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Patrick Mahomes Earned A Huge Raise. So The Chiefs Got Creative With Their Roster-Building.

Already one of the best quarterbacks ever, Patrick Mahomes found room to get better in 2022. Mahomes leveled up against zone coverage in particular and won his second MVP award with one of his sharpest seasons yet. The culmination of all that came when he won his second Super Bowl on Sunday night, leading the Kansas City Chiefs over the Philadelphia Eagles in an anticlimactic thriller

But there’s only so much improving a quarterback with Mahomes’s skills and accomplishments can muster, and it would have been impossible for his increased production to rise in proportion with his change in compensation from last season to this one. In 2021, Mahomes counted for $7.4 million against the NFL salary cap. In 2022, after his 10-year, $450 million contract extension took effect, Mahomes’s cap hit was $35.8 million. He went from taking up about 4 percent of the Chiefs’ collective cap space to 17 percent. Mahomes was the second-most-expensive player in the NFL against the cap, and even if he still constituted a bargain, the Chiefs would still have to budget around him. They were no longer getting a god-tier quarterback on a rookie contract that paid him a relative pittance. 

That the Chiefs had a future Hall of Fame QB was clear well before Sunday. But this title also says something about the Chiefs’ legacy independent of their quarterback’s. In addition to solidifying Andy Reid as an all-time coach with his second championship ring, Super Bowl LVII establishes the Chiefs as roster-building savants who did a lot more to return to the mountaintop than simply turn Mahomes loose. Having him might be a guaranteed ticket to contention at baseline, but to get over the top, the Chiefs had to press a bunch of correct buttons at other positions as well. Maybe Mahomes could have delivered a Super Bowl all by himself, but the 2022 Chiefs’ genius was that they never had to find out. 

The near-quintupling of Mahomes’s cap hit made it inevitable that the Chiefs would have to say goodbye to some old friends. The team’s defense, eternally the weaker of K.C.’s two units, bore most of those losses. Safety Tyrann Mathieu, who played at least 94 percent of the Chiefs’ defensive snaps in each of the prior three seasons and made two Pro Bowls, saw his contract expire. The Chiefs let him walk off to the New Orleans Saints, and in so doing, split with a player who had absorbed 10.5 percent of their cap space in 2021. Cornerback Charvarius Ward, who played for $3.4 million in 2021, got nearly $27 million in guarantees from the San Francisco 49ers, according to Spotrac. The Chiefs cut linebacker Anthony Hitchens, pushing more than $4 million onto their 2022 balance in “dead cap” space. But Hitchens would occupy only 2 percent of the Chiefs’ cap total while not playing for them, after taking up 5.6 percent in 2021. 

The savings were significant, but the Chiefs lost three of their four leading tacklers going back to 2018. (They also didn’t re-sign the other leading tackler from those years, safety Daniel Sorensen, though he was less of a loss. Sorensen had the defense’s worst Pro Football Focus grade in 2021, a case where the game-graders’ opinion matched that of anyone who watched the team.) Looking for further savings, the Chiefs restructured defensive end Frank Clark’s contract and cut his cap hit roughly in half, from a team-leading $25.8 million in 2021 to $13.3 million in 2022. 

In a vacuum, those savings would’ve been enough for the Chiefs to afford a pricier version of Mahomes and leave their offense mostly untouched. The NFL is not a vacuum. Defensive tackle Chris Jones had his cap hit more than triple to $29.4 million. Left tackle Orlando Brown, whom the team had acquired in a spring 2021 trade from the Baltimore Ravens, was also due a big raise as he outlasted his rookie contract. Brown’s cap hit of nearly $16.7 million took up 8 percent of the team’s cap allotment, up from just over 1 percent in 2021. Best not to lose the player who watches Mahomes’s blind side.

So the Chiefs would not weather Mahomes’s raise by merely shedding some defensive veterans. The cap gods demanded a pound of flesh. The Chiefs settled on trading Tyreek Hill, the sport’s fastest player and (along with tight end Travis Kelce) one of Mahomes’s two favorite targets. From 2018 through 2021, the Mahomes-Hill combination was worth 4,531 yards, third-most of any QB-receiver tandem behind Aaron Rodgers-Davante Adams and Mahomes-Kelce. The Mahomes-Hill duo’s 41 touchdown connections trailed just Rodgers and Adams. Maybe the Chiefs could have found a way to keep Hill around for another season on a cap hit that would’ve been around $21 million, but the megadeal he’d be due after the season was another story. In the end, Hill went to the Miami Dolphins a year before the Chiefs would’ve lost him for nearly nothing in free agency. Hill got $72.2 million guaranteed, and the Chiefs got five draft picks, including the Dolphins’ first- and second-rounders in 2022. 

The Hill trade represented a wager by the Chiefs that Mahomes would keep being Mahomes with a receiving nucleus of Kelce and et cetera rather than Kelce and Hill. The concept proved prescient, as Mahomes’s numbers did improve across the board from 2021. Hill had absorbed 159 targets in his last year with Mahomes. To fill that void, the Chiefs redirected a few more targets to Kelce (152, up from 134) and started sending passes to JuJu Smith-Schuster (101 targets, $3 million cap hit), Marquez Valdes-Scantling (81 targets, $4.9 million), and Jerick McKinnon (71 targets, $1 million). Smith-Schuster arrived in free agency shortly before the Hill trade, Valdes-Scantling a day after it

General manager Brett Veach’s drafting helped the cause, too. The Chiefs have been great at finding useful players in all phases of the draft, going back several years. They found pairs of rookie starters in both the first (cornerback Trent McDuffie and end George Karlaftis) and seventh rounds (running back Isiah Pacheco and corner Jaylen Watson) of the most recent draft. They drafted five other defensive starters outside the first round, most of whom were still on cheap rookie contracts this year. Starting right guard Trey Smith was a year removed from being a sixth-rounder. The Chiefs have found the bull’s-eye on enough mid- and late-round picks that they can withstand the odd disappointment. 2020 first-round tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire declined to the point of being a Super Bowl healthy scratch, but Pacheco emerged to replace him. 2022 second-rounder Skyy Moore was barely a factor in the offense as a rookie (his Super Bowl TD was actually the very first of his career), but the Chiefs’ free-agent additions backfilled more than enough production. 

After five AFC championship game appearances and two Super Bowl wins in five years as a starter, Mahomes has become football’s ultimate fail-safe. So far, he is a one-man guarantee that the Chiefs will always be on a championship’s doorstep. But contending and winning are different things, and in 2022, the maneuvering around Mahomes was every bit as critical in securing the Lombardi Trophy as the QB himself.

The win over the Eagles turned out to be the perfect example: Mahomes’s line stared down the first team in NFL history to have four double-digit sack-getters and surrendered zero all night. Moore and Kadarius Toney were not among the Chiefs’ most productive wideouts this season, but both scored wide-open touchdowns when Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy conned the Eagles with pre-snap motion. When the Chiefs needed one more offensive play to essentially seal the game, it was Smith-Schuster — one of Veach’s cheap Hill alternatives — who drew the decisive defensive holding flag. (Could the official who called that penalty have let it go? Most certainly. But even James Bradberry owned up to the penalty after the game.) A necessary part of meticulously crafting the best team in the league is paying a once-in-a-generation talent like Mahomes what he deserves. But the rest is about finding bargains with the leftover money, and then letting it all ride in the biggest game of the year.

Alex Kirshner is a writer in Washington, D.C. His work has been published in Slate, The Ringer, VICE and SB Nation, and he co-hosts the podcast Split Zone Duo.


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