KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Patrick Mahomes is in Year 2 of a 10-year, $450 million contract with the Kansas City Chiefs. For the 2022 season, he, alone, gobbled up 17.2% of the team’s salary cap, according to spotrac.com.
Mahomes is the most talented player in the league, so neither the Chiefs, nor any other team if given the chance, would hesitate to allocate so much to a single player. He’s the exception to the rule.
Still, what goes to one player can’t go to all the others, namely the 52 others needed to win games.
It’s why there remains the theory that the winning formula for teams is having a great quarterback on a relatively cheap rookie contract — as Kansas City’s Super Bowl opponent, Philadelphia (Jalen Hurts, $1.6 million cap hit) or AFC championship game rival Cincinnati (Joe Burrow, $9.8 million) enjoy. Then you spend some of that extra cash on multiple important pieces.
And that is probably true.
Well, unless you are the Chiefs and can find an old-school way around this conundrum; namely by absolutely crushing the draft the past three years and stocking the roster with key contributors who come cheap, even if the quarterback doesn’t.
Kansas City has made 22 selections across the past three NFL Drafts. Due to its success during that period, the Chiefs never had a selection above 21st overall (2022). They had no first-rounder in 2021 and picked 32nd in 2020.
Yet general manager Brett Veach and his staff have been on a heater. As much as Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones and head coach Andy Reid are getting deserved praise, this was truly an organizational trip to the Super Bowl.
Seventeen of those 22 selections played in the AFC title game, including 10 of whom played at least half the snaps. And they came from all over the draft, from first to the late rounds. There was even undrafted free-agent rookie Jake Cochrane, who got in on 18 special teams snaps.
Additionally, two other draft picks — running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and defensive end Joshua Kaindoh — are on injured reserve. One pick — cornerback Thakarius “Bopete” Keyes, a seventh-round pick in 2020, was traded after one season.
Another, wide receiver Cornell Powell, a fifth-round pick in 2021, is on the practice squad, but saw action in three games this season. Rookie Darian Kinnard has seen limited duty this season, but the team sees a future for him as an interior offensive lineman.
It’s fair to say Kansas City has hit on 20 of its past 22 draft selections.
Consider some of the highlights from Sunday’s AFC title game win over the Cincinnati Bengals from the 2022 class alone:
Hard-charging running back Isiah Pacheco, who went 251st out of Rutgers, had 85 yards combined rushing and receiving in a game where they were tough to come by.
Defensive end George Karlaftis, the 30th pick from Purdue, had a big sack and added depth to a dominant defensive front.
Cornerback Jaylen Watson, who went 243rd out of Washington State, had an interception for the second consecutive playoff game.
Cornerback Joshua Williams, the 135th selection from Fayetteville State, had his own pick by snagging a brilliant tip by fellow first-year defensive back Bryan Cook, a second-rounder from Cincinnati.
First-round corner Trent McDuffie from Washington had two pass deflections and six tackles while taking 98% of the snaps.
And finally there was receiver, and more important, returner Skyy Moore, a second-rounder from Western Michigan, who caught only three passes for 13 yards, but delivered the massive final-minute, 29-yard punt return to set up K.C.’s game-winning drive
That’s an astounding, and critical, group performance by the rookies. From 2021, linebacker Nick Bolton (four tackles), and offensive linemen Creed Humphries and Trey Smith were on the field for every defensive or offensive snap, respectively.
The Chiefs are, undoubtedly, a top-heavy team. There is Mahomes, the biggest star in the game. And tight end Travis Kelce, a future Hall of Famer. The pass-rushing duo of Chris Jones and Frank Clark combined for seven tackles and 3.5 sacks. Offensive linemen Joe Thuney and Orlando Brown Jr. were high-priced additions the team brought in to protect Mahomes.
Those six alone combine for 53.58%of the Chiefs’ salary cap. Comparatively, on the share-the-wealth Eagles, the top 25 players combine for 53.13% of the salary cap.
Next season will be tougher for Kansas City. Brown may leave via free agency, but the remaining five are due to eat up a whopping 63.71% all by themselves.
Yet it might not matter. At least not if Veach and company can continue the hot streak and use their dozen 2023 draft picks to find players to come in and contribute, even in the biggest of games.
Kansas City may be star-powered, but it wouldn’t be in the Super Bowl, let alone potentially winning it, if not for the Chiefs’ relatively low-paid young guys stepping up again and again and again.