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How the Kansas City Chiefs were built — and what the Giants can learn

It was a long road for KC to becoming a perennial Super Bowl contender. What parts of the model can the Giants follow?

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at New York Giants
Giants wide receiver Roger Lewis catches a pass to set up the winning field goal in overtime of the Giants 12-9 upset victory over the Chiefs in 2017.
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

As satisfying as the 2022 season was for New York Giants fans, it’s bittersweet watching two other teams get to the Super Bowl. The Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles each have a fairly recent Super Bowl victory and are often contenders. It may seem that there is a wide gulf between these teams and the upstart, modestly talented Giants. But neither the Chiefs nor the Eagles were always this good. Let’s look at how the two conference champions were built and see if there are any parallels or lessons for the Giants. Today we’ll examine the Chiefs’ rise from the ashes to what they are today.

Get the right GM and then the right head coach? Not always

Kansas City was a flagship AFL franchise with a proud tradition, having played in the first Super Bowl and being only the second AFL team to win one. But by 1998, Marty Schottenheimer’s last year as head coach, they had lost their way. Over the 15 years from 1998-2012 the Chiefs cycled through six head coaches. They made the playoffs only three times, never getting past the Divisional Round. They had losing records in nine years, with two 2-14 and two 4-12 seasons. Not quite as bad as the Giants, who have had five head coaches in eight years, but pretty bad.

Finally in 2013, Chiefs’ owner Clark Hunt made the move that completely changed the team’s fortune, hiring Andy Reid as head coach. In Reid’s 10 years at the helm, Kansas City has had a winning record every year, been to the playoffs nine times, played in five AFC Championship Games, made the Super Bowl three times, and won it once (with No. 2 a possibility on Sunday).

Reid had been fired days earlier as head coach of the Eagles, and Kansas City jumped. Great move by Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli, right? Well, not quite. Here are two tweets from Jan. 4, 2013, the second about two hours after the first:

About a week later the Chiefs announced the hiring of John Dorsey, Green Bay Packers’ director of football operations, as GM. Reid had been an assistant coach at Green Bay during Dorsey’s tenure. Technically Dorsey was said to have the final say on the roster, but Reid and Dorsey reported directly to owner Clark Hunt.

A well-known GM is relieved of his duties after four unsuccessful years and a new GM and head coach who worked together previously are hired. Sounds a lot like the Giants except that in KC’s case, the head coach seems to have effectively hired the GM rather than vice-versa. Dorsey himself only lasted four years as GM before being replaced by current GM Brett Veach. Giants fans hope that the Joe Schoen - Brian Daboll partnership will last longer.

Find your quarterback

Reid inherited quarterback Matt Cassel, who had started for four years for KC and had one good season to show for it. KC had the No. 1 pick in the draft but it was a lean year for QBs, with E.J. Manuel, Geno Smith, and Mike Glennon the first three off the board. So rather than sticking with Cassel to see how he’d do in Reid’s offense,, Dorsey traded two second-round draft picks to the 49ers for Alex Smith, who had been supplanted as starter by Colin Kaepernick. Schoen and Daboll made a different decision in a year also without great QB prospects in the draft, giving Daniel Jones a “tryout” season in which he performed very well in Daboll’s and Mike Kafka’s offense.

Smith was a very good NFL quarterback. He almost got the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2011, had it not been for a heroic performance by Eli Manning and the Giants. Smith was very good for the Chiefs, too. He made three Pro Bowls and got the Chiefs to the playoffs four times in his five seasons there. But he won only one playoff game.

The NFL Quarterback Cards app lets us ask: What QBs are most similar to a given QB for a given season? For Alex Smith in 2015, when he had 3,486 passing yards, 20 TDs, 7 INTs, 498 rushing yards, a passer rating of 95.1, a QBR of 61.1, and led the Chiefs to a Wild Card playoff win before losing in the Divisional Round, the seventh-best match is this guy:

Data from NFL Quarterback Cards

Jones in 2022 had 3,205 passing yards, 15 TDs, 5 INTs, 708 rushing yards, a passer rating of 92.5, and a QBR of 60.8, and of course he led the Giants to a Wild Card playoff win before losing in the Divisional Round.

By 2017 Reid decided he had to make a move. The Chiefs traded up in the draft from No. 27 to No. 10 to grab Patrick Mahomes, who had wrested the starting QB job from Davis Webb at Texas Tech and and gone on to a successful college career. Even then, there was a report that Kansas City had been interested in Mitch Trubisky too. Imagine if things had worked out that way. At the time it was considered a tossup whether Mahomes, Trubisky, or Deshaun Watson would be taken first. It was thought that in the wrong offense, Mahomes might have problems in the NFL. Apparently Andy Reid had the right offense. Sometimes luck plays a role.

NFL: New York Giants at Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes in action against the Giants in 2021
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Mahomes sat out the 2017 season learning Reid’s offense, but the writing was on the wall for Smith. Kansas City started 5-0 but had dropped to 6-3 before coming to MetLife to play a 1-8 Giants team whose second season under Ben McAdoo was a disaster. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Roger Lewis made a spectacular catch of a Manning pass in overtime and a subsequent field goal won it for the Giants 12-9. The Chiefs made the playoffs anyway at 10-6 but blew a 21-3 halftime lead at home to Tennessee and lost the Wild Card game, 22-21. Smith was traded to Washington in 2018, Mahomes became the starter, and the rest is history. But it took two tries for Andy Reid to get QB right for KC.

A scenario similar to this is not out of the question for the Giants. Is Daniel Jones another Alex Smith? Imagine that the Giants franchise tag Jones, get him a top-flight receiver or two, and fortify the offensive line, and they find that Jones’ and the Giants’ ceiling is as a playoff team that still can’t get past the Divisional Round. Schoen then follows the KC playbook and trades up in the 2024 draft to grab someone like Caleb Williams. It wouldn’t be the first time Schoen has seen that strategy in action - he was “in the room where it happened” in 2018 when his boss, Brandon Beane, traded up (twice) to draft Josh Allen.

A strange path to building an offensive juggernaut

Pro Football Reference lists 59 players (including IR) for the 2022 Kansas City Chiefs. Of those, 29 are Chiefs’ draft picks, 18 were drafted by other teams, and 12 were undrafted free agents. For the Giants by comparison, 75 players are listed, of which 31 were Giants’ draft choices, 24 were other teams’ draft choices, and 20 are undrafted free agents. The differences reflect the churning of the roster that Schoen did in his first season trying to improve depth and fill holes.

New York Giants v Kansas City Chiefs
Four Giants finally corral Travis Kelce in the Giants’ 2021 game against the Chiefs
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Reid is now viewed as an offensive genius, but Kansas City’s drafts on offense under Reid have not been remarkable overall. Rather, the Chiefs have gotten a couple of very big hits outside Round 1 and a number of other capable but not game-turning offensive players through their drafts. The biggest, other than Mahomes, was drafting tight end Travis Kelce in Round 3 in 2013 (after they had taken offensive tackle Eric Fisher, who started for them for eight seasons, with the No. 1 pick). In 2021, C Creed Humphrey, who has become one of the best in the NFL, was there late in Round 2 (No. 63) and was snatched up by Kansas City.

Kansas City has also drafted top-notch players who sink in the draft for reasons not related to football talent: Now-Dolphin wide receiver Tyreek Hill, a sure first-rounder, who dropped to them in the 2016 draft due to a domestic abuse conviction, and guard Trey Smith, considered a Round 3 talent, who dropped to Round 6 because of episodes of blood clots in his lungs and was taken there by the Chiefs.

Otherwise, the offensive talent on the current team acquired through the draft has been modest: WR Mecole Hardman (Round 2, 2019), RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (Round 1, 2020), TE Noah Gray (No. 162, 2021), WR Cornell Powell (No. 181, 2021), and Skyy Moore (No. 54, 2022), none of whom have become top-tier players. The Chiefs did get good value in Round 7 in 2022 with speedy RB Isiah Pacheco, their leading rusher this year.

Two notable members of the offense have come in trades: Starting LT Orlando Brown Jr., and of course WR Kadarius Toney. Brown and Toney are both conundrums. Overall, Brown is an above-average player, but he is very poor against speed rushers. Toney is of course one of the most physically gifted players in the NFL, but he is often not on the field.

Mostly though, the Chiefs have tried to fill their holes on offense with free agents. They signed WRs JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Justin Watson this season. On the offensive side, their big acquisition last year was guard Joe Thuney, and their remaining starting offensive lineman, RT Andrew Wylie, was an undrafted free agent in 2018.

Just good enough on defense

NFL: New York Giants at Kansas City Chiefs
Daniel Jones being strip-sacked by Frank Clark in the GIants’ 2021 game in Kansas City
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike the Chiefs’ offense, which led the NFL in points and yards in 2022, Kansas City’s defense was middle of the pack this season. That’s good enough to get you to the Super Bowl when your offense is the best around.

The Chiefs’ defense was built largely through the draft over many years. It has weaknesses that can be exploited, but also some great players who can wreck games, mainly on the defensive line. (Not surprising for a Steve Spagnuolo defense.) Exhibit A is defensive tackle Chris Jones, taken at No. 37 in Round 2 of the 2016 draft, who had 15 sacks and 77 total pressures this season. Edge defender Frank Clark (6 sacks), the only major trade acquisition (from Seattle) on defense, provides edge pressure along with 2022 first-round pick George Karlaftis (7 sacks). Derrick Nnadi looked like another IDL stud after he was drafted in Round 3 in 2018, but his play has dropped off since then. Carlos Dunlap (5 sacks), released by Seattle last spring, was signed by Kansas City and provides rotational edge pass rush support, as does Michael Danna (5 sacks), a Round 5 pick in 2020. Meanwhile IDL Khalen Saunders (No. 84, Round 3) added 3 sacks. The Chiefs were second to Philadelphia this season with 55 total sacks.

The Chiefs have systematically solidified their linebacker corps by drafting Willie Gay at No. 63 in Round 2 in 2020 and following up with Nick Bolton at No. 58 in 2021 and Leo Chenal at No. 103 in Round 3. They also picked up free agent Darius Harris in 2019. All four have played well, especially Bolton, who is becoming one of the better LBs in the NFL. Bolton and Gay excel in pass coverage, and Bolton is also a top run defender.

The secondary is where the Chiefs can be beaten, but only sometimes. They have two very good defensive backs in cornerback L’Jarius Sneed (drafted No. 138, Round 4 in 2020) and safety Justin Reid (signed as an unrestricted free agent this year to replace Tyrann Mathieu). Juan Thornhill (No. 63, Round 2, 2019) is solid as the strong safety. Cornerback Trent McDuffie, the No. 21 pick in the 2022 draft, has played well at nickel corner. At the other corner the Chiefs start Jaylen Watson, a seventh round 2022 draftee. He hasn’t been terrible, but look for the Eagles to pick on him next Sunday.

Where the Chiefs spend their money

Data from Over The Cap

The Chiefs are one of the more top-heavy teams in the NFL. They have seven players with contracts having annual average values greater than $10M and then a steep drop-off after that, with no else exceeding $5M. A lot of that is due to the $450M 10-year contract that Patrick Mahomes signed in 2020.

The Giants by comparison have only three contracts with average values in excess of $10M. After they release Kenny Golladay it will only be two (Leonard Williams, Adoree’ Jackson). Thus, if Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley sign second contracts this off-season, the Giants will still have a more reasonable salary structure than the Chiefs, even if Dexter Lawrence and Andrew Thomas also get big contracts sometime next year.

Kansas City will start to feel the pinch in 2023. Here are Patrick Mahomes’ cap hits by year:

Data from Over The Cap

Mahomes occupied 17 percent of the Chiefs’ cap in 2022. Here are the top 10 QB cap hits of Super Bowl QBs ever, from Spotrac:

Data from Spotrac

(This chart was compiled before the most recent Super Bowl. Matthew Stafford would now be eighth on this list at 10.96 percent cap hit.) The three highest on the list all lost the big game. Tom Brady’s 12.61 percent in 2021 remains the largest cap hit of a QB ever to win the Super Bowl. If the Chiefs win on Sunday, Mahomes’ 17.0 percent will shatter the record.

Mahomes’ cap hit gets even worse the next couple of years, and most of that money is guaranteed. None of it is guaranteed after 2024, which gives the Chiefs an out. But would Kansas City actually move on from a QB who led them to the Super Bowl three times in his first five seasons? Will he be willing to re-negotiate to keep a good thing going? Or will the Chiefs do with their other stars what they did with Hill - trade them for big draft assets and try to re-tool? None of Travis Kelce’s, Chris Jones’, or Frank Clark’s salaries are guaranteed at all in 2023. Joe Thuney’s is guaranteed for 2023 but not 2024. Orlando Brown Jr. is a free agent again in 2023 and the Chiefs may move on from him.

The Chiefs are clearly in win-now mode and have given themselves outs for the future as they prepare to navigate the minefield of Mahomes’ contract. The Chiefs are effectively $851K over the cap after signing their anticipated draft class, and only 35 players are under contract for 2023. Something has to give soon. It will be fascinating to see the extent to which they will be willing to tear things down while trying to stay competitive over the next two years.

Lessons for the Giants?

  • Find another Patrick Mahomes. OK, that’s impossible. Mahomes is a unique quarterback, possibly the best the NFL has ever seen. Here is how his cumulative NFL Elo rating (an attempt to measure value relative to the average QB for a given era) has progressed through the first five years of his career compared to a few other notable QBs:
Data from NFL Elo App

Get rid of Hill, possibly the best WR in the NFL, and replace him with a bunch of average receivers? No problem. Mahomes went from 4,839 passing yards, 37 TDs, and 13 INTs in 2021, to 5,250 passing yards, 41 TDs, and 12 INTs in 2022. Incredible. Pro Football Reference has a Hall of Fame Monitor that tries to predict which players will most likely make the HOF based on things like All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections, championships, years as a starter, approximate value, and various standard statistics. After five seasons as a starter Mahomes’ HOF Monitor is already higher than three QBs who are in the HOF (Len Dawson, Troy Aikman, Jim Kelly). One more typical season and he’ll pass Warren Moon, Bob Griese, Sonny Jurgensen, Ken Stabler, and Joe Namath and be about equal to Eli Manning’s number. The realistic lesson for the Giants is that even if Daniel Jones returns and becomes a consistent playoff-caliber quarterback, if he can’t take the next step once the weapons are in place (KC got knocked out in their first playoff game in 2016 and 2017 despite Alex Smith having Kelce and Hill to throw to), it will be time to make a move in the draft for a QB, even if he has to sit for a year as Mahomes did in 2017.

  • The one constant for Mahomes has been Kelce, a future HOFer himself (he’s sixth all-time on the HOF Monitor list for tight ends), who somehow always manages to be wide open despite not being fast because he reads defenses so well. If there is any useful lesson for the Giants here, it’s that a football-smart receiving option who knows how to find the seams in defenses can be as valuable as a guy with elite physical tools.
  • Build through the draft, but don’t obsess over the first round. Since Reid’s arrival, Kansas City has not had a first-round pick four times. And because they are almost always in the playoffs, they usually draft near the bottom of Round 1. It hasn’t seemed to hurt them. Yes, they’ve hit big-time on a couple of Day 1 picks that are on the current team (Mahomes, Chris Jones) and a couple of others look promising (Trent McDuffie and George Karlaftis from the 2022 draft). But much of their big talent came from the later rounds: Nick Bolton, Creed Humphrey, and Juan Thornhill (Round 2), Travis Kelce and Leo Chenal (Round 3), L’Jarius Sneed (Round 4), Trey Smith (Round 6), and Isiah Pacheco (Round 7).
  • Build the “front seven” (an outdated term especially if Wink Martindale is still defensive coordinator next season, but you know what I mean) continuously. The Chiefs have drafted at least one defensive lineman (interior or edge) every year since 2015 and once as many as three in one year. Plus, they traded for Frank Clark. They bring the heat better than anyone other than the Eagles. Not every one of their DLs has hit, but the overall result is a deep stable of pass rushers. It’s a tall order against Philly’s OL, but if the Chiefs are going to have a chance to win on Sunday, their pass rush has to get home. The Giants have actually paid pretty good attention to the DL during the Gettleman and Schoen eras, yet injuries limited the effectiveness of that group this year, so the Giants should try to find another DL in the 2023 draft even though it doesn’t seem like a position of great need.
  • On the off-ball LB side of the front seven, Kansas City drafted one on Day 2 in three consecutive years: Gay (2020), Bolton (2021), and Chenal (2022). The Giants by comparison have not drafted an off-ball LB in the first three rounds since - wait for it - Gerris Wilkinson in 2006. It shows. The Chiefs were eighth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed (1,793, with 10 TDs) in 2022, while the Giants were 27th (2,451, with 16 TDs). Setting the edge on rushes by Jalen Hurts will be a big key to Sunday’s game, and we saw how often both running QBs and RBs feasted on the outside against the Giants LBs. That has to stop. Maybe Darrian Beavers will be an answer when he returns in 2023. Maybe Micah McFadden will improve. It’s too risky to assume that either will happen.
  • Kansas City takes chances on players with red flags that cause other teams to pass on them. It paid off with Hill, though I don’t think that’s a precedent the Giants should follow. It has paid off so far with Smith, and I do think that’s a precedent the Giants should follow - in the late rounds where there is little to lose. The Chiefs are trying again, having given up picks for Toney; time will tell how that works out. Schoen appears to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from KC in that regard, stating before the 2022 draft that there were many players not even on the Giants’ board because of various red flags that had been raised. Character issues are one thing; medical issues are something else. With five picks in Rounds 6 and 7 this year, an otherwise promising player who drops because of medical issues might be worth taking a chance on.