Kansas City Chiefs: Position needs in 2021 NFL Draft, free agency

Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs (Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs (Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports) /
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Kansas City Chiefs, 2021 NFL Draft
Former Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Mitchell Schwartz (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images) /

Offensive Line

Anyone who watched Super Bowl LV could tell you the number one deficiency that ultimately cost the Chiefs a repeat championship: the offensive line. While the Chiefs came into the 2020 season with a veteran cast of offensive tackles, both ends of the line were lost before the big game. Nine-year veteran right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was lost in Week 6 of the regular season while starting left tackle Eric Fisher tore his Achilles tendon during the AFC Championship game. The loss of these two anchors proved to be fatal for the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had no problem getting pressure on quarterback Patrick Mahomes, pressuring him on 29 dropbacks, a Super Bowl record. It must have been painful for Chiefs Kingdom to watch Mahomes scurrying in the backfield, slowly dropping further and further back as Buccaneers pass-rushers found little resistance to their attacks.

As the game went on and the Chiefs fell further and further behind, Mahomes was forced to spend more time running outside the pocket, each pressure building more desperation in the passer to make a play, any play downfield before defenders closed in. And while he fought valiantly till the very end, a combination of dropped passes and bad luck kept Mahomes from throwing a single touchdown in Super Bowl 55.

Now both Fischer and Schwartz are gone, having been cut by the organization last week in a shocking move that dismayed and confused many Chiefs fans. It’s one thing to let one of your rosters starting tackles go in the offseason, but both of them? Schwartz is turning 32-years old this season and Fisher is not much further behind, so it’s fair to wonder how much longer both tackles had left in the tank.

Injury history also likely played a role in their ouster: Fisher missed eight games in 2019 due to an injury while Schwartz missed all but six games in 2020. Both missed the Super Bowl this past February so moving on from the two makes sense from a long-term perspective. But losing two key-veterans this offseason sure doesn’t do them any favors in 2021.

The interior offensive line isn’t much better. Andrew Wylie, the versatile guard that was asked to fill in at right tackle during the Super Bowl, is a restricted free agent this offseason. Starting his career as an undrafted practice squad player, Wylie has worked hard to climb the ranks to make the starting roster. He’ll likely want a big contract in his future, either this offseason or in 2022 after years of being underpaid. Starting center Austin Reiter is a free agent as well, along with 2020 backup center Daniel Kilgore.

At the time of publication, the Chiefs only have one center under contract for 2021, an undrafted Mississippi State alumni named Darryl Williams. Needless to say, the Chiefs will need to make some serious acquisitions this offseason, either in the 2021 NFL Draft or free agency.

Obviously, the signing of Joe Thuney at the start of free agency helps the Kansas City Chiefs on the interior, but there is still plenty of work to do.

Free agency options

With multiple roster needs this offseason and a diminishing cap, the Chiefs will be limited in their options during free agency this offseason. While quality offensive linemen rarely see free agency, there are plenty of veteran options available on the market this offseason.

If looking to pick up a center in free agency, then former starting center Nick Martin from the Houston Texans isn’t a bad option. He was cut by the Texans back in February, who look to be in the middle of a rebuild this offseason. While not the most exciting option in free agency, it’s probable that the Chiefs could pick him up for a reasonable price after leaving Houston.

At 27-years old, he could potentially play several years still in the NFL. The biggest knock against Martin is his injury history since being drafted in 2016. And while the offensive line has been one of the biggest problems in Houston recently, it is hard to know whether to blame bad players or bad schemes from the previous coaching staff.

If the Chiefs coaching staff believes Martin could be a valuable asset, it makes sense to pick him up at a bargain in free agency. With the roster holes at both starting and backup positions on the offensive line, the Chiefs will have to bring in some cheaper options that aren’t gobbled up during free agency. With their cap situation, they can’t waste time on bidding wars for big-name-free agents. Otherwise, they will need to build the offensive line through the draft.

2021 NFL Draft options

With three draft picks in the top 100 of the 2021 NFL Draft, the Kansas City Chiefs have three good chances to bring in quality rookies with solid histories of success. If the Chiefs want to lock down a potential franchise-caliber guard in this year’s draft class, then going after former Georgia Bulldog Ben Cleveland is their best bet. While drafting an offensive guard early in the draft may not be the most exciting move for the Super Bowl-runner ups, it might be the most pragmatic move to help fill in a severely reduced offensive line unit.

Cleveland had a solid record of success with the Bulldogs, seeing the field for the last three seasons as a meaningful contributor while guarding against some of the best pass rushers the SEC has to offer. Although just a rotational guard in 2018 and 2019, he became the full-time starter in 2020 and he did not disappoint when taking over the starting role. Measuring in at 6-foot-6, 335-pounds at this year’s Senior Bowl, Cleveland will almost certainly become a Week 1 starter in the NFL.

His size and raw power would be enough to defend the interior run lanes and stand like a brick wall against pass-rushing defensive tackles in the NFL. With little to no bad weight on his frame and a rough and tumble mentality on the field, Cleveland would be a perfect pass protector for the Chiefs. Projected as a second-day selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Chiefs would likely find him still on the board with their second-round pick, locking down a pivotal position for the years to come.

Should the Cheifs decide to replace one of their tackles early in the draft, then they should take some time to evaluate Notre Dame left tackle Liam Eichenberg. At 6-foot-6, 300-pounds, Eichenberg has put up some quality performances for the Fighting Irish, considered by many to be one of the toughest tackles in all of college football.

This past November for example against Florida State, Eichenberg played with a swollen eye for a good percentage of the game after getting jabbed in the eye socket. When asked by his head coach about staying in or leaving the game, Liam responded with an “I feel great, I want to be out there”, according to 247 Sports. Notre Dame would end up finishing that game with a season-best 353-rushing yard. That’s just the kind of guy Eichenberg is. Injuries and challenges do not slow him down.

A solid contributor for the last three seasons, Eichenberg is as top-notch as they come. Playing in a pass-heavy offense, Eichenberg is able to hold outside pass-rushers at bay while showing solid fundamentals in his drop-back and footwork. At the same time, he is also an above-average run blocker, able to push defensive linemen upfield to the second level of the field and clear lanes for runners on the outside and interior.

In any other year, Eichenberg would likely be a mid-first rounder and thus out of reach for the Chiefs. However, the 2021 NFL Draft has one of the most stacked offensive tackle groups in almost a decade, allowing someone of Eichenberg’s talents to easily fall to the Chiefs with either their first or second-round pick.

It is always tempting for NFL front offices to draft big-time playmakers in the early rounds, embellishing the abilities of a receiver, cornerback or halfback, while exaggerating the potential they can bring to a roster. Their college highlight reels (with little context) played on repeat for fans and media, starving for explosive, game-changing players, presuming that this success can be reduplicated in the NFL. A

short-term balm for fan anxiety (and lagging jersey sales) to be sure, but inconsistent at bringing immediate solutions for a roster. It takes patience and leadership in the front office to take the long-view and defer on big-name acquisitions so as to build the solid foundations a team needs to succeed.

Drafting interior offensive lineman and tackles early in the draft may not be the most exciting moves the Chiefs could make this year. Especially for a fan base accustomed to success and elite production from their team. But with the loss of key free agents this offseason, combined with the reduced cap in 2021, the Chiefs need to prioritize building the offensive trenches and protecting their franchise quarterback.

Recent history has shown what happens to quarterbacks who aren’t adequately protected upfront: They either demand trades, endure brutal, unfulfilling careers or exit the league without reaching their full potential. The 2021 offseason will be fundamental to shaping the career path of Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs as a whole. Getting more protection for the best quarterback in the NFL is never a bad decision.