens, the team who is trading up loses some draft capital.
The draft capital lost is going to hurt at an increasing rate as the Chiefs look towards the draft to build the team rather than doing so through free agency and player trades. The Chiefs can not keep bleeding draft capital through trade-ups and expect to field deep rosters in the future, which means Veach will have to change his thinking on how to approach the draft. Trading up in the draft will probably need to become more rare for the Chiefs than it's been in years past.
However Veach and the Chiefs use their draft picks, the goal is the same: keep a strong roster around Mahomes for years to come.
Hill, Kelce, Clark and Mathieu will all leave the Chiefs before Mahomes does, mostly due to age. When they're gone, their salaries will go with them. Any player the Chiefs draft in the next few years will have their rookie contracts running out by the time the Chiefs have money to pay them. This means that any home run draft picks the Chiefs select now are timed perfectly for a second contract as the veterans are reaching the end of their careers. While it is not fair to expect Brett Veach to draft superstars, the Chiefs will still need high-level starters on the team when their current core group of great players moves on. The time to hit these home runs is now. It will strengthen the current team and help set a strong foundation for a post-Hill/Kelce/Mathieu world.
So far, Veach has not hit that home run draft pick.
Veach has drafted a litany of solid starters like Nnadi, Juan Thornhill, L'Jarius Sneed and Clyde Edwards-Helaire, but none of them have developed into a player that can be relied on to be Pro Bowl-caliber every year to this point. It is possible some of the picks from 2019 and 2020 develop into stars, but the jury is still out.
If Veach can minimize the trade-ups and add a few trade-downs, he will be able to amass more draft picks and draft capital which gives him more chances to hit a home run on a pick. The Chiefs will likely never pick above the 20th overall position in the draft as long as they have Mahomes, which means all the blue-chip players in the draft are out of their reach. The impact of picking lower in the draft is not felt just in the first round either, it has an effect on every round.
Veach has shown he can find players in the middle rounds. In fact, that's where Veach has had the most success as general manager. Sneed, Nnadi, Mike Danna, and Thornhill were picked outside the top 50 picks in the draft and have been really nice additions to the Chiefs roster. Why not give Veach and the Chiefs' front office more chances to flex their scouting muscles in those rounds?
It's time for Veach to make the roster his own. John Dorsey still has his fingerprints all over the Chiefs' current roster and the success of Veach transitioning from Dorsey’s roster is vital to the success of the Chiefs during Mahomes’ career. That transformation truly starts in 2021 where the Chiefs will have a projected eight draft picks.
The Chiefs should be focusing on trying to maximize their diversity and depth and limit risk going forward into Mahomes’ prime. Limiting the blockbuster deals, living in the tier-two free agency market and being more shrewd with draft trades are all necessary going forward. Veach should not treat the Chiefs draft capital and salary cap space like $GME, but like his own 401(k). Invest, diversify, and build a good base. The time to build for Mahomes’ prime is now.