Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is the best player in football.
Just 36 starts into his career, he has a Lombardi Trophy, plus regular-season and Super Bowl MVP awards. He’s only 24.
That’s bad news for the rest of the NFL, especially the AFC. The Chiefs already have hosted back-to-back AFC Championship Games and were whiskers from consecutive Super Bowl appearances. Their division foes are struggling, and the best younger QB in the conference abruptly quit football in August.
Yes, things are looking great in Kansas City, which will host a parade on Wednesday to fete the Chiefs and their 31-20 win in Super Bowl LIV.
Who can challenge the Chiefs’ reign? These are the five greatest obstacles standing in the way of a Kansas City dynasty.
1. The salary cap
The Chiefs’ greatest enemies, at the moment, are the league’s established restrictions to promote parity. Even with a quarterback still on a rookie contract, Kansas City already is feeling the pressure.
Kansas City has just $19 million in cap room for 2020, per Spotrac, and that’s without accounting for Chris Jones — an elite interior pass rusher — and defensive backs Bashaud Breeland and Kendall Fuller, all pending free agents. Jones’ negotiation might require the franchise tag, making for a delicate balancing of the books.
The Chiefs also have four key players with two years left on their contracts: tight end Travis Kelce, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, safety Tyrann Mathieu and left tackle Eric Fisher. As elite players at their positions, Kelce and Schwartz could demand raises this offseason on deals signed in 2016. If they don’t, they’ll surely command top-level extensions next offseason. Likewise, Mathieu and Fisher will want new deals next summer.
And of course, a megadeal for Mahomes is looming. Initial reports suggested the Chiefs would get it done this offseason, but they might not have the flexibility. The sooner the better — Mahomes’ price tag (at least $40 million annually) only will rise.
Kansas City will look for relief. Sammy Watkins and Anthony Hitchens have wildly disappointed on pricey contracts from 2018, and cutting Watkins (if he doesn’t step away, as he suggested he might this week) would save $14 million. Hitchens, however, restructured his deal in September and will count $12.7 million against the cap in 2020 barring a post-June 1 release, which would push $8.4 million of that into 2021.
Modest savings could be found elsewhere. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif ($4.9 million savings), Cameron Erving ($4.7 million), Daniel Sorensen ($3.75 million) and Damien Wilson ($3 million) could be released, but that would leave nearly $6 million in dead money and some depth issues on the O-line.
The Chiefs’ saving grace is that they’ll be a destination for free agents as long as Mahomes is around. That won’t solve cap issues entirely, but it’s a nice consolation.
2. Lamar Jackson and the Ravens
It’s easy to forget that the Chiefs weren’t even the best team in the AFC during the regular season. When the Tennessee Titans upset the Baltimore Ravens and Lamar Jackson in the divisional round, they gave Kansas City a far easier path to the Super Bowl.
Baltimore has work to do (Matt Judon, Jimmy Smith and Michael Pierce are free agents), but it has more cap room ($26.6 million) than Kansas City and is at least a year away from extending Jackson. The Ravens restock and reload as well as any NFL team. They have a quality offensive line, young weapons in Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown, plus a loaded defense with great depth at cornerback.
Despite the sour result, Jackson did not play all that poorly against the Titans, and any narratives about his playoff record (0-2) are downright silly at this point. The unanimous MVP, he’s one of the NFL’s best players and still ascending, having turned 23 in January.
The Chiefs already are assured of facing the Ravens in Baltimore in 2020 and 2021, games that could decide the conference’s top seed. That might make Jackson vs. Mahomes the next great quarterback rivalry.
The two have met twice. The Chiefs won both games, but one required a series of miraculous plays from Mahomes to win in overtime in 2018.
3. Bill Belichick
Nobody knows who the New England Patriots’ quarterback will be in 2020. But Bill Belichick will be the head coach, and that should keep Mahomes and the Chiefs wary.
Kansas City lost Mahomes’ first two meetings with Belichick despite scoring a combined 71 points. The Chiefs turned the tables in December 2019 in Foxborough, Mass., winning 23-16, and they’ll get to host the Pats in 2020.
Another go-round with Belichick and Tom Brady would be dangerous for the Chiefs, especially if the Patriots can improve their offensive line and add another weapon or two.
Even if Brady is not back, don’t count New England out. How about a trade for Cam Newton? Andy Dalton is uninspiring, but Belichick could win a division with him. Don’t put it past the Patriots to take the maligned Josh Rosen from division-rival Miami and turn him into an above-average starter.
Until we have reason to believe otherwise, Belichick and the Patriots remain dangerous.
4. Deshaun Watson
This is more about Watson himself than about the Houston Texans as a whole.
Watson is a terrific young quarterback, a smart and talented passer who is incredibly dangerous both on-schedule and off-schedule. His protection is improving, and he’ll get even better with sharper pocket awareness. He should battle Jackson and Mahomes as the conference’s top quarterback over the next several years.
The reason Watson isn’t higher on this list is because the Texans’ future looks murky. Head coach Bill O’Brien took general manager duties and bet the farm on 2019, selling off future assets for Laremy Tunsil, Duke Johnson and Kenny Stills. Houston is without first- and third-round picks in 2020 and first- and second-round picks in 2021.
After blowing a 24-0 lead to the Chiefs in the AFC divisional round playoff game, the Texans have major holes to fill in the secondary and the pass rush, and few means to do so. Tunsil is about to command a mammoth extension, which will cut into Houston’s $56.5 million in cap room. Top cornerback Bradley Roby is a free agent, and Watson’s own megadeal will be needed before long.
Given O’Brien’s process thus far as the GM, it’s hard to trust him to steer the Texans properly moving forward.
5. Divisional surprises
Perhaps this should be higher on the list. We often tend to underestimate how quickly teams can improve (or decline), and how quickly a weak division can become strong.
For now, the AFC West has no worthy challengers and hasn’t in some time. Dating to November 2015, Kansas City is a staggering 27-2 against division foes: 9-0 against the Broncos and 9-1 against both the Raiders and Chargers.
The Chargers — the most talented of those teams — either will be searching for a new quarterback this offseason or will rely on an aging Philip Rivers in 2020. The Raiders reportedly are interested in Tom Brady, and a split between Jon Gruden and Derek Carr appears likely at some point. The Broncos may or may not have their quarterback of the future in Drew Lock, who merely was OK despite a 4-1 finish.
At least one of those teams, though, will threaten the Chiefs before long. Perhaps the Chargers land Justin Herbert in the upcoming draft, and he blossoms. Maybe Brady joins Gruden and makes the Raiders contenders. If Lock becomes a star, Mahomes suddenly would have a long-term rival in the division. Perhaps Trevor Lawrence is drafted by one of these teams in 2021.
None of these scenarios is a lock at the moment, but eventually, a challenger will emerge. That’s just how the NFL works. It could be awhile, though, before anyone dethrones the four-time defending AFC West champions.
–By David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media