By Geoff Schwartz
FOX Sports NFL Analyst
After each spring’s draft, the NFL is filled with hope, whether it’s from fan bases excited that their team landed a franchise quarterback – hey, Chicago – or from contenders who added much-needed depth to their already talented rosters.
But I – per usual – am here to throw some cold water on the hopes of every team in the AFC that doesn’t have an Arrowhead on its helmet and let the world know that the Kansas City Chiefs are the clear favorites in the conference.
No team has done more to address an area of weakness since the offseason began than the Chiefs, who upgraded their offensive line extensively. Since Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid hooked up, they’ve lost only two of eight playoff games, and they lost them in two distinct ways.
First, the New England Patriots outscored them in the 2018 AFC Championship Game, winning in overtime.
Then, this past postseason, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Chiefs in the Super Bowl by taking advantage of a once-in-a-generation injury-fest on the Kansas City offensive line.
The Chiefs entered the 2020 season with an offensive line featuring an All-Pro right tackle, a Pro Bowl left tackle, a former Pro Bowl left guard and two interior pieces who were between good and above average.
But that depth didn’t hold up for long.
Before the season began, right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif opted out to spend the 2020 season using his skills as a doctor to help combat COVID-19 in Montreal, Canada. Then, in a Week 5 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, left guard Kelechi Osemele was lost for the season, with injuries to both legs. The following week in Buffalo, the Chiefs lost right tackle Mitchell Schwartz for the remainder of the season.
Kansas City had to play the rest of the season with two-and-a-half backup offensive linemen (I’m counting Andrew Wylie at right guard as a half-backup because with Duvernay-Tardif opting out, Wylie did begin training camp with the starters).
The offensive line and the offense functioned well enough with the backups until one injury was too much to overcome: Left tackle Eric Fisher tore his Achilles tendon in the AFC Championship win against the Bills.
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The loss of Fisher was huge because he was the anchor of that line without Schwartz playing. More importantly, it forced the Chiefs to shuffle the line before the Super Bowl. The Chiefs moved right tackle Mike Remmers to left tackle. They moved right guard Wylie to right tackle and inserted newly signed Stefen Wisniewski at right guard.
If you’re keeping track, that’s four spots from the projected starting lineup that were manned by backups, including right tackle, as the Chiefs saw their third starter of the season at that position.
We all know what happened next. The Chiefs’ offense was overwhelmed by the Tampa Bay defense and pass rush. It was the ugliest offensive performance in three seasons for the Mahomes-led unit, and it quickly became clear that the Chiefs had to address the offensive line heading into 2021.
The Chiefs started the process of rebuilding the offensive line by tearing it down. K.C. released both injured starting tackles, as their cap number was high, and it seemed unclear if either would be healthy for the season. It was a surprise move to most, but I understood why the Chiefs wanted to get younger and cheaper at those positions.
Then, to start the offseason, the Chiefs paid a hefty price to acquire two-time Super Bowl-winning guard Joe Thuney, an 80-game starter for the Patriots. Thuney is a fantastic player, and he will be the anchor of this rebuilt group.
The Chiefs also added veteran Kyle Long, who is returning to action after taking time away from the sport, and then they went back to the veteran market to add center Austin Blythe, who started 48 games for the Los Angeles Rams.
Lastly, the Chiefs re-signed Remmers, a swing tackle who filled in for Schwartz and Fisher last season. Remmers gets unfairly dragged, but he’s a valuable piece thanks to his ability to play four positions.
Heading into the draft, the Chiefs still needed to add a left tackle. They drafted Lucas Niang in the third round last season, but they penciled him in at right tackle after Niang sat out his rookie year due to a COVID-19 opt-out. Then, instead of drafting with the 31st pick, they traded that selection to the Baltimore Ravens to land massive veteran Orlando Brown.
Although I have some concerns about Brown having to pass protect nearly twice as much in Kansas City – the Chiefs pass much more frequently than the Ravens – he’s a far better option than what the Chiefs would have been able to draft at No. 31.
At that point, the Chiefs had replaced both tackles, added a left guard, added a center and added Long, and I expected they’d be finished with the O-line.
I was incorrect.
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Creed is an excellent addition. He’s a versatile blocker who can do everything that’s needed in the K.C. offense. He was in charge of setting protections in Oklahoma, and he will help Mahomes tremendously. Then there’s the steal of the draft, Smith, a second-round talent who dropped due to previous issues with blood clots. If he’s healthy, he will start from day one.
In the span of two months, the Chiefs went from uncertainty and concern on the offensive line to having the NFL’s deepest unit. A starting O-line of Brown, Thuney, Humphrey, Smith and Niang seems likely, or Long could slot in at right guard and Smith at right tackle. Maybe LDT is at guard, and there’s a combo of Remmers, Long or Niang at right guard. It’s also possible Blythe starts at center.
As you can see, the Chiefs are as deep as the ocean on the line.
This new unit will allow Kansas City to get back to basics on offense, meaning more of a run game with physical big boys upfront and more under-center play-action passes. This style will lead to big chunk plays without Mahomes getting hit. It might also lend to a quicker pass game, going back to some three-step drop concepts and spacing designs to get the ball out of Mahomes’ hands more quickly and get the offense into a flow.
The last thing the Chiefs might look to implement is more screens. We saw last season, as the backup offensive line took hold, Andy Reid didn’t trust them to run his detail-oriented screens. That detail figures to make a return this season.
With the O-line set, how are teams going to beat the Chiefs? Outscore them? Sure, that’s a possibility. The Chiefs defense is good, but it lacks depth. An injury bug at pass-rusher or cornerback would haunt the defense. But you’ll have to score more than 30 to win a shootout with K.C., and there is little margin for error.
The Browns and Bills have the offenses to give it a go, and both have also improved on defense. Cleveland spent its offseason, plus the draft, adding secondary pieces for this exact reason. But again, the margin for error is tiny. You have to score a bunch of points, plus get stops on defense. If your offense has multiple three-and-outs, that could spell doom.
Playing the Chiefs was difficult before and will be even more difficult now. Teams will be stressed the entire game, trying to keep up on offense, and it still might not be enough.
And if K.C.’s line remains healthy, you won’t be getting to Mahomes like the Bucs did in Super Bowl LV.
In other words, the AFC is once again running through Arrowhead this season. And if the Bucs make it out of the NFC again, an entirely different Chiefs team will await them in February.
Geoff Schwartz played eight seasons in the NFL for five different teams. He started at right tackle for the University of Oregon for three seasons and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection his senior year. He is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffSchwartz.
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