The Chiefs have to face some tough questions when it comes to Mitchell Schwartz beyond 2020.
If anyone claims an easy answer, they’re either lying or they’re stupid.
When the Kansas City Chiefs must execute their plan, whatever it might be, regarding the future of offensive lineman Mitchell Schwartz, it’s going to feature an uneasy feeling. There’s just no way around it. The persons in charge might act decisively, but swift action or feigned confidence won’t clear the clouds. They’re going to remain in place until the Chiefs take the field in 2021.
On Monday, Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star noted that the Chiefs aren’t counting on Schwartz to be available for the postseason. It only furthered a completely unexpected absence from perhaps the NFL’s most reliable active player. Up until this season, Schwartz had never once missed a game since being selected in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Until last season, he’d never missed a single snap. Yes, until last November, Schwartz had played every single one of 7,894 consecutive snaps.
Through Week 5 of this season, the primary label for Schwartz was “ironman.” But it was more than just availability. Schwartz, despite being laughably left out of the Pro Bowl year after year, had been named a first-team or second-team All-Pro in each and every season since joining the Chiefs back in 2016 by the Associated Press (a more coveted honor than a Pro Bowl mention given the scarcity of spots). In short, Schwartz was a cornerstone of excellence who never missed a game—nay, a snap!
For the Chiefs, Schwartz was one of single greatest acquisitions in the last decade, an indispensable cog in an all-time great offense. He was a leader of men along an offensive front protecting the single greatest player in the National Football League. And beginning in 2020, he was supposed to carry the torch for a team trying to establish the league’s next great dynasty.
Even as he approached the age of 30—the digits which typically represent the beginning of the downward spiral, if not an outright wall—the Chiefs were confident in Schwartz’s ability to continue to play at a high level. The team offered him a restructured three-year extension that added another season onto his deal to keep him through 2021. We’ll come back to the finances of this in a bit, but it’s important to note that the timeline for Schwartz in K.C. was clearly expected to last through another year.
Maybe it still can.
In Week 6, Schwartz’s story took an unexpected and unpleasant turn. A back injury removed him from the team’s contest against the Buffalo Bills and forced Mike Remmers to take over on the right side. One week later, Schwartz wasn’t better and Remmers started his first game out there. It would be weeks before the Chiefs (and maybe the player?) would admit defeat and place Schwartz on injured reserve. Suddenly it was clear that fans and reporters were free to stop asking the weekly questions. This one was going to take a while.
On Monday, Mellinger only extended that timeline. Schwartz 2020 season is likely finished at just five-plus games. The offense’s pillar had begun to crumble. The most sure thing along the offensive line had become the biggest question going forward. And given the particulars involved—a 31-year-old offensive lineman with back issues heading into the final year of his contract—the future doesn’t look too bright.
For those who want to say the answer is simple, it’s likely because they are allowing the situation to be defined at the macro level, labeled in the broadest sense. They’re not wrong. Every year we see countless players—even good players—hit the wall of their thirties and call it quits. We see talented players give in to lingering injuries that aren’t going to get better with a few months of rest before running through the gauntlet again. We’re all human, including Schwartz, and the prognosis doesn’t look good.
While all of that is true, it denies what we’ve seen from Schwartz up until this very point. Schwartz is an elite right tackle—one of the very best at his position—and an injury has removed him from the field for the first time. Is it fair to suddenly click and drag him to the trash bin? Just last year, Eric Fisher, who had also played several years and was nearing 30, missed a half season due to injury and then came back strong. In fact, he was just named to this season’s Pro Bowl. Is Schwartz somehow immune to that kind of comeback?
If Schwartz had shown signs of slipping in recent years, if it’s clear that his best work was behind him, it would make sense to believe that his back pain was the signpost for the Chiefs to change direction at that spot. Instead, however, the Chiefs are dealing with a franchise player suffering through his first major injury. Will he be the same on the other side? It’s impossible to say. Do they move on to avoid the potential headache? Even that comes with questions.
If Schwartz can plug-and-play given enough rest and rehabilitation, the smartest move is to bring him back. He’s already under contract. He’s a known quantity. He was excellent before the injury and if he’s taking the field, it should be assumed that he’d return to form. That’s much better for a perennial contender like the Chiefs instead of rolling the dice with a new kid outside—be it Lucas Niang or a different draft pick.
Financially, the risk is worth the reward to keep Schwartz around—at least for the time being. If healthy, Schwartz can earn just over $10 million with the Chiefs in 2021. However, the dead cap space for cutting him is under $4 million. That’s not a pleasant total, but it’s also, say, 2.5 Cam Ervings or half an Eric Berry if that helps you make the decision.
Only the Chiefs and Schwartz will be privy to the sorts of conversations that wil help them make this call one way or the other, but to basically have a $3.75 million cost associated with holding on to see if Schwartz can return or not is a bill most GMs would probably love to take on. If it works out, the upside is just too great compared to making the decision too hastily based on fear and missing out on a player who has been nothing but excellent for the last eight seasons.