Mitchell Schwartz first got acquainted with Kansas City back in 2012, when the Chiefs scheduled a pre-draft visit with him. He got a chance to see a little bit of the area and left with a positive impression.
No one knew it at the time, but that visit — not to mention his brother Geoff’s one-year stay here as a guard in 2013 — would pay off for the Chiefs years later.
On Wednesday, Schwartz, who was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, hit free agency as one of the league’s most coveted available linemen. And he picked the Chiefs over three other suitors largely due to his familiarity and comfort with the organization.
“(Geoff) just told me how awesome of a time he had here, (how) he wishes it had been longer,” Schwartz said in a teleconference Thursday. “But he had a great time with all the coaches, the coaching staff was great for him, had a great time in the city.
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“Obviously, I know about the barbecue and all the good food here — as a lineman, I definitely appreciate that. He had nothing but good things to say, I knew that a couple years ago … so when this opportunity came up, I was already maybe a little bit more informed than most other people would have been. I was lucky in that regard.”
One could argue that it is the Chiefs who are lucky; their ability to land a player of Schwartz’s caliber on the free-agent market is a coup.
“Mitchell is a strong addition to our offensive line,” Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said in a statement. “He’s a talented football player that has proven to be durable and physical in his four seasons in the National Football League.
Schwartz, who turns 27 in June, will be paid handsomely. The Chiefs inked him to a five-year deal worth $33 million, with about $12.6 million in full guarantees from 2016 to 2018, a source told The Star.
That is the most guaranteed money being paid to a veteran right tackle, according to J.I. Halsell, a former Washington cap analyst who runs NFLContractMetrics.com. The deal also includes an additional $2.4 million in partial guarantees.
Schwartz, who is listed at 6 feet 5 and 320 pounds, was among the top-graded tackles in the league last year, according to ProFootballFocus.com. His mark of 86.6 was the sixth-best in the league and is 19 points higher than the Chiefs’ highest-graded tackle last year, Eric Fisher (67.2).
What’s more, Schwartz figures to be a plug-and-play option at right tackle for a Chiefs team that surrendered 46 sacks in 2015 (tied for the sixth-most in the league). His pass-blocking grade of 86.8 in 2015 was the seventh-best mark in the league, and second-best among right tackles.
Schwartz’s presence should allow the Chiefs’ 2015 starter at right tackle, Jah Reid, to shift down to a guard position, where he was more impressive in limited action last season. That could be crucial given the team’s decision to release Ben Grubbs and the free-agent defection of Jeff Allen, two solid players who essentially shared the left guard position last season.
Don’t underestimate the importance of having a solid pass-blocking right tackle, either; in today’s NFL, many great pass rushers — Denver’s Von Miller and the Chiefs’ Justin Houston among them — often come from the right tackle’s side.
All of them can wreck a team’s offensive game plan if the right tackle — a spot where teams have traditionally put big, run-blocking guys — isn’t up to snuff in pass protection.
“A lot of the top rushers are rushing both sides — or just the right side now,” Schwartz said. “This division has four of probably the best rushers in the NFL. On my side, just obviously here, Justin Houston and then Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Melvin (Ingram) in San Diego is a really good player as well … So you have quality guys week after week.
“I don’t think it’s a position where you can just stick a guy and hope you survive anymore. … If you have one or even two guys who are not pulling weight, then you can get exposed.”
Schwartz’s agent, Deryk Gilmore, agreed, noting that four teams were interested in Schwartz’s services. Gilmore said the Chiefs ultimately won out because of the working relationship he has fostered with Dorsey, and the overall respect the Chiefs showed his client in the negotiating process.
“They kind of laid in waiting, a little bit of a dark horse,” Gilmore said. “But I will say this: We told everybody to come with their best offer, and I think some people were trying to be cute. … But (the Chiefs) put their best foot forward; they weren’t pinching pennies.”
And now, the Chiefs have secured a lineman who brings a level of dependability and versatility to an offensive line that needs both. Though he’s played every game of his NFL career at right tackle, Schwartz played left tackle his final two years at Cal and could probably slide over in a pinch if Fisher, the presumed starter, were to get hurt.
But it is Schwartz’s track record of dependability that is truly impressive. Not only has he started 64 of 64 possible games in his four-year career, he also hasn’t missed a single snap in that span — a remarkable stretch , even at a tough-guy position group like the offensive line.
“There’s an element of luck, and there’s also an element of just working hard,” Schwartz explained. “Every guy is going to have smaller injuries or tiny things throughout the season, and I think as an offensive lineman, you definitely feel it’s your duty to play, pretty much regardless, unless there’s something that the medical staff will tell you that you just can’t do.
“As an offensive lineman, we take a lot of pride on being there for the other four guys, being there for the rest of the team.”
Considering the Chiefs did not have a single player on their offensive line start all 16 games last season, thanks to uneven early season performances and a rash of injuries, Schwartz has the chance to be a steady presence they sorely lacked.
Schwartz also figures to benefit from a stable environment in Kansas City.
Reid has kept the overwhelming majority of his coaching staff together since he arrived in 2013, and he has a reputation for guiding a steady ship; multiple players have noted how Reid never wavered last season, even during a miserable 1-5 start.
“Watching the last couple of years, we’ve played some common opponents, so I’ve been able to watch the film and kind of study them as I’m studying my opponent,” Schwartz said. “It’s a really fun offense to play in: It does a little bit of everything, balanced, runs the ball, passes the ball. It seems like lately you’ve gone to using Alex Smith’s legs a little more, kind of opening up more opportunities for everybody in the offense that way.
“It’s really a great opportunity from top to bottom, starting with the organization, the history, all the way up. I think I fit very well in terms of what’s going on offensively.”
Gilmore also expressed optimism that Schwartz, who missed the Pro Bowl this year despite his stellar play, can reach another level in a stable setting like Kansas City, which has gone 31-17 with two playoff berths since Reid arrived.
“He wanted to go somewhere where the quarterback was stable but gets rid of ball quickly, and Alex Smith does a great job of that,” Gilmore said. “Mitch was going against a lot of top pass rushers and he was always in a situation where it was third, and long and they’re teeing off, and he still had a great year. If we put Mitch in just a decent situation for him, he could be a Pro Bowler.”
Kansas City qualifies as a more than decent situation, something Schwartz’s brother — who left KC as a free agent to sign with the Giants in 2014 — knows well. Geoff, 29, was recently released by the Giants after two injury-plagued seasons, so a possible reunion with the Chiefs isn’t out of the question.
When asked if he’ll be campaigning for that, Mitchell Schwartz laughed. He doesn’t know what the future holds, but he knows he’s glad to be a Chief.
“I can’t speak for him directly, but I know he had a great time here the year he was here,” Schwartz said of his brother. “So maybe one of these days we’ll get to play together.”