The Chiefs were the NFL’s most improved team last season, going from 2 wins in 2012 to 11 wins in 2013. It shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was. They had a lot of talent in 2012, as evidenced by their 6 Pro-Bowlers, but they couldn’t do anything because of horrific quarterback play, horrific head coaching, and a horrific turnover margin. The additions of Alex Smith and Andy Reid stabilized all 3 of those things and allowed talented players like Jamaal Charles, Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Eric Berry, Dontari Poe, Derrick Johnson, Branden Albert and others to shine. Their turnover margin actually went from -24 all the way to +18.
It also helped that they had one of the easiest schedules in the NFL (the easiest, according to DVOA). They actually weren’t quite as good as their record made them seem as they went 10-0 against teams that finished 8-8 or worse and 1-6 in their 7 other games, including a post-season loss in Indianapolis. Their one win against a winning team came against a Philadelphia team that was still using Michael Vick under center. Andy Reid did a great job, but I’m glad he didn’t win Coach of the Year. He inherited an underrated squad, had an easy schedule, and it was a loaded Coach of the Year field (Reid, Ron Rivera, Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, Chip Kelly).
Their schedule will be tougher in 2014 and they won’t be able to count on such a strong turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be very inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. They were the beneficiary of that in 2013. In 2014, they might not be. They also have a good amount of key free agents, including left tackle Branden Albert, who isn’t expected back.
They have a strong supporting cast, but the limiting factor is Alex Smith. Smith is a league average starting quarterback, maybe a little bit below league average, which was a tremendous upgrade over Brady Quinn and Matt Cassel, but is he the type of guy who can lead you to victory against tough opponents or get hot in the post-season and win a Super Bowl? He was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked quarterback last season, including 29th in pure passing grade.
The Chiefs went 10-6 in 2010 under Matt Cassel for similar reasons (strong running game, easy schedule, strong turnover margin) and stuck with him instead of drafting someone like Andy Dalton or Colin Kaepernick in the first round. Alex Smith is a better quarterback than Cassel ever was, but the Chiefs may end up making the same mistake twice if they are confident in Smith as their franchise quarterback. He has one year left on his contract and the Chiefs are reportedly currently in talks about extending him, which may end up keeping their team in no man’s land for a few more years.
Jamaal Charles led the team in receiving with 70 catches for 693 yards and 7 touchdowns. Dwayne Bowe was 2nd, their leading wide receiver, but he was a huge disappointment, showing poor chemistry with Alex Smith and catching just 57 passes for 673 yards and 5 touchdowns. After them, it was Donnie Avery and Dexter McCluster, the former of whom could be a cap casualty and the latter of whom is a free agent. Avery was Pro Football Focus’ 105th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible. They desperately need another downfield pass catcher.
Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz are both free agents this off-season. Asamoah was the starter at right guard, while Schwartz made 7 starts at right and left guard and also played some right tackle. Jeff Allen is currently slated to be the left guard in 2014, where he played most of 2013, but he struggled mightily, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 62nd ranked guard out of 81 eligible. Schwartz should be the left guard, but if they don’t re-sign him and Asamoah, they’ll need at least one new starter at guard, if not two.
The Chiefs frequently use three safeties in obvious passing situations as Eric Berry moves towards the line of scrimmage and plays a lot of linebacker in sub packages. Kendrick Lewis, Quintin Demps, and Husain Abdullah are all free agents and those are the Chiefs’ top-3 safeties after Berry. None of them are great anyway. They could need up to two new safeties this off-season. Adding at least one average or better starter at the position would be wise.
Branden Albert is a free agent this off-season, after serving on the franchise tag this season. It doesn’t sound like he’ll be back after he and the Chiefs have struggled to come to an agreement on a long-term deal. Eric Fisher was the #1 overall pick in 2013, but he struggled mightily at right tackle this season and he might not be ready to play on the blindside. Donald Stephenson was their swing tackle last season and could be a bookend opposite Fisher, but the 2012 3rd round pick has struggled mightily in limited action in 2 years in his career. Adding another offensive tackle, assuming Albert is gone, would make sense.
The Chiefs don’t just need pass catchers at wide receiver. They could use tight end help as well. Sean McGrath led their tight ends in receiving yardage, catching just 26 passes for 302 yards and 2 touchdowns. Anthony Fasano struggled in his first year with the team and could be a cap casualty this off-season. Travis Kelce could be a bigger factor in 2013, but he missed his entire rookie year with injuries and was only a 3rd round pick so he might not be much help. They could add another tight end this off-season.
Tyson Jackson, the 3rd overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft, shook the bust label a little bit this season, reinventing himself as a two-down run stuffer in Bob Sutton’s defense. However, he’s a free agent this off-season and if he isn’t brought back, they’ll need to find a new two-down run stuffer and starting 5-technique defensive end. Fortunately, it’s just a two-down position because Allen Bailey and Dontari Poe handle sub package duties from the interior. He wouldn’t be that hard to replace if need be, though he did have a good season against the run.
Starting middle linebacker Akeem Jordan is a free agent this off-season. If he isn’t able to be retained, he’ll have to be replaced. Fortunately, the middle linebacker spot is only a two-down position in Kansas City’s 3-4 defense because Eric Berry comes down and plays linebacker in obvious passing situations. It wouldn’t be hard to find another capable two-down run stuffing linebacker. Promoting 2013 4th round pick Nico Johnson is an option.
Is Alex Smith the long-term solution? He was a tremendous upgrade over Brady Quinn and Matt Cassel, but is he the type of guy who can lead you to victory against tough opponents or get hot in the post-season and win a Super Bowl? He was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked quarterback last season, including 29th in pure passing grade. The Chiefs went 10-6 in 2010 under Matt Cassel for similar reasons (strong running game, easy schedule, strong turnover margin) and stuck with him instead of drafting someone like Andy Dalton or Colin Kaepernick in the first round. Alex Smith is a better quarterback than Cassel ever was, but the Chiefs may end up making the same mistake twice if they are confident in Smith as their franchise quarterback. I’m not saying move on from him, but maybe instead of extending him right away going into his contract year, which sounds like what they’re going to do, draft a developmental quarterback early and make him play out his contract year, knowing that, worst case scenario, you have the franchise tag in your back pocket if he is actually a much better quarterback than I think he is.
Dexter McCluster is a free agent this off-season and he handled every single one of their punts except for one last season. If they don’t bring him back, they’ll need to find someone new to handle punt returns.
Key Free Agents
OT Branden Albert
Branden Albert has been a very solid blindside protector over the past 3 seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked offensive tackle in 2011, 25th ranked offensive tackle in 2012, and 28th ranked offensive tackle in 2013. However, he’s had a history of back problems and now is going into his age 30 season, two big reasons why the Chiefs and he have had big problems agreeing on a long-term deal. He’s unlikely to be back with the Chiefs, but he’ll still big a hot commodity on the open market. Good blindside protectors like him are incredibly valuable.
G Jon Asamoah
An underrated interior offensive lineman, Asamoah has graded out well above average in all 3 seasons as a starter, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked guard in 2012. He missed 7 games essentially to end the 2013 season, which will probably hurt his market, but he’s still an above average guard who should be paid like one. Something similar to what Louis Vasquez got last off-season (4 years, 23.5 million with 13 million guaranteed) would be pretty reasonable.
G Geoff Schwartz
Geoff Schwartz played well in 2010 with the Panthers, in 11 games at guard and 5 games at tackle. His composite grade would have been 5th among guard and 13th among tackles on Pro Football Focus. However, he missed the entire 2011 season with injury and was relegated to reserve work in Minnesota in 2012, impressing in limited action. In 2013 with the Chiefs, he played 549 snaps at left guard, right guard, and right tackle and his composite grade would have been 7th among guards, 20th among tackles, despite the limited playing time. He’s a starting caliber player (at worst) and deserves to be appreciated and paid as one. He’s only going into his age 28 season.
DE Tyson Jackson
A surprise pick #3 overall in 2009, Tyson Jackson looked very much like a bust going into this season, grading out below average on Pro Football Focus in the three of first four years of his career from 2009-2012. However, the Chiefs forced him to take a pay cut ahead of his contract year in 2013 and it seemed to wake him up. Bob Sutton coming in as defensive coordinator probably also helped. He graded out as Pro Football Focus 14th ranked 3-4 defensive end, including 10th in terms of run grade. That being said, he’s only a part-time player who doesn’t generate any pass rush in a passing league. He played just 509 snaps and he might coast if he gets some guaranteed money. Teams shouldn’t overpay based on one good year. He should consider himself lucky if he gets what teammate Mike DeVito got last off-season. DeVito, a rich man’s Jackson, got 12.6 million over 3 years.
S Kendrick Lewis
A 5th round pick in 2010, Kendrick Lewis has been a 4-year starter on his rookie deal and he has played pretty well. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 2 seasons and below average in 2. He’s roughly a league average starter at safety and should be paid like one.
WR Dexter McCluster
Dexter McCluster has been an all-purpose player in 4 years since being drafted by the Chiefs in the 2nd round in 2010. He’s caught 172 passes for 1500 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns, rushed for 662 yards and a touchdown on 152 carries, returned 52 kickoffs for 1087 yards, and returned 79 punts for 989 yards and 3 touchdowns. His best role is as a depth receiver and punt returner. He was one of the league’s best punt returners last year, scoring twice, averaging 12.2 yards per punt return, and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked punt returner last season.
MLB Akeem Jordan
An under-the-radar depth linebacker that Andy Reid brought over with him from Philadelphia, Jordan was a starter in Kansas City this year in a two-down middle linebacker role. He only played 483 snaps, but actually ended up as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked middle linebacker. Two-down linebackers don’t command much money, but he’s proven that he can be a solid base player in that role and he has experience in both the 3-4 and the 4-3.
Cap Casualty Candidates
WR Donnie Avery
Donnie Avery struggled mightily in his first season in Kansas City, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 105th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible. That’s no surprise considering how inefficient he was in Indianapolis the year before, grading out 100th out of 105 eligible wide receivers. The Chiefs can save 1.35 million on the cap by cutting him.
TE Anthony Fasano
Anthony Fasano also struggled mightily in his first season in Kansas City, catching 23 passes for 200 yards and 3 touchdowns on 236 routes run, a pathetic average of 0.85 yards per route run. Only one tight end ran more routes and averaged fewer per route. The Chiefs have Sean McGrath and Travis Kelce will be coming back from injury. They could easily cut him and replace him with another tight end through the draft, a move that would save them 1 million in cap space.