Take 5: Biggest threats to reign of Chiefs, Mahomes

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 capThe 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 RavensIt’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 BelichickNobody 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.

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