When the Chiefs announced Thursday that the franchise was parting ways with general manager John Dorsey, the football world’s response was a collective head tilt. Even with only 32 teams, the NFL features plenty of GMs who struggle to stay afloat. Dorsey hadn’t been one of them.
Since Dorsey arrived in Kansas City with head coach Andy Reid in 2013, the Chiefs have been among the most consistent teams in football. They’ve won at least 11 games in three of the past four seasons, a feat matched by only the Patriots and Broncos over the same span. It’s been less than six months since Kansas City hosted a divisional-round playoff game after going 12–4.
Reid — and his ability to conjure a constantly competent offense — deserves a major chunk of the credit for that success, and he was given as much Thursday when the team handed him a contract extension. But it’s not as if Dorsey’s front office hadn’t held up its end of the bargain and then some.
Each of Dorsey’s first four drafts netted the Chiefs at least two key pieces, including several flourishing young players who’ve already been signed to extensions. Tight end Travis Kelce (2013), left tackle Eric Fisher (2013), pass rusher Dee Ford (2014), guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (2014), and cornerback Marcus Peters (2015) are all products of the Dorsey-Reid era in Kansas City. That haul measures up to any in the league over that period, even before considering what 2016 draftees Chris Jones and Tyreek Hill contributed on the field as rookies.
To an outsider, it appeared as if the Chiefs had one of the league’s healthiest head-coach-and-front-office pairings, but The Kansas City Star’s Terez Paylor outlined the concerns some in the organization had about a lack of structure and communication in the front office. Dorsey is a "dyed-in-the-wool scout," as The MMQB’s Andrew Brandt described him to Paylor, and while having that type of GM can lead to the effective acquisition of talent, it doesn’t always facilitate a culture that’s palatable to employees. One source told Paylor that Dorsey’s management style "could wear on people."
Whether this shake-up is Reid making a power play for more control or some other possible factor, it’s clear that a team that until last week had seemed like one of the league’s most stable is now left searching for direction. In the past six months, the defending AFC West champions have lost their two top personnel men (Dorsey and Chris Ballard, who was named the Colts GM in January) and traded a package headlined by a future first-round pick to move up and select Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who isn’t expected to see regular playing time in 2017. Whoever replaces Dorsey will face a growing list of questions about where the Chiefs go from here — and in the wake of Kansas City’s success, a limited window to find answers.
The Chiefs brass reportedly believed that Dorsey’s scouting background left the organization at a disadvantage with salary cap management. While the league’s growing cap has left most clubs flush with cash, Kansas City has been mired in the cap muck for years. It has about $11.4 million in 2017 space, according to Over the Cap, and that’s after releasing Jeremy Maclin earlier this month and saving about $10 million against its total.
Some of the Chiefs’ cap issues stem from having a roster full of proven veterans on nonrookie contracts, which is a welcome problem in some respects. Unlike the knocks on many GMs who dole out big deals, the criticisms levied against Dorsey had less to do with the players he signed and more to do with how and when he signed them. Rather than give Eric Berry a long-term extension following his remarkable comeback season in 2015 after he’d recovered from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, for example, Dorsey and the Chiefs slapped the franchise tag on him. Playing on the $10.8 million tag in 2016, Berry leveraged another excellent campaign into a six-year, $78 million deal with $40 million guaranteed, making him the highest-paid safety in football.
As the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft (the year before the rookie salary was put in place), Berry’s first deal was considerably more expensive than that of any top pick taken under the current CBA. And putting the tag on Berry in 2016 meant that the Chiefs’ only recourse to keeping him in 2017 without offering a long-term contract was tagging him again, this time at a cost of nearly $13 million. That happens to be the exact salary average that Berry will get over the life of his second deal, with $42.5 million coming in the first three years alone.
Paying a premium for a star isn’t the worst cap crime a franchise can commit; in the Chiefs’ case, though, every dollar counts. In 2018, Kansas City is poised to have 11 players making at least $7 million and six bringing home eight-figure salaries. And that doesn’t take into account a potential new deal for Ford, who will be entering the final year of his rookie deal. One of the "problems" Kansas City has with its cap is the number of high-caliber starters on its roster: Berry, Kelce, pass rusher Justin Houston, linebacker Derrick Johnson, and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz are just some of the top-tier guys making top-tier money. Compare that to the cap situation for the Seahawks — who have an ever-better collection of talent but regularly locked up stars to team-friendly deals — and the difference is stark.
The primary goal of Dorsey’s successor (along with trying to continue Dorsey’s stretch of scouting magic) will be to untangle this financial web, and to keep K.C. in the Super Bowl mix while deftly managing the cap. That prospect becomes more complicated after the trade of a 2017 third-round pick and a 2018 first-rounder to move up 17 spots in this spring’s draft to grab Mahomes. Given the amount of money that the Chiefs have tied up in second- and third-contract players, this team looks built to win now. Using a first-round pick on a rocket-armed quarterback of the future is far from a win-now move.
An offense led by Alex Smith undoubtedly has a defined ceiling, but that ceiling was enough to get Kansas City to the second round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. With Dorsey out, a new GM will inherit the daunting task of being expected to contend and retool at the same time.
It’s possible that some of the confusion regarding Kansas City’s personnel and front-office choices can be traced to a misreading of how good the team can be in 2017. Defensive stalwarts Tamba Hali and Johnson will be 34 and 35, respectively, by the end of the season. Knee problems forced Hali into a reduced role last year, while the torn Achilles injury that ended Johnson’s 2016 season has cast doubt on what type of shape he’ll be in for Week 1 this fall. The price tag for Mahomes means the clock on Smith’s time as the team’s starter is already ticking, and the financial implications of moving on from the 33-year-old after this season would be enormous. The Chiefs would save $17 million against their 2018 cap by releasing Smith by the third day of the next league year. Cutting Hali and Johnson would bring another $15 million in room with less than $4 million in dead money.
By trading up for Mahomes and positioning the franchise for the future, K.C. may have shed light on how those still in power see the next 12 months unfolding. If a small reset and a veteran purge is on the horizon, the Chiefs as we know them may be no more in 2018, making the timeline for Mahomes to step in alongside a young core of Kelce, Berry, and Peters easier to comprehend.
Anyone in the running to replace Dorsey will have to consider the job’s knottier elements, including the power dynamics with Reid, who is known to have plenty of sway when it comes to roster decisions. That GM’s future will also be inextricably linked to the play of a franchise quarterback chosen by a previous regime. Still, with all the under-30 stars the Chiefs have, there are worse places for a front-office type to wind up. Kansas City codirector of player personnel Brett Veach has been mentioned as the top in-house candidate for the gig, and a host of outside options has emerged.
Dorsey may have had his shortcomings overseeing the workings of an entire building, but he was a known commodity with a proven eye for evaluating talent. For the Chiefs, the worry now is that whatever structure arises in his stead won’t be able to match his legacy of success. Rather than reconfigure the management process and come to a consensus on how to create cap space, K.C. will start over without Dorsey, Ballard, and a 2018 first-round pick. The Chiefs have more than enough firepower to survive the transition ahead, but for a team that harbored annual title aspirations during Dorsey’s tenure, survival was never the goal.