Kansas City Chiefs 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Chiefs finished last season 12-4, but finished 24th in first down rate differential at -1.04%. They had 37 fewer first downs than their opponents and only had one more offensive touchdown than their opponents. Their record was largely the result of 6 wins by 8 points or less (including two overtime victories), a +16 turnover margin (best in the NFL), and a +7 return touchdown margin (best in the NFL). Unfortunately, they can’t rely on takeaways and return touchdowns to win them close games because takeaways, return touchdowns, and record in close games tend to have very little week-to-week and year-to-year correlation. This team was only a few snaps away from being an 8-8 or 9-7 team last season. If they want to continue winning at a high rate in 2017, they will need do a better job of winning first down battles.

Even though the Chiefs had a strong record last season, they treated the draft like they were rebuilding. They traded this year’s first round pick and next year’s first round pick to the Bills to move up from 27 to 10 to get Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who is unlikely to play as a rookie behind experienced veteran Alex Smith. Because of that, It’s possible that none of their rookies have a significant impact on this team, which hurts their chances of making a deep playoff run in 2017.

Alex Smith isn’t the best quarterback in the world, but he has been solid in 4 seasons as the Chiefs’ starting quarterback. He’s completed 64.5% of his passes for an average of 7.03 YPA, 76 touchdowns, and 28 interceptions, while adding 1317 yards and another 9 scores on 257 carries (5.12 YPC). He has finished 20th, 16th, 18th, and 14th respectively among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus from in those 4 seasons. He’s only averaged 483 pass attempts per season on a conservative offense though and will be owed 17 million non-guaranteed in an age 34 contract year in 2018, so the move might make long-term sense.

Smith is currently one of 11 Chiefs with a cap number of 7 million or higher for 2018. Those 11 players are set to count for a combined 128.5 million on the cap, or about 72.2% of the projected 178 million dollar cap for next season. Releasing Smith next off-season and going with the much cheaper Mahomes under center would save them 17 million immediately on the cap. The selection doesn’t help the Chiefs in 2017, but could pay off if Mahomes makes good on his high upside and develops into a franchise quarterback long-term.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

In an effort to increase their long-term financial flexibility, the Chiefs opted against bringing back wide receiver Jeremy Maclin at his scheduled 10 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. It was a controversial move because Maclin topped 1000 yards in the first season of a 5-year, 55 million dollar deal in 2015, the only 1000+ yard season by a Chiefs receiver in the past 5 seasons. Maclin was limited to a 44/536/2 slash line in 2015, but injuries were largely the culprit, as he missed 4 games with a groin tear and was limited in several others upon his return. Through 7 games, before getting injured, Maclin was on pace for a solid 69/859/5 slash line and was only going into his age 29 season, but the Chiefs couldn’t financially justify bringing him back.

A big part of the reason why the Chiefs felt comfortable moving on from Maclin is because 2016 5th round pick Tyreek Hill showed promise as a rookie. Hill didn’t really start playing regularly until Maclin got hurt, but ended up leading all Kansas City wide receivers in receiving yards with a 61/593/6 slash line. That’s very impressive, considering he ran just 270 routes. He finished the season 33rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. However, he isn’t the traditional wide receiver Maclin was.

Hill’s 2.20 yards per route run average is very impressive, but he was largely utilized on screens and short passes. His average catch came just 5.31 yards from the line of scrimmage and he averaged an underwhelming 7.14 yards per target on 83 targets. Fortunately, he does more than just catch passes, as he also averaged 11.13 yards per carry and scored 3 times on 24 rush attempts and then scored another 3 times on returns. He had a total of 12 touchdowns last season, despite not really playing until midway through the season.

Hill is one of the fastest players in the entire NFL, but he’s very unrefined as a receiver and teams might be better prepared for him this season. He’s more of a “give him the ball in space however possible and hope he makes a play” type player than a true #1 receiver that can win downfield. He may not get the ball as many times on end arounds or be as effective on those plays with defenses now expecting them, and they’ve already said he’ll return only punts and not kickoffs this season, but he should see plenty of balls come his way this season without Maclin. He was targeted on a ridiculous 31% of his routes run last season. Even on a conservative offense, he has a shot at 1000 receiving yards and should go over 1000 in yards from scrimmage.

With Hill not really coming on until midway through the season and Maclin injured, Chris Conley actually led this team in snaps by a wide receiver with 818. The 2015 3rd round pick struggled mightily in his first season as a starter, posting just a 44/530/0 slash line and finishing the season 98th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Only going into his age 25 season, Conley could be better in his 3rd season in the league, but it’s possible he never develops into a useful player. He’s not consistent enough to be the true downfield threat this team needs.

Albert Wilson will be the 3rd receiver, but he too struggled mightily last season, finishing 102th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on 466 snaps and posting just a 31/279/2 slash line. He averaged just 9.00 yards per catch and 5.47 yards per target. Wilson flashed on 223 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2014, but has been overmatched in larger roles over the past 2 seasons. It’s possible he could be pushed for snaps down the stretch by 4th round rookie Jehu Chesson, though it’s unlikely he’d really be an upgrade.

The Chiefs were actually led in yards per catch last season by running back Spencer Ware (13.5 yards per catch) and tight end Travis Kelce (13.2 yards per catch). Kelce is their best all-around receiver and one of the best tight ends in the league. A 2013 3rd round pick, Kelce didn’t play a snap as a rookie in 2013 because of knee problems, but has improved his receiving total in 3 straight seasons, culminating with his first 1000+ yard season in 2016 (85/1125/4). He has finished in the top-4 among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in 2 of those 3 seasons, including a #1 finish last season. Most importantly, he’s played in 48 of 48 possible games. Also a strong run blocker at 6-5 260, Kelce is one of the best all-around tight ends in the game and should have another strong season.

Demetrius Harris remains as the #2 tight end and has started 20 games over the past 2 seasons, but he’s finished 7th worst and worst among tight ends on Pro Football Focus over those two seasons. The 2013 undrafted free agent caught just 17 passes for 123 yards and 1 touchdowns in 2016 (all of which were career highs) and the former college basketball player is not a blocker at 6-7 230. The Chiefs really lack a 3rd option in the passing game and need to hope that Tyreek Hill can continue developing as a receiver.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

As I mentioned, running back Spencer Ware actually led this team in yards per catch, catching 33 passes for 447 yards and 2 touchdowns, a pretty big surprise, considering the 2013 6th round pick had just 6 career catches before last season. Ware had just 3 offensive touches in his first 2 seasons in the league, but flashed on 72 carries in 2015, averaging 5.60 yards per carry and scoring 6 times, and then rushed for 921 yards and 3 touchdowns on 214 carries (4.30 YPC) as the lead back in 2016. He finished the season 16th among running backs on Pro Football Focus.

Prior to 2015, Jamaal Charles was their feature back, but he tore his ACL early in the 2015 season and managed just 106 touches in 8 games in 2015 and 2016 combined. Going into his age 31 season, the Chiefs made the easy decision to part ways with him this off-season, rather than paying him 6.2 million non-guaranteed. Spencer Ware has taken over as the lead back in his absence, but the Chiefs did need to upgrade backup Charcandrick West this off-season, as he’s averaged just 3.74 yards per carry on 248 carries over the last 2 seasons.

They did so by selecting Kareem Hunt in the 3rd round. Hunt is fully expected to be the #2 back this season, but he also has had an impressive off-season and there’s talk that he could push Ware for touches more than West did, making this more of a two-headed backfield. He was given a 2nd round grade by Pro Football Focus before the draft, making him a steal with the 86th overall pick, and he was one of the best pass catching backs in the draft. Charcandrick West had 116 touches last season, but 150+ touches would not be a surprise for Hunt. He’s a nice addition to this backfield and complements Ware well.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Chiefs used to have problems on the offensive line, but they’ve gotten a lot better in recent years. The addition of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz in free agency last off-season was a big part of that. A 2012 2nd round pick, Schwartz has made all 80 starts in 5 seasons in the league, all at right tackle, and has been arguably the best right tackle in the league over that time period. He’s finished 19th, 30th, 11th, 6th, and 27th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in the past 5 seasons respectively and should continue playing well, only going into his age 28 season. He was a good value on a 5-year, 33 million dollar deal.

It has also helped that left tackle Eric Fisher has been improved over the past 2 seasons. Fisher has not lived up to his potential as the #1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but he has finished 36th and 34th among offensive tackles in 2015 and 2016 respectively, after finishing 70th out of 76 eligible in 2013 and 72nd out of 84 eligible in 2014. The Chiefs gave him a 4-year, 48 million dollar extension last off-season, even though he had two years left on his rookie deal, making him the 5th highest paid offensive tackle in the league in average annual salary and keeping him under contract through 2021. They clearly think he can continuing improving and, still only going into his age 26 season, that’s certainly possible.

Right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is also better than he used to be. The 2014 6th round pick didn’t play a snap as a rookie and struggled in the first 13 starts of his career in 2015, finishing 62nd out of 81 eligible guards, but the Chiefs stuck with him and he rewarded them, finishing 27th among guards in 2016. The Chiefs locked him up on a 5-year, 42.363 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final season of his rookie deal. Considering he’s a one-year wonder and the Chiefs have a lot of other expensive players, they might end up regretting that, but he could easily have another solid season in 2017.

The Chiefs also have a young player at center, where Mitch Morse is going into his 3rd season in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Morse has made 31 starts in 2 seasons in the league and has finished about average in both seasons, ranking 15th among centers in 2015 and 20th among centers in 2016. Still only going into his age 25 season, Morse could take another step forward this season, but, even if he doesn’t, he should remain a capable starter.

Left guard is the only position that is up for grabs. Zach Fulton made 12 starts at the position last season and has been better in the past 2 seasons, after finishing 64th out of 78 eligible guards in 16 starts at right guard as a 6th round rookie in 2014, but still has never finished above average on Pro Football Focus. He’ll be pushed by Parker Ehinger, a 2016 4th round pick who was alright in 4 starts as a rookie, but missed 12 games with injury and ended the season on injured reserve with a torn ACL. He’ll likely be back for week 1, but the injury won’t help him win the job. Also in the mix is Andrew Tiller, a 2012 6th round pick who has been about a league average guard in 14 starts over the past 2 seasons with San Francisco. Left guard is their weakest spot upfront, but they’re solid across the line.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

The Chiefs lost Dontari Poe to the Falcons this off-season, but he was coming off of a down year and the Chiefs signed Bennie Logan from the Eagles to replace him at nose tackle, so he won’t really be missed. Logan finished 85th out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen last season, but that was because he wasn’t a good fit for Philadelphia’s 4-3 defense. The 6-2 309 pounder was better as a pure nose tackle in a 3-4 in 2014 and 2015 and has finished above average as a run stopper in each of the last 3 seasons (43 starts), including 10th among defensive tackles in pure run stopping grade in 2015. He isn’t much of a pass rusher, but, only going into his age 28 season, he has obvious bounce back potential in a scheme that is more suited to him.

Unlike Poe, who played every down and finished last season with 821 snaps, most on the defensive line, Logan is only a base package player who will only play about half of the snaps. The good news is they should be healthier on the defensive line, as defensive ends Allen Bailey and Jaye Howard missed 11 games and 8 games respectively with injury in 2016. Bailey has started all 31 games he’s played in the last 3 seasons and figures to be a starter again in 2017, though he has finished below average in 2 of those 3 seasons. He’s an underwhelming option.

Jaye Howard is no longer with the team, getting cut this off-season and signing with the Bears, but 2016 2nd round pick Chris Jones played at a high level down the stretch with Howard and Bailey out and will start at the other defensive end spot opposite Bailey. Jones played 574 snaps and finished 5th among eligible 3-4 defensive ends as a rookie. Though he fell to the 2nd round, he was given a top-15 grade by Pro Football Focus before the draft and has a huge upside. He’ll turn 23 in his 2nd season in the league in 2017 and could have a breakout year in an every down role. He’s the favorite to lead this line in snaps played.

The Chiefs also drafted Villanova’s Tanoh Kpassagnon in the 2nd round of this year’s draft, though he’s very raw and, like their first round pick, might not make much of an impact as a rookie. The 6-7 289 pounder looks the part and has a high upside, but will have to compete for reserve snaps as a rookie. Rakeem Nunez-Roches is also in the mix for reserve snaps, but the 2015 6th round pick struggled mightily on 286 snaps last season in the first significant action of his career. The Chiefs lost a couple defensive linemen this off-season, but still are solid upfront.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Along with the emergence of rookies Tyreek Hill and Chris Jones down the stretch in 2016, the Chiefs also got edge defender Justin Houston back from injury, after he missed the first 9 games of the season recovering from off-season knee surgery. As a result, the Chiefs were a better team down the stretch, as compared to earlier in the season. Houston was a top-4 player at the 3-4 outside linebacker position on Pro Football Focus in each of the previous 4 seasons from 2012-2015, so he was obviously a big re-addition. He didn’t play quite as well as he’s used to upon his return, but has obvious bounce back potential in still only his age 28 season and is one of the best defensive players in the league when healthy. Injuries are becoming a concern though, as he’s missed 21 games with injury over the past 4 seasons.

Houston and Tamba Hali used to form a dangerous edge rush duo, but Hali is older now, going into his age 34 season, and is on a snap count. He played just 596 snaps last season, despite Houston being injured, and is unlikely to even have that many snaps in 2017. He’s still playing at a high level when he does play though, finishing last season 10th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He’s finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 8 straight seasons, but his age is becoming a concern and his abilities could drop off a cliff at any point.

With Houston injured and Hali on a snap count, Dee Ford led all Kansas City outside linebackers with 798 snaps last season. A first round pick in 2014, Dee Ford had his best season yet in 2016, but still did not finish above average on Pro Football Focus. He finished above average as a pass rusher and is a good rusher off the edge, but he’s useless against the run, which really hurts him. Going into his age 26 season, Ford still has upside and could continue to improve, but the 6-2 252 pounder has had issues against the run since his collegiate days, so he could be a liability in running situations throughout his career.

Along with Tamba Hali, the Chiefs have another aging former All-Pro at middle linebacker in Derrick Johnson, who is going into his age 35 season. Johnson finished last season 15th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, but that’s a noticeable drop off because he was a top-5 middle linebacker in his previous 4 healthy seasons. His season was also ended in December after 13 games when he tore his achilles tendon. Johnson also tore his other achilles back in 2014, missing all but one game that season, so it’s fair to wonder if he’s falling apart. He should be ready for week 1, but he’s a big unknown for the Chiefs this off-season. He’ll likely be a cap casualty next off-season, owed 8 million non-guaranteed.

In Johnson’s absence, second year middle linebacker Ramik Wilson became an every down player. A 2015 4th round pick, Wilson struggled on 121 snaps as a rookie and was actually let go by the Chiefs ahead of final cuts last season, but he was signed to the practice squad and worked his way up from the practice squad to a base package role to eventually an every down role when Johnson was injured. He played very well, finishing 12th among middle linebackers on 524 snaps.

The Chiefs have traditionally used a box safety like Daniel Sorensen as the 2nd linebacker in sub packages, so the other middle linebacker spot opposite Derrick Johnson has traditionally been only a base package role, but Sorensen isn’t good and Wilson showed well both in coverage and against the run last season. He has potential at the very least and should be given a chance to stay on the field for all 3 downs. This is still one of the more talented linebacking corps in the NFL, but they have some key players who are either injury prone, aging, or both.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Chiefs have talent in the secondary as well, led by safety Eric Berry, who was re-signed to a 6-year, 78 million dollar contract this off-season, making him the highest paid safety in the league. Berry finished last season 8th among safeties on Pro Football Focus and has finished in the top-8 at his position in 3 of the last 5 seasons. Berry was diagnosed with lymphoma in November of 2014, but returned for the start of the week 1 season in 2015 and has arguably been a better player since. I expect another strong season from him.

Fellow starting safety Ron Parker is also coming off of a good season, finishing 25th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. Unlike Berry, Parker is not typically this good. In fact, prior to this season, Parker had never finished higher than 40th among safeties. Parker has only been a starter for 3 seasons, but he was a late bloomer and is already going into his age 30 season. I wouldn’t be surprised if he regressed somewhat, but he’s still a capable starter.

At cornerback, Marcus Peters is coming off of a strong season, finishing 10th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. A first round pick in 2015, Peters has a league leading 14 interceptions over the past 2 seasons, but allowed far too many big plays as a rookie and finished just above average on Pro Football Focus as a result, despite a league leading 8 interceptions. He was improved dramatically from his first to his second season in the league though and has a huge upside going forward. He could easily finish this season as one of the top few cornerbacks in the league.

The rest of the Chiefs’ cornerbacks are much bigger question marks. Steven Nelson made 14 starts opposite Peters last season, the first 14 starts of the 2015 3rd round pick’s career, and wasn’t bad, finishing just below average on Pro Football Focus. He’ll face competition from Phillip Gaines and Terrance Mitchell. Gaines struggled mightily as the 3rd cornerback last season, finishing 109th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 449 snaps in his first season back from a torn ACL. Gaines was better in a similar role as a 3rd round rookie in 2014 and could improve in his 2nd season after the injury, but he’s not a strong candidate for the starting job.

Terrance Mitchell actually took over as the #3 cornerback down the stretch last season and flashed on 240 snaps, so he could continue seeing snaps to start the 2017 season, but the 2014 7th round pick is incredibly inexperienced. He has just 2 career starts in 3 seasons in the league and it’s unclear if he can handle a larger role. Eric Murray, the Chiefs’ 4th round pick in 2016, is probably also in the mix for snaps, though he too is inexperienced, after playing just 68 defensive snaps as a rookie. The Chiefs may try different combinations throughout the season to try to patchwork together passable cornerback play behind Peters on the depth chart. This is still a strong secondary nonetheless.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Chiefs were not as good as their record in 2016, but they did get better as the season went on, with Justin Houston returning from injury and rookies Tyreek Hill and Chris Jones playing at high levels. This looks like another case of a team that will be improved, but that will still win fewer games, as they are unlikely to do as well in close games, in return touchdowns, and in turnover margins. Their roster is talented enough to make the playoffs, but it won’t be as easy for them to make the playoffs as most think, especially since they play in a loaded AFC West and face a first place schedule.

Prediction: 8-8, 3rd in AFC West

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