Kansas City Chiefs 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Although the Chiefs missed the playoffs last season, they finished the regular season 9th in rate of moving the chains differential, including 14th in rate of moving the chains by their offense. The Chiefs’ offense was able to have a solid offensive season despite infamously not getting a single receiving touchdown from a wide receiver and also having poor play on the offensive line, with just one offensive lineman playing a snap and grading out above average on Pro Football Focus.

How did the Chiefs have success with minimal receiving or offensive line talent? Well, they executed a ball control offense to perfection led by quarterback Alex Smith, feature back Jamaal Charles, and leading receiver, tight end Travis Kelce and orchestrated by head coach Andy Reid and his team of offensive assistants. Smith is the perfect quarterback for this offense and the offense is the perfect system for Smith.

Smith completed 65.3% of his passes for an average of 7.04 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions last season, grading out 16th among eligible quarterbacks, slightly above average. Since Jim Harbaugh turned him career around in 2011, Smith has completed 63.4% of his attempts for an average of 7.01 YPA, 71 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions. He also graded out 8th in 2011 on Pro Football Focus, 19th in 2012, 20th in 2013, and then 16th last season.

Smith is limited in his abilities and this offense would be limited even if they had a great offensive line and explosive receivers because of Smith’s below average ability to sit in the bottom and pick apart a defense downfield, but the Chiefs run the ball well and get the ball out of Smith’s hands in 2.44 seconds on average (11th among eligible quarterbacks), limiting sack chances. The Chiefs did still allow 49 sacks, but that was largely because of the offensive line, as Smith was still pressured on 35.6% of dropbacks, 16th among eligible quarterbacks, despite the quick release. Smith was also rarely forced to throw downfield as result of their ability to run the football, as 77.2% of Smith’s attempts were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, the highest percent in the NFL. That minimalized the Chiefs’ need for talented receivers, minimalized Smith’s lack of deep ball ability, and minimalized their offensive line’s struggles. Simply put, the Chiefs were able to get the most of their talent offensively last season, as a result of scheme.

Grade: B

Running Backs

As alluded to in the intro, the Chiefs’ strong running game was a huge part of why they were able to have offensive success last season. The Chiefs averaged 4.57 yards per carry last season on 420 carries, 5th in the NFL, despite an offensive line that ranked 19th on Pro Football Focus in run blocking grade. That was largely as a result of Jamaal Charles, who averaged 5.01 yards per carry and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back in rushing grade.

Charles did that despite dealing with a variety of nagging injuries. Those injuries only caused him to miss 1 game, but that not only limited his effectiveness running the football, but also limited him to just 206 carries, fewest in a non-injury shortened season since 2009. Backup running back Knile Davis, a 2013 3rd round pick, saw 134 carries and averaged just 3.46 yards per carry, grading out worst at his position on Pro Football Focus. Charles being healthier and being back in that 250+ carry range for the Chiefs will be very helpful this season.

Charles’ career 5.49 yard per carry average is best all time by a running back and he also has 262 catches in 95 career games as well. Excluding an injury shortened 2011 season, Charles has graded out 4th, 1st, 16th, 2nd, and 13th on Pro Football Focus among running backs in 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. Charles is going into his age 29 season with 1511 career touches, but should have at least one more dominant season left in him, which is obviously great news for Chiefs fans.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

I mentioned earlier that just one Chief offensive lineman graded out above average last season. That was center Rodney Hudson, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked center last season and then promptly signed a then record 5-year, 45 million dollar deal with the division rival Raiders. To replace him, the Chiefs drafted Mitch Morse in the 2nd round. A collegiate tackle, Morse was a good run blocker, but had issues in pass protection, especially against tougher SEC competition. The Chiefs think they can convert him into a center and maximize his abilities there. It could work out, but any time you’re drafting a collegiate tackle who can’t play professional tackle in the 2nd round based on the fact that he might be able to play center, it’s a weird pick. At the very least, he looks like a clear downgrade from Hudson.

The Chiefs did add a veteran offensive lineman this off-season to help offset some of the loss of Hudson, trading from Ben Grubbs, previously of the Saints. While Grubbs did grade below average last season and while he is going into his age 31 season, he graded out as a top-16 guard from 2009-2013, so there is some bounce back potential. He’ll slot in at left guard and be an immediate upgrade over the departed Mike McGlynn, who was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked guard last season in 13 starts at left guard.

Right guard Zach Fulton wasn’t much better, grading out 64th out of 78 eligible guards in 16 starts at right guard last season. He’s still on the roster, unlike McGlynn, but he’s unlikely to be starting again in 2015. A 2014 6th round pick forced into action as a rookie, Fulton profiles as a long-term backup at best, as is the case with most 6th round picks. Jeff Allen is returning from an elbow injury that ended his season 40 snaps into week 1 last year, while Paul Fanaika comes over as a veteran starter from Arizona.

Fanaika looks like the favorite to be the starting right guard, but he’s unlikely to be much of an upgrade from Fulton. Fanaika is a big, physical guard at 6-5 327, but he’s really struggled as a starter over the last 2 seasons in Arizona. After the 2009 7th round pick played no snaps in the first 4 seasons of his career, Fanaika started 30 games over the past 2 seasons, but he wasn’t good, grading out 76th out of 81 eligible guards in 2013 and 71st out of 78 eligible guards in 2014.

Allen wouldn’t be much of an upgrade on Fulton either. A 2012 2nd round pick, Allen was Pro Football Focus’ 79th ranked guard out of 81 eligible in 2012 and 60th out of 81 eligible in 2013, before missing most of last season with injury. Given that the Chiefs gave Fanaika starting money (3 years, 8.1 million), Allen’s best shot at the starting lineup is at right tackle, where he started week 1 of last season and where he’d compete with Donald Stephenson for the starting job. Whoever starts at right tackle, Allen or Stephenson, it figures to be a position of weakness. Stephenson, a 2012 3rd round pick, graded out 54th out of 80 eligible offensive tackles on 377 snaps in 2012, 61st out of 76 eligible on 543 snaps in 2013, and then played just 31 snaps last season as a backup.

The only player who figures to play in the same spot this season as last season is left tackle Eric Fisher. After a 2-14 2012 season, the Chiefs used the #1 overall pick on offensive tackle Eric Fisher. They’ve since had winning seasons in each of the last 2 seasons, but that had way more to do with stabilized quarterback play and stabilized coaching. Fisher himself has actually really struggled, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 70th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible in 2013 at right tackle and then 72nd out of 84 eligible in 2014 at left tackle. It’s too early to call him a bust, but he’s entering a make or break 3rd season, as the Chiefs would likely look to add another left tackle of the future and move Fisher elsewhere if he struggled on the blindside again. One of the worst offensive lines in football last season has gotten even worse this off-season.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

I mentioned three players as being the keys to the Chiefs’ offense last season: Alex Smith, Jamaal Charles, and tight end Travis Kelce. While Chief wide receivers struggled, Kelce led the team in receiving, with 67 catches for 862 yards and 5 touchdowns. That’s even more impressive when you consider that he played most of last season on a snap count as he was returning from a brutal knee injury that required micro-fracture surgery. Kelce caught 67 of his 81 targets (82.7%) and his 2.13 yards per route run was 2nd in the NFL among tight ends behind Rob Gronkowski.

Also a strong blocker (1st among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in that aspect), Kelce was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked tight end overall last season. That was despite playing just 688 snaps, barely more than teammate Anthony Fasano (678 snaps), who graded out 61st out of 67 eligible tight ends, but kept seeing the field because of Kelce’s knee. Fasano is gone now, leaving just Demetrius Harris behind Kelce on the depth chart. Harris, a 2013 undrafted free agent, has played 70 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, leaving Kelce to be an every down tight end. He could easily top 1000 receiving yards, while providing strong run blocking to help out a poor offensive line. If he can stay healthy, he’ll draw some Gronk-lite comparisons.

The situation at wide receiver isn’t as good. Everyone knows by now that no Chiefs wide receiver caught a touchdown last season, but it wasn’t just that they were being kept out of the end zone. Chief wide receivers combined for just 129 catches for 1588 yards. For comparison, Antonio Brown had 129 catches for 1698 yards by himself and also scored 13 times. Part of their wide receiver issues have to do with Alex Smith’s playing style and his hesitance to throw downfield outside the numbers, but there’s no denying this wide receiver group had a lot of issues last season. Dwayne Bowe had nearly half of their production from the wideout spot in 2014 (60/754/0). He didn’t grade out above average in pass catching grade on Pro Football Focus (only one Chief receiver did), but he was the only Chief receiver to play more than 260 snaps (25.2%).

The Chiefs cut him to save 11 million and put that money to better use, signing Jeremy Maclin to a 5-year, 55 million dollar deal. That’s not to say that they didn’t overpay Maclin, but he’s definitely a better football player than Bowe is at this point in his career. Maclin had a great 2014 season, as he had career highs across the board in Chip Kelly’s offense, despite quarterback problems, catching 85 passes for 1318 yards and 10 touchdowns, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked wide receiver.

However, he’s a one-year wonder. From 2009-2013, he missed 21 games with injury, including all of 2013 with a torn ACL. 2014 was also the first season in his career in which he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. He was terrible in 2012, grading out 101st out of 105 eligible. The fact that the Eagles, who had issues at wide receiver at well, were only willing to offer 9 million annually to Maclin is concerning, as is the fact that Maclin never did well before being in Chip Kelly’s scheme last season and now he returns to Andy Reid’s scheme, which he didn’t do that well in from 2009-2012 to start his career.

Couple that with his injury history and his overall past struggles and that wasn’t a very good deal, but he will help their team. His numbers should see a huge hit in the Chiefs’ ball control offense, but he’ll give the Chiefs’ offense more versatility in play calling and style of play. The Chiefs should have more plays of 20+ yards next season as a result, after just 49 last season, among the fewest in the NFL. They had just 41 pass plays of 20+ yards, 30th in the NFL. That type of thing can be tough to predict year to year anyway.

The rest of the Chiefs’ receiving corps is up in the air, much like it was last season behind Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs used a 3rd round pick on Chris Conley, but that was their only off-season addition at wide receiver other than Maclin. Conley was a weird pick anyway as his skill set doesn’t suit this offense and he was a workout warrior who got overdrafted because of his measurables. DeAnthony Thomas was their only wide receiver to grade out above average last season, as he caught 14 passes on 21 targets (66.7%) for 113 yards on 70 routes run (1.61 yards per route run) and 156 rushing yards on 23 carries. The 5-9 174 2014 4th round pick is only a slot receiver/scat back whose best case scenario is Dexter McCluster, but he could easily carve out a meaningful role in the slot this season.

Albert Wilson is someone the team likes and he could carve out a role both in the slot and outside. However, he too is very unproven as the 2014 undrafted free agent played just 223 snaps as a rookie, grading out slightly below average. Kelce and Maclin give Alex Smith two solid targets, but after those two it’s uncertainty and inexperience on the depth chart. The likes of Demetrius Harris, Albert Wilson, DeAnthony Thomas, and Charles Conley could all see significant roles on this Chiefs’ offense this season. It’ll once again be a Chiefs offense that is good at what they do and nothing else. They should once again be middle of the pack in rate of moving the chains.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

Once again, it’ll be the Chiefs defense that will win them games more so than their offense. The Chiefs had 2nd fewest adjusted games lost on defense in 2013, part of the reason why many, including myself, expected them to decline defensively in 2014. Injuries struck quickly as Achilles tears knocked out both Mike DeVito and Derrick Johnson for the season in week 1 and the Chiefs finished 27th in adjusted games lost on the season. However, the Chiefs’ defense was able to compensate and still finish 7th in rate of moving the chains allowed.

DeVito will be back this season in his typical role as a two-down base defensive end in the Chiefs’ 3-4. He might be just a base player, but he’s as good as any pure base player in the NFL, if not better. From 2010-2013, Mike DeVito was one of just two 3-4 defensive ends to grade out in the top-10 at that position on Pro Football Focus in every season and he did it despite playing about half the snaps in all 4 of those seasons. He doesn’t get much pass rush, but he graded out 2nd, 5th, 7th, and 4th in run stopping grade in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. He’s going into age 31 season off of a torn Achilles so he might not be as good, but his return will help this defense. He’s an upgrade over Jaye Howard, who graded out about average on 449 snaps in a similar role last season. Howard will be a pure rotational reserve this season.

Dontari Poe and Allen Bailey will be the every down defensive linemen again. Poe is widely regarded as one of the best defensive linemen in football, ever since the Chiefs drafted the big nose tackle 11th overall out of Marshall in 2012. However, his play has been inconsistent. While his ability to play every down and consistently lead the defensive line in snaps played (757 in 2012, 1004 in 2013, and 966 in 2014, all most by a Chief defensive lineman) is very impressive, he hasn’t always been great. His 2013 season when he graded out 11th among defensive tackles was obviously good, but he graded out 76th out of 85 eligible in 2012 and then 39th in 2014. Still, the Chiefs made the no brainer move to pick up his option for 2016, which is guaranteed for injury only.

Bailey, meanwhile, got a 4-year, 25 million dollar extension last season. Bailey graded out above average in 2 of 3 seasons as a reserve from 2011-2013, after going in the 3rd round in 2011, but he graded out below average in his first starting experience in 2014, grading out 33rd out of 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends. He’s not bad, but he’s a marginal starting caliber player that the Chiefs overpaid like an above average starter.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The biggest reason the Chiefs’ defense was good last season despite increased injuries is because their most important defensive player Justin Houston played all 16 games in 2014, after missing 5 games with an elbow problem in 2013. Houston finished 2013 as the #1 3-4 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus despite missing so much time and picked up right where he left off in 2014, finishing #1 again by nearly a double margin, putting up a near record breaking 22 sacks.

Aside from JJ Watt, he’s the arguably best defensive player in the NFL. A 2011 3rd round pick, Houston has graded out 13th, 4th, 1st, and 1st among 3-4 outside linebackers in his career. The Chiefs didn’t let him hit free agency this off-season, giving him the franchise tag. The two sides are reportedly far from an agreement, but, barring an unlikely long holdout that could cause him to get out of shape, Houston will be a feared presence for the Chiefs off the edge again.

Tamba Hali remains opposite him, despite speculation that the Chiefs would cut him and promote 2014 1st round pick Dee Ford, as was likely the plan when they drafted Ford. Hali is going into his age 32 season, but proved last season that he can still play at a high level, so the Chiefs kept him after he agreed to a reduced salary of 6 million dollars instead of his scheduled non-guaranteed 9 million. Hali has graded out above average in every season since 2009, since switching to 3-4 outside linebacker.

Hali was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014, which is the 2nd worst he’s ranked out over the past 6 seasons, concerning considering his age, but still very solid. Ford will remain a backup and play a situational role again. He won’t play that many snaps, but he’s a good bet to see more than the 122 snaps he played last season, 4th fewest by a first round rookie last year, ahead of Johnny Manziel, Marcus Smith, and Darqueze Dennard. In very limited action as a rookie, Ford flashed as a pass rusher, but struggled to stop the run, which was basically the book on him coming out of Auburn.

Derrick Johnson is the other Chief starter who is returning from a torn Achilles. Johnson is going into his age 33 season coming off of a torn Achilles, which is concerning, but he was so good before the injury that he should still be an asset for them inside. Johnson was a top-5 middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2010-2013. 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.

Josh Mauga led Chief middle linebackers in snaps played last season in Johnson’s absence. Mauga was a 2009 undrafted free agent who played 235 snaps from 2009-2013 and was out of the league entirely in 2013, but he ended up making the Chiefs’ 53 man roster and starting 15 games in place of an injured Derrick Johnson. Mauga predictably struggled through, grading out 54th out of 60 eligible. The Chiefs brought him back as a free agent for 8 million over 3 years which suggests he’s likely to start inside next to Johnson. The Chiefs don’t really have a better option as James-Michael Johnson graded out 50th among middle linebackers last season on just 446 snaps and Ramik Wilson and DJ Alexander are just 4th and 5th round rookies.

Grade: A-

Secondary

Fortunately, that other inside linebacker spot should once again be just a two-down spot as the Chiefs love using a 3rd safety around the line of scrimmage instead of a 2nd linebacker in sub packages. Eric Berry is typically that guy, but he was diagnosed with cancer last season. He’s fortunately doing well it sounds like, but the Chiefs did have to plan their off-season around him not being around in an on-the-field sense in 2015.

After Berry went down last season, Husain Abdullah became that hybrid safety/linebacker and will likely reprise that role this season as the Chiefs have enough safety depth that they can play 3 safeties in sub packages, even without Berry. Abdullah was a promising young safety in Minnesota early in his career, grading out above average in each of his first 4 seasons in the league as a starter since going undrafted in 2008, including the 2010 and 2011 seasons, when he was a starter. Set to make a decent amount of money in free agency, Abdullah abruptly retired because of concussions and sat out the 2012 season. Abdullah returned to NFL in a reserve role with the Chiefs in 2013, played well in limited action, and then became a starter in 2014, grading out above average again. Abdullah has very quietly been a solid safety throughout his career.

Opposite Abdullah, Ron Parker will be the other starting safety. Parker, an undrafted free agent in 2011, played 122 snaps in the first 3 seasons of his career from 2011-2013. He saw a ton of action last season though, playing 1037 snaps between cornerback and safety, but he struggled at both spots, grading out below average at cornerback and safety, including 73rd out of 87 eligible safeties on 745 snaps. He got a shocking 5-year, 25 million dollar contract this off-season to return to Kansas City, while Jimmy Wilson, a comparable player, got 4.6 million over 2 years from the division rival Chargers. He’s fine in coverage, but missed a league leading 22 tackles last season.

The other contract they gave out to a safety this off-season was better, as the Chiefs signed Tyvon Branch to a 1-year, 2.1 million dollar deal, coming over from Oakland. Branch has missed all but 4 games over the past 2 season with injuries, but he was once a solid safety, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety in 2011 and their 30th ranked safety in 2012. He’s only going into his age 29 season. After all the injuries, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever be the same player again, but it was a nice, low risk signing. He’ll be the 3rd safety in sub packages. If Berry can get healthy and get on the field this season, the Chiefs could easily use 4 safeties in sub packages, with Parker playing slot cornerback, something he did a fair amount of last season.

The Chiefs saw cornerback as a problem position this off-season and added Marcus Peters with the 18th overall pick. He’ll immediately slot in as a starter. Peters has the talent to be worth a high pick, but he was kicked off of Washington’s football team last year for discipline problems and has a history of failed drug tests. He has a high upside, but, as is the case with most rookies, it’s important to have tempered expectations for him.

Sean Smith will remain the other starter and he’s coming off likely the best season of his career, grading out 5th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Smith has a concerning history of inconsistency though, so he’s far from a lock to repeat that kind of season. Smith graded out 10th at his position in 2010, but graded out average or worse in 2011, 2012, and 2013, including 105th out of 109 eligible in 2012. All in all, the 2009 2nd round pick has graded out above average in 4 of 6 seasons in the NFL, but he’s had as many bad seasons and as many average seasons as he’s had dominant seasons.

As I mentioned earlier, if Berry can get back, Ron Parker will be the slot cornerback more often than not in sub packages, but that’s unlikely. Until that happens, it’ll be Phillip Gaines’ job to lose, with 3rd round rookie Steven Nelson being the only real other challenger for the job. The 2014 3rd round pick Gaines played 376 snaps non-descript snaps as a rookie in 2014. At best, he’s completely unproven, but he’ll be relied upon in a significant way in his 2nd season in the league. It’s a question mark on an overall solid defense, led, of course, by Justin Houston.

Grade: B-

Overall

The Chiefs will once again move the chains at a decent rate thanks to Alex Smith, Jamaal Charles, and Travis Kelce, but they will remain a limited offense. The offensive line should be even worse this season, even after the addition of Ben Grubbs, thanks to the loss of Rodney Hudson upfront and, while Jeremy Maclin makes them a more versatile offense, they’re still really thin behind him in the receiving corps. Defensively, they once again should be solid, especially with veterans Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito returning from injury. One of the best teams in the NFL to not make the playoffs last season, the Chiefs will be in the playoff mix again in 2015. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Chiefs after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 8-8 3rd in AFC West

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