In 2010, the Chiefs made the playoffs, winning the AFC West with 10 victories. In 2011, they won just 7 games, but suffered major injuries to Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry, Tony Moeaki, and Matt Cassel. Charles went down for the season week 2. Moeaki missed the entire year, as did Berry, with the exception of 5 snaps in the opener before tearing his ACL. Cassel, meanwhile, missed 7 games, forcing the completely incompetent Tyler Palko to start 4 games, before the mediocre Kyle Orton took over for the last 3.
Because of this, many are picking the Chiefs to be a bounce back candidate and potential “sleeper.” Doing so based only off the information stated in the first paragraph is flawed, for several reasons. One, while the Chiefs made the playoffs with 10 wins in 2010, they were not a deserving playoff team. They went just 2-5 against teams that were .500 or better, including playoffs, and 8-2 against teams that were sub .500.
One of their two wins came against the early season Chargers week 1, in a game where Matt Cassel threw for 68 yards and their 3 scores came on a long touchdown run, a pick six, and a punt return touchdown. The Chargers avenged that defeat with a 31-0 victory later in the season. The other came against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were starting 3rd string quarterback Todd Bauman. Their 5 losses, meanwhile, came by a combined 88 points. They also ranked just 17th in the NFL in DVOA.
The second reason why the information in the first paragraph is not complete is that, while the Chiefs won 7 games last year, they did not play like a 7 win team. They had a Pythagorean Expectation of 4.0 wins, 29th in the NFL, and ranked 26th in DVOA. Since the NFL has gone to a 16 game schedule, teams who exceed their Pythagorean Expectation by 2 wins or more averaged 2.5 wins fewer the next season and teams who exceed it by 3 wins or more averaged 2.7 wins fewer the next season.
The guys they’ll be getting back from injury will help, but to say that they’re a 7 win team getting back 4 key contributors is not a complete statement. It’s also not a complete statement to say that they’re a team two seasons removed from winning a division title getting back 4 key contributors. Their win total has not been an accurate measure of their performance over the last 2 seasons.
Offensively, the Chiefs were 31st in the league with 13.3 points per game last year. In order to turn things around, the Chiefs will be going back to a much more run heavy offense. They tried to do that in 2011, ranking 5th in the league in rushing attempts, but they ranked just 15th in rushing yards as they averaged just 3.9 YPC. That figure ranked 28th in the NFL. With Jamaal Charles out, the trio of Thomas Jones, Jackie Battle, and Dexter McCluster just did not get it done.
In addition to getting Jamaal Charles back from injury, the Chiefs also signed Peyton Hillis to compliment him and Eric Winston to run block (more on their offensive line later). They have stated that their goal is to get their two backs 500 touches this season, which falls just shy of the 539 touches that Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles had in 2010, but would still rank among the league leaders.
It’s possible that the Chiefs will be even more efficient on the ground this year than in 2012 because Hillis, even if he doesn’t bounce back off a disappointing season in 2011, is an obvious upgrade over an aged Thomas Jones, who averaged just 3.7 YPC and caught just 14 passes in 2010. Meanwhile, former Head Coach Todd Haley is gone, which means the obviously more talented of the two backs, Charles, will lead the team in carries and get significantly more touches (could be something like a 300-200 split). In 2010, Charles averaged 6.4 YPC, almost an NFL record, but managed just 230 carries to Jones’ 245, even though Jones was averaging 3.7 YPC. Charles barely had more overall touches, leading Jones in that category 275 to 259. That was inexcusable. The Chiefs have also upgraded the offensive line.
However, the one thing holding back the Chiefs’ running game from being more efficient than the 4.7 YPC it averaged in 2010 is actually Charles himself. Charles almost set an NFL record, averaging 6.4 YPC in 2010. That’s a very unrepeatable figure, especially for someone coming off a torn ACL. The Chiefs also won’t have the fortunate of playing 12 of their games against teams that ranked in the bottom half of the league against the run, like they did in 2010. They’ll still be a good running team, but predicting the running game to carry the team to the playoffs like they did in 2010 is a flawed prediction.
A strong running game really made life easier for Matt Cassel in 2010, which is why they were able to win 10 games (that and a weak schedule). In addition to a tougher schedule, I also don’t expect Cassel to be as good this season as he was in 2010, even with an improved running game. One statistic jumps out for me about Cassel’s 2010 season and that’s his 27-7 TD-INT ratio.
When looking at his career, that’s an obvious outlier. In the rest of his career, his TD-INT ratio is 49-38. It’s definitely possible that outlier was caused by the easy schedule, in addition to just fluke luck. Including playoffs, his TD-INT ratio was just 5-6 against teams that finished .500 or better. On top of that, turnovers are very tough to predict on a yearly basis.
The 2010 Chiefs had 14 turnovers. There have been 36 teams since 2002 with 20 or fewer turnovers. In their next season, those teams, have had, on average, 9.64 more turnovers and won 2.69 fewer games. Backing up that number, the Chiefs turned the ball over 28 times in 2011. That’s not the fluke. The 14 turnovers is. A full season of Cassel will help a little bit, but not much.
Other than the TD-INT ratio, the rest of Cassel’s stats were pretty in line with his career averages in 2010. He completed just 58.2% of his passes, actually slightly less than his career average of 59.0%, and he averaged just 6.9 YPA, slightly up from his career average of 6.6 YPA. Those figures will probably be close to repeated for Cassel in 2012, but his TD-INT ratio will be more in line with that 49-38 figure rather than the 27-7 figure, even with a better running game and especially with a tougher schedule.
The Chiefs will struggle to move the ball through the air and, no matter how good their running game is, they’ll still be a subpar offensive team because of it. They averaged just 15.7 points per game in the 9 games that Cassel started last year so their horrible 13.3 points per game figure was not solely the fault of Palko and Orton. With an improved running game, they’ll be better than 15.7 points per game, but not a whole lot.
Onto the offensive line now, which I’ve mentioned before. As I’ve alluded to, the Chiefs’ offensive line will be an improved group in 2012 over 2010 and over 2011. In 2010, they were ProFootballFocus’ 16th ranked run blocking offensive line and ranked 24th in pass blocking efficiency. In 2011, they ranked 5th in pass blocking efficiency, but 27th as run blockers. In 2012, I expect them to run block and pass block well.
One of the reasons for this is the addition of Eric Winston at right tackle. Incumbent right tackle Barry Richardson ranked 72nd out of 73 offensive tackles on ProFootballFocus, allowing 8 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 36 quarterback pressures, while committing 9 penalties and ranking dead last at his position as a run blocker. Running off the right tackle, the Chiefs averaged just 2.6 YPC last season, which is pathetic even on a team that averaged just 3.9 YPC total.
He’s gone and will be replaced by Eric Winston, who ranked 14th among offensive tackles on ProFootballFocus, pass blocking and run blocking well, allowing 7 sacks, but just 2 quarterback hits, and 23 quarterback pressures, while committing 9 penalties, the only weakness in his game. He’s no one hit wonder either, ranking in the top-14 at his position in each of the last 3 seasons. He’s consistent and he’ll be an obvious upgrade.
One of the reasons that the Chiefs got so much better at pass blocking in 2011 from 2010 was the emergence of left tackle Branden Albert as a legitimate blindside protector. Once the 15th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, Albert was looking like a bust who would be best served at right tackle or guard before last year, when he allowed just 5 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 13 quarterback pressures. 10 penalties are an issue, but he ranked 8th at his position as a pass blocker and was a decent run blocker.
This was obviously an upgrade over his first 3 seasons, when he combined to allow 23 sacks, 24 quarterback hits, and 69 quarterback pressures, while committing 23 penalties in 45 starts. He ranked 33rd at his position in 2008, 64th in 2009, and 35th in 2010. I think he can continue his strong play into the future and Eric Winston replacing Barry Richardson at right tackle only helps matters on the offensive line as they attempt to pass protect for Matt Cassel.
Right guard Jon Asamoah is also a great pass protector, ranking 5th at his position in that aspect, allowing just 2 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 8 quarterback pressures. He was a terrible run blocker though, ranking 69th out of 76 players at his position in that area of his game. Still, he’s a solid starter who graded out above average overall. Long time center Casey Wiegmann is gone, but he’ll be replaced by 2011 2nd round pick Rodney Hudson, who was decent in limited action as a rookie.
Meanwhile, left guard Ryan Lilja is the weak link of the offensive line, but I don’t know if you can even call him that as the soon to be 31 year old is still a solid player. He’ll be pushed for his job by 2nd round rookie Jeff Allen, but it’s more likely that Allen begins his career as a 6th offensive lineman, while Lilja starts. I thought Allen was a reach in the 2nd round, but his versatility can’t be questioned as he played every position except center at Illinois.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
On paper, the Chiefs have a strong receiving corps and could possibly have the best receiving corps they’ve had in the last 3 years. From 2010 to 2011, they added Jonathan Baldwin in the 1st round of the draft and Steve Breaston in free agency, though they lost tight end Tony Moeaki for the season in the preseason. From 2011 to 2012, they’ll get Moeaki back and Baldwin has been having a great offseason as he heads into his 2nd season in the league.
The issue is that Dwayne Bowe, their unquestioned best receiver, has yet to sign his franchise tender. It’s unclear what he hopes to gain by skipping camp, as he can be fined and can’t be signed long term anymore. He’s also missing out on valuable practice time with a new coaching staff coming in and guys are impressing in his absence. He’s had a great 5 years since being a 1st round pick in 2007, catching 356 passes for 4927 yards and 36 touchdowns in 75 games, despite inconsistent quarterback play. He’s also played in all 16 games in 4 of 5 seasons. However, he’s hurting himself by missing Training Camp with a new coaching staff coming in, so he could have a down year, especially if he continues to miss more time. There’s currently no timetable for his return.
One of the guys impressing in his absence is Jonathan Baldwin, a 2011 1st round pick. Baldwin didn’t do much as a rookie, catching just 21 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown, but rookie receivers tend to struggle. Discounting Julio Jones and AJ Green, since the 2005 NFL Draft, 22 receivers have gone in the 1st round of the NFL Draft. In their rookie years, they have averaged 37 catches for 524 yards and 3 touchdowns.
And this is not a group of busts. This group includes, among others, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin, Hakeem Nicks, Jeremy Maclin, Kenny Britt, Calvin Johnson, Dwayne Bowe, Robert Meachem, Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Roddy White. The leader in rookie production among those 22, ironically Dwayne Bowe, who caught 70 passes for 995 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2007.
Baldwin could definitely have a much better year in 2012, though it’ll be tough for him to have a statistical breakout year with other guys around him to compete for targets with and on not a very good passing offense. He could compete with Breaston for a starting job and, at the very least, he’ll play outside opposite Bowe in 3-wide receiver sets, where Breaston moves to the slot. Breaston caught 61 passes for 785 yards and 2 touchdowns last year, but his knees always remain an issue. He’s been tough though, only missing 4 games in the last 3 seasons and playing in all 16 last year.
Another player with injury issues is Tony Moeaki. Moeaki tore his ACL last offseason and missed the entire season, leaving bums like Leonard Pope, Anthony Becht, and Jake O’Connell to split time at tight end in his absence. He caught 47 passes for 556 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2010, as a mere 3rd round pick rookie, so he’ll definitely be a welcome return to their receiving corps. The one issue with him is that his injury problems date back to his days at Iowa, so it’s very possible he could sustain some sort of injury again this season. With that in mind, the Chiefs signed Kevin Boss, a decent pass catcher and solid blocker, as insurance. Boss will also come in on two-tight end sets if Moeaki can stay healthy.
The Chiefs definitely do have talent offensively, but they’re limited by the play of Matt Cassel, a mediocre quarterback at best. Cassel played well in 2010, which led to this team winning the division and making the playoffs, but that was largely the result of an easy schedule and a fluky TD-INT ratio. He won’t play that well in 2012, even though he’ll have a strong running game and supporting cast backing him once again, and that will limit the Chiefs’ potential both offensively and as a team.
The Chiefs have a solid group defensively, which has ranked 11th (20.4 points per game) and 12th (21.1 points per game) in the last two seasons respectively. They’ll have a strong bunch again in 2012, but, while they have added players offensively this offseason like Hillis and Winston, the Chiefs suffered a major loss defensively, losing Brandon Carr and replacing him with the significantly inferior Stanford Routt.
They do get Eric Berry back from injury and he could have a very good season in his 3rd year in the league, while 2nd year linebacker Justin Houston has the look of a budding star. They’ll be a good defense, but not the top-10 defense that will be required for a team that figures to score under 20 per game to be competitive in 2012.
The Chiefs have a trio of highly drafted players on their 3 man defensive line. Their defensive ends are Tyson Jackson, 3rd overall in 2009, and Glenn Dorsey, 5th overall in 2008, while nose tackle Dontari Poe was the 11th overall pick back in April’s 2012 NFL Draft. However, despite their high draft slots, Jackson and Dorsey have disappointed to this point in their career. You can’t really categorize them as busts, because they’re above average starters, but you’re not looking for just above average starters in the top 5.
Both are great against the run, with Dorsey ranking 1st and Jackson ranking 6th on ProFootballFocus among 3-4 defensive ends as run stuffers. However, neither offers anything as pass rushers, ranking 29th and 26th respectively in that regard among 32 players at their position. Dorsey and Jackson combined for 1 sack, 3 quarterback hits, and 6 quarterback pressures on a combined 469 pass rush snaps, good for a pathetic 2.1% pass rush rate. This is a big part of the reason why the Chiefs managed a mere 29 sacks last year. They’re still above average starters, but it’s worth noting that they’re one dimensional.
2011 3rd round pick Allen Bailey will rotate with them and have a bigger role this season as a situational pass rusher. However, he can only sub in for one of them at a time on passing downs, unlike last year when they had Wallace Gilberry. With Gilberry gone, 4th on the depth chart at 3-4 defensive end is Brandon Bair, a 2011 undrafted free agent who has never played a snap in the NFL.
Bailey is also still a projection as he’s so inexperienced. He played well in limited action last year, playing 294 snaps, 225 of which were pass rush snaps, and recording 1 sack, 1 quarterback hit, and 9 quarterback pressures, good for a solid 4.9% pass rush rate, which is certainly better than Dorsey and Jackson. He also played the run well, but he’s still no sure thing transitioning to a bigger role and he’s definitely still unproven.
Poe, meanwhile, was immediately made the starting nose tackle after the Chiefs took him 11th overall in April. Incumbent Kelly Gregg played well, but he’s still unsigned and will probably retire. Poe is incredibly athletic with 4.9 speed at 6-4 340 with the ability to put up 44 reps of 225 on the bench. He also didn’t produce in college despite playing for Memphis in the weak C-USA. Some of that was the scheme, some of that was him. He’s faster than quick, a straight line athlete, and he doesn’t always play up to his size. I think he’ll bust and, at the very least, he’ll struggle as a rookie since he’s so raw and because he’s never faced anything like NFL competition. If he ever plays well, it’ll almost definitely be in 2013 and beyond.
The Chiefs may have had a mere 29 sacks last season, but you can’t blame Tamba Hali for that. Hali turned in another strong season, ranking 4th on ProFootballFocus among rush linebackers and producing 12 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and 41 quarterback pressures on 459 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 13.7%. He’s been good for years, but he’s never really had much help.
In 2010, he had 19 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, and 68 quarterback pressures on 583 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 15.9%. The Chiefs did manage 46 sacks, including playoffs, but nickel rusher Wallace Gilberry with 7 was the only other player on the team with more than 3. In 2009, he had 9 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 36 quarterback pressures on 449 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 12.9%, but only Gilberry with 6 had more than 2 and the Chiefs managed 26 as a team. They haven’t had another good pass rusher in years in the starting lineup.
That could change this year. The Chiefs used a 3rd round pick on Justin Houston in the 2011 NFL Draft and he could prove to be a steal. Houston has 1st round talent and was frequently projected there before news of his failed Combine drug test surfaced. Houston appears to have put that behind him. He worked his way into the starting lineup last season and had 6 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 13 quarterback pressures on 207 pass rush snaps, good for a rate of 10.6%.
He played every snap except one from week 11 on and had most of his production in those 7 games, with 6 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and 11 quarterback pressures. It’s no coincidence that the Chiefs had 20 of their 29 sacks in those 7 games. As a full time starter in 2012, he could approach double digit sacks and his presence in the lineup as a 2nd pass rush threat will make this a much better pass rush. They won’t be elite or anything because they can’t get much pass rush from the defensive line and they don’t have a 3rd pass rusher, but they should be improved.
The one issue with Houston is that the Chiefs love dropping the opposite rush linebacker into coverage. When Mike Vrabel was the starter, that made sense because he could cover as well as he could pass rush, but Justin Houston is terrible in coverage and a great pass rusher. They have to find some way that he doesn’t have to drop into coverage as much as he did last year, when he dropped on 163 snaps, as opposed to 207 pass rushes. Hali doesn’t cover well either.
Inside, the Chiefs have another stud, middle linebacker Derrick Johnson. Johnson is one of the best in the league at his position, ranking 4th on ProFootballFocus. He doesn’t get the recognition of guys like Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Ray Lewis and Brian Cushing, but he ranked right behind the top 3 and ahead of Cushing. He’s ranked in the top-5 in each of the last 2 seasons, something only Patrick Willis can also say and in 2009 he was 13th despite for some reason only playing 344 snaps in 15 games (one of Todd Haley’s dumbest decisions ever and that’s saying something). Before that, he was an outside linebacker in a 4-3.
Next to him, the Chiefs have Jovan Belcher. Apparently no one knows who he is because middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was often mocked to the Chiefs at 11th overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, but he’s actually a solid starter. He struggles in coverage, but as a two down run stuffing linebacker, he gets the job done and well. He ranked 19th at his position against the run.
The Chiefs used to have two stud cornerbacks. That’s no longer the case. Brandon Flowers is still in town, but Brandon Carr is gone. Flowers is the better of the two cornerbacks, but that doesn’t really make Carr’s loss any easier. Last season, Carr allowed 39 completions on 79 attempts (49.4%) for 511 yards (6.5 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 5 penalties.
Flowers is more valuable because he covers #1 receivers and because he’s more consistent. He’s been a top-8 cornerback on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 3 seasons, something only Champ Bailey and Darrelle Revis can also say. Last year was his worst year as he ranked 8th and though he did play really well, he also surrendered some big plays. He allowed 46 completions on 86 attempts (53.5%) for 667 yards (7.8 YPA), 8 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, while deflecting 8 passes and committing 5 penalties. He needs to eliminate some of the bigger plays in 2012, but I think he should have another fantastic season.
Opposite him, the Chiefs have signed Stanford Routt. Routt bounced back off a year in which he ranked 88th out of 100 cornerbacks on ProFootballFocus in 2010 by allowing just 51.1% completion in 2011 as the #1 cornerback in Oakland (48 completions on 94 attempts). He also allowed just 532 yards (5.7 YPA), deflected 10 passes, and picked off 4. However, he surrendered a league leading 9 touchdowns and committed a league leading 17 penalties. He ranked 78th out of 98 cornerbacks and is a clear downgrade from Carr.
One thing that will definitely help mask the absence of Carr is the return of Eric Berry. Berry, the 5th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, had a strong rookie year. He didn’t deserve to go to the Pro Bowl, but he did play well, especially for a rookie. However, he was never allowed to have the breakout year many felt was coming in 2011 because he tore his ACL 5 snaps into the season. In 2012, he’s fully recovered and could have the type of year many envisioned last season. He could finish the season among the league’s best safeties and make the Pro Bowl, deservingly this time. He’ll certainly be better than guys like Jon McCraw, Donald Washington, Travis Daniels, and Sabby Piscitelli, all of whom attempted to replace him last year. They all failed miserably.
The other safety is Kendrick Lewis, who proved to be a decent starter in Berry’s absence. Javier Arenas will be the nickel cornerback and he does a solid job. In dime sets, rather than using 4 cornerbacks and 2 safeties, the Chiefs enjoy using a 3rd safety. They signed the veteran Abram Elam for that purpose, as well as to provide insurance for Berry. He’s a mediocre starter, but you do a lot worse for a depth safety.
The loss of Brandon Carr will hurt, but the return of Berry and an improved pass rush will help. The Chiefs definitely still have talent defensively and should rank close to where they have in the last 2 seasons, when they’ve ranked 11th and 12th in points per game allowed and allowed in the 20-21 points per game range. However, in order to be a competitive playoff team, they’ll have to score in that range as well and I don’t think they can do that. Last year, they scored just 13.3 points per game and while upgrades in the offensive line and running game, as well as guys returning from injury, will help, they are still limited by their quarterback.
The Chiefs finished last season 2-1 after firing Todd Haley, beating previously undefeated Green Bay and Denver, who would go on to defeat the Steelers in the playoffs the following week. Interim Head Coach Romeo Crennel has gotten the interim label taken off and will be the full time Head Coach. However, I don’t think he can continue that success.
For one, that’s a small sample size. Two, I don’t think their inspired play late last season was as much a response to Crennel becoming Head Coach as it was to Todd Haley, who the players did not like, being fired. Crennel was 24-40 in 4 seasons in Cleveland. He’s not a very good Head Coach and, while he’s excellent as a defensive coordinator (which he’ll continue to do this season), I don’t think he’ll be a positive to this team as their Head Coach. On top of that, splitting duties between coordinating the defense and being a Head Coach, especially in your first full year as Head Coach, can hurt your performance in both areas.
The Chiefs’ win total has not been an accurate measure of their talent over the last 2 seasons. That could continue to be the case this season, but it’s unlikely and I won’t predict it. It’s sad that Matt Cassel is holding up the team because they have a solid defense, a good offensive line and receiving corps, and they can run the ball really well. However, if you don’t have a quarterback in this league, you won’t get far.
Aside from his fluke TD-INT ratio in 2010, Cassel has been a career 59.0% pass completer who averages just 6.6 YPA and 49 touchdowns to 38 interceptions. Excluding the fluky 2010 figure, his 16 game averages over the last 4 seasons are 297 completions on 503 attempts (59.0%) for 3330 yards (6.6 YPA), 19 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions and that’s factoring in a year in New England, where everything was easy for him. This team averaged 15.7 points per game last year with Cassel completing 59.5% of his passes for an average of 6.4 YPA and 10 touchdowns to 9 interceptions. That’s what we can expect from Cassel this year.
They are fortunate to have an easy division, but I think they’ll go 2-4 in the division as Denver and San Diego are both clearly better than them. Oakland has the better quarterback too, but their supporting cast is a mess. Outside the division, they host Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Carolina, and Indianapolis. Having to face the NFC South and AFC North is no picnic.
They should go around 2-3 or 3-2 in those games at home as Atlanta is a bad road team and the final 3 teams are not that hard. Meanwhile, they go to Buffalo, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. New Orleans and Pittsburgh seem unwinnable on the road, while Buffalo will be better than people think, as will Tampa Bay. Cleveland is the only really easy road game they have. With that schedule, 5 or 6 wins is realistic.
Projection: 6-10 3rd in AFC West