There was a time last season when the Chiefs won 11 straight games, the final 10 games of the regular season and a victory over the Texans in the first round of the playoffs. However, that came after a 1-5 start seemed to end their season. The Chiefs rallied to make the playoffs but ultimately lost in the divisional round to the New England Patriots. What changed after the first 6 weeks for the Chiefs? Well, the biggest change is simply the schedule. In those first 6 games, the Chiefs took on 5 eventual playoff teams, going 1-4 in those 5 games. The rest of the way they faced just 3 other playoff teams, only one more in the regular season, going 2-1 in those 3 games.
Overall, they were 3-5 against playoff teams last season, but two of those wins came against a Houston team that was arguably the worst team in the NFL to make the playoffs and the other came against a Denver team that was playing with a very hobbled Peyton Manning at quarterback. In their other 10 games, they went 9-1, only losing by 1 to the Bears, the only sub .500 team to beat them last season. Simply put, this was a slightly above average team that beat everyone they were better than and lost to everyone who was better than them. That didn’t really change all season; the only things that did was their schedule and their record.
Kansas City’s defense was their noticeably better unit, as they finished 8th in rate of moving the chains differential, but just 14th in rate of moving the chains. Their offense wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either and it was their defense that often carried them. This average offense unsurprisingly was led by one of the most average quarterbacks in the NFL, Alex Smith. Smith, a late bloomer as the #1 overall pick in 2005, had a breakout year in 2011 in Jim Harbaugh’s first year with the 49ers, finishing 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus that season. However, he’s largely been a very average quarterback since, grading out 19th, 20th, 16th, and 18th among quarterbacks from 2012-2015 respectively.
Smith has definitely shed the system quarterback label, having success in both Jim Harbaugh’s and Andy Reid’s offenses. Part of that is the fact that he’s had two strong offensive minds as his head coaches and has been allowed to play in systems that best fit his skill set, but Smith deserves a lot of the credit too. Going into his age 32 season, he is who he is at this point, so he’s never going to be someone that can carry a team, but you can win with him if you surround him with enough talent. Smith’s numbers have improved in every season he’s been in Kansas City, as he completed 65.3% of his passes for an average of 7.42 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions last season, but that’s largely a result of improved talent around him.
Smith now has a pair of big-time receiving options to throw to. That wasn’t the case in his first year in Kansas City, when running back Jamaal Charles led the team with 693 receiving yards and a washed up Dwayne Bowe was their best wide receiver. Those days are gone now. Wide receiver Jeremy Maclin was acquired on a 5-year, 55 million dollar contract last off-season, following a 2014 season in which no Kansas City wide receiver scored a touchdown, while tight end Travis Kelce is homegrown, drafted in the 3rd round in 2013. The Chiefs kept Kelce on a huge extension this off-season, worth 46 million over 5 years. Both are expensive, but they’re also both so valuable to this team.
Maclin led the way with 1088 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns. He wasn’t the deep threat he was in 2014 with the Eagles, when he averaged 15.5 yards per catch in Chip Kelly’s offense, but that was always going to change, as the Chiefs simply are not an offense that pushes the ball downfield often; that’s not Smith’s strength as a passer. He averaged just 12.5 yards per catch, but caught a career high 87 passes and finished 25th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Maclin’s career had a disappointing start, as he graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 4 years in the league from 2009-2012 and then missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL. However, he’s bounced back very well from that torn ACL, playing the best football of his career. He’s missed just 1 game with injury since and has graded out 14th and 25th respectively among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2014 and 2015.
Kelce’s career also got off to a rough start, as he missed his entire rookie year with a knee injury. That knee injury, which required microfracture surgery, actually limited him into 2014. Though he led the Chiefs in receiving that year, catching 67 passes for 862 yards and 5 touchdowns, he did so on just 688 snaps, as the Chiefs had him on a snap count all season. He finished the 2014 season 2nd in the NFL in yards per route run by a tight end, only behind Rob Gronkowski, and, showing strong run blocking as well, finished as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked tight end.
In 2015, he ditched the snap count. He wasn’t as good on a per snap basis in 2015 as he was in 2014, as he barely surpassed his 2014 receiving numbers, catching 72 passes for 872 yards and 5 touchdowns, despite playing significantly more snaps than he did in 2014 (923). His run blocking also was not nearly as good as it was in 2014 and, overall, he finished just 21st among tight ends on Pro Football Focus (12th in pure pass catching grade). Still, he’s one of the better tight ends in the NFL and should have somewhat of a bounce back year this season. It’s also worth noting that he hasn’t missed a game in 2 years, so his early career knee problems seem well behind him. The Chiefs were wise to lock him up long-term and he has an outside shot at 1000+ yards in 2016.
The issue is that the Chiefs are still really thin in the receiving corps after Maclin and Kelce. No other Chiefs receiver had more than 451 yards last season. Albert Wilson, the #2 receiver, had 35 catches for 451 yards and 2 touchdowns and their next leading receiver was running back Charcandrick West, who caught 20 passes for 214 yards and a touchdown. Wilson struggled as the #2 receiver, finishing 75th out of 121 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but #3 and #4 receivers Jason Avant and Chris Conley were even worse, finishing 81st and 87th respectively on 345 and 369 snaps respectively.
Wilson flashed on 223 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2014, but proved to be overstretched as a starting receiver last season. The 5-9 200 pounder does his best work on the slot and the Chiefs would probably prefer him as the 3rd receiver, but they might not have much of a choice. They drafted Conley in the 3rd round last year, with the intention of him becoming a starting receiver, but he struggled in limited action as a rookie, so his starting days could be at least another year off. Still, he’s the heavy favorite for the #3 receiver job, as the Chiefs really lack depth at the wide receiver position. Raw 5th round rookie Tyreke Hill is probably the #4 receiver going into week 1.
The Chiefs also have depth problems at tight end, where Demetrius Harris struggled in his first since as the #2 tight end, catching just 7 passes and grading out 60th out of 67 eligible tight ends on 339 snaps. Prior to last season, Harris, a 2013 undrafted free agent, had played just 70 career snaps, so the odds of him becoming significantly better in his 2nd year in the role are slim. The Chiefs’ receiving corps is a lot better than it was two years ago thanks to Kelce and Maclin, but plenty of depth issues remain.
Arguably the most surprising part of the Chiefs’ turnaround last season is they did it despite losing Jamaal Charles to a torn ACL week 5. Obviously their schedule got easier from that point on, but the fact remains that the Chiefs were able to run the ball effectively last season even without Jamaal Charles, finishing the year 3rd in the NFL in yards per carry with 4.69. Charles’ average, for comparison, was 5.13. Charles ran better, faced tougher competition in his 5 games, and added 21 catches for 177 yards and a touchdown in his 5 games, but last season proved that the Chiefs have tremendous depth at the running back position.
Because of that and the fact that Charles is going into his age 30 season, coming off of the 2nd torn ACL of his career, there was some talk that the Chiefs would try to trade Charles this off-season. His 2016 salary (6 million) is pretty reasonable, so they ultimately decided to keep the running back whose 5.47 career yards per carry average is still the best all-time by a running back in the modern era. Charles will go back into the starting lineup, but should see much more frequent breaks, especially early in the season, given his age, injury history, and the fact that the Chiefs know they can trust their other running backs in critical situations too. Charles had 320 touches in 2012, 329 touches in 2013, and was on a 294 touch pace last season (he dealt with lingering injuries in 2014 that held him to 246 touches). Those 300+ touch seasons are likely a thing of the past for him.
However, he still could be an effective weapon for the Chiefs on around 250 touches (200 carries and 50 receptions). He also still should play the vast majority of the passing down snaps, as he’s easily their 3rd best receiver behind Maclin and Kelce, catching 131 passes in 35 games in 3 years since Andy Reid came to town; that might have been where he was most missed last season. Excluding an injury shortened 2011 season in which he did not play enough snaps to qualify, 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 and then finished last season 17th on 267 snaps before the injury. There are serious questions about his effectiveness going forward given his age and injury history, but Charles at 80%-90% is still a lot better than most backs.
Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware will compete for the backup job behind Charles. West had more carries, but turned those 160 carries into just 634 yards (3.96 YPC) and 4 touchdowns. Ware, meanwhile, came on down the stretch and rushed for 403 yards and 6 touchdowns on 72 carries (5.60 YPC). Ware also finished higher on Pro Football Focus, grading out 21st while West finished 41st. The two running backs combined for just 3 career carries prior to last season, so they’re last season is really all we have to evaluate them on.
Ware was easily the better player and should be considered the heavy favorite to backup on Charles, especially on early downs as Ware does struggle as a pass catcher. West should also have a role, but it’ll be a smaller one. Even though they finished last season 3rd in the NFL in yards per carry, they could be even better on the ground this season with Charles back, though it’s worth noting Ware and West are both one-year wonders. They still have arguably the league’s best group of running backs though.
Part of the reason why the Chiefs weren’t able to really address their receiving corps this off-season is they had a lot of pending free agents, a lot of needs to fill, and lost their 3rd round pick for having illegal communication with Jeremy Maclin when he was an Eagle, before he signed with the Chiefs. The Chiefs didn’t really lose much at any of the offensive skill positions, but they did have some losses on the offensive line and they had 5 defensive starters set to hit free agency (which I’ll get into later).
The three players the Chiefs lost on the offensive line this season are offensive tackle Donald Stephenson (signed with the Broncos), guard Jeff Allen (signed with the Texans), and guard Ben Grubbs (still unsigned, but expected to retire ahead of his age 32 season, after suffering a significant neck injury down the stretch last season). Those 3 played 555, 429, and 463 snaps respectively last season. The Stephenson loss doesn’t really hurt, as he really struggled last season, but Grubbs and Allen were both starting caliber players when in the lineup. Allen was actually Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked guard last season, landing him a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal from the Texans.
Fortunately, the Chiefs add a free agent offensive lineman who is better than any of those three, signing Mitchell Schwartz to a 5-year, 33 million dollar deal. He was the only real external free agent signing the Chiefs made, but he’ll be very valuable for them. He’s only ever played right tackle, but he’s made all 64 starts in 4 years in the league, since getting drafted in the 2nd round in the Browns in 2012, and has graded out 19th, 30th, 11th, and 6th respectively among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in those 4 seasons respectively. Arguably the best right tackle in the NFL, Schwartz is immediately the Chiefs’ best offensive lineman.
Eric Fisher remains as the left tackle. Fisher was the #1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but looked like a massive bust through his first 2 seasons in the league, 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. Fisher was better in 2015, though still not the player the Chiefs were expecting he’d be by now when they took him first overall. He graded out slightly above average and finished 36th among offensive tackles.
Given that they gave him a 4-year, 48 million dollar extension with 2 years left on his rookie deal this off-season, the Chiefs will obviously be hoping he takes another leap forward in 2016, but I’m skeptical. They should be happy if he plays competently again, given how bad he was to start his career. That contract figures to be an overpay, as he’s now the 3rd highest paid offensive tackle in the NFL in terms of average annual salary. With 2 years left on his rookie deal, there was no urgency for the move and the Chiefs are paying for something he’s never proven.
Along with Fisher, the Chiefs have another capable young starting offensive lineman at center, where 2015 2nd round pick Mitch Morse started 15 games as a rookie last season. The University of Missouri product transitioned very smoothly from his collegiate position of offensive tackle inside to center, grading out above average and finishing the season 15th among centers on Pro Football Focus. Going into his 2nd year in the league in 2016, he could be even better and he has a promising future.
The big issue upfront for the Chiefs is guard, where they are really thin after losing Allen and Grubbs. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif remains as the starter at right guard, where he made 13 starts last season, but he didn’t play well, grading out 62nd among 81 eligible guards. The Chiefs’ coaching staff is really high on him, but he’s yet to show it in game action, not playing a snap as a 6th round rookie in 2014, and then struggled in his first year as a starter in 2015. With no other real option at the position, LDT is locked in here.
Left guard is the only starting job up for grabs on the Chiefs offensive line, as Zach Fulton, who struggled on 406 snaps last season, will compete with 4th round rookie Parker Ehinger for the starting job. Fulton is the favorite, but the fact that Ehinger has a chance to win the job as a 4th round rookie tells you a lot about Fulton and his abilities. The 2014 6th round pick has made 22 starts in 2 years in the league, though largely out of desperation, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked guard out of 78 eligible in 2014 and, though he was better in 2015, it wasn’t by much, as he still graded out below average overall. Whoever wins this starting job, left guard should be a position of weakness. Depth on the offensive line is also a big concern.
Adding Schwartz does help in a big way and the Chiefs should have Jamaal Charles, Jeremy Maclin, and Travis Kelce all healthy and playing together next season, something they have never really had for an extended period of time. Those four players should all be in my top-200 players for 2016 (which will be released at the end of the off-season) and, despite major holes in the receiving corps and at guard, the talent is there for this offense to be better in 2016, even if they’re still far from dominant on that side of the ball.
I mentioned earlier that the Chiefs had 5 defensive starters who were free agents this off-season. They didn’t really add any free agents to their defense, but the Chiefs did a good job keeping their talent, re-signing 4 of those 5 players, including defensive lineman Jaye Howard, who they kept on a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal. That’s a good value for him. The 6-3 301 pounder can play anywhere on the Chiefs’ 3-man defensive line, including nose tackle. After not playing much in his first 2 seasons in the league, Howard a 2012 4th round pick by the Seahawks, has played 449 and 752 snaps in 2014 and 2015 respectively, grading out above average in both seasons, including 24th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in 2015. A blossoming young defensive lineman, I expected him to be a much hotter commodity on the open market.
Dontari Poe and Allen Bailey also remain as the other two starters on this defensive line. Despite having off-season back surgery, Poe missed just 1 game with injury last season (just his 2nd missed game in 4 years in the NFL) and led the Chiefs defensive line in snaps for the 4th straight year, since the Chiefs drafted him 11th overall in 2012. He led the defensive line with 757 in 2012, 1004 in 2013, 966 in 2014, and then 759 last season. The 6-3 347 pounder isn’t a dominant defensive lineman, but his versatility, durability, and stamina are very uncommon for a player of his size. He’s also a valuable player who the Chiefs don’t want take off the field very often, grading out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, finishing 11th among defensive tackles in 2013, 39th among defensive tackles in 2014, and then 32nd among interior defenders last season.
Bailey was the worst of the 3 starters, but he certainly wasn’t bad, finishing 51st among interior defenders and grading out above average. Bailey flashed as a reserve early in his career, grading out above average in 2 of 3 seasons from 2011-2013, after going in the 3rd round in 2011, but struggled in his first season as a starter in 2014, grading out 33rd out of 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends. Bailey was improved in his 2nd year as a starter though and goes into 2016 as a capable starting defensive end.
While the Chiefs re-signed Howard, they did lose Mike DeVito. DeVito wasn’t one of those aforementioned 5 starters, but he was a valuable reserve who graded out above average on 293 snaps last season. He retired this off-season, ahead of his age 32 season. Still, Howard was obviously more important to keep and the Chiefs used a 2nd round by on Chris Jones out of Mississippi State to replace DeVito. He’ll provide depth across the defensive line as a rookie at 6-6 310 and could be a long-term replacement for Poe, if the Chiefs are unable to re-sign him long-term. Poe will be a free agent next off-season. Jones was a borderline first round prospect in a loaded defensive tackle class so it was a good pick by the Chiefs. For now, Poe is still here on a defensive line that has 3 talented starters and a promising rookie reserve.
I mentioned earlier that the Chiefs only lost one defensive starter through free agency. However, they did suffer a potentially huge loss from an injury, as outside linebacker Justin Houston’s status for the 2016 season is very much up in the air after a partially torn ACL suffered this off-season. This injury was suffered in February and he was given a 6-12 month timeframe, which means he could be back just in time for week 1, or miss the entire season; it’s really up in the air, which is very bad news for the Chiefs.
When healthy, Houston is one of the best defensive players in the NFL. A 2011 3rd round pick, Houston graded out 13th, 4th, 1st, 1st among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus from 2011-2014 respectively and then finished last season 2nd at the position. Injuries are the only thing that’s ever slowed him down, as he’s missed 10 games with injury over the past 3 season and figures to miss at least a few more this season. His status will definitely be one to monitor, but the smart money is probably on him going on the PUP list and missing at least the first 6 weeks of the season.
Dee Ford is the obvious replacement for Houston, as he started the final 5 games of the season in Houston’s absence last season, when Houston was out with a knee injury. Houston returned for the playoffs, but was nowhere near 100% and then needed that surgery this off-season, so it’ll be back to Ford. Ford was drafted in the first round in 2014, a surprising pick because the Chiefs didn’t have an immediate need for an edge rusher, but it made some sense with Tamba Hali getting up there in age. The Chiefs re-signed Hali this off-season because he’s still going strong and because of Houston’s health, but Ford should still get an opportunity to start games in his 3rd year in the league. Thus far, his career has been disappointing, as he played just 122 snaps as a rookie and then finished last season 104th among 110 eligible edge defenders on 480 snaps.
As I mentioned, the Chiefs brought back Tamba Hali (one of those aforementioned 5 starters) this off-season. He’ll start opposite Ford until Houston returns and will need to continue playing at a high level. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since switching to 3-4 outside linebacker in 2009, including 13th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2014 and 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers last season, but is heading into his age 33 season, so he’s far from a guarantee to continue playing at a high level. With Hali aging and Houston injured, the Chiefs will need a breakout year from Ford, but they are unlikely to get it, as Ford hasn’t shown himself to be anything more than a #3 outside linebacker thus far in his career.
Along with Tamba Hali, the Chiefs also re-signed middle linebacker Derrick Johnson this off-season. Like Hali, Johnson is an aging player who is still playing at a high level. Despite missing all of 2014 with a torn achilles, Johnson still played at a high level in 2015, playing every down and finishing 3rd among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus. That’s been par for the course for him whenever he’s been healthy, as he was a top-5 middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2010-2013. Aside from 2014’s torn achilles, Johnson has missed just 1 game with injury over the past 6 seasons. He’s going into his age 34 season, so, like with Hali, the end could be near, but the Chiefs were smart to lock him up on a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal.
Josh Mauga was the other starting middle linebacker last season and played well against the run, but he’s out for the season with an injury, which pushes 2nd year player Ramik Wilson into the starting lineup. Wilson struggled on 128 snaps as a 4th rookie and doesn’t seem ready for a starting job, but the Chiefs frequently play a 3rd safety down around the line of scrimmage as a essentially 2nd linebacker in sub packages, so Wilson will only see about half the snaps as purely a two-down base package player. It’s still a strong linebacker group, but one whose performance relies heavily on Justin Houston being healthy and aging linebackers Hali and Johnson keeping up a high level of performance.
I mentioned the Chiefs frequently use 3 safeties (along with 3 cornerbacks) in sub packages against 3-wide receiver sets. In this scenario, it was frequently Husain Abdullah, the 3rd safety, playing closer to the line of scrimmage as a linebacker. However, Abdullah retired this off-season, ahead of what would have been his age 31 season. Like DeVito, the Chiefs will miss Abdullah in certain situations. Abdullah was Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked safety on 434 snaps last season. 2014 undrafted free agent Daniel Sorenson is expected to replace him. The 6-2 207 pounder as adequate size, but is completely unproven and struggled on 240 snaps last season.
Eric Berry and Ron Parker remain as the top-2 safeties, after both made all 16 starts last season. Berry was a free agent this off-season, but the Chiefs kept him on the franchise tag. It’s a borderline miracle that Berry made all 16 starts last season, after his 2014 season was cut short by a cancer diagnosis in November of 2014. Berry was healthy and ready for training camp by July of 2015 and had arguably the best season of his career last season, finishing 6th among safeties on Pro Football Focus and winning the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award. He was well worth the franchise tag, though it’s concerning that he did not report until late August. We’ll see how his durability is early in the season. He’s not a one year wonder, as he finished 3rd among safeties in 2013, but he’s been pretty inconsistent in his career.
Parker, meanwhile, also had the best season of his career, after struggling in the first season of significant action in his career in 2014. Parker actually graded out above average in 2015 (40th overall among safeties) and should continue to be a capable starting defensive back in 2016. He played both safety and cornerback last season, though it’s unclear if he will continue doing that next season, as the Chiefs also lost #4 safety Tyvon Branch to free agency this off-season. Branch is a capable situational player who played 428 snaps last season.
Losing Abdullah, Branch, and DeVito this off-season, along with Houston’s injury really hurts this defense. On top of that, the Chiefs lost starting cornerback Sean Smith to the Raiders, easily their biggest off-season loss, as he’s been one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL over the past two seasons. For that reason, Parker may continue playing slot cornerback in sub packages, with a 4th safety like Jamell Fleming coming on the field. Fleming is an underwhelming option though, as he’s never played well throughout his entire career, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2012 by the Cardinals; he struggled mightily on 157 snaps last season and is no lock to even make the final roster.
Most likely, Parker will be a full-time safety in 2016 and the Chiefs well need to find capable cornerbacks. Marcus Peters is locked into one starting spot, after grading out slightly above average in 16 starts as a rookie. He tied for the league lead with 8 interceptions last season and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year, but that was largely because he got thrown on so often opposite Smith. He also gave up his fair share of big plays, which the interception number doesn’t show. Still, it was a strong rookie year and, anyway you look at it, he has a bright future and has a good chance to be better in 2016.
Everything else after that is completely up for grabs. Phillip Gaines, Steven Nelson, Kei’Varae Russell, Kenneth Acker, and Eric Murray will compete for playing time and roster spots. Gaines is probably the favorite for the starting job, as he made 3 starts in 3 games last season, before going down for the year with a torn ACL. He’s certainly not locked into the starting job though, as the 2014 3rd round pick is coming off of a major injury and has only played 545 snaps in 2 years in the NFL.
Acker also has a little bit of experience, making 13 starts in 2015 with the 49ers in the first significant action of his career, but finished 70th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks, which got him traded to the Chiefs for a late round pick in mid-August. He’s not a lock for the final roster. Gaines and Acker have far more experience than the other 3 though, as Nelson played just 53 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2015, while Russell and Murray are both rookies, drafted in the 3rd and 4th round respectively. It’s a position of serious concern for the Chiefs and a much thinner secondary overall than they’re used to.
The Chiefs offense could be a little better this season, with Jamaal Charles coming back healthy and Mitchell Schwartz coming in, but they still have major issues at guard and at wide receiver. On the other side of the ball, a once solid defense lost a good amount of talent this off-season, including possibly Justin Houston for the season. One of the best defensive players in the league when healthy, that would be an obvious loss for this team. Cornerback Sean Smith is another obvious loss and leaves them very thin at that position as well. They’ll be in the mix for a playoff spot again in the wide open AFC, but may end up falling short.
Prediction: 8-8 3rd in AFC West