Brett Veach’s free agency strategy over these last three years as the general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs is comparable to an investor putting their funds in a select few stocks instead of an index fund. Sure, those stocks could soar into the clouds giving the investor a huge return on investment, but there is a substantial risk from such investments as well.
No player illustrates this reality better than Frank Clark. The Chiefs made a big bet on Clark, trading a 2019 first-round pick and 2020 second-round pick for him and then paying Clark $104 million over five years, and that bet is not paying off.
Frank Clark did contribute to the 2019 Super Bowl run, but in giving him a five-year contract, the Chiefs obviously expected more from him than showing up for one playoff run. With the eighth-highest salary cap hit in the league, Clark’s contract and production have been more of a miss than a hit for the Chiefs.
Clark embodies Veach’s strategy so far as the Chiefs’ general manager.
Whether it is intentional or not, Brett Veach has stayed away from mid-level contracts and players in free agency or in trades.
Over the last three years, Brett Veach has either swung for the fences (Sammy Watkins, Frank Clark, Tyrann Mathieu, Anthony Hitchens, Joe Thuney) or has been content with fliers on cheap players (Bashaud Breeland, Kyle Long, Damien Williams) in free agency.
Veach has signed more top-money players over the last three years than he has signed mid-range players. Alex Okafor ($6 million a year) and Damien Wilson ($3.5 million a year) are the only players that could be classified as mid-range contracts from the last three years.
The mid-range contracts handed out in free agency are usually the bulk of the first week. These players get good money but their contract will not crack the top 10 at their position.
An example of a mid-range contract from 2021’s free agency is Corey Davis, who signed a three-year/$37.5 million contract with the New York Jets. Davis’ $12.5 million per year ranks 20th among wide receivers in the NFL.
For some reason or another, Veach has stayed away from these kinds of contracts.
Watkins, Clark, Hitchens, Mathieu and Thuney all received contracts in the top 10 for their position at the time of signing. The Chiefs paid top-dollar for these players’ services and some of them have worked out while some have not.
The reward in this top-end market is met with a lot of risk. Players like Hitchens show this with contracts that are hard to move on from for at least three years, something his contract shares with the recently inked Thuney. If the Chiefs bet on the wrong player when handing out these top-of-the-market contracts, that contract will be an anchor dragging through the sand at the bottom of the ocean for the rest of the roster.
When wheeling and dealing in this mid-range market, there is one key difference from the high-range market: the signing bonuses are lower. The aforementioned Corey Davis contract, for example, only has a $2 million signing bonus. If structured smartly, these contracts can be cut loose early and with little dead money.
Compare this to Joe Thuney's deal. While Thuney could be cut after three years for $12.6 million in salary cap savings, the Chiefs would eat $6.8 million in dead cap to do so. These top-of-the-market free agents demand top-of-the-market guaranteed money.
A team like the Chiefs seems built to be active in the mid-range free agency market. With a handful of superstars on superstar contracts, the Chiefs do not have much more bandwidth for these market-resetting deals. The roster, as it currently stands, seems like a good candidate to add mid-range contracts to complement the high-end deals already on the team. So far in the 2021 offseason, that has not happened.
Time and time again these mid-range contracts are the ones that return the most value in free agency. If a team hits on the right player, then not only will they have a quality player under contract, they will have a quality player under contract at a cost-controlled price.
If Thuney plays well for the Chiefs, and it is likely he will, then he will only return fair value on his contract. It is hard to imagine a world where Thuney outplays his contract, which is the most a guard has ever gotten on a multi-year deal.
As the Chiefs head into the future with Mahomes earning real money, there might be less room for error on these massive contracts. It is possible that Brett Veach’s strategy was different in a depressed salary cap year, but when the team was reportedly in on Trent Williams even after signing Joe Thuney, it is hard to think the Chiefs aren’t willing to spend money. Instead of dropping $20 million per year on Trent Williams, why not turn around and use that yearly money on Corey Davis and Riley Reiff? Davis and Reiff’s combined yearly money is exactly $20 million with lower guaranteed money combined than Williams received. It did not have to be these two players, either. Comparable values at other positions also can substitute for these two players.
Whether it is pure coincidence that it has not happened yet or a sign of a larger pattern, the Chiefs need to start looking for value in free agency in the future. Instead of swinging for the fences, Veach might need to try and hit more doubles — or even just get on base. Why swing for the fences when he has the ultimate clean-up hitter with Patrick Mahomes? Let Mahomes turn your doubles into runs.