Lions’ first opponent to rely on new offensive tackles to protect Mahomes

Detroit News
Dave Skretta |  Associated Press

St. Joseph, Mo. – The Kansas City Chiefs need look no further than last season’s playoffs, and the sight of Patrick Mahomes hobbling to the sideline against the Jacksonville Jaguars with a high ankle sprain, to understand the importance in protecting their quarterback heading into the season opener against the Detroit Lions on Sept. 7 (8:20 p.m., NBC).

Yet oddly enough, they were OK watching both of their starting offensive tackles leave in free agency.

The big blow was the departure of left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., for whom the Chiefs paid the Ravens handsomely in a trade, when the two sides failed to reach an agreement on a long-term deal.

But nearly as painful was the loss of right tackle Andrew Wylie, who had gone from an afterthought fighting for a job to one of the more reliable players along the offensive line.

Rarely do the Chiefs make such moves without a plan, though. General manager Brett Veach acted quickly to sign ex-Tampa Bay tackle Donovan Smith to handle the left side and former Jacksonville tackle Jawaan Taylor to handle the right, then Veach used a third-round pick on Oklahoma’s Wanya Morris to create instant competition at both positions.

So far, Chiefs coach Andy Reid – an old offensive line coach – has liked what he’s seen.

“You’re never sure exactly what you’re going to get there,” Reid said, “but they’re competing and that’s important. That’s an important part of this, that you’re able to push through these practices, run and pass. I like the way they work their game.”

The decision to put Mahomes’ health in the hands of Smith and Taylor is a gamble, though. Neither of them graded out particularly well last season, depending on the metric you use, though both of them have shown flashes of high-level play in the past.

Smith, for example, ranked No. 66 among 81 offensive tackles by Pro Football Focus. Taylor was just one spot better.

But the Chiefs have established a track record of unlocking the potential in relatively unheralded players, particularly along the offensive line, where assistant coach Andy Heck is among the best in the business.

Wylie is a prime example: He was undrafted out of Eastern Michigan and wound up earning two Super Bowl rings in Kansas City before signing with Washington.

“All of us have played a lot of football and a lot of big games, tough games,” Taylor said. “We’re all smart mentally, physically. It’s just more so we’re tying in each and every individual aspect of who we are and how we play and tying it together and figuring out what works, what meshes. You know, just the many things we bring to the table per guy I would say is our strength.”

Another strength is having one of the best interior offensive lines in the NFL. Left guard Joe Thuney is considered one of the top five in the league at his position, right guard Trey Smith is likewise considered a top-tier guard, and center Creed Humphrey was picked for the Pro Bowl in just his second season in the league.

It also helps having Mahomes calling out the signals.

“Just a great leader man. He brings that energy every day, you know? He holds everybody accountable,” Donovan Smith said. “You mess up, we are going to redo it. Even in the walk-throughs and the learning periods, we always slow it down and we get to learn the offense. That’s been helping me a lot with the walk-throughs and learning the things they like doing here.”

The Chiefs were fortunate to overcome Mahomes’ ankle injury in the playoffs. He returned in the second half to lead them past Jacksonville in the divisional round, and he hobbled through an AFC title game-thriller against Cincinnati, before hurting the ankle again in the Super Bowl – and then leading the Chiefs past Philadelphia for the Lombardi Trophy.

The pressure is on the Chiefs’ new offensive tackles to prevent the same such stress this season.

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