KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Two weeks before the start of the free-agent signing period, general manager Brett Veach said he thought the 2021 Kansas City Chiefs offensive line would be made up of a mix of new and returning players.
Two months later, it looks as if the Chiefs will have five new starters from last season and perhaps as few as one lineman returning from 2020.
In between, the Chiefs splurged on their line, an area that collapsed against relentless pressure from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Super Bowl LV defeat. They attempted to fortify their glaring weakness by acquiring six new players — three as free agents, two in the NFL draft and one in a trade.
The Chiefs are also expecting the return of two linemen who opted out of playing last season because of COVID-19.
The Super Bowl debacle, which featured quarterback Patrick Mahomes running from pressure on most of his pass attempts, heightened the Chiefs’ urgency to fix the problem. But the plan to overhaul the line after the season had been in place long before.
It was originally more modest in its intent. The Chiefs initially wanted a left tackle to replace the injured Eric Fisher and a premier player at either center or guard. They figured they could adequately fill in at the other positions with their returning players.
The project swelled for reasons beyond the Bucs’ domination in the Super Bowl. Injuries to Fisher and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz left their availability for the 2021 season unclear. Both were released before the start of free agency.
“We’ll just see how it all ends up,” coach Andy Reid said in April, when asked if the Chiefs were finished adding to their line after signing free agent guards Joe Thuney and Kyle Long and center Austin Blythe. “I wouldn’t tell you at any position that we’re done looking. We’re always going to keep our eyes open and try to make ourselves better, which we need to do. We’ve got to do that. When you’re sitting in our position you’re not just striving to stay the same. You’re trying to get yourself better.”
The Chiefs were overdue to invest resources into their offensive line. They had spent big at many other positions in recent seasons, but the last lineman the Chiefs signed in unrestricted free agency to be a starter was Schwartz in 2016.
Similarly, the Chiefs hadn’t added many linemen through the draft. Before taking Humphrey this year, the Chiefs hadn’t drafted a lineman above the third round since 2015.
The result from their neglect was a line that was solid at tackle with Fisher, the first pick in the draft back in 2013, and Schwartz. But it had been patched together with waiver claims and low-round draft picks in the interior. When Fisher and Schwartz were injured last season, everything collapsed.
The Chiefs started free agency by signing Thuney from the Patriots. He agreed to a five-year contract worth $80 million and was the premium interior addition that the Chiefs wanted.
“He’s one of the better interior offensive linemen in the National Football League,” Veach said. “His ability to play either guard position or the center position at a Pro Bowl level is something that was really enticing for us. Any box you have for an offensive lineman — you talk about intelligence, flexibility, production — he kind of checks all of those boxes off. He was kind of a no-brainer for us.”
The Chiefs then attempted to sign a top left tackle in free agent Trent Williams. The Chiefs made a strong pitch and at one time thought they were close to a deal before he eventually re-signed with the San Francisco 49ers.
The Chiefs weren’t as interested in any of the other free agent tackles available, but they were in contact with the Ravens about a trade for Brown, who had requested he be dealt.
A week before the draft Brown hadn’t been traded, to Kansas City or elsewhere. The Chiefs had the 31st pick in the first round but wanted a plug-and-play left tackle and they viewed the tackles who figured to be available to them at that point in the draft as developmental prospects.
The Chiefs discussed internally the prospect of moving up in the draft to select their tackle. Eventually, though, they felt there was better value in a trade for Brown, a two-time Pro Bowler. Brown wanted out of Baltimore because his path to playing left tackle, his preferred position, was blocked by Ronnie Stanley, who signed a five-year extension in October that pays him nearly $20 million per season.
“He has all those attributes you look for — the size, the length, the mental toughness, the durability, the leadership,” Veach said of Brown. “It’s hard to find that. These guys that you’re looking at [in the draft], a lot of these guys you like and they have developmental upside, but we’re certainly built to win and built to win now and to have a plug-and-play guy is very [important] and that’s why we couldn’t pass up that opportunity.”
The Chiefs don’t view Brown, who played left tackle last season because of an injury to Stanley, as a finished product at the position. He doesn’t have the quickest of feet, which could be a problem in protecting Mahomes’ blind side.
But Brown is 6-foot-8 and 345 pounds with 36-inch arms. The Chiefs believe his size and arm length will make him difficult to get around.
“He’ll have to learn a few techniques and all that to make him better, and does he have room to continue to grow?” asked Reid of the 25-year-old Brown. “Absolutely, even though he’s been a two-time Pro Bowler here the last couple years.
“He’ll get in here and work his tail off and get better, but some of those intangible things I sure like and then again we’ve had a chance to play against him here a couple different times and he’s a physical guy, so we like that too.”
Of the trade to the Chiefs, Brown said, “I was really surprised. I didn’t see it coming. If you would have asked me when I requested my trade where I would have been, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you then but I was very surprised to be here and I’m just glad that they made the move.
“I definitely think I’m the guy that they want, the guy that they need.”
Other linemen joined along the way. Long, a former Pro Bowler with the Chicago Bears, signed after sitting out last season to heal his battered body. Blythe was a starter the last three seasons with the Los Angeles Rams.
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The Chiefs weren’t intent on drafting an offensive lineman after free agency, but when it was their pick late in the second round, Humphrey was the only player left on their board with a second-round grade.
They also drafted Tennessee guard Trey Smith in the sixth round. Considered to have talent worthy of a higher selection, Smith dropped in the draft because of concerns over blood clots he’s experienced.
All of this maneuvering has the approval of Mahomes, who had to run for his life in the Super Bowl. He scrambled 497 yards before his sacks and throws against the Bucs, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That’s the highest total for any quarterback last season.
“I think we have a lot of great guys in the offensive line room,” Mahomes said. “Guys that are ready to compete, guys that played last year and guys that have a lot of experience coming in and that breeds competition and you love that.”