Analysis The GMKC

The GMKC: Kansas City’s future offensive tackle situation

Patrick Mahomes is the most valuable player on the Kansas City Chiefs roster, as well as the most valuable player in the entire NFL, and it should come as no surprise to anyone. The QB position is, after all, the most valuable position, and without going through a deep analytical dive into why it is the most important just consider that it is the only skill-position that can touch the ball (nearly) every single play. Basically the better the player that touches the ball every play the better success a team will have. In order to stop the most valuable player on the field teams has options, get better at CB, or get better edge rushers. In the modern era of football, elite corner play is hard to come across, especially with the surge of offense and the NFL becoming a passing league. If teams don’t have the personnel to stop QBs in coverage then they have only one option, rush the passer. According to Pro Football Focus, seven of their top ten graded pass rushers in 2019 all play either a classic defensive end position or are a hybrid “Edge” player, which has been catching on in recent years. The Edge position is typically a 3-4 OLB who primarily will rush the passer, Khalil Mack for example.

These are the players that teams need to get to QBs and get to them often. Over the past decade, we have seen just how powerful an impact edge rushers can make on a game, and on their team’s season as a whole. With pass rushers becoming more fierce over time, and some teams attaining not just one but two good edge players it has put protecting the QB at an all-time high on NFL team’s list of needs, and the best way to protect the passer is to find elite OTs.

The offensive line is a no glamour position and the big men up front are rarely given the credit they deserve, but it is the single most important aspect to protecting QBs in the NFL, especially so for tackles who often find themselves in one on one situations against another teams best defensive player. The debate is often made what is the hardest position in football and the argument is often made between QB as well as a DB, just for the nature of the positions. Offensive tackle should be firmly on that list, just for how demanding the position is for perfection. These guys are normally 300+ pounds and have to move backwards into their drive and catch usually against one of the best athletes on the other team. They are oftentimes not only at a physical disadvantage but also at a scheme disadvantage. Most offensive plays in the NFL will have at least one, if not both of their tackles in a one on one fist fight every play. It should also be taken into consideration that if a tackle wins every play of a game but gives up one sack, it will be seen as a bad effort on his part. Counter wise an edge rusher can be beaten on every single play of a game but if he records one sack it will be considered a good game. A tackle can grade out at 99% for a season but if he allows more than seven or eight sacks in a season his team will likely be looking for his replacement in the offseason. An edge rusher can lose over half of his reps but if he records one sack a game for ten games he will be an All-Pro and likely be looking at a lucrative contract offer the following season. The margin for error is ridiculously small, but that is just the world that these large men live in.

The Kansas City Chiefs currently have one of the best tackle situations in the NFL, and it’s not by accident. RT Mitchell Schwartz is the best at his position in the NFL, and LT Eric Fisher was one of the most underrated players on the team this past season. Schwartz added his fourth selection to the NFL’s All-Pro team this past season, and according to Pro Football Focus did not give up a single sack all season in over 750 pass-blocking plays. He played the 2019 NFL season at the highest level of any player in the NFL, and in 142 postseason pass plays he allowed only one pressure, which includes his dominating performance in the Super Bowl vs a relentless San Francisco 49er’s pass rush.

Eric Fisher was the first overall selection in the 2013 NFL Draft and has now been a consistent starter for the Chiefs for the last seven seasons. His career has had it’s low points, with some early struggles as well as an infamous holding penalty in 2016 against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2016 AFC Divisional Round, but his career has been rock solid as far as reliability, as well as his impact on games. He doesn’t have the outstanding grades Schwartz does, but he has started 98 games for the Chiefs in his career and has played a huge role in the team’s ability to run the ball, as well as win games. In 2019 he missed eight games due to injury, but was able to play on through the end of the regular season, and only allowed one sack, and two penalties in 467 snaps. The team also never lost a game Fisher played in during 2019, and his play combined with the excellence of Schwartz helped lead the Chiefs to a Lombardi Trophy.

The past and present of both these players are outstanding, but in the NFL it is all about the future and finding ways to sustain success for long term periods of time. This is where the salary cap enters the picture, as well as Chiefs 2020 third-round draft pick and future protector of Patrick Mahomes, Lucas Niang.

It should come to surprise no one in Kansas City that General Manager Brett Veach has hard decisions to make not only in the short term but also in the long term. Patrick Mahomes will at some point in the next year become the highest-paid player in the history of the NFL, and signs point to DT and pass-rushing monster Chris Jones getting a large extension to stay with the Chiefs. Putting these deals in perspective with the large sums of money the Chiefs will owe Frank Clark, Tyrann Mathiue, Tyreek Hill, and potentially Travis Kelce, there will be plenty of tough decisions to be made. With the Chiefs drafting Niang it has set up the scenario for the team to end up cutting one of their bookend tackles after the 2020 NFL season.

It’s never a popular move to cut long time contributors of championship teams but it is a necessary sustained future success. Schwartz will turn 31 in June, and by the end of the 2020 season Fisher will be 30. Both players are on contract till the end of the 2021 NFL season but there is a slim likelihood both will be on the team after the 2020 season. For the 2021 season, Fisher’s cap number is set at $14,681,668 for the season, while Schwartz is at $10,005,000. Not exuberant sums of money by NFL standards but with potential deals for others on the horizon the Chiefs will not be able to afford both of them. If the Chiefs were to cut Fisher before June 1st of 2021, it will save the team $11,500,000 , and put them at $3,181,668 of dead money. For Schwartz, it would be $6,255,000 saved with $3,750,000 of dead money. For both of these high-end players, the money will not be the only factor in the decision but on-field performance and durability will also be strong in the equation. The offensive line is one of the most physically demanding positions in not just football, but any sport. The play in playout physicality of the position can take a toll on even the best of athletes and requires the highest levels of physical and mental toughness. Both Schwartz and Fisher have been very durable in their entire careers, with Schwartz starting 128 out of 128 games in his career and only missing three snaps his entire career, which came against the Tennesee Titans in week ten of this past season. Fisher has started 98 out of 102 career games but his groin injury in week two against the Oakland Raiders this past season caused him to miss eight games, which was the longest absence of his career. While both have been reliable players father time is undefeated in the NFL and could be the reason we see one of them not a member of the Chiefs in 2021. The performance of both players in 2020 will also be a key in the decision Veach will have to make, if either show deteriorated play or start to succumb to injury it will play a huge role.

In the end Eric Fisher will likely be the player that ends up being released, and that is to no fault of his own, but is the hard reality of the NFL. Schwartz has the edge on him as far as on-field performance, and Fisher would also save the team significantly more money if released. Schwartz also playing at the highest level possible for the past four seasons, as well as showing no sign of injury-related problems, being an iron man in the trenches, as well as his leadership on the team will keep him on the team. It also doesn’t help Fisher that Lucas Niang has tremendous potential and will be groomed to take over after the 2020 season. The Chiefs knew headed into the draft that the tackle position would need to be changed in the coming years, but with the 32nd pick in the draft it was unlikely that one the premiere first-round talents at the position would be available for them, as well as the team having pressing needs for the upcoming season. In classic Andy Reid and Brett Veach fashion they looked for long term value in the middle rounds, and they found it.

Lucas Niang was not among the top names in a loaded class of tackles, which is partially due to his hip labrum injury that limited him to only five games in 2019, as well as the team he played on at TCU. He was physically affected by the injury, and it showed on his film where he seemed to labor in pass protection, as where it looked more effortless in the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Despite the injury Niang never gave up a sack in not only the five games he played in 2019 but also his entire career. In 975 career pass-blocking snaps Niang did not allow a single sack and according to Pro Football Focus did not allow graded out at career 86.3% in pass protection. In nearly 1,000 snaps Niang did not allow a sack. Knowing that the margin of error for tackles is so small this is absolutely the kind of production the Chiefs are looking for, especially if it means keeping Patrick Mahomes upright and healthy. Niang is a very physically gifted player, height, strength, long arms, and the ability to block in space, he is exactly what Andy Reid is looking for in an OT. His drive and catch in pass protection when healthy seems easy, and he has the natural instinct to know where the quarterback is in the pocket and how to position his body to beat his man. Chase Young was even quoted as saying that Niang was “the best player he ever faced while in college”.

The production and athletic ability should have Chiefs fans excited for the future but the thing that should really excite people about Niang is his mental toughness. Niang hurt his hip in the preseason before what he had to know was his final collegiate season, and with his draft stock on the line he went out and played hurt to help his team until he physically couldn’t anymore. The hip labrum injury should be on the cause of concern either, according to Cover1.net’s Kyle Trimble between 80% and 93% of players with this injury were able to return to play and saw little impact in their games following the corrective surgery. Brett Veach and the Chiefs scouting staff have done their homework, if the injury was a major concern Niang would not have been drafted where he was.

Brett Veach had a plan for how the Chiefs will be able to protect quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and as of now it seems it is all falling into order. Knowing they can save potential money by releasing Fisher at the end of the 2020 season, and by going after Niang in the draft the Chiefs are starting to show their plans in full effect. While there is still some speculation on if Niang could come in and play guard immediately for the Chiefs they would be best to let him sit for the 2020 season, while not only making sure his hip is 100%, but also allow him to be coached by Andy Heck and learn from the players above him, while allowing him to assimilate to the culture in Kansas City. It will be hard to see a long term member of the team, and someone who helped change KC football culture in Fisher leave the team but it will move the Chiefs further into the era of Mahomes, and could also be seen as one of the biggest moves of Brett Veach’s career. Knowing also that Mitchell Schwartz still has years to go should give the Chiefs confidence in how the team will protect Mahomes. At the end of the day, teams need elite skill players to be able to win championships, and the Chiefs are certainly well off in that area, but in order for the Chiefs to CONTINUE success with more success they will need to know for certain they have the ability to protect the most valuable player in football in any situation they find themselves in. As teams become more desperate to stop the juggernaut the amount of pressure on the Chiefs offensive line will grow. It’s a hard life as an OT, one that not many will ever have to live. The biggest men on the field have the smallest margin of error, and that’s the way it always will be. Niang has the tools and the toughness, and soon he will get to let the football world see them, potentially on the highest stage.

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