There was a time last season when the Chiefs were sitting pretty atop the NFL at 9-0 that Alex Smith was 29-5-1 in his last 35 starts. People like to give him all the credit for those wins, but in reality, he was lucky enough to face generally easy competition and have a strong running game and defense supporting him, both in San Francisco and Kansas City. In those 35 games, the offenses Smith led averaged about 24.1 points per game, above average, but not terribly impressive considering his offensive supporting cast and the easy schedule he faced.
Still, Kansas City at 9-0 looked like they would at least be what the 2011 49ers were, a 13-3 team that was a bounce of the ball away from the Super Bowl. They weren’t though, as the schedule got tougher. It wasn’t significantly tougher as they still finished the regular season with the #32 schedule of strength in terms of DVOA. However, their schedule to start the season was a joke. Only one of their 9 opponents finished the regular season above .500 and that was Philadelphia, who was still starting Michael Vick at that point. 4 of their 9 opponents finished the season 4-12.
Combined, those 9 teams finished 62-82 (.431) and that doesn’t even tell the whole story. They played 4 teams who were starting backup quarterbacks and had a 5 week stretch in which they faced Ryan Fitzpatrick, Terrelle Pryor, Case Keenum, Jason Campbell, and Thad Lewis. Despite that, they won just 3 of them by more than 10 points and won two of them by exactly 1 point. The rest of the way, the Chiefs went 2-5 and then lost in the first round of the playoffs in Indianapolis. They finished the regular season with 1 win against a team that finished above .500, that Philadelphia win, as opposed to 6 losses against such teams (including playoffs).
Alex Smith was the main culprit, as he once again showed an inability to push the ball deep downfield and make the throws needed to beat good opponents. He completed just 35 of 92 passes more than 10 yards downfield outside the numbers or more than 20 yards downfield in the middle of the field, including 14 of 45 passes 20+ yards downfield. He’ll need to play better this season as the Chiefs schedule will be harder, by default, and they swap out the NFC East and the AFC South for the AFC East and the NFC West. I don’t know if he can. He’s the type of quarterback that’s only as good as his supporting cast. In terms of passing grade, he was Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible.
The bad news for Smith is that his supporting cast is significantly worse this season. The Chiefs went into the off-season with their biggest weakness being at wide receiver. Not only did they not address that position, but they also lost 3 talented offensive linemen, their three best offensive linemen, who combined to make 28 starts last season. They won’t get much immediate help from their rookie class as they used their first round pick on Dee Ford, who will play behind Tamba Hali and Justin Houston and probably won’t start until 2015 when Houston could be gone as a free agent (side note, the Chiefs are going to regret passing on Teddy Bridgewater for Dee Ford and extending Alex Smith over Justin Houston. In a year when the Chiefs are stuck with Smith/Ford instead of Bridgewater/Houston, the Chiefs’ strategy won’t make much sense). They didn’t have a second round pick as they traded it the year before for Alex Smith.
It’s arguable that the Chiefs lost the most talent of any team in the NFL this off-season and nowhere will that be more noticeable than on the offensive line. Branden Albert, who was graded out well above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons, is now in Miami and the Chiefs will slide Eric Fisher from right tackle to left tackle. He was Pro Football Focus’ 70th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible last season in 14 starts. Fisher could be better in his 2nd year in the NFL. After all, he was the #1 overall pick in last year’s draft and his natural, collegiate position is left tackle. That being said, he was the #1 overall pick in one of the weakest drafts in recent memory and the blindside is typically a tougher position in the NFL because you aren’t getting tight end help as often and you’re more often getting the opponent’s best pass rusher.
Fisher at left tackle is a minor concern, but the bigger concern is Donald Stephenson at right tackle. Stephenson, a 2012 3rd round pick, has struggled whenever he’s been counted on to play in 2 years in the league, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 58th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible on just 377 snaps in 2012 and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible on 543 snaps in 2013. Furthermore, it’s telling about Fisher that, when Branden Albert missed a few games last year, they stuck Stephenson at left tackle instead of Fisher. If, for whatever reason, they do that going into 2014, they’re in even more trouble. Fisher should be able to lock down the left tackle job ahead of Stephenson, who isn’t qualified to protect a quarterback’s blindside in the NFL.
At guard, Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah are gone, but Jeff Allen remains. That’s not a good thing though. While Schwartz and Asamoah were Pro Football Focus’ 8th and 20th ranked guards respectively last season, Allen was 61st out of 81 eligible. He struggled in 2012 as well, as the then 2nd round rookie graded out as the 3rd worst player at his position. He’ll start at left guard.
Sadly, he’s probably their top guard. Opposite him, Jeff Linkenbach is penciled in and will probably begin the season as the starter, out of lack of alternatives, not on merit. Linkenbach has graded out well below average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league since going undrafted in 2010, struggling at both guard and tackle. His only season as a full-time starter was in 2011, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus 7th worst ranked offensive tackle. He was under-qualified as a 6th, swing offensive lineman in Indianapolis last year and he’s definitely under-qualified as a starter. The Chiefs’ alternatives include Rokevious Watkins, a 2012 5th round pick of the Rams who has struggled in limited action thus far, and Laurent Duverney-Tardif, a raw 6th round rookie from Canada.
The only stable position on the offensive line for the Chiefs is center, where Rodney Hudson is the starter. Hudson, a 2011 2nd round pick, graded out about average on Pro Football Focus last season as their 17th ranked center in his first full-year as a starter, after converting from guard. He was also very solid in 3 starts in 2012 before going down for the season with injury. That being said, when he’s your best offensive lineman, and he very well could be, you’re in big trouble.
The Chiefs were 10th in the NFL in pass block efficiency last season. This season, they could easily be among the worst in the NFL in that facet, especially when you consider that their schedule will be tougher this season. That’s an issue considering Alex Smith completed 46.1% of his passes under pressure last season. They also will have more trouble opening up holes for Jamaal Charles than they did last season, when they were Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked team in terms of team run blocking grade.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
I mentioned earlier that the Chiefs’ biggest weakness going into the off-season was their receiving corps. This was clear as Jamaal Charles, their starting running back, led the team in receiving yards, catching 70 passes for 693 yards and 7 touchdowns, all team leaders. Charles is a fantastic pass catching back, but they need someone else to step up as a receiving threat, particularly down the field.
Dwayne Bowe is supposed to be that guy, after the Chiefs gave him a 5-year, 56 million dollar deal before last season, after franchise tagging him the off-season before. Bowe has always been able to put up big numbers, catching 415 passes for 5728 yards and 39 touchdowns in 88 games in his career before last season, despite playing with the likes of Brodie Croyle, Damon Huard, Tyler Thigpen, Matt Cassel, Tyler Palko, Kyle Orton, and Brady Quinn at quarterback. However, last year with Smith, arguably the best quarterback he’s ever played with, he managed just 57 passes for 673 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Part of it was just that Alex Smith’s limited arm strength meant that he didn’t look often to the parts of the field to which Bowe often ran his routes last season, but part of it is on Bowe. He got 101 targets last season, which should have been more than enough for Bowe to establish himself as a threat more often. After finally getting a long-term deal, it looked like Bowe, who has a history of issues with motivation, let himself get out of shape a little bit and wasn’t always giving 100%. He’s also is going into his age 30 season so age is a bit of a concern. He’s reportedly changing his diet to try to stay in better shape for next season, which could help him, but I’m not expecting him to become a big-time receiving threat again in 2014.
Sadly, Bowe is still by far their best wide receiver. Donnie Avery, out of necessity, will be the other starting receiver again. Avery had a solid rookie year as a 2nd round rookie in 2008, but a bunch of leg injuries that limited him to 3 catches in 8 games combined in 2010 and 2011 have really taken their toll on him. He appeared to have revitalized his career in 2012 in Indianapolis, where he caught a career high 60 passes for a career high 781 yards to go with 3 touchdowns, but he was actually one of the most inefficient receivers in the NFL. He graded 100th out of 105 eligible at his position on Pro Football Focus, had his position’s 3rd highest drop rate among eligible receivers (12 drops to 60 catches) and ranked 70th out of 82 eligible in QB rating when thrown to, catching those 60 passes on 112 targets with 3 interceptions to those 3 touchdowns. Last year, he wasn’t much better, grading out 105th out of 111 eligible.
In addition to not upgrading the wide receiver position, the Chiefs also lost slot receiver Dexter McCluster this off-season. He was a solid part of their offense and Alex Smith enjoyed checking down to him. He caught 53 passes for 511 yards and 2 touchdowns last season and more than half of his yards per reception (5.1 per catch) came after the catch. AJ Jenkins and Junior Hemingway are now their top receivers on the depth chart after Avery. Hemingway, a 2012 7th round pick, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 102nd ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible last season despite playing just 315 snaps. It’s hard to expect much more from him this season.
AJ Jenkins, meanwhile, was a first round pick in 2012, but didn’t catch a pass in his rookie year in San Francisco and was traded to the Chiefs for another former first round pick bust Jonathan Baldwin last off-season. He only caught 8 passes last season, but he’s a better fit in Andy Reid’s offense than he was in Jim Harbaugh’s and he had a decent week 17 when the Chiefs rested their starters, as he caught 3 passes for 67 yards. Still, it would be very much wishful thinking for the Chiefs to expect him to have a 3rd year breakout year. He was a surprise first round pick to begin with and really looks like he never deserved to be drafted that high. If he develops enough to take Avery’s starting job, the Chiefs should count that as a win, but I’m not even sure he can do that. DeAnthony Thomas, a 4th round rookie, is a gadget player and slot option who is a long-shot for serious playing time. The Chiefs have a lot of problems at wide receiver. It’s slim pickings for Alex Smith.
Things aren’t much better at tight end. Alex Smith has to be missing Vernon Davis, a dominant tight end who he loved throwing to in San Francisco. Smith loves throwing short and over the middle, but doesn’t have anyone who can even come close to dominating in that part of the field. Anthony Fasano is the incumbent starter and will probably keep his starting job, but he only caught 23 passes for 200 yards and 3 touchdowns last season and didn’t excel as a blocker.
Travis Kelce was the Chiefs’ 2013 3rd round pick. He didn’t play a snap as a rookie because of injury and, as much upside as he may have in terms of pass catching ability, he’s still completely unproven on the field. Sean McGrath, a 2012 undrafted free agent, also got in the mix last season, catching 26 passes for 302 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Chiefs also do a fair amount of throwing to the fullback, as Anthony Sherman caught 18 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown. He also graded out as by far Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked blocking fullback and #1 ranked fullback overall. And, of course, the Chiefs also throw a lot to Jamaal Charles. Overall though, it’s a very weak unit for the Chiefs.
I already mentioned the Chiefs’ dominant fullback Anthony Sherman and Jamaal Charles prowess as a pass catcher, but he’s also a hell of a runner as well. He’s the one saving grace of the Chiefs’ offense. There’s an argument to be made that he’s the best running back in football. His 5.58 career yards per carry are the highest all-time by a modern era running back (1960-today). Jim Brown comes in 2nd and even the legendary Brown averaged “just” 5.22 yards per carry.
Last season, Charles averaged 4.97 yards per carry on 259 yards, rushing for 1287 yards and 12 touchdowns, in addition to what he did as a pass catcher. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked running back overall (behind LeSean McCoy) and 4th ranked in pure running grade (behind McCoy, Marshawn Lynch, and Adrian Peterson). In 2012, on a bad team and a year removed from a torn ACL, he averaged 5.29 yards per carry on 285 carries, rushing for 1509 yards and 5 touchdowns, a season that would have gotten much more recognition if the Chiefs had been better and if Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning hadn’t had more impressive comeback seasons. Charles will probably never be a 300+ carry back under Andy Reid, but the Chiefs pass to the running back enough to make up for it.
There are some concerns here though. I already mentioned the Chiefs’ declining offensive line in front of him. It’s also just very tough to count on your star running back to do everything on offense. The 5-10 200 pound back now has 649 touches in 2 seasons back from that torn ACL and he could be wearing out a little bit going into his age 28 season. If anything happens to him, the Chiefs’ insurance policy is Knile Davis, a 2013 3rd round pick who had 88 total carries (regular season and post-season) as a rookie and rushed for 309 yards (3.51 yards per carry) and 5 touchdowns, while adding 18 catches for 108 yards. He’s basically just a goal line, short yardage back and the Chiefs would obviously be in trouble if he had to become the lead back. Most likely Charles stays healthy, has another dominant year, and tries to carry this offense, but the concerns with having a running back being such a big part of your offense needed to be mentioned.
While the Chiefs had big losses on offense this off-season, they didn’t lose much on defense. Tyson Jackson was probably their biggest loss as the former 3rd overall pick finally had a strong year in his contract year in 2013, only to sign with Atlanta this off-season. The Chiefs made the right move letting him sign for more than he was worth in Atlanta (5-year, 25 million), as he’s still a one year wonder who could coast now that he’s been paid and he’s also only a part-time, one-dimensional player, as good as he is against the run (10th among 3-4 defensive ends in run grade on Pro Football Focus in 2013). They got better value by signing Vance Walker for 3 years, 13 million, even if he might not be as good as Jackson was last season.
Unlike the one-dimensional, specialized Jackson, Walker is equally solid as a run stopper and a pass rusher. He won’t be as good as Jackson was against the run in base packages, but he’ll play some sub packages, which Jackson never did. That will cut into some Allen Bailey’s and Dontari Poe’s snaps, which isn’t a bad thing because the former, a situational sub package rusher, ironically struggled as a pass rusher last season and did his best work against the run. Meanwhile, the latter played an absurd 66.9 snaps per game last season at 6-3 346 and could use more frequent breathers. Walker was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked defensive tackle in 2012 and 36th ranked in 2013, both above average. One concern is that he’s never played in a 3-4 as a pro and at 6-2 305, he seems like a bit of an odd fit in the Chiefs’ defensive scheme.
Opposite Walker, Mike DeVito is essentially a more consistently, better version of Tyson Jackson, a pure base defensive end who excels against the run. Playing just 446 snaps, he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013, with no one playing fewer snaps than him and grading out higher, and he was 4th in pure run grade. In 2012, he was 9th at his position on 554 snaps, including 7th in pure run grade. In 2011, he was 9th at his position on 414 snaps, including 5th in pure run grade. In 2010, he was 6th at his position on 552 snaps, including 2nd in pure run grade. Somehow, only Calais Campbell has also graded out top-10 among 3-4 defensive ends in each of the last 4 seasons and DeVito is doing it despite playing only half the snaps. He’ll see almost no snaps in sub packages this year with Vance Walker, Dontari Poe, and, to an extent, Allen Bailey rotating at defensive tackle in sub packages.
Speaking of Poe, I mentioned he played an absurd amount of snaps last year. His 1004 snaps played led all defensive tackles and he did it in 15 games, despite being a monstrous 6-3 346. Only 5 other defensive linemen played that many snaps last season. The nose tackle stayed on the field for almost every single sub package snap, which is incredibly rare and incredibly impressive. He played every single snap in 5 games and missed 63 snaps all season, excluding the week 17 game in which the Chiefs rested their starters. In the playoff loss to Indianapolis, he dominated, while playing 59 of 67 possible snaps.
The 2012 1st round pick broke out last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked defensive tackle. He excelled against the run, but also played well as a pass rusher, despite his massive size. The big man has rare movement abilities. In his 3rd year in the league, only his age 24 season, he could be even better. He’ll probably be more efficient at the very least if they can get him a few more breathers, though he’s not exactly someone you want to take off the field.
I mentioned earlier the Chiefs’ deadly combination of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali at rush linebacker. Hali might be better known, but Houston is actually the better of the two linebackers. A 3rd round pick in 2011, Houston only fell because of a failed drug test at the combine. His off-the-field issues have been a non-factor in his career thus far, which has allowed him to dominate off the edge. He first proved his worth in 7 late season starts as a rookie, a stretch in which he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 7 games. Despite issues in coverage (worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in coverage in 2011), he still graded out 13th at his position that season on 773 snaps, including 10th as a pass rusher and 5th as a run stopper.
That allowed Houston to lock down the starting job going into 2012, which was his breakout year on an otherwise abysmal 2-14 Chiefs team. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, grading out above average in coverage, as a pass rusher, and against the run, while committing just 1 penalty all season. Meanwhile, teammate Tamba Hali graded out 15th at the position. Houston continued his strong play in 2013, which was his best season as a pro.
Despite missing 5 ½ games with an injury, Houston still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker and would have been in the running for Defensive Player of the Year had he stayed healthy. Prior to his injury, he missed 7 snaps all season. His most dominant performances were week 3 against Philadelphia, when he had 7 tackles for a stop (within 4 yards of the original line of scrimmage on first down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd or 4th down), including 4 sacks, and week 11 against Denver, when he had 10 total tackles, including 8 for a stop. If the Chiefs did draft Dee Ford in order to be Houston’s replacement long-term, freeing up money to extend Alex Smith long-term, rather than taking Teddy Bridgewater to be Alex Smith’s replacement and locking up Houston long-term, they’re going to really regret it. He’s one of the best players in football.
Hali opposite him is the “other” pass rusher, which tells you how good the Chiefs are at the rush linebacker position. There might not be a better pair of rush linebackers in the NFL and they might be the best pair of edge rushers in general, regardless of scheme. Hali was “only” Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker last season. He was 15th in 2012, in a down year, but otherwise he’s been a dominant edge rusher since converting to rush linebacker in 2009.
He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th, 1st, and 4th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2009, 2010, and 2011 respectively. In 2010, he had arguably the most impressive season in terms of purely rushing the passer of any player in the last 5 years as he had 17 sacks, 16 hits, and 64 hurries on 543 pass rush snaps, an absurd 17.9% rate (basically he was pressuring the quarterback on more than a 1/6 of his pass rush snaps).
The biggest issue with Hali is his age as he goes into his age 31 season. He’s shown some small signs of decline over the past two seasons and, if he has a down year this year, (completely possible considering guys like Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware, and Dwight Freeney have done similar things at similar points in their careers) Hali could be a cap casualty going into 2015. The Chiefs would save 9 million in cash and cap space by cutting him going into what would be his age 32 contract year, which would allow the Chiefs to re-sign Houston.
Either way, with the Chiefs drafting Dee Ford in the first round, it looks like this could very well by the final year of Houston/Hali on the edge for the Chiefs. As a rookie, Ford will work purely as a depth player, which was a need as Frank Zombo was previously their primary reserve, and he’s pretty mediocre. However, he’s unlikely to provide the immediate value for the Chiefs that they need considering all they lost this off-season.
At middle linebacker, the Chiefs have another stud linebacker, Derrick Johnson. Johnson doesn’t get the recognition of guys like Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, and Luke Kuechly, but he’s in that same class of player. Mr. Reliable, Johnson has been a top-5 middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 4 seasons, something only Patrick Willis himself can also say. Last season, he was 3rd. Even in 2009, the last season he was outside of the top-5, he graded out 8th and did it on 344 snaps.
Todd Haley did a lot of things wrong in Kansas City, but his biggest success was his ability to bring the most out of Johnson, a 2005 1st round pick, with discipline and toughness. Haley benched Johnson during 2009 for a variety of reasons and that served as a much needed wakeup call. He hasn’t looked back since. Even going into his age 32 season, he could easily have another strong season, as he’s yet to really show signs of aging, though his age is beginning to become a concern.
The only issue in the linebacking corps for the Chiefs is the other middle linebacker spot inside next to Johnson. Joe Mays is penciled in at that spot after the Chiefs lost yet another starter, Akeem Jordan, to free agency. Jordan wasn’t spectacular or anything as a part-time player and two down run stuffer, but he did grade out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked middle linebacker in run grade last season on just 489 snaps.
It’s not a particularly important position as it’s only a two-down position. Eric Berry usually comes down towards the line of scrimmage as a box safety in sub packages and essentially plays linebacker, with the Chiefs going to 3 safeties. However, Mays should be a downgrade. A 2008 6th round pick, Mays has graded out slightly below average in each of the last 3 seasons on Pro Football Focus, functioning as a fringe starter in both Denver and Houston. His strength is the run, but he’s not what Jordan was last season. Their other option is 2013 4th round pick Nico Johnson, who played 17 snaps as a rookie. He’s a long-shot for the starting job.
Speaking of Eric Berry, the safety/linebacker is Kansas City’s best defensive back. The 5th overall pick in 2010, Berry was overrated for a while, undeservedly making the Pro-Bowl in both 2010 and 2012. Berry played well as a rookie in 2010, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked safety, but he wasn’t Pro-Bowl caliber. He could have broken out as Pro-Bowl caliber in 2011, but he tore his ACL 5 snaps into the season. He was solid again in 2012, upon his return, grading out about average on Pro Football Focus, but he still wasn’t Pro-Bowl caliber and still didn’t appear to be reaching his full potential.
In 2013, his 4th year in the league, Berry did reach his potential, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked safety and deservedly making the Pro-Bowl. Now completely healthy with 1 game missed in his other 3 seasons (a meaningless week 17 game last year), Berry is going into his age 26 contract year and should have another solid season. By virtue of frequently playing as a sub package linebacker, Berry primarily lines up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage (69.7% of snaps in 2013, 3rd in the NFL). That being said, coverage is still his strong suit. The only issue with him playing linebacker often is that it takes arguably their best coverage back out of the secondary in sub packages, but he can still add to their coverage in a significant way from middle linebacker.
The Chiefs lost a lot of depth at safety this off-season. None of the guys they lost were particularly good, but they need as much depth as possible given how often they use 3 safeties. Kendrick Lewis and Quintin Demps both graded out slightly below average last season on 1079 and 665 snaps respectively, but that depth will be missed. Husain Abdullah will now be the #2 safety. He was decent on 294 snaps last season after being out of the league in 2012 for religious reasons. He was a solid starter in Minnesota before that and is still younger than 30.
The bigger concern is their 3rd safety. There are five options. Malcolm Bronson was an undrafted free agent in 2013 and didn’t play at all as a rookie. Daniel Sorensen is an undrafted free agent rookie. Sanders Commings, a tweener cornerback/safety at 6-0 216, played 3 snaps as a 5th round rookie last season. Jerron McMillan actually has experience. The 2012 4th round pick was solid as a rookie on 609 snaps as a rookie in Green Bay, but struggled mightily on 196 snaps in 2013, leading to his release. He was a week 1 starter, but he would have graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th worst safety last season despite his very limited playing time, if he was eligible. The fourth option is to convert one of their cornerbacks to safety in sub packages. Phillip Gaines, a 6-0 193 pound 3rd round rookie, is one option and Sean Smith, a 6-3 215 pounder, also has some safety experience.
The only way that could happen is if the Chiefs don’t cut Brandon Flowers. The Chiefs can get out of his 7.5 million dollar salary and spread out his 7 million dollar cap hit over two seasons if they cut him today as a post-June 1st cut, which is reportedly a consideration for them. That would save them 7.25 million on the cap. Trading him would reportedly be their preference. Flowers was once one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. He was a top-7 cornerback in the NFL on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2009-2012, maxing out at #2 in 2010.
However, he struggled mightily in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 87th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible, including 96th in pure coverage grade. Ironically, he somehow made the first Pro-Bowl of his career in 2013. If they keep him, he could have a bounce back year, but he might just be a horrible scheme fit under Don Sutton, who took over as defensive coordinator last season and generally did a great job. Flowers could be a bargain signing in the right scheme if he’s let go.
Sean Smith will slot in as the other starter. He had a strong season in 2010, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked cornerback, but he had a horrible season in 2011, grading out 105th out of 109 eligible. Over the past two seasons, he’s settled in as an average starting cornerback, which is what he really is. Marcus Cooper is currently penciled in as the 3rd cornerback. Cooper, a 7th round rookie, got off to a great start to his career, but got exposed down the stretch, including a 3 week span in which he allowed 454 receiving yards. He ended up finishing the season grading out slightly below average. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are no guarantees. He could be pushed by 3rd round rookie Phillip Gaines. Gaines would also have a big role if they were to move on from Flowers. And, as I mentioned, one of their cornerbacks could play safety part-time. The secondary is the weakest part of an overall strong defense.
Everything suggests the Chiefs will decline this season. Teams that have big win improvements tend to decline by about half the win improvement total from the previous season. The Chiefs won 2 games in 2012 and 11 games in 2013, a 9 game win improvement. Obviously the addition of Alex Smith and Andy Reid had something to do with that, but the rest of the team is pretty much the same. History suggests they’ll decline by about 4 or 5 wins, which would put them right around the win total they had in 2011, when they went 7-9. That seems about right.
That’s not the only thing I’m basing my decline theory on though. The Chiefs were not as good as their record suggested last season. They played the league’s easiest schedule in terms of DVOA, which doesn’t even take into account the number of teams they faced who were starting backup quarterbacks. Now they trade out the NFC East and the AFC South for the AFC East and the NFC West. They also suffered an unsustainably low amount of injuries, with the fewest adjusted games lost in the NFL last season. Yes, they did lose Justin Houston for 5 ½ games which hurt, but their other key players, Derrick Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Tamba Hali, Eric Berry, Dontari Poe, Alex Smith, Dwayne Bowe, and Mike Devito missed a combined 1 game between them last season, excluding the finale, in which the Chiefs rested their starters. That much injury luck is unlikely to happen again.
The Chiefs were also overly reliant on winning the turnover margin, with an AFC best +18 turnover margin. Winning the turnover margin consistently is hard to do, unless you have a top quarterback, and even then it’s hard. Teams with a turnover margin of +4 in a week on average have the same turnover margin the next week as a team that had a turnover margin of -4 the previous week, a turnover margin of about +0.0. Meanwhile, teams that have a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season see their turnover margins drop by an average of about 15.8 the following season, resulting in 2.32 fewer wins.
Teams with a turnover margin of -15 or worse in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +2.04. Meanwhile, teams with a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +3.42, a difference of about 1.38. These things are unpredictable. If you’re using a team’s turnover margin from the previous season as a reason why they’re going to continue to have success the next season, it’s usually not going to work out well. The Chiefs are unlikely to recover 58.70% of fumbles again next season, 4th best in the NFL. The tougher schedule and the fact that they’ll likely have more injuries will also play a role in this.
In addition to the Chiefs not being as good as their record last season, they also have less talent than last season, because of all of their off-season losses. They lost their 3 most talented offensive linemen, who combined for 26 starts last season. They also lost valuable depth at wide receiver, safety, and middle linebacker. They’re unlikely to get much out of their rookie class this season, as their first round pick was used with 2015 in mind and they didn’t have a 2nd round pick. In terms of pure talent level, I have them closer to the bottom of the league than the top. Every year, one team goes from in the playoffs to 5 wins or fewer. The Chiefs are a prime candidate to do so if enough things go wrong. I’ll have an official prediction at the end of all the previews.
Season Prediction: 5-11 3rd in AFC West