The Chiefs had a remarkable, unprecedented and unlikely-to-be-duplicated kind of Wednesday.
They were on the business end of a heavy-handed and arbitrary Roger Goodell punishment that leaves them two draft picks (and a total of $350,000 in fines) lighter — and still had a good football day.
Make no mistake. The NFL ripping a third-round pick this year and a sixth-rounder next year, along with fines for the team ($250,000), coach Andy Reid ($75,000) and general manager John Dorsey ($25,000) sting. The Chiefs will appeal, and will find out whether the fact that the punishment is disproportionate and without precedent matters in Goodell’s discredited and reactionary form of justice.
But, if we can put all of that to the side for a moment, Dorsey and Reid had reason to toast each other at the end of business on the first official day of NFL free agency.
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The Chiefs are closer to the top of the AFC than at any point in a decade, at least, and they made progress in strengthening their push.
The most important move was signing offensive lineman Mitchell Schwartz from the Browns. Schwartz is 26 years old and widely considered one of the league’s best right tackles. He has played every snap since entering the league, and according to Pro Football Focus, Broncos star Von Miller’s only negative grade last year was when he lined up against Schwartz. According to the site, Schwartz gave up just three sacks and eight hits in 705 pass-blocking snaps.
Schwartz replaces Jah Reid, meaning the Chiefs fill one of their greatest needs with one of the league’s best at the position.
This is particularly important for the Chiefs, and for quarterback Alex Smith. Because Smith’s effectiveness is heavily dependent on whether he is pressured, much more so than most quarterbacks.
Last season, his passer rating dropped from 105.5 to 64.8 and his completion percentage from 73.1 to 45.2 when under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. For comparison’s sake, Smith’s passer rating, completion percentage and yards per attempt with no pressure were each higher than Tom Brady’s.
Johnson is the franchise’s all-time leading tackler, and played perhaps his best ever season in 2015 at the age of 33 in returning from an Achilles’ injury that effectively wiped out his entire 2014.
Howard’s deal came as a surprise. Along with cornerback Marcus Peters, Howard was the Chiefs’ breakout performer in 2015, with career highs of 5 1/2 sacks and 57 tackles while establishing himself as a consistent problem for the interior of opposing offensive lines.
The Chiefs lost some players on Wednesday, too.
Most significantly was a move that broke early Thursday, with cornerback Sean Smith signing with the Raiders. Smith may have been the most underrated player on the Chiefs’ defense last year, particularly with rookie Marcus Peters playing well. But a lot of Peters’ opportunities came because teams simply weren’t throwing Smith’s way.
The other major move was left guard Jeff Allen signing with the Texans. The Chiefs won 11 straight games after putting Allen in the starting lineup, and while that’s obviously not a direct cause-and-effect, the two are not wholly unrelated.
The Chiefs could replace him with Zach Fulton, or even by shifting center Mitch Morse to the guard spot.
Also leaving the Chiefs were free agents Chase Daniel, Tyvon Branch, and Donald Stephenson. Daniel’s move had been anticipated, as he’s looking for more playing time. Stephenson never regained his place on the team after a four-game PED suspension in 2014, and Branch’s departure was expected. The Chiefs have shown an ability to find solid safeties to play along Eric Berry.
If nothing else, the Chiefs’ moves mean they are well-positioned to take the best player available with their first pick in the draft. Cornerback, particularly with Smith’s departure, is the position of greatest need. Particularly if the tampering punishment stands and the Chiefs don’t have a third-round pick, they would be well-served to take a corner with one of their first two picks. But even that flexibility lowers the inherent chances of missing with a particular selection.
Some of the best Chiefs news didn’t even involve the team. The Broncos lost quarterback Brock Osweiler to the Texans, meaning that with Peyton Manning’s retirement, they are starting over at the sport’s most important position.
John Elway is a wizard, and he has already used cap manipulation and some sort of dark magic to stack the league’s best roster. But the Broncos would have to overcome significant losses to win a sixth consecutive AFC West title in 2016. The quarterback market is highlighted by unknowns like Colin Kaepernick (who could be had in a trade) and Robert Griffin (who is a free agent).
The one miss was receiver Travis Benjamin going to the Chargers on a four-year contract with a $13 million guarantee. If the Chiefs could’ve fit that within their salary cap, Benjamin would’ve been a nice complement to Maclin and Travis Kelce.
But, even so, the Chiefs got better on Wednesday, particularly at a position of absolute need.