When a team loses, all the problems seem to bubble up to the surface. This reality is no different for the Kansas City Chiefs after losing at home to the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday.
One of the prevailing narratives out of the loss to the Raiders is the realization that the Chiefs' offensive line is playing poorly through five weeks. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is having a down year by his standards, left tackle Eric Fisher is struggling, and the interior offensive line looks to be a weakness with Kelechi Osemele now gone for the year.
The statistics and the eye-test back each other up in this case. The offensive line is struggling.
The Raiders are not a great pass-rushing defensive line, either. They rank 27th in adjusted sack rate on FootballOutsiders. The Chiefs' offensive line got beat by a below-average defensive line, and it got beat bad.
While some of this blame can be put at the feet of Patrick Mahomes (for happy feet and drifting in the pocket) and the wide receivers (for struggling to get open), the majority of the blame so far in 2020 should go to the offensive line.
So, why is the offensive line struggling? Well, it was a high-risk, high-reward bet on the part of the Chiefs, and that bet might end up being a poor one.
First things first, it should be noted that the offensive line did lose two players before the season even began. Presumed starting guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and rookie Lucas Niang both opted out of the season due to COVID-19. Even in their absence, both players help explain the Chiefs' strategy at offensive line and the issues that could have cropped up because the Chiefs adopted this strategy in the trenches.
The bet the Chiefs made on the offensive line comes down to their lack of investment on the inside of the offensive line. This lack of investment has been pervasive in the Chiefs' front office even before Brett Veach assumed his role as general manager in 2017. The Chiefs bet that late-round picks and journeymen could fill in holes on the offensive line so they could divert money and draft capital elsewhere.
The last offensive lineman drafted in the first three rounds of the draft, before Niang was drafted in the third round in the 2020 draft, was center Mitch Morse in the second round of the 2015 draft. The last major investment, for the most part, on the offensive line was the signing of Mitchell Schwartz in free agency during 2016’s free agency.
Since 2016, the Chiefs haven’t invested much at offensive line, in part because it didn’t seem like it was an immediate need. The Chiefs' offensive line during this period was, for the most part, average. From 2015-2018 the Chiefs offensive line was anchored by Mitchell Schwartz, and with Eric Fisher and Mitch Morse playing well, the Chiefs relied on cheaper options at guard, and when Durnay-Tardif emerged and eventually received a sizable contract extension, most of the starters were set.
Still, however, there was never really a move to inject some higher-caliber talent into the offensive line. We have seen a few teams like the Packers and Saints try to overload their offensive line with talent in order to protect their franchise quarterbacks. The Chiefs instead relied on cheap veterans and late-round draft picks.
That strategy reared its ugly head in 2019. The Chiefs relied on undrafted free agent Andrew Wylie to be their starting left guard, journeyman Austin Reiter to be their center (after he played fine in 2018 when replacing Mitch Morse), and Cam Erving to be their tackle and guard backup in case a starter got injured. All three players were relatively unknown quantities.
When Eric Fisher went down to injury for an extended time during the 2019 season, the Chiefs had to rely on Cam Erving to be the starting left tackle for a fairly large chunk of the year. This did not work out well.
Austin Reiter and Andrew Wylie were not great for the Chiefs either. Both also struggled at times during the year and Mahomes saw more pressure than ever.
When Wylie went down to injury late in the year, the Chiefs added another veteran journeyman, Stefan Wisniewski, who came in and played well throughout the postseason. With the return of Fisher and the addition of Wisniewski, the offensive line was at its best.
The Chiefs did seem to come into the 2020 offseason with a greater emphasis on the offensive line, as they signed a better swing-tackle and guard in Mike Remmers, added guard Kelechi Osemele after Duvernay-Tardif opted out, and drafted their first offensive lineman in the first three rounds of the NFL draft in five years in tackle Lucas Niang. It is still somewhat more of the same, however, with two of the offensive lineman being cheap journeymen.
Ultimately, the Chiefs have continued to deprioritize the interior offensive line, which has been made even more evident in 2020 when paired with injuries, opt-outs, and sub-par play from Fisher and Schwartz.
At this point, it might get worse before it gets better. The future will depend on a slew of things, and it might not even happen until 2021 considering the Chiefs will now likely be starting Remmers, Reiter and Wylie on the interior offensive line for the foreseeable future. That was the bet the Chiefs made in recent years, though. They bet that journeymen and late-round picks could fill out the offensive line. It might be a bet they regret making.