The biggest reason to believe in the 2016 Chiefs is listening to some surprising numbers. This is the summer, early enough in the cycle that a teammate sees the interview, lifts his own shirt, and bares a nipple to try to break Mitchell Schwartz’s concentration.
“Not bad,” Schwartz says, laughing off the hairy exposure.
Schwartz is the most important improvement the Chiefs made in the offseason following their first playoff win in a generation. In some ways, particularly with the team trading out of the draft’s first round, he represents the only obvious and external bump in talent.
He is here to play right tackle, and brings a reputation as one of the best at his position. Last year, Pro Football Focus rated him as the NFL’s second-best right tackle. Considering where the Chiefs are coming from, the addition of Schwartz means going from one of the worst three right-tackle situations in football to one of the best three.
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If you watched the Chiefs for even a quarter last year, you probably saw whoever was playing right tackle whiff a block, end up on his belly, and look up just in time to see his man hit quarterback Alex Smith very hard. That was a problem, and a bigger problem than you might think. Here is the part that surprised Schwartz:
When Smith faced pressure last year, his passer rating dropped from 105.5 to 64.8, and his completion percentage from 73.1 to 45.2, according to Pro Football Focus. His rating, completion percentage and yards per attempt with no pressure were each actually higher than Tom Brady’s. The difference was how they were against pressure.
That’s where Schwartz comes in.
“Yeah, well, I guess I didn’t know the extent of it,” he says. “I mean, obviously they were looking for an upgrade or I wouldn’t be here.”
Schwartz stays respectful. He says he saw a lot of good things from the Chiefs’ offensive line last year, things that he tried to incorporate with the Browns, and that most of the problems at right tackle had to do with injuries — Donald Stephenson, Jeff Allen, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Jah Reid all took snaps there.
Schwartz’s signing is the only major addition expected to make an immediate impact. The Chiefs signed Rod Streater to compete for snaps at receiver, and have a nine-man draft class long on potential but short on instant expectation. Cornerback Sean Smith, who was much better last year than some realize, signed with the Raiders. Most of the Chiefs’ time and money went toward re-signing their own free agents.
So if you want to believe the Chiefs can take another step, the most logical way is for Schwartz, who hasn’t missed a snap in four NFL seasons, to stabilize the line and diminish pressure on Smith.
Schwartz should be able to perform without a learning curve. Current Chiefs assistant Brad Childress was the Browns’ offensive coordinator during Schwartz’s rookie season, and the Chiefs run concepts Schwartz is familiar with.
If that’s the case, this will have a significant impact. Smith is, on the whole, in the middle third of NFL quarterbacks, but he’s smart and talented enough to take advantage when plays come off without surprises.
Last year, the surprises often came from right tackle. Now, Smith will better know he’s about to see when he takes the snap.
One other reason the Schwartz deal is so good for the Chiefs: money.
The NFL evolves at tricycle speeds. This is true in many ways, and one of them is in how different positions are paid. Left tackles are by far the highest paid players on the offensive line, and most of the reason is because that’s how it’s always been.
So even as defenses are increasingly bringing pressure from all angles — AFC right tackles are primarily responsible for Von Miller and Khalil Mack, for instance — the best left tackles make more than $10 million per year while the top right tackles make $6 million to $7 million.
Schwartz’s deal includes just $15 million guaranteed over five years, and a first-year cap hit of less than $2 million.
“We tried to break out of that mentality this past offseason,” Schwartz said. “We basically have the same job, so why isn’t the compensation the same? But we weren’t terribly successful with that.”
The positional discount was important in an offseason that prioritized re-signing stars like Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson, Jaye Howard and Eric Berry. It was a lucky break for the Chiefs, in some ways — their biggest position of need being filled by one of the NFL’s best players, and at a positional discount.
If the Chiefs are to improve upon 2015, it can’t be the last good break.