Is this the dawn of the NFL’s next great dynasty? That question, in one form or another, gets thrown around after nearly every Super Bowl, particularly when the new champs are led by a young, ascending quarterback. (And especially when the champs aren’t the Patriots.) We heard it when a then-27-year-old Aaron Rodgers led the Packers to a Super Bowl XLV win; when a 25-year-old Russell Wilson led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl XLVIII victory; and even when Nick Foles filled in for a then-25-year-old Carson Wentz and the Eagles won Super Bowl LII. And we’re hearing it again now about the Patrick Mahomes–led Chiefs.
The fact that none of Rodgers, Wilson, or Foles/Wentz has led his team to another Super Bowl win in the years since, though, illustrates just how rare true dynasties are in the NFL. It also serves as a reminder that the Super Bowl hangover is real, whether that’s because the league is set up to manufacture parity (through the salary cap, reverse draft order, and schedule-making) or, as Chiefs head coach Andy Reid noted this week, that reigning champs tend to get “everybody’s best game” the year after. Kansas City’s path back to the big game is littered with pitfalls.
But despite all the challenges the Chiefs may face, the team’s championship window is wide, wide open. Kansas City has a quarterback–head coach marriage made in football heaven in Andy Reid and Mahomes―the former a future Hall of Famer and the latter the league’s most dangerous passer. Add in the team’s strong overall roster, stability in both the front office and coaching staff (the Chiefs return both coordinators and longtime special teams coach Dave Toub), and one of the strongest home-field advantages in the NFL, and Kansas City has as solid a foundation for sustained success as any team in the league. Already the Super Bowl favorites for next season, the Chiefs look like a team that’s just getting started.
Kansas City’s identity is centered squarely on its high-octane offense. Under Reid and Mahomes, the Chiefs have been the NFL’s version of the Warriors, relentlessly attacking deep to overwhelm opponents. With Mahomes behind center, the Chiefs put points on the board in bunches (they posted a league-best 35.3 points per game in 2018 and finished fifth this season with 28.2 points per game, despite losing Mahomes for two games) and are seemingly never out of any game―just look at the Super Bowl or, say, their 28-point second-quarter explosion in the divisional-round win over the Texans. The third-year quarterback proved once again this season that he’s one of the most efficient passers in the NFL both under pressure and from a clean pocket, that he’s one of the most dangerous deep-ball throwers (he led the NFL in deep-pass touchdowns with 13 in 2019 after tying for the league lead in that category in 2018 with 15), and that few, if any, quarterbacks possess a stronger arm or more out-of-structure playmaking talent. It’s almost unfair, then, that Reid schemed guys open downfield at the second-best rate in football.
Past the symbiotic perfection of that relationship, though, it doesn’t hurt that Kansas City has the foundation for a strong offensive line, with four out of five starters set to return in 2020 (only left guard Andrew Wylie is scheduled to hit the open market). That group, anchored by All-Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, finished 2019 ranked fourth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate (4.9 percent). The team boasts unmatched speed on offense, too: With receivers Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, and Sammy Watkins alongside a dynamic mismatch creator in Travis Kelce, the Chiefs can deploy their arsenal of field-tilting speedsters in a near-infinite combination of ways. And crucially, Hill, Hardman, and Kelce are all under contract long term.
Hill’s deal runs through the 2022 season (carrying cap hits of $17.7 million, $15.7 million, and $20.5 million over the next three years, respectively) and Kelce is under contract through 2021 (with reasonable cap hits of $11.2 million and $8.75 million). Hardman’s coming off a promising rookie campaign and should provide plenty of playmaking value over the next three seasons on his rookie deal. As for Watkins, his deal runs through the 2020 season, but Kansas City is unlikely to retain the 26-year-old pass catcher on his current deal (which comes with a $21 million cap hit next season). Watkins has already indicated he’s willing to renegotiate to stay with the champions, and whether he stays or goes, his release or restructure could free up $10 million or more in cap space in 2020. The team can use that money to add more weapons or bank for the inevitable record-setting deal they’ll give to Mahomes sometime over the next year or two.
That deal, which is expected to surge well past $40 million per year, will mean that, almost by default, Kansas City will be investing far more heavily in its offense than its defense. But history suggests that’s the smartest way to build for sustained success. Offensive performance is far more stable over time than defensive performance (offensive DVOA is about twice as good at forecasting future performance as defensive DVOA) and the Chiefs have (or will have, assuming they get a Mahomes deal done) the key pieces to field a strong, explosive offense in place for the foreseeable future.
With so much money sunk into the team’s offensive bedrock positions, though, general manager Brett Veach will have to make some key strategic free agent decisions and draft well over the next few seasons to find new starters and continue to fill out the depth chart on the defensive side of the ball. Even if the Chiefs field a bad defense, Reid and Mahomes are equipped to keep Kansas City competitive―we saw that in 2018, when the Chiefs were an offsides penalty away from a Super Bowl berth―but that doesn’t they can just ignore defense completely.
Keeping Kansas City’s underrated defensive unit from regressing in 2020 starts with the decision on whether or not to pursue free agent defensive lineman Chris Jones. Jones―who was arguably the Super Bowl’s MVP thanks to a dominant fourth-quarter performance―won’t come cheap. He is unlikely to take much of a hometown discount and after holding out prior to this season, could do the same if franchise-tagged by the team. With just $16.2 million in projected salary cap space in 2020 (not to mention the looming specter of Mahomes’s massive deal), the Chiefs will have to get creative in structuring a potential deal.
If Jones leaves, that’d make safety Tyrann Mathieu and edge rusher Frank Clark the team’s two foundational players on defense. Mathieu, who is under contract through 2021, has been the straw that stirs the drink for the team’s back seven, a versatile and mostly positionless playmaker who can line up at safety, linebacker, nickelback, or even cornerback to give opposing offenses fits. Clark, meanwhile, didn’t exactly play up to the five-year, $104 million contract he signed prior to the season, finishing the year tied for just 39th among edge players in pressures (46) and tied for 33rd in sacks (8.0) in 14 regular-season games. However, Clark did come on strong in the postseason, finishing with 17 pressures (second only to Nick Bosa among postseason players) and 5.0 sacks (most)―three of which were of the game-sealing variety. That bodes well for his trajectory with the Chiefs, and as we saw late in the season and during the postseason, when both Clark and Mathieu were on, Kansas City’s defense was far more dynamic than it’s typically given credit for.
The Chiefs must use some of their cap space and their allotment of draft picks (they have one pick in each of the first five rounds) to address a few key defensive needs (by picking one of the players on my top-32 NFL draft big board, for instance), including cornerback (Kendall Fuller and Bashaud Breeland are both free agents), linebacker, and defensive line. But the team could get a boost from 2018 second-round edge rusher Breeland Speaks (who missed the season with a knee injury) and 2019 second-round safety Juan Thornhill, who showed promise as a rookie with three picks and five passes defensed before tearing his ACL in Week 17.
It’s impossible to know now whether the Chiefs will overcome all the league’s parity pitfalls and injury attrition to become the NFL’s next great dynasty, or if, like so many promising dynastic contenders before them, they’ll struggle to make it back to the Super Bowl. But with Mahomes’s arm, Reid’s scheme, the team’s unfair pass-catching speed, and a mismatch-creating tight end in Kelce to rely on, no team has a higher long-term ceiling.