The new rule of NFL roster construction: Build a team that can beat Patrick Mahomes
By ADAM KILGORE | The Washington Post | Published: September 10, 2020
On the night of Feb. 2 inside Hard Rock Stadium, defensive tackle Chris Jones stood in one corner of the jubilant Kansas City Chiefs locker room. The Lombardi Trophy had only started its lap around the room, but Jones's mind drifted to the future.
"We going to build a f------ dynasty in Kansas City!" Jones yelled, encircled by a pack of reporters. "We're like the Golden State Warriors, baby."
Jones's declaration — which, believe it or not, happened seven months and not seven years ago — reverberated across the offseason and may well echo for years. The rest of the NFL chases the defending Super Bowl champion every year, but the Chiefs' first championship since 1970 provided the league's other 31 teams a more urgent mandate.
When quarterback Patrick Mahomes takes the Arrowhead Stadium field Thursday night against the Houston Texans for the NFL's season-opening game, he will do so as the reigning Super Bowl MVP and the owner of the richest contract in the history of North American professional sports — a 10-year extension still somehow structured in a manner that allowed the Chiefs to retain 20 of 22 starters, including Jones with a lucrative contract extension.
In a season likely to be defined by the off-field story lines of playing during a pandemic and how the league addresses social justice issues, the center of the NFL's on-field universe is Kansas City. Tom Brady is starting his post-New England twilight with Tampa Bay, Lamar Jackson is trying to validate his MVP trophy in Baltimore, and the San Francisco 49ers are attempting to forge a permanent Super Bowl contender under Coach Kyle Shanahan. But Mahomes's otherworldly performance, long-term commitment and youth will define the competitive portion of this year — and probably many years to come.
"You've got to go through Kansas City," Indianapolis Colts Coach Frank Reich said in an interview. "And you've got to figure out ways to slow Patrick Mahomes down."
Not unlike the NBA's Warriors of Jones's comparison, the Chiefs have built not only a great team but a playing style based on individual brilliance that the rest of the league must account for. Several of the contenders for Kansas City's throne acknowledge that Mahomes's presence shapes how they construct their roster. Division rivals loaded up on speedy receivers, conference contenders scrambled to add elite pass rushers and coaches rethought a dilemma: Is it smarter to try to stop the Chiefs or outscore them?
"Every move and signing we make, we have to have them in mind," Los Angeles Chargers Coach Anthony Lynn told reporters this past offseason.
When weighing roster decisions with regard to opponents, teams typically start with what they need to beat their division rivals, said Marc Ross, an NFL Network analyst and former personnel executive for the New York Giants. Then they might consider other teams in their conference and maybe a threat from the opposite conference.
The reigning Super Bowl champions always create a standard in that calculation, but the Chiefs this year push the concept. Mahomes will be there for at least 10 years, and in Coach Andy Reid's innovative system it seems possible — if not likely — the Chiefs are replacing the Patriots as an annual hurdle for any team with hopes of hoisting the Lombardi.
"They're sort of on the cutting edge of the new wave of football, and he epitomizes that idea of what football has become," Ross said.
The NFL's quandary is obvious: If there is a way to slow Mahomes, nobody has figured it out. But Reich and the Colts found inspiration in the Super Bowl. Colts General Manager Chris Ballard frequently discussed the need to overcome Mahomes, Reich said this past offseason, and "that's where the DeForest Buckner trade comes in."
During April's draft, the Colts traded the 13th pick to the 49ers for Buckner, who had pressured Mahomes relentlessly as San Francisco built a 10-point lead in the Super Bowl. Along with the draft pick, the Colts signed Buckner to a four-year, $84 million contract extension.
"Obviously, DeForest had a great game in the Super Bowl," Reich said this offseason. "Early in the game when the 49ers were up, it was because of the pressure being put on Patrick. You have to put some pressure on him."
The Tennessee Titans, whom the Chiefs beat in the AFC championship game in January after erasing a 10-point deficit, seemed to take the same lesson. Having come so close to the Super Bowl, with only Mahomes beating them, the Titans' biggest additions came in their pass rush. They signed Vic Beasley early in free agency, and at the end of training camp they signed Jadeveon Clowney — one of the few edge rushers whose athleticism can match Mahomes's — to a one-year, $15 million deal.
The biggest threat to the Chiefs may reside in Baltimore, where Jackson led the Ravens to a 14-2 regular season before a stunning defeat to the Titans in their opening playoff game. The Ravens play nothing like the Chiefs on offense, but they may be the NFL's most similar team in concept: They have an utterly singular quarterback, and around him they have constructed a system unlike any other. The Chiefs use spreading the field and outlandish speed, while the Ravens use creative formations and power running.
The Ravens are another team opponents must keep an eye on, but they still keep an eye on the Chiefs when building their roster.
"You have to understand the teams in your division and how you match up, certainly in your conference to the next degree," Coach John Harbaugh said. "If you're talking about the reigning champs, it's going to be in your mind. You're always thinking about New England, of course. We have for years because they've been so good. . . . It's more about us than them. But certainly 'them' is in your process to some extent."
The unluckiest franchises in the NFL may reside in the AFC West — the Chargers, Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders must contend with Mahomes twice a season. The challenge naturally bleeds into the offseason.
"When the Super Bowl champion and Andy Reid is in your division, yeah, that raises the bar for everybody," Chargers General Manager Tom Telesco said. "So, yeah, it plays into how you build your football team as far as how you match up with them. And then how they match up with you, that plays a part in your whole offseason and how are you going to build your football team."
In the spring, Broncos star pass rusher Von Miller was asked how a defense could stop Mahomes.
"Can't," Miller said. "We've just got to score points. If we're able to get off the field — you can hold them to a third down here and there, but that's on our offense. . . . It's not smart to go into the game and say we're going to hold Patrick Mahomes to no points."
And so the Broncos' offseason seemed to hinge not on containing Mahomes, but on keeping up with him. They already had the personnel to construct a top defense — which took a severe hit Tuesday when Miller suffered a season-threatening injury — and so they loaded up at skill positions to support second-year quarterback Drew Lock. They used their first two picks on wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler and another choice on Albert Okwuegbunam, the fastest tight end in the draft. They also signed free agent running back Melvin Gordon.
"We needed to score more points, whether we're playing the Chiefs or not," Denver Coach Vic Fangio told reporters after the draft. "But obviously, playing against them, you're going to need to. That was part of it."
The Raiders, too, took a stab at emulating the Chiefs' speed, using their first pick on wide receiver Henry Ruggs III, who ran the fastest 40-yard dash time at the combine and has been compared at times to Kansas City's Tyreek Hill.
"Let's be honest, the entire league is chasing the Kansas City Chiefs," Raiders GM Mike Mayock told reporters this offseason. "But we're in the same division. They keep getting faster and more athletic, more dynamic every time you turn around. Other teams have to do the same."
Trying to mimic the team you're chasing, though, can be a trap. Any competitor trying to play like the Chiefs without Reid, Mahomes and the constellation of talent around him is probably doomed to build a cheap impostor. When Ross worked with the Giants, he scoffed when he saw teams trying to duplicate the Patriots' system.
"Number one, go get Tom Brady," Ross said. "Until you do that, you can't replicate what they do. The main center of the Patriots Way is having possibly the greatest quarterback of all time. Until then, you have to build your own identity."
In Kansas City, they are well past building an identity. They are trying to build a dynasty, and it is up to the rest of the NFL to stop them. The question of the 2020 season on the field is whether anyone can beat Mahomes, and that does not figure to change for a long time.
The Washington Post's John Clayton and Kent Babb contributed to this report.