6 notable takeaways from the Chiefs signing of Donovan Smith
By Matt Conner
On Wednesday evening, word broke from NFL reporter Tom Pelissero that the Kansas City Chiefs found the money to make a surprise signing along the defensive line. Just when everyone had penciled in all of the likely starters on a Super Bowl-defending roster, the Chiefs made a major new addition by adding offensive tackle Donovan Smith.
Per Pelissero, Smith’s deal is only for one year but it’s worth up to $9 million. The official contract terms were not available as of press time, and it will be interesting to see what incentives are in place, but that amount seems significant. The news itself, coming after the drafting of Wanya Morris and the earlier signing of Jawaan Taylor, also bolsters the tackle position to unexpected levels.
So what should we take from the signing? How does this affect the starting five for this year? What does this mean for the Chiefs’ long-term plans? Let’s take a look at a few important takeaways from this signing.
1. Donovan Smith is going to start
It’s possible that the Chiefs will at least leave everything open on paper. Andy Reid might say the right thing about competition during OTAs or even as the team heads into training camp at St. Joseph. But let’s be clear: Donovan Smith didn’t sign a deal for up to $9 million as a left tackle with Super Bowl experience and eight straight years as a starting bookend to come and play the swing tackle role for the Chiefs.
Perhaps something amazing happens and Lucas Niang is completely recovered from a patellar tendon injury and ready to steal a job from someone. It’s also possible Wanya Morris is more pro-ready than anyone realized and should be taking starter’s reps from the outset. But the solid bet is on Smith to begin his ninth year in the NFL the same way he has every single other season—as a starting tackle (and a left one at that). More on that in a moment.
At this point, Morris now has a redshirt season. Niang has zero pressure on his recuperation. Prince Tega Wanogho remains a fringe player who hopes to surprise everyone. That’s because in 2023. Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor will be your scheduled starters for Week 1.
2. Donovan Smith played through pain last year
The Chiefs are signing Donovan knowing there’s a better player available than the performance displayed last year. The Bucs watched Smith commit 12 penalties a year ago (a few of them even nullifying touchdowns), which was ultra-frustrating for fans, but the truth is that Smith was also playing through plenty of pain from an elbow injury (hyperextended) that he suffered at the very beginning of the season.
Bucs coaches left it up to a proven vet like Smith to let the team know if he was good to go or not, with Todd Bowles saying it was about pain management for Smith, and the tackle suited up for 13 total starts. Imagine trying to keep elite pass rushes from hitting Tom Brady when your entire elbow joint is jacked up. Yeah, there were likely several moments when he resorted to disallowed reaches to slow his opponent.
A healthy Donovan is going to be a cleaner Donovan, one that allows less pressure and commits fewer penalties.
3. Expect the Chiefs to keep players in familiar places
Earlier this offseason, the Chiefs signed Jawaan Taylor to a four-year deal and immediately announced him as the new left tackle. Taylor, up until that point, had only played right tackle over the last seven seasons—both in college at Florida and professionally with Jacksonville—save for some random snaps here and there. Still, Taylor said he was ready to make the switch, and the Chiefs had a new blindside protector for Patrick Mahomes.
But here’s the thing. It’s one thing to move a player because there’s a need. For Taylor to move now, however, would be irresponsible.
Donovan Smith has started every single game of his NFL career for the last eight years—all at left tackle for the Buccaneers. Taylor comes with the same sort of experience in four seasons for the Jags on the right side. The Chiefs would be absolutely foolish to wad up 12 total NFL seasons worth of experience and expertise just for the sake of change.
4. The ghosts of Schwartz and Fisher live on
One of the scariest moments of Brett Veach’s tenure with the Chiefs has to be the moment that Eric Fisher was lost to a torn Achilles during the AFC Championship following the 2020 regular season. Fisher, at the time, was the lone starter remaining on a front line that had been decimated by injury—from Kelechi Osemele’s knee to Mitch Schwartz’s back. And then, just before a Super Bowl appearance, Fisher was lost as well.
Just like that, the Chiefs were down both of their tackles to long-term injuries within a half-season of each other. Schwartz would never play again. Fisher would never be the same. After years together as ironmen protecting Alex Smith and then Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs lost both bookends and the pipeline of talent wasn’t exactly inspiring.
With that moment only two-plus years ago, it makes a bit more sense to see Veach chasing tackles with such passion this offseason. Not only are there multiple young players waiting in the wings, but we also have two new veterans with several seasons of experience to start. If an injury occurs, if a long season takes its toll, the Chiefs will still be okay.
That wasn’t true back in 2020-21, but the ghosts from those days still haunt the transaction wire today.
5. Youngsters feel little pressure
There’s a very clear order of operations now in place for the offensive line. Next season, Smith will hit free agency once again at the age of 30 with a solid chance to add another nice payday if he enjoys a healthy year with the Chiefs. That opening will give Taylor a chance to slide over from the right side or one of the two primary prospects on the roster a chance to claim a starting role.
For Niang, it’s important to remember that he still has two full seasons left on his rookie deal after opting out of his rookie season due to COVID-19. Morris is now under team control for the next four seasons after being taken in the third round. That means both players can serve as understudies this season as they continue to learn and grow on their own timing.
6. Lucas Niang might not be progressing as hoped
It’s important to remember that Niang’s injury was a patellar tendon which is just brutal for an athlete to recover from, let alone one that’s intended to play at 300 pounds or more in such a physical game. It’s not as if this was even Niang’s first injury, so that likely serves to complicate the picture even more.
There’s no denying Niang is a very, very talented player. He came in and claimed starting reps at right tackle from the moment he arrived in Kansas City and that was after he’d sat from any real game action for quite some time in 2021. The problem is his durability and the Chiefs cannot count on him if he can’t prove to be out there on a consistent basis.
While everyone will be rooting for Niang to return to form and force the Chiefs coaches into some tough decisions, signing Smith at this stage for this money feels like the kind of move you make when there are still clouds of concern around a player you once were counting on to start.
Bonus Takeaway: You gotta wonder if Smith and the Chiefs had this option all along
The timing of this deal raised some eyebrows in that it came after the draft and the roster seemed mostly settled. That’s a lot of potential money. And if the Chiefs had a big need at tackle, why wait until after the draft to sign him? It makes you wonder if the Chiefs and Smith’s reps had reached agreement on this very deal only with the caveat that the Chiefs wanted to see if the first round of the draft fell in such an odd way that a top tackle slid all the way to upend their expectations. And perhaps the Chiefs’ request to wait was enough for Smith who knew it represented a very real chance to rebuild his stock and play for another ring. No one knows, but it makes you wonder.