It was July 2017, and, after the surprise summer firing of John Dorsey, new Chiefs GM Brett Veach was holding one of his first meetings, scrambling to adjust to the job after a wild month. This one was focused specifically on defining Kansas City’s principles.
What are our principles? What are we going to be doing for the next year? What are we mapping out in terms of long-term planning?
How are we going to do this?
Veach’s director of football administration, Brandt Tilis, raised his hand.
“Look, we just drafted a quarterback in the first round,” the lead negotiator said. “So we need to start thinking about his next contract—like right now—and start planning for him to be great.”
That quarterback was still 14 months from settling in as the Chiefs’ starter, with a redshirt year behind Alex Smith ahead, and the personnel department, rocked by the Dorsey news just a few weeks later, was still figuring out how to move forward. But even then, they had an idea of what the kid they drafted tenth could become. More than just that, they knew the challenges that lied ahead if he fulfilled all that promise.
In a way, the 2022 Chiefs came to life that day, in that room.
We all know now what Mahomes would become. He won the MVP in his first year as a starter, will likely win another one this week, has gotten to five AFC title games in the interim, and will play in his third Super Bowl and for his second Lombardi Trophy on Sunday. But even if the Chiefs thought all that was possible in 2017—and they were very high on their draft pick out of Texas Tech—they knew it couldn’t just be him.
And Tilis’s point to the room underscored that there would be a time that’d come when it’d be harder than making it about more than just him, because of the contract he’d sign if he lived up to his potential (like they hoped he would). So they started planning then for what they’d have in his rookie-deal years, and for the landscape thereafter—when the margins would be thinner, a time that’s now come for the best player in pro football.
“There’s a pressure of not wanting to let him down, or fail him,” Veach said Saturday, before traveling to Arizona for Super Bowl LVII. “He can play any type of football, so you feel like you have a little bit more of a window to work with, in regards to what you can bring in here. But at the same time, the expectations are so high, there’s the pressure of you can’t miss anything and you gotta do whatever you can.
“And maybe you don’t have $30 million to throw at a wideout, but you better get good wideouts because you can’t provide him with nothing. So it’s a double-edged sword.”
Six years after they first talked about it, it’s a sword the Chiefs have used to cut a path few in this era have—by setting themselves up for sustained success after giving a quarterback a top-of-the-market deal. And it’s put Mahomes in position to be more dangerous than he’s ever been before, as he prepares to go hunting for another ring.
It’s Super Bowl Week, and we’re on the ground in Arizona. We’ve got a lot to get to in this week’s MMQB column. Inside our Monday package, you’ll find …
• How those closest to Tom Brady digested his retirement.
• An inside look at the Panthers’ coaching search.
• Why Ran Carthon makes sense for Mike Vrabel in Tennessee.
• A ton of coaching carousel news.
• A wrap-up of draft movers and shakers after the Senior Bowl.
But we’re starting with the Super Bowl, the Chiefs and how Veach and his team helped Mahomes and Andy Reid avoid the fate that so many teams run headlong into after paying their quarterback.
That first meeting was the precursor for another one about 14 months later, a couple of weeks into the 2018 season, with the personnel department’s heavyweights—Veach, Tilis, assistant GM Mike Borgonzi and VP of football operations Chris Shea among them—getting together to, again, talk about the future.
Mahomes had torn up the Chargers and Steelers to open his second season, making it increasingly obvious where this was going.
“We were on this path here, this guy’s likely to be MVP and it was, We gotta get ahead of this thing,” Veach says. “Hey, let’s give ourselves a really long runway because we firmly believe he’s gonna be an MVP and we’re gonna win a Super Bowl. Let’s plan as if all these things happen, so that when they do, we’re not trying to come up with an outside-the-box plan while we’re in the offseason.
“We’ve had time to think about this.”
The first piece, of course, was always going toward Mahomes’s contract, and at that point, the quarterback was still 16 months away from being able to even start negotiating it. Still, the Chiefs could start research and let Mahomes’s agent, Chris Cabott, know of their intentions.
Tilis started first by looking at baseball contracts, mostly because they’re longer by nature, and the ideas might resonate with the son of a baseball player. He called NBA teams, too. And in doing so, the Chiefs started to shape a vision they’d eventually present to Mahomes—one that would be founded on, yes, first, paying him his worth, and at the same time allowing for the team to plan to build around him for years and years to come.
It was going to be positioned, as the Chiefs saw it, as a partnership between player and team, more so than any deal the franchise had ever done before.
“And [Cabott] has been on the partnership thing since we drafted Pat,” Tilis says. “It’s definitely a partnership, and Pat and Chris really wanted a guaranteed contract. We couldn’t do that. What we could do was what we ended up with, which is we’ll just guarantee everything a year out. And they followed the math and the cap numbers and the cash numbers and all that, and it was like, How are we ever going to be able to cut this guy?
“So, I mean, it’s practically over $400 million guaranteed.”
Before they’d get there, Mahomes justified about every dollar the Chiefs could dream of spending on him—by winning league MVP in his first year as a starter, and then the Super Bowl in his second, just as he was becoming eligible to do the deal.
In the summer of 2020, amid a mountain of uncertainty spurred on by the pandemic, they put the finishing touches on the 10-year, $450 million accord that could reach a half billion in total value. The deal was criticized. Mahomes and Cabott were pummeled for taking it. But it was done with purpose, to allow the Chiefs to plan ahead and continue to put championship rosters around their star quarterback.
The deal was built with rolling guarantees and a series of penalties that would top $30 million at almost every juncture were the team to cut him, with cap ramifications to go along with that. And at the end of the rolling guarantees, in early 2027, there’s another nine-figure guarantee, meaning the team would pay a heavy, heavy price for getting rid of Mahomes, if they chose to, nearly a decade into the contract.
Essentially, if Mahomes was going to get stung, the Chiefs would, too, and, very deep into a longer deal, that gave both sides peace in the idea, again, that everyone was in it together.
It also affirmed, three years into his career, where Mahomes wanted to be.
“Loves the city, loves the community, and has the understanding like, Look, I trust the ownership. I trust the coaches. I trust player personnel. And if I’m gonna do this, I have to have trust that they’re always gonna provide me with talent and have a plan,” Veach says. “And, Yeah, there’s gonna be some years where we may have to move on from or trade really good players, but I understand that these guys are gonna be able to have different plans as my career goes on. I believe that this is the place that will have the best plan in place for me.
“I think that’s why it’s so unique, it’s because you have to have the stars aligned. If you have one of the players in this thing—whether it be the owner, the coach, player personnel, player, agent—with a different take, this thing doesn’t work.”
They were (and still are) aligned in Kansas City, so the next step was moving to Phase 2 of the Mahomes era.
The Chiefs’ Super Bowl champion roster had just 21 of its 53 spots filled by homegrown players, drafted or undrafted, a reflection of the aggression with which Veach, Borgonzi, Tilis and Shea attacked the rookie-contract window they were in with Mahomes.
Just three years later, that homegrown number, ahead of Super Bowl LVII, has bulged to 32, meaning they’ve gone from 39.6% of their roster being developed in-house to 60.4%.
That’s no mistake. And it doesn’t mean that Mahomes has to be the only expensive guy on the roster. It just means the Chiefs have room for fewer of them. So while Travis Kelce and Chris Jones are still around, Frank Clark took a bit of a pay cut and Tyreek Hill was traded. Nine of the team’s 10 draft picks were active for both of its playoff games, creating a layer of cheap labor on the roster that gives Kansas City flexibility to keep its elite happy.
That, too, was part of the plan.
Now, no one, not even Ron Wolf himself, could plan on having that sort of hit rate in the draft every year. But what Veach and his staff could do was create a margin for error by stockpiling picks, rather than dealing them away for veterans or higher picks. So, Veach says, he was still going to be aggressive—it just was going to be aggression pointed in a different direction.
“When Pat had that unbelievable ’18 season and he’s on his rookie deal, you’re trading for Frank Clark and signing Tyrann Mathieu,” Veach says. “You’re hyper-aggressive because you know how talented this quarterback is, and you know he’s in a rookie window, and you know that, within these couple years, you have a chance to really take a big swing at the fences.
“You’re still gonna have to have an aggressive plan. But that aggressive plan ain’t gonna be dropping a ton of money and trading a bunch of picks. That aggressive plan is gonna be the flip side. It’s gonna be not being afraid to move on from players and trying to aggressively acquire picks as opposed to aggressively trading them away and spending money.”
So when talks with Hill stalled last March, Veach and his team huddled with Reid and discussed what might’ve seemed unthinkable a couple of months earlier: trading Hill. And it wasn’t just trading Hill, but trading Hill with the idea of stocking picks, plural.
That’s why when the Jets offered the 10th pick straight up for Hill, the Chiefs balked and asked for a package based on volume (rather than quality) picks, to try to avoid being the team that got Troy Williamson for Randy Moss. (You can look up the Raiders-Vikings trade of 2005 for more on that.) It’s also why the Chiefs eventually settled on a package offered from the team Hill wanted to go to, the Dolphins. Miami would send the Chiefs the 29th pick, as well as a second-rounder, two fourth-rounders and a 2023 sixth-rounder, a package they took over a reworked Jets off fronted by New York’s two second-rounders.
Of course, that also meant Mahomes was losing his best receiver. But Mahomes was looped in and understood why.
“That’s where you kinda hit the crossroads—if you want to do that, you can, but it’s not gonna be easy,” Veach says. “It’s gonna have to involve a talent like Tyreek Hill, and so that’s what becomes tough, because it sounds good until you get to the moment where, All right, this is Tyreek Hill. This is what you said, but do you really want to trade arguably the league’s best receiver? That’s where when you have a plan, you gotta stick to it. You can’t let the emotional side kick in because you can have a plan in place.”
The plan extended out to draft day, when Veach traded down for the first time in his five years as GM, dropping from 50 to 54 in the second round. “Getting Brett to trade back was a big deal,” Tillis says. “And it was like a nothing trade, it was picking up a fifth-round pick, but it felt like a watershed moment—at least for me.”
And just as what they did with the picks was changing, who they’d be looking for with them was, too.
So the aforementioned number—nine of 10 draft picks played in both the Chiefs’ playoff games—isn’t something the team, any team, could have planned for in March. But by summer, they saw signs that it was coming. And that it was resulting from an effort to emphasize high-character players after hitting on such prospects, guys like Creed Humphrey and Nick Bolton in 2021.
Also, as Veach saw it, it was another example of the team shifting its aggression, in this case from being aggressive with risks when Mahomes’s rookie deal gave them margin for error roster-wise, to being aggressive in character evaluations with that margin mostly gone, and the team needing more often for rookies to play sooner.
“If there are guys that may not have as high of an athletic ceiling as others, but you just know deep down these guys are really good players, we’ll feel good just wanting to make sure we’re surrounding Pat with really good guys that are really good players,” Veach says. “And we want to make sure that at the end of the day, they’re gonna value the game, be great teammates, and these guys aren’t gonna come here and fail.
“And look, yes, maybe some guys have a way higher ceiling, but we’re not in that place. We’re gonna get guys in here that want to play, that love the game and that we know are gonna be good players as well. So I think you probably see it almost mirror your free-agent approach and your approach with trading picks with a quarterback on a rookie deal.”
The benefits of the shift showed up quickly. Through training camp, by the recollection of a couple of Chiefs staffers, the 10 draft picks—of which only one could be considered a risk (fifth-rounder Darian Kinnard was a mild one)—missed a grand total of zero practices, despite the fact that their coach, Andy Reid, has always had a reputation for grueling camps.
And if that was a sign of their drive, then their resilience came next, with a bevy of examples of it. First-rounder Trent McDuffie, who’d really never been hurt, suffered a tough hamstring injury in Week 1 but worked his way back and went back in the lineup in Week 9 like he hadn’t missed a beat. Fellow first-rounder George Karlaftis couldn’t finish on the quarterback to save his life early, posting just a half sack through 10 games but kept at it and registered 5.5 over Kansas City’s final seven.
Then there was Skyy Moore, who had never returned punts in high school or college and was asked to in K.C. That led to three muffs, and other miscues, and eventually Moore’s losing the job early in the year. But he kept working at it, injuries forced him back into the role, and lo and behold Moore was the one with a massive 29-yard return in the last minute of the AFC title game to set up Harrison Butker’s game-winning field goal to get K.C. back here again.
“They took all that adversity, and then when the light shone the brightest, they were able to not only just overcome the adversity but overcome to the point where they’re actually making game-defining plays,” Veach says. “I mean, that was the really cool thing. That doesn’t happen unless these guys are really wired like that—and know the value of turning the page, working hard, and that, if you just keep doing things the right way, good things will happen.”
The other thing they were able to do? Live up to the impossible standard Mahomes sets.
Part of having Mahomes as your quarterback, as Veach says, is how it raises expectations for the whole team and the individuals on it.
The idea that failing to win the Super Bowl means a lost season is a tough standard for anyone to live up to. On the flip side, it sure does lift the people around him up, if they can find a way to clear the bars that have been set within the Chiefs’ operation.
And that’s another reason why Veach and his staff have had to adjust a bit in who they’re bringing into the building. They have to know that those guys are capable of meeting the standard. So in that way, the goal of getting players in who can play early and are good bets to hit as draft picks, meshes easily with the pursuit of guys who’ll fit into the culture that’s been established by Mahomes, Kelce and Jones.
“We’re to the point now where these kids are growing up and they’re fans of Mahomes and Jones and Kelce,” Veach says. “So when they get here, they’re immediately in awe. I mean, it’s crazy the reaction that we get when we draft an offensive player and the first thing that is said is, I’m so excited to play with Patrick Mahomes. So you get that immediate, I gotta be on my A-game here because I’m playing with Pat Mahomes. I’m playing with Andy Reid. And on the defensive side, like you mentioned, you’re playing with Chris Jones.
“It only heightens and elevates the talent that you’re getting. And again, if you’re putting so much emphasis on character and work ethic, and these guys are already programmed to work, then you just throw in the ultimate multiplier, Andy Reid and Pat Mahomes, now you get where these guys can even take their already-great football character to another level.”
Which brings the guys picking and paying the players to the most important point here.
That being that, because Mahomes is in Kansas City, all of this is possible, and where they have fewer resources to build around him, they need to do less than others thanks to the sheer force of his presence as, to borrow Veach’s term, the multiplier.
“On one end, it makes it easy because Pat’s gonna make great look unbelievable, good look great and bad look good,” Veach says. “You start with that. So on one end, it makes our job easier because Pat, his game is so dynamic and versatile, he can play a long game, he can play a short game. He can play any style of football, and when you can play any style of football, you have much more flexibility.
“You’re not pigeon-holed saying, I need this type of receiver. This receiver’s gotta be this size, he’s gotta be able to run this route. Like, he can catch the football, we can play with him because Pat will get it out of him. … He makes our job easier because we knew we don’t have to find Tyreek Hill. Pat can play with anyone. But at the same time, because you have Pat Mahomes, there is the expectation of having talent around him to be the league’s best offense and to have the highest-scoring offense.”
It’s a bargain, to be clear, the Chiefs will make every time.
They know the score, and they know why, now, Kansas City is an NFL destination.
“It’s Pat, and it’s Andy, if you want to put names on it,” Tilis says. “Both those guys would then deflect it—Pat to his teammates, Andy to his assistants. But yeah, the cap’s not that hard, and the hard thing is just having players who want to be there. I’ve been here since 2010, and we’ve had experiences with players where they just did not want to be in Kansas City. They either didn’t want to be in the city, they didn’t want to be in the building, they didn’t want to be around coaches that we had or front office members or whatever.
“It’s taken years to turn that around. And it’s remarkable how easy that makes my job.”
So as well laid out as that plan was back in 2017 and ’18, the most important part, for all complexities of it, was the simplest part.
They were right. The quarterback wound up being great.
And the rest? Well, it’s gotten to be pretty good, too, and should be for some time to come.