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NFL Draft

Kansas City Revamps Offensive Line With Help Of 2021 NFL Draft

  • The Draft Network
  • May 11, 2021
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A common one-sentence summary of Super Bowl 55 included the same idea: “The Kansas City Chiefs couldn’t pass protect.” It could have been the first football game someone ever watched, and they would still have been able to figure out that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defensive front was free to act as they wished against a depleted Chiefs offensive line. 

Injuries hassled Kansas City up front all season. The Chiefs lost starting right guard Kelechi Osemele and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz—both All-Pro caliber players—in back-to-back weeks in October and left tackle Eric Fisher in the playoffs after the win over the Buffalo Bills. Center Austin Reiter missed some time, which forced Daniel Kilgore onto the field, and tackle Mike Remmers was out for a stretch, putting Yasir Durant and Martinas Rankin in positions to start; rookie third-round pick Lucas Niang never got over a preseason injury.

That’s about as ugly as it gets—and it never got worse than in the Super Bowl when only Reiter remained a projected starter. The rest is history: a seventh ring on Tom Brady’s finger.

The offensive line became an expected priority in Kansas City this offseason, but only to a certain degree. Depth needed improvement and recoveries required careful oversight, but the Chiefs’ offensive line was good before the rash of injuries. It could be good again. Or it could be totally done over. Kansas City’s career tackle Eric Fisher and back-to-back-to-back-to-back All-Pro lineman Mitchell Schwartz were both cut. After getting a long hard look at the reality of football without both players available, the Chiefs decided they wanted to keep looking.

It would be one thing if the Chiefs had several contracts expire and were forced to rebuild the offensive line, but that didn’t happen here. The Chiefs needed to become salary-cap compliant after the COVID-19 pandemic dropped the cap ceiling for NFL teams, but extensions and restructurings can create immediate cap relief just as well as full-on cuts do. While Reiter’s contract had expired and he was entering free agency, Schwartz and Fisher both still had deals with the team. The Chiefs created $18 million in cap space, yes; but they also released their starting left tackle from the last seven seasons and a four-time All-Pro right tackle, neither of whom were on egregious deals above their worth. Neither Schwartz nor Fisher were immediately scooped up; with Schwartz on the wrong side of 30 and apparently mulling retirement and Fisher coming off of the Achilles injury, both were available to return at a lower price tag if Kansas City had the inclination. The Chiefs may have tried and failed, but it seems like they weren’t interested. Instead, they got aggressive with draft capital. They traded their first-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens in a package for Orlando Brown, a clear plus starter determined to play left tackle; they followed that up with former Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey as one of their second-round picks. Small free-agent deals for Kyle Long and Mike Remmers buttressed the depth.

In Humphrey and Brown, the Chiefs did more than just get younger along the offensive line: They got bigger. Brown, at 6-foot-7 and 345 pounds, is one of the largest left tackles in the league. Creed cut down to 302 pounds for his Pro Day, but is currently listed at 312 pounds via the team’s official website and brings plus height and wingspan to the center position. Brown carries a whopping 30 pounds more than Fisher, who he replaced; Creed has about 10 pounds on Reiter. These aren’t aberrations, either. When starting right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif opted out of the 2020 season, the Chiefs signed all 330 pounds of noted trench bully Osemele to replace him. In the sixth round of this year’s draft, Kansas City took former 5-star Trey Smith, who, at 6-foot-6 and 335 pounds, has a tackle body but experience playing guard during his time at Tennessee. And the gem of this year’s free agency: New England’s Joe Thuney. Thuney, one of the best guards in the league, doesn’t have particularly stunning size—he’s tall for a guard, but only carries about 308 pounds. However, top offensive line expert Brandon Thorn noted this about Thuney after his Kansas City signing:

Thuney comes from a New England running game that loved power blocking concepts and working behind pullers; the same is true of Brown from Baltimore and Humphrey from Oklahoma, as those running games are actually fairly similar across the college-NFL divide. Again: I don’t think the investments of a mega-contract, a first-round trade, and a second-round pick allow for coincidence. The Chiefs are telling us, with their spending, that the offensive line was a problem last year; but not just in terms of depth and pass protection woes down the stretch. They also want to change how they run the football.

The Chiefs were an inside/outside zone team last year. Outside zone is all the rage on the Kyle Shanahan coaching tree, but those teams run zone from under center and have tight end depth and blocking wide receivers to create extended surfaces. The Chiefs like to operate their passing game from the gun and prefer to spread out their athletes, which makes the numbers game on zone runs harder to win. While they delivered a respectable performance in the running game, in terms of efficiency, no team is offered lighter boxes and better rushing looks than Kansas City is because no passer is as feared in the league as Patrick Mahomes is. There’s meat left on the bone. The Athletic's Nate Tice is also barking up this tree. Gap schemes can help the Chiefs deal with the three-down fronts they get when defenses align to steal gaps in the running game and drop eight men into pass coverage, all while staying in their spread alignments

The offensive line changes acknowledge this reality. The Chiefs are sacrificing a bit of surety in pass protection—Brown is flipping sides while Remmers is just a solid right tackle, nothing more—for a perceived huge boost in their running game. Even as they riddle out camp battles for right guard and right tackle, the Chiefs now have better depth than they did last season—but also new body types to presumably introduce a new approach to the running game. Count me among the believers in this change. Kansas City’s 2020 first-round running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a fine zone runner, but his lack of height and premiere contact balance give him a great projection to vanishing behind pullers and running with patience and timing; his best work at LSU was running Duo, a power-blocking concept without pullers. Play-action is often more devastating when the fake run action includes a pulling lineman. Classic Andy Reid shovel passes and trick plays should hit better if the Chiefs have more muscle up front. This makes sense for their team.

Teams tell us the plan with their investments, and the Chiefs are telling us to expect a more physically dominant offensive trench next season, with a priority on gap blocking to better exploit the soft boxes created by Mahomes’ presence. Whether or not it works, it’s awesome to see how quickly the Chiefs have made this shift.

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