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The Chiefs Are Entering Their Second Era Under Patrick Mahomes

In trading Tyreek Hill, Kansas City is making its first radical change to its offense since Mahomes became the team’s starter four years ago

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I’m going to write this as quickly as I can, in case another trade drops while I’m typing: Perhaps the most surprising trade of the surprising-trade-riddled NFL offseason dropped yesterday. The Kansas City Chiefs sent star receiver Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins for a package of five draft picks.

This came out of nowhere. As of Wednesday morning, the Chiefs still hadn’t agreed to an extension with Hill—but he was under contract for 2022 anyway. No one had a breakup on their radar.

By Wednesday at noon, NFL insiders reported that Hill was potentially on the block. Fifteen minutes later, the Dolphins and Jets were the primary contenders in his market. Another 15 minutes, and Hill was a Dolphin.

Following the Rams’ Super Bowl win with a stars-and-scrubs roster, and the subsequent loading of star players in the AFC (Deshaun Watson to the Browns, Matt Ryan to the Colts, Von Miller to the Bills) and particularly in the AFC West (Khalil Mack to the Chargers, Russell Wilson to the Broncos, Davante Adams to the Raiders) it was jarring to see an AFC West contender surrender a star player. But that’s exactly what the Chiefs did, as they couldn’t make the money work for Hill, and granted him permission to seek a trade. Suddenly, in an offseason in which AFC teams are building to win, the Chiefs are building for the future. No team has more picks in the 2022 draft; only five teams have more 2022 cap space.

In losing Hill, the Chiefs are betting on a lot of things. They’re betting that Patrick Mahomes inherently makes the passing game easier—the free-agent acquisition of JuJu Smith-Schuster serves that point, as JuJu’s promising early-career projection hit a speed bump called Ben Roethlisberger. They’re betting that Andy Reid can always make a passing game work, regardless of the changing weapons available to him. They’re betting that Hill’s prime won’t extend across the length of a four-year extension. They’re betting that the remaining wide receiver free-agent market, as well as the projected early draft picks, will give them another usable weapon or two before Week 1 kicks off.

The thing about all of those bets? They’re solid bets. Having to make all of them at once is tricky, but each individual one holds up fairly well. While we’ve never seen Mahomes enter a season without Hill, we can safely say that Mahomes is a great quarterback. Reid is a bit easier to figure out: He’s been a head coach for 23 seasons between the Eagles and the Chiefs, and his passing offense has been below average in DVOA only four times. Hill is 28 years old, so while he likely has a few more good seasons left, he’s a quick-twitch player who has dealt with hamstring injuries during his career. The cliff will come for Hill eventually, and the dropoff will be steep.

And the remaining wide receiver options? Who wouldn’t want to come play with Mahomes and Reid in Kansas City? Marquez Valdes-Scantling has already been rumored as a Hill replacement for his deep ball ability. Veteran players like Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones, Will Fuller, T.Y. Hilton, and A.J. Green all have remaining utility. Sammy Watkins and Albert Wilson reunions are possible. The sheer volume of available receivers ensures that the Chiefs can at least stock their pantry, after the departures of Hill and Byron Pringle, who signed with the Bears in free agency.

But far more exciting is the trade market. As disgruntled star players demand trades, like Beckham did last year, Mahomes’s reputation and the vacuum of targets left by Hill’s departure make Kansas City a perfect landing spot. The public didn’t know that Hill was on the trade block until mere hours before his trade was processed—the dominos only started to fall less than a week ago, after the Packers traded Adams. The Chiefs apparently realized that they’d rather have a similar package for Hill than hand the veteran wideout a big extension. With the upheaval of this year’s NFL offseason, any star receiver could somehow become available in the forthcoming months. Any DK Metcalf or Tyler Lockett takers? Does DeAndre Hopkins’s situation in Arizona warrant monitoring? Or Terry McLaurin’s in Washington? Stefon Diggs is out here tweeting!

And after all of the veteran options are exhausted, there’s the NFL draft. With two first-round picks (29 and 30 overall) and two more in the second round (50 and 62), Kansas City is almost guaranteed to draft an early receiver. With both Hill and Travis Kelce under contract in 2019, they spent a second-round pick on developmental receiver Mecole Hardman. Hardman hasn’t exactly panned out—but just before him went A.J. Brown to the Titans, and a few receivers later was Metcalf to the Seahawks. Day 2 receivers can hit—especially when they match their offense well. With a quarterback like Mahomes and a designer like Reid, the Chiefs’ offensive scheme can be … well, it can be just about anything.

That’s the biggest question mark lingering on the Hill trade: Not whether the Chiefs passing game will miss him—he’s a very good player, so it probably will. And not whether the Chiefs passing game will still be okay—it has other very good players, so it probably will. But rather, how will the Chiefs offense change without Hill available?

It’s a massive question. Hill was the league’s most effective vertical threat, period. Entering the 2021 season, Hill was the fastest receiver off the ball on go routes, post routes, corner routes, and crossing routes alike.

Hill burns cornerbacks off of the line on those routes constantly, and can produce downfield accordingly. But those routes aren’t just winners for Hill alone—they pull the attention of safeties, creating more intermediate space for other receivers to operate. Hill has gravity. Just by lining up on the field and taking those explosive upfield steps, he pulls defenses apart.

But Hill’s downfield receiving profile cooled off this year for Kansas City. Only 16.1 percent of Hill’s targets were more than 20 yards downfield in 2021; that share was 25.2 percent, 21.8 percent, and a whopping 31.8 percent in each of the three seasons prior. His average depth of target (10.6) was his lowest in five seasons; same for his yards per route run (2.11) and YAC per reception (4.0).

It was a down year for the Chiefs offense in general, so those numbers don’t necessarily detail a decline in Hill’s individual skill. But as defenses dedicated themselves to two-deep shells and four-man rushes to suffocate the Chiefs passing game, Hill’s field-stretching didn’t offer the same value as in seasons past. The Chiefs became a quick passing team that ran after the catch. Hill, who doesn’t love initiating contact or breaking tackles, didn’t fit with that philosophy as much. Even more critically, the Chiefs found a need to run the football and force defenses out of two-high looks. Hill brought nothing as a blocker in that regard.

Now, if the Chiefs traded Hill—the league’s preeminent field-stretcher and a dang fantastic receiver in his own right—because he’s not a great blocker in the running game, they’re dumb as a post. You don’t move on from Hill because you want to run the ball more. But when Hill wants to be the highest-paid receiver in the league, showed a decline in production for the first time in his career in his age-28 season, a first-round pick is on the table in return, you feel like you have to change schematically on offense given the way defenses were beating you last year, and you have a position with plenty of potential replacement plans at wide receiver…? The individual merits of a lot of small trends start to build on one another.

Hill in Kansas City with Mahomes was exciting—appointment television. But what happens next in Kansas City will be exciting, too. Hill was an important piece of the puzzle, but even after his departure, all of the other important pieces remain. The Chiefs offense won’t look to fill Hill’s role but rather will build a new offense around Mahomes, Kelce, Smith-Schuster, and whatever new playmakers they acquire. This is the second era of Mahomes offense in Kansas City—the first true inflection point following his unquestioned preeminence at the position over the last four seasons—and it comes with four top-64 picks and $26 million in cap space.

It’s Mahomes that gives the Chiefs the leeway to do this. Extend Hill; trade for Orlando Brown; sign Joe Thuney—all moves to win now. And after a shaky season: Trade Hill, leave Brown without a contract extension, and make whatever moves are left to come. Mahomes ensures they’re always competitive, always attractive to free agents, always afloat. They can be aggressive short-term, because of how good Mahomes is now, and build cautiously for the future, because of how good Mahomes will continue to be later.

When they drafted Mahomes out of Texas Tech, the Chiefs ventured into uncharted waters—now, they’re going there again. But the feeling is different. It’s not as big of a swing at the plate. Mahomes is elite. The biggest gamble hit, and each subsequent gamble is made with house money. They’re without Hill now, and the changes to the offense are difficult to predict—but the changes to the Chiefs’ outlook altogether are clear as day: There aren’t any. The Chiefs are still contenders, even in a wicked AFC West. What happens next will tell us just how soon they’ll be heads and shoulders above everyone else once again.