Inside the Chiefs offseason: A contender reloads on the fly

George Kittle’s father. A trade that shook up the AFC hierarchy. A signing happening against all odds and advice. A kid who nobody took, and a kid who just wanted a chance.

Welcome to the 2021 Kansas City Chiefs offseason.

Of course, nobody likes being embarrassed. The Chiefs know the feeling. In Super Bowl LV, they failed to score a touchdown in the ugliest performance of the Patrick Mahomes era. The quarterback was pressured a Super Bowl record 29 times in defeat, playing behind a famously makeshift offensive line.

The offseason goal in Kansas City was clear for general manager Brett Veach: fix it.

Entering March, Veach began his deluge of moves by releasing injured starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, saving $18.25 million in much-needed cap space. It was the opening salvo in a months-long quest to improve in the trenches and beyond.

At free agency’s outset, the Super Bowl LVI favorites got rolling. The result was a complete revamping of the unit charged with protecting the sport’s most expensive man, one who can lead the Chiefs to seemingly unending glory provided he remains upright.

In the process, Kansas City found what it believes to be the right mix. All this while successfully adding a few new faces in key, if understated, places.

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March 15: Chiefs spend record money on Joe Thuney; keep swinging

Only hours into the NFL’s free agency tampering period, the Chiefs agreed to record-setting terms with guard Joe Thuney, giving him $80 million ($46.89 million guaranteed) over five years. It’s the most money ever in total value or guarantees for an interior lineman.

While the Los Angeles Chargers, New York Jets, New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals all tried to land Thuney, his decision was ironically helped along by a man Kansas City had cut only weeks prior.

In FanSided’s exclusive piece detailing how Thuney’s deal came together, agent Mike McCartney gave this behind-the-scenes insight:

Unbeknownst to the team, they already had someone advocating their strengths to Thuney; former Chiefs All-Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz.

During McCartney’s research in the lead-up to free agency, the agent asked Schwartz, another of his clients, to speak with Thuney. Schwartz laid out the situation in Kansas City, explaining what Thuney would be getting at One Arrowhead Drive.

From Kansas City’s perspective, Thuney was its top free-agent target. The Chiefs called McCartney at 11 a.m. CT, the first minute of the tampering window. Between Veach and vice president of football operations Brandt Tilis, the calls between McCartney and Kansas City stretched over a period of hours.

McCartney wanted a three-year contract. Kansas City wanted five. The Chiefs presented four and five-year deals. Thuney signed the latter, being given $16 million annually with three fully-guaranteed years, a significant commitment to the former Second-Team All-Pro.

With Thuney landed, Veach went to work on free-agent left tackle Trent Williams. Williams was angling for a long-term deal and found himself deciding between staying with the 49ers or leaving to protect Mahomes. Kansas City went beyond $20 million per year but wouldn’t guarantee a third year in its offer. San Francisco’s eventual deal of six years and $138 million, with $55 million guaranteed, left the Chiefs in the cold.

For Kansas City, missing on Williams was a bitter blow. Williams was the only tackle the Chiefs believed was suitable to protect Mahomes from the free-agency class. And although the draft was seen by many to have ample first-round talents at tackle, Kansas City wasn’t thrilled with the rookie crop.

Meanwhile, the Chiefs signed veterans in center Austin Blythe and guard Kyle Long to one-year deals, while retaining right tackle Mike Remmers on the same term. Long, who was seen as a potential starter, joined the Chiefs out of retirement.

With the crux of free agency behind him, Veach went back to work.

Inside the Chiefs offseason: A contender reloads on the fly

Billy Hardiman-USA TODAY Sports

March 28: Jarran Reed signs with Sack Nation

The old saying goes it’s better to be lucky than good. Enter Jarran Reed.

For most players, Reed’s situation with the Seattle Seahawks was a good one. Entering the offseason, Reed was on the final year of his current deal, with the team wanting to move his base salary into bonus to create $7.1 million in cap room.

For Reed, that meant more guaranteed money before hitting free agency in 2021. However, the 28-year-old didn’t want to hit free agency. He wanted an extension. After a few conversations, it was clear no such commitment was coming in Seattle.

Going against popular choice and advice, Reed demanded a release or trade. After a 24-hour effort to deal him, Seattle caved to gain immediate cap space, allowing its star defensive tackle to test a depressed free-agency market already two weeks in the making.

Despite the cap shrinking, Reed had myriad suitors including the Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills and Chiefs. Another team viewed as a non-contender offered more, but Reed prioritized winning. In a decision ultimately between Buffalo and Kansas City, Reed was swayed by playing alongside former teammate Frank Clark and All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones.

In Reed, Kansas City landed its additional pass-rusher, who notched 6.5 sacks in 2020 and 10.5 sacks two years prior, playing on the same line as Clark in Seattle.

The Chiefs, who had a mutually productive visit with edge rusher Melvin Ingram earlier in March, got the potentially better-fitting player for a lesser cost than Ingram’s initial asking price. More importantly, Reed’s arrival on the interior allowed Jones to kick outside, giving defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo a diverse front to manipulate.

Reed’s addition made Kansas City better at two positions at once, while giving the Chiefs an ability to simultaneously play three legitimate pass-rushers without sacrificing against the run.

For Kansas City, patience and the ability to win landed a big fish from an unexpected avenue.

Inside the Chiefs offseason: A contender reloads on the fly

Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

April 23: Orlando Brown lands in KC

A bombshell, helped along by an online calculator.

Less than a week before the NFL Draft, the Chiefs acquired two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., a 2021 second-round choice and a ’22 sixth-rounder from the Baltimore Ravens. In exchange, Kansas City relinquished its first and third-round picks in 2021, along with a fifth-rounder in ’22.

For Veach, it represented the biggest trade of his young career. The Chiefs found a 24-year-old star protector for their franchise quarterback, and did so while dealing with arguably their biggest competition in the AFC.

All told, the process of landing Brown took two weeks. After Kansas City gave a final review of the incoming draft class, the Chiefs earnestly pursued Brown. The two sides haggled over value.

The settling instrument for such a high-stakes trade? An internet draft calculator.

For the Chiefs, who landed Brown with the notion of not extending his deal until after the upcoming season, the value was too great to pass on.

Around the league, many teams entered the draft believing there was a sharp drop in talent around pick 75. Kansas City moved back 27 slots (from No. 31 to 58) while picking up Brown, but came away with the same amount of top-75 picks as it had entering the trade.

Meanwhile, Baltimore now had two first-round choices, but none in the second round.

This would prove key one week later, in ways Kansas City couldn’t have known in the moment.

Inside the Chiefs offseason: A contender reloads on the fly

Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

April 30: Brown trade pays again in Humphrey pick

Without its first-round pick, Kansas City figured to be searching for defensive help and offensive depth.

Considering the signings of Long and Blythe, along with the returns of guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and rookie tackle Lucas Niang from the COVID-19 opt-out list, Kansas City was flush with interior options.

None of this stopped the Chiefs from bolstering the area continuously during the draft.

In the second round, Kansas City selected Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton with the 58th-overall pick. Five choices later, the Chiefs found their center in Creed Humphrey, a three-year starter at Oklahoma.

Per league conversations, Kansas City’s interest in Humphrey was clear. The Chiefs, however, were far from the only team with eyes on the two-time Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year. The Ravens and New York Giants both had feelers out on Humphrey, with the latter firmly involved.

However, with the Giants not picking again until No. 71 overall, they needed to either move up or hope Humphrey fell. Baltimore, having dealt its second-round pick to Kansas City, had little chance of securing the pivot’s talents.

With the penultimate pick of the second round, Kansas City got its guy.

If Veach hadn’t traded for Brown, there’s a realistic chance both Brown and Humphrey are in Baltimore, as the Ravens would have had the pick used on Bolton.

Instead, the Chiefs landed both, securing 40 percent of their offensive line.

Inside the Chiefs offseason: A contender reloads on the fly

Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

May 1: A new weapon for Mahomes

In the fifth round, Veach took another big swing.

The Chiefs moved up 13 spots to secure tight end Noah Gray out of Duke. Gray, listed at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, was seen by some league decision-makers as a non-traditional Y receiver who was an inch shy and 10 pounds light to be a top-100 pick. Gray, projected by one source to land between the sixth and 12th tight end taken in the draft, ended up being the 10th.

However, the Chiefs liked his skill-set led by good hands, quick feet and quality routes. In that regard, the perfect complement to future Hall of Fame tight end Travis Kelce.

For Gray, the offseason did wonders. The tough Bostonian worked alongside All-Pro 49ers tight end George Kittle and third-year sensation Robert Tonyan of the Green Bay Packers, all three being clients of agent Jack Bechta.

With OTAs and practices lighter than ever under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, Gray’s best path to quick improvement was going through the regiment Kittle and Tonyan endure with trainer Jeremy Holt, based in Nashville.

Gray also spent time toughening his mind for the grind ahead. The former star Blue Devil worked with Kittle’s father, Bruce, who leads Thunderbird Performance and specializes in mental toughness.

With Bruce, Gray embarked on a 16-component program designed to strengthen awareness and focus through a series of evaluations, breathing exercises, meditation and yoga. The idea is to mentally train players to quickly work through bad plays and critical junctures without panicking, helping to recenter the mind.

Bruce Kittle, the vice president and director or operations at Thunderbird, says Gray was an ideal pupil during their time together in Nashville, always arriving on time and with a terrific attitude.

“He’s a great, great young man,” Kittle said. “Super committed, great family. I think he’s a great selection for the Chiefs. Certainly applied himself and was great to work with.”

Termed a hard worker with a blue-collar approach by Kittle, Gray comes to the Chiefs as Kelce’s understudy. In recent seasons under head coach Andy Reid, the position has been a revolving door.  Over the last seven seasons, Kansas City has employed five different second-string tight ends, with only Demetrius Harris holding the job for more than one year. Combined, the quintet managed 954 receiving yards over the aforementioned campaigns.

With Gray, the Chiefs believe they’ve found their long-term solution to a constant problem, feeling his potential is equal or higher to anybody else in their rookie class.

Kittle would agree. The certified life coach sees Gray as a movable chess piece in Reid’s offense, providing flexibility in scheme and formation.

“Physically, he’s not a Travis Kelce, but he understands his body,” Kittle said. “I think the Chiefs got a great, great player. He fits well with them.”

Inside the Chiefs offseason: A contender reloads on the fly

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

May 1: Steal of the draft?

Normally, Day 3 picks are met with little fanfare. Even diehards have a tough time immediately recognizing the player when a name pops on the screen.

This was not the case with Trey Smith.

Smith, a two-time All-SEC selection out of Tennessee, was still on the board when Kansas City came on the clock with No. 226 overall, its sixth round and final pick of the afternoon. Falling due to health concerns revolving around blood clots discovered during his sophomore year, the former No. 1 overall high school prospect was looking for a chance.

Based off talent, multiple league sources felt Smith could have been a late first- or high second-round choice.

Throughout the pre-draft process, the Chiefs did vast amounts of homework on Smith. Entering last season, Kansas City had a second-round grade on the hulking guard, but medical questions and inconsistent play his senior year loomed.

However, during Zoom meetings with Smith, the Chiefs fell in love with the person and player. In the weeks leading into the draft, the team felt relatively good about the medical concerns, but couldn’t conduct further, more conclusive testing due to league-wide, COVID-related restrictions.

On Saturday afternoon of draft weekend, a pivotal moment arrived.

With the fifth round clicking by, Veach huddled with vice president of sports medicine and performance Rick Burkholder, team physician Mike Monaco and owner Clark Hunt. If Smith fell to the Chiefs, they needed a plan all believed in.

Both Burkholder and Monaco gave their approval, but cautioned Smith wouldn’t be fully cleared until they could do further, post-draft testing. At that point, Veach made the call. If the Chiefs didn’t draft Smith, they felt it would be near impossible to land him in a post-draft bidding war.

Meanwhile, Smith watched the draft while remaining in constant contact with agents Jimmy Sexton and Tory Dandy. With the medical concerns taking the Volunteers star off some team boards entirely, the idea of a draft-day fall wasn’t stunning. The quiet, low-maintenance Smith waited. His team knew Kansas City was a strong possibility based off their meetings and dialogue.

Finally, relying on opinions of the team doctors and his personal belief in Smith, Veach pulled the trigger. The Chiefs selected the Tennessee native three choices before the last round.

To date, Smith has been everything Kansas City hoped for and then some.

At 6-foot-6 and 335 pounds, Smith immediately impressed Kansas City during OTAs and minicamp. And when Long suffered a lower leg injury that is expected to keep him out of training camp, Smith took over as starting right guard. Once inserted, the Chiefs believed he wouldn’t give up the spot.

So far, an impressive summer for Smith is backing up those beliefs.

Inside the Chiefs offseason: A contender reloads on the fly

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

May 1: Landing a Key contributor in UDFA

When the NFL Draft ends, chaos begins. It’s a mad dash to get agents on the phone, deals on the table and ink drying on contracts.

With undrafted free agents flooding the market, the Chiefs had a top target in mind: Western Kentucky safety Devon Key.

Had Kansas City owned a seventh-round pick, it likely would have been spent on the 6-foot, 208-pounder. However, the Chiefs waited and hoped Key would fall. Despite some league insiders believing he was worth a late-fifth or early sixth-round choice, the Hilltoppers’ all-time leading tackler went undrafted.

Immediately, Key had options. No fewer than eight teams were bidding for his services, including the New York Jets, Los Angeles Rams, Denver Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins, Cowboys, Chargers and Chiefs. Ultimately, six offers came, two being three-year pacts. After analyzing the rosters of each team, Key chose Kansas City.

Early in training camp, Key has impressed with box safety skills and attitude. He’s largely running with the second team ahead of veterans Armani Watts and Will Parks. With a good showing on special teams throughout the preseason, Key has a solid chance to make himself a valuable, versatile piece of the AFC champions’ 53-man roster. Not bad for a kid who fought through three positional coaching changes in four collegiate seasons.

With a month until the regular season, the Chiefs are the rarest of offseason case studies. They’re a contender who have a case as the offseason’s biggest winners, usually a title reserved for the after-rans looking to make big-money splashes to turn the back-page tide.

As always, questions do remain. Will Kansas City eventually extend Brown, or star safety Tyrann Mathieu for that matter? Will the rookies deliver as one of the league’s best classes, something that has become a wide-reaching expectation of this group? Does the offensive line, potentially with five new starters and three rookies — including Niang — come together early on against a tough schedule?

It remains to be seen.

However, there can be no argument about what Kansas City did this offseason. Through every roster-building avenue available to them — free agency, trades, draft picks and UDFA signings — the Chiefs aggressively overhauled significant portions of a team which went 14-2 last season before reaching the Super Bowl for a second straight year.

The goal was to fix what went wrong in February.

Over the last five months, Veach and the Chiefs appear to have done exactly that.

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