One Friday night before the Kansas City Chiefs began their 2022 playoff run against the Jacksonville Jaguars, I decided to be miserable.
For some reason my brain was focused on the Chiefs’ Super Bowl LV loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the 2020 season. I rewatched the game, looked at some of the stats, and absorbed some of the podcasts and videos on this game. I guess I was trying to figure out why this game went so badly.
At one point, I looked at the Kansas City players who were on the roster for that game, comparing their status at that time to where they were two years later. What I found was amazing.
|WR||Demarcus Robinson||Saving Crows|
|LT||Mike Remmers||Saving jets|
|VS||Austin Reiter||Training team|
|GR||Stefan Wisniewski||Out of league|
|WR||Tyreek Hill||Dolphin entry|
|WR||Byron Pringle||saving the bears|
|RB||Clyde Edwards-Helaire||Backup (IR)|
Only three Super Bowl LV starters have finished the 2022 regular season in those same roles for Kansas City. Two others remain with the team as substitutes, while another is part of the practice squad.
|WR||Samy Watkins||Ravens practice squad|
|WR||Marcus Kemp||Training team|
|AND||Nick Keizer||Out of league|
|AND||Deon Yelder||Out of league|
|AND||Ricky Seals Jones||Out of league|
|J||Martinas Rankin||Out of league|
|J||Yasser Durant||Safeguarding the Saints|
|VS||Daniel Kilgore||Out of league|
|QC||Matt Moore||Out of league|
|Anthony Sherman||Out of league|
|RB||Darrel Williams||Backup in Arizona|
|RB||Le’Veon Bell||Out of league|
|RB||Darwin Thomson||Seahawks practice squad|
Only three of the attacking substitutes remain in the squad – two as substitutes and one as a practice player.
|OF||Tanoh Kpassagnon||Safeguarding the Saints|
|KG||Anthony Hitchens||Out of league|
|KG||Damien Wilson||Saving the Panthers|
|CC||Charvarius District||49ers starter|
|CC||Bashaud Breeland||Out of league|
|CC||The Jarius Sneed||Hall|
|S||Dan Sorensen||Safeguarding the Saints|
|S||Tyrant Matthew||Saints Entrance|
Four of the defensive starters have retained their jobs at Kansas City through 2022.
|OF||Alex Okafor||Out of league|
|OF||Neighborhood Tim||Packers Training Squad|
|DT||Tershawn Wharton||Backup (IR)|
|DT||mike pennel||saving the bears|
|KG||Ben Nieman||Departure Cardinals|
|KG||Dorian O’Daniel||Out of league|
|CC||Rashad Fenton||Saving Falcons|
|CC||Antonio Hamilton||Departure Cardinals|
|CC||Bo Pete Keyes||Out of league|
|S||Armani Watts||Out of league|
Five of the defensive backups still fill those roles in Kansas City – and another backup is now a starter.
Special teams starters
Special teams are the only phase where the main players remain the same
The list of chefs was nowhere near as good as you might remember. Sure…stars like Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyrann Mathieu, Chris Jones and Tyreek Hill drove the top of the list crazy. This quintet of stars — not even including Hall of Fame tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who was injured before Super Bowl LV — rivals any quintet the league has ever seen.
But the list depth was another story. Only two years later, more than half of the team’s starting players are now substitutes, if not completely out of the league. After their top five, Kansas City had one of the worst talent collections in the league. They simply lacked the depth to compete with the best teams in the league.
Over the course of several years, General Manager Brett Veach’s goals were simple: rejuvenate, become cheaper and deepen. The Chiefs had the luxury of having the best quarterback in the league earning under $7.5 million in his first five seasons. This allowed Kansas City to build the top end of its roster with expensive, top-notch talent.
But against the Buccaneers in this Super Bowl — and through the 2021 season — the team hit a wall. While the roster still had elite players at the top, the bottom of the roster was too weak for the players at the top to counter.
None of this is a criticism of the front office. The team’s strategy had led to a Super Bowl victory. But unfortunately, a team cannot live like this forever.
That’s why the Chiefs traded Hill. It had nothing to do with his talent – or even what it would have cost to retain him. He’s been phenomenal in 2022, revitalizing the Miami Dolphins offense with his unprecedented gravity and speed. His mere presence can make an attack effective – simply because of the way opposing teams have to adapt to him. The Chiefs could have justified paying Hill what he was worth.
But the team chose another path. He bet that Andy Reid and Mahomes could continue to make the offense successful without Hill, allowing the team to use the assets gained from the trade – Hill’s salary and draft picks the team received. in trade – to build the list along the margins. Flexibility, youth and depth would be emphasized.
This bet does not always work. Consider the Green Bay Packers. In 2022, the team made essentially the same bet, trading wide receiver Davante Adams for two premium picks from the Las Vegas Raiders. He used those picks on defensive players, thinking those picks would make the team’s defense elite. Like the Chiefs, they thought quarterback Aaron Rodgers could keep the offense going.
This bet, however, could not have gone worse. The defense didn’t make a jump — and the offense dropped considerably. Now there are reports that Rodgers could be traded. By trying to keep it open a bit longer, the Packers may have closed their Super Bowl window.
But for Veach and the Chiefs, the gamble paid off. This allowed the team to take three big steps.
1. Replace Hill’s production with free agency
Wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling were brought in to maintain a veteran presence. Skyy Moore was drafted in the second round. Kadarius Toney joined the team through a mid-season trade. While there hasn’t been a star of Hill’s caliber, those receivers — along with tight end Travis Kelce and running back Jerick McKinnon — have significantly increased Kansas City’s passing count (and touchdowns) during his 2021 season with Hill.
And on Sunday, the depth of the group was put to the test. Smith-Schuster, Toney and Mecole Hardman all left the AFC Championship Game with injuries. Valdes-Scantling — the only remaining veteran — showed his worth to the team by being the game’s leading receiver in a 23-20 win that not only featured Kelce, but also Cincinnati Bengals wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee. Higgins.
2. Replenish the roster with draft picks
Kansas City selected cornerback Trent McDuffie and defensive end George Karlaftis with their two first-round picks in April. Although McDuffie’s season has been limited by injury, the pick looks like an absolute home run. Karlaftis hit every goal a rookie defensive end could reasonably hope to score, finishing the season with six sacks. The two made games on Sunday as well. McDuffie nearly made an interception on the first drive and Karlaftis picked up a sack. Both look like showpieces for the duration of their rookie contracts.
But the Chiefs also did well with defensive choices in the later rounds. Safety Bryan Cook and cornerbacks Jaylen Watson and Joshua Williams have all played important snaps (and important roles) throughout the season. On Sunday, Watson had a terrific pass breakup late in the half and salvaged an interception, while Williams stepped in as injured cornerback L’Jarius Sneed and held on. He also landed a pick. Cook has played his two best games over the past two weeks.
On offense, running back Isiah Pacheco has been brilliant. His tenacity, physique and speed have all been great. On Sunday, Kansas City desperately needed a third option behind Kelce and Valdes-Scantling. Pacheco made huge plays on the flat that contributed to the most important victory of the season.
3. Pursue the development of the best young players
With so many rookies making contributions, it was easier to move on from existing players who weren’t contributing enough – and give bigger roles to other young acquisitions like Willie Gay Jr., Mike Danna, Creed Humphrey, Nick Bolton and Trey Smith. All played a crucial role in the team.
Looking back, Veach’s 2018 and 2019 drafts weren’t great. But over the past three years, he’s replenished many of the weaker areas on the roster with young talent, rebuilding the offensive line, linebacking corps and secondary almost entirely with youngsters. Veach also improved the depth of the defensive line – while giving Mahomes enough weaponry to thrive on offense.
The work is certainly not finished. Kansas City’s next hurdle will be figuring out how to pay all those young players. But in a conference where the Bengals, Los Angeles Chargers, Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos were all making offseason efforts to make them contenders in 2022, the bets of the Veach’s offseason led the Chiefs to their fifth straight conference title game — and now, their third Super Bowl in four seasons.