Kansas City Chiefs 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Despite going 39-22 in 4 seasons with Alex Smith as the starter from 2013-2016, the Chiefs decided to make a bold move at quarterback during the 2017 NFL Draft. With Smith going into his mid 30s with 30.3 million over 2 years left on his deal, the Chiefs decided to get younger and cheaper at the quarterback position, packaging together the 27th overall pick and their 2018 1st round pick (which eventually ended up being 22nd overall) in a trade to move up with the Bills to select Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes 10th overall.

It was a risky move. Not only is two first round picks a lot of compensation to give up for any player, but it’s especially risky when you already have a proven quarterback under center. Mahomes has elite arm talent and athleticism and could easily develop into an above average starting quarterback, but he played in a spread system against mediocre defenses in the Big 12 in college and could easily have growing pains. At the same time, it’s an understandable risk. If Mahomes develops, the Chiefs will have the most valuable asset you can have, a franchise quarterback on a cheap rookie deal, and the Chiefs were able to recoup a 3rd round pick and promising young cornerback Kendall Fuller in their trade of Alex Smith to the Redskins this off-season.

Part of the reason why the Chiefs got so much for Smith, despite his age and contract status, is because he was coming off of arguably the best season of his career, completing 67.5% of his passes for an average of 8.00 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, adding 355 yards on 60 carries (5.92 YPC), and leading an offense that ranked 7th in first down rate at 36.55%. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback.

They are confident enough in Mahomes that they were planning to get rid of Smith this off-season almost regardless of how well he played in 2017. Of course, that makes their decision to move on from him and go with Mahomes even riskier, as Mahomes could easily be a short-term downgrade for a team that was used to making post-season appearances under Alex Smith. Even if he develops into what they think he can be, the Chiefs might take a step back before they take a couple steps forward.

In some ways, Mahomes is the opposite of Smith. Both are athletic, mobile quarterbacks, but Mahomes is a gunslinger with a cannon arm who loves to throw deep and throw on the run, while Smith preferred to keep things in the short-to-immediate range, was very good at avoiding interceptions, and only used his feet when nothing was open downfield. With Smith gone and only veteran journeyman Chad Henne behind him on the depth chart, this is officially Mahomes’ show. He gives this offense a higher ceiling than Smith, but also a much lower floor, especially in his first season as the starter.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The Chiefs are definitely giving Mahomes all the weapons he needs to succeed though. Already inheriting a receiving corps with tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill, one of three pairs of teammates to top 1000 yards receiving in 2017 (Rob Gronkowski/Brandin Cooks, Golden Tate/Marvin Jones), Mahomes also gets to throw to Sammy Watkins, as the Chiefs applied the cap space they saved from moving on from Smith to giving Watkins a 3-year, 48 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season.

It’s another risky move, as Watkins is now the 4th highest paid wide receiver in the league in average annual salary, despite a history of injuries and despite not topping 600 yards receiving in a season since 2015, but it’s the kind of risk the Chiefs can afford to take while they have a cheap starting quarterback and he could prove to be worth it. At one point, the 2014 4th overall pick looked like arguably the best young receiver in the league, with a 60/1047/9 slash line in 13 games in his age 22 season in 2015 and, still only going into his age 25 season, Watkins has obvious upside, which is what the Chiefs are paying for.

Since finishing 12th among wide receivers in 2015 on Pro Football Focus, Watkins has been about league average on PFF in back-to-back seasons. Injuries limited him to a 28/430/2 slash line in 8 games in 2016 and then concerns about his long-term durability caused the Bills to decline his 5th year option for 2018 and then eventually to trade him to the Rams for a 2nd round pick a few weeks before the start of the season. Watkins played 15 games with the Rams, but struggled to fit in after arriving so close to the start of the season and only had a 39/593/8 slash line on just 70 targets (4th on the team). The Chiefs obviously think he can stay healthy and bounce back after a full off-season with a team. He’s also a natural fit with Mahomes because he has a 15.9 career yards per catch average and the speed to chase down Mahomes’ deep balls.

Tyreek Hill is also a speedy deep threat. He hauled in 13 of 24 targets that traveled 20+ yards in the air for 628 yards, most in the NFL on deep balls last season, and could conceivably be even more effective on deep balls with Mahomes now under center, though Watkins figures to take some of targets. Smith threw downfield more than ever before in his final season in Kansas City and was effective with it, but that was more because of Hill’s ability to get seperation than any sudden leap in Smith’s deep ball ability.

After mostly running short routes and trying to make guys miss in the open field as a 5th round rookie in 2016 (9.72 yards per catch, 5.16 average depth of target on 61 catches), Hill ran a much more complete route tree in 2017 and had a great year, finishing with a 75/1183/7 slash line and ranking 9th among wide receivers on PFF. Only in his age 24 season, Hill has game breaking talent and mostly fell in the draft because of off-the-field concerns. If he can continue staying out of trouble, he could keep developing into one of the best wide receivers in the league.

Travis Kelce is also a very talented receiver, though he’s likely to see the biggest statistical hit from the addition of Watkins and the departure of Alex Smith. While Smith loved targeting tight ends and threw Kelce the ball 123 times last season (most of any tight end in the NFL), Mahomes figures to target his deep outside receivers more often. A top-3 tight end in pass catching grade in 3 of the past 4 seasons, Kelce will still have a big role in this offense and is a capable run blocker as well, but he’s unlikely to have the same 83/1038/8 slash line he had with Smith in 2017.

With Hill, Kelce, and Watkins as their top-3 guys, there probably won’t be a lot of targets left over for everyone else unless someone gets hurt, but running back Kareem Hunt should remain in the mix as a 4th option. He might not have as many targets as he had in 2017 when he had 63, but he was impressive as a pass catcher, putting up a 53/455/3 slash line, and is another weapon for Mahomes to utilize.

The Chiefs also likely get Chris Conley back from a torn achilles and he figures to be the 3rd receiver behind Watkins and Hill. Conley was a 3rd round pick in 2015, but has earned a negative grade in all 3 seasons in the league and now is returning from a major injury. Fortunately, he won’t have to play a big role, with all of the other options the Chiefs have. Demetrius Harris, meanwhile, is the #2 tight end, but he’s struggled mightily in that role over the past 3 seasons, topping out at 18 catches in a season and struggling as a run blocker as well. Like Conley, he won’t have much of role in a very talented receiving corps.

Grade: A

Running Backs

Kareem Hunt also had a great season as a runner, despite only being a 3rd round rookie and not becoming the starter until veteran incumbent Spencer Ware got hurt in the pre-season. Hunt rushed for a league leading 1,327 yards on 272 carries (4.88 YPC) and rushed for 8 touchdowns. He also broke a league leading 77 tackles on 325 touches, averaged 3.08 yards per carry after contact, ranked 4th in elusive rating, ranked 18th in carry success rate (47%), ranked 4th among running backs on Pro Football Focus, and led the league with 19 carries of 15 yards or longer. Simply put, it was an outstanding overall first season in the league.

There are some reasons for concern though. Hunt was very inconsistent as a rookie, with fewer than 50 yards in 5 of 15 meaningful games, and he was not as good after the first month of the season, averaging just 4.12 yards per carry in his final 12 games, after averaging 8.53 yards per carry in his first four. Running back tends to be an inconsistent position as well. Hunt is the 27th running back since the beginning of 16 game seasons to rush for 1200+ yards as a rookie. Of the previous 26, nine of them did not even top 1000 yards the following season, due to a combination of injury and/or regression. That’s not to say Hunt can’t continue developing into one of the best all-around backs in the NFL, but he might not be quite as good in 2018.

With Ware due back in 2018, Hunt may see fewer carries. Ware has averaged 4.62 yards per carry on 289 carries in his career and ranked 16th in the NFL with 921 rushing yards on 214 carries in 2016 (4.30 YPC). He’s the only other proven runner on this roster though and he’s coming off of a major injury. No other Kansas City running back had more than 18 carries last season, as backup Charcandrick West played almost exclusively on passing plays (192 of 231 snaps).

West will now compete with veteran bottom of the roster caliber talents like Damien Williams and Kerwynn Williams, both added this off-season, for the #3 running back job. Ware is not useful on passing downs, but he may spell Hunt on some early downs, allowing Hunt to see the vast majority of the passing down work, after ceding about a third to West in order to stay fresh last season. The Chiefs have a good running back situation with Ware returning to provide needed depth.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Chiefs also had solid offensive line play last season, despite dealing with injuries. Zach Fulton made 12 starts last season, despite playing just 7 snaps in the first 2 weeks of the season, but he proved to be a solid starter and was versatile enough to hold his own at all 3 interior offensive line spots, making 4 starts at left guard, 1 start at right guard, and 9 starts at center. He’s no longer with the team though, after signing a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal with the Texans this off-season, and the Chiefs didn’t really replace him, so they’ll need to stay healthier in 2018.

Center Mitch Morse missed the most time, as he played just 383 snaps in 7 games due to a foot injury. He originally suffered the injury week 2, missed 5 games, then returned for 5 games, struggling mightily before getting shut down for the season with a re-aggravation of the foot injury. A 2015 2nd round pick, Morse was a capable starter in his first 2 seasons in the league (31 starts), so he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy. Only going into his age 26 season, it’s possible 2018 could be his best season yet, which would be great timing for him, in the final year of his rookie deal.

Right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif also missed 5 games with injury. His absence was bigger than Morse’s because he played at a pretty high level, finishing 19th among guards on Pro Football Focus, his second straight season earning a positive grade. A 2014 6th round pick, LDT struggled in his first season as a starter in 2015, but has improved in every season in the league and could keep getting better in his age 27 season if he can stay healthy.

Even with Morse and Duvernay-Tardif returning from injury, the Chiefs still would have benefitted from re-signing Fulton, who could have filled a hole at left guard. Bryan Witzmann made 14 starts there last season, but he finished 68th among 80 eligible guards in the first significant action of his career. Undrafted in 2014, Witzmann doesn’t have a high upside. He’ll have to compete for his job with 2016 4th round pick Parker Ehinger, who was supposed to start at left guard last season, but was never healthy in his first season back from an ACL tear and made just 1 start. Ehringer has played just 295 underwhelming snaps in 2 seasons in the league and is coming off of a major injury, so he’s far from a lock to be a capable starter, but he at least gives them more upside than Witzmann, so he’s probably the favorite to start week 1.

Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is probably their best offensive lineman. As consistent as they come, Schwartz has made all 96 starts at right tackle in 6 seasons in the league and finished in the top-30 among offensive tackles in all 6 seasons, topping out at 6th in 2015 and finishing 17th in 2017. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, I see no reason why he can’t continue his solid play in 2018. He was a smart free agent signing on a 5-year, 33 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago.

Left tackle Eric Fisher has not been as consistent, but the former 1st overall pick has developed into a capable starting left tackle over the past 3 seasons, after struggling in his first 2 seasons in the league. Fisher will likely never be good enough to justify being taken first overall, but he’s hardly a bust either and should continue his solid play in his age 27 season in 2018. With the exception of left guard, this is a good offensive line, but they’ll need to stay healthier.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

While the Chiefs were good offensively last season, they had major issues on defense, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 37.36% rate, 2nd highest in the NFL. As a result, they actually finished 19th in first down rate differential at -0.81% and only won as many games as they did because of a +15 turnover margin, 2nd in the NFL. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis and it isn’t hard to see how a team that is going from Alex Smith to Pat Mahomes under center might commit more turnovers, after a league low 11 in 2017. Mahomes could still lead an explosive offense, given the weapons around him, but the Chiefs will probably need to be significantly better defensively if they are going make it back to the post-season.

This defense is not devoid of talent, as defensive lineman Chris Jones is one of the better defensive linemen in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Jones was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 3-4 defensive end as a rookie, despite playing just 574 snaps, and then he broke out as PFF’s 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end on 678 snaps in his 2nd season in the league in 2017. He’s totaled 8.5 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 59 hurries on 803 pass rush snaps between the two seasons and is also a strong run stopper. Only going into his age 24 season, he could easily keep getting better. He’s not a mainstream name yet, but could be one of the top few defensive players in the league in a few years.

The problem is, outside of three stars, this defense was horrendous in 2017. Jones was Kansas City’s only defensive lineman to play more than 100 snaps and earn a positive grade from PFF last season. Allen Bailey and Bennie Logan were the other two starters on this defense line, playing 626 snaps and 574 snaps respectively. Bailey finished as PFF’s 37th ranked 3-4 defensive end out of 43 eligible, while Logan earned a positive grade against the run as a base package nose tackle, but offered no pass rush and finished with a negative grade overall.

Logan is also no longer with the team, signing with the Titans this off-season, and his replacement could easily be a significant downgrade against the run, as they lack a proven option. They signed ex-Cardinal Xavier Williams, a 6-0 309 pounder who flashed on 249 snaps last season, but he is a projection to a larger role. The 2015 undrafted free agent has played just 418 snaps in his career and is hardly a proven player. His biggest competition for the nose tackle job will come from 3rd round rookie Derrick Nnadi, a 6-1 317 pounder who could develop into a solid nose tackle in time, but he could easily struggle as a rookie.

Allen Bailey is still with the team and will likely remain the other starting defensive end opposite Chris Jones, for lack of a better option. Bailey has earned a negative grade from PFF in 6 of 7 seasons in the league and is unlikely to get better, now in his age 31 season. He can be a decent run stuffer, but he’s never earned a positive pass rush grade for a season in his career. He’ll probably be pushed for snaps by 2nd round rookie Breeland Speaks, who is a much better interior rusher. He’s undersized at 6-3 283, but should have a immediate role in sub packages. If the Chiefs’ rookies on this defensive line can exceed expectations, they could be an improved defensive line, but they lack another proven player behind Jones.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Chiefs had a similar situation at linebacker, with outside linebacker Justin Houston having a dominant season, but the rest of the group struggling. Bouncing back from an injury plagued 2016 season, Houston finished 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Aside from 2016, he’s finished in the top-5 at his position in each of the past 5 seasons and he has 64 sacks and 40 quarterback hits in 74 games over the past 6 seasons. He’s had his share of injuries, but he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and should have another strong season in 2018.

They need someone to step up opposite him though. Fortunately, they do have some options. Dee Ford had 10 sacks in 2016, though he struggled mightily against the run and has a combined 7.5 sacks in his other 3 seasons in the league, including just 2 last season. Injuries were to blame last season, as he was limited to 316 snaps in 6 games, so he has bounce back potential as a pass rusher in 2018 if he’s healthy. A first round pick in 2014, Ford is going into the final year of his rookie deal and could get a big contract if he has another good pass rushing year, but he’s not a guarantee to bounce back and he’s a liability on early downs.

With Ford missing time, Frank Zombo finished 2nd on the team among outside linebackers with 588 snaps, but he was a major liability, finishing dead last among 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on PFF. Zombo has played in 105 games in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s earned negative grades from PFF in 6 of those seasons and is now going into his age 31 season. He’s no lock to even be the 3rd outside linebacker, as the Chiefs still like the upside of 2017 2nd round pick Tanoh Kpassagnon. He underwhelmed on 158 snaps as a rookie and couldn’t get on the field even with Ford out of the lineup, but he was always considered raw coming out of college and could take a big step forward in his 2nd season in the league.

Derrick Johnson was a solid starting middle linebacker for them last season, but the Chiefs opted not to pay him 8 million for his age 36 season and let him go this off-season. The Chiefs then used that cap space to sign ex-Cowboys middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens to a 5-year deal worth 45 million. Hitchens is definitely younger than Johnson, going into his age 26 season, but he’s never been that good of a player, so it’s unclear why they’re paying him that much.

Hitchens has never topped 585 snaps in a season and he finished below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, before earning the first positive grade of his career on PFF on 544 snaps in 2017. He’s developed into a solid run stuffer, but still struggles in coverage and should not be paid like an every down player. He could easily struggle in his first season in Kansas City and is unlikely to be much of an upgrade over Johnson.

Fellow base package starter Reggie Ragland is also a pure base package run stuffer who struggles in coverage, but, unlike Hitchens, he won’t be counted on for an every down role. A 2nd round pick by the Bills in 2016, Ragland never got on the field in Buffalo, missing his rookie year with a torn ACL and getting sent to the Chiefs for a 2019 4th round pick when a new coaching staff came in. He flashed against the run in a part-time role (321 snaps) in his first season in Kansas City though and could be better in a slightly larger role in his 3rd season in the league in 2018.

In sub packages, the Chiefs like to drop 6-2 208 pound safety Daniel Sorensen down as a 2nd linebacker. They figure to continue doing so in 2018, but he’s never earned a positive grade in 4 seasons in the league and was PFF’s 88th ranked safety last season out of 89 eligible, so he shouldn’t be locked into that role. The Chiefs used a 3rd round pick on Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel. He’s undersized at 6-1 223 and may be limited to special teams, but he could also get a shot as a coverage linebacker in sub packages. Outside of Houston, this remains a mediocre unit.

Grade: B-

Secondary

In the secondary, cornerback Marcus Peters was their dominant player, finishing 18th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, while the rest of the unit struggled. Despite that, the Chiefs shockingly sent him to the Rams this off-season for a 2018 4th round pick and a 2019 2nd round pick. Peters was just going into his age 25 season and had two years left on his rookie deal worth a combined 10.81 million, so the fact that the Chiefs were willing to part with him for less than a first round pick suggests they didn’t just make the move for football reasons. Peters was suspended a game by the team in 2017 and has had issues with his coaches dating back to his time in college, where he was kicked off the team in his final year at the University of Washington.

They’ll obviously miss him on the field, but the Chiefs could arguably be better in the secondary in 2018 even without him. One big reason for that is the return of Eric Berry for a torn Achilles. After signing a 6-year, 78 million dollar deal in the off-season that made him the highest paid safety in the NFL, Berry played stellar defense against Rob Gronkowski in the opener, only to tear his achilles late in the game and miss the rest of the season. Their defense was not close to the same without him.

Berry has missed close to 3 full seasons in 8 seasons in the league, missing time with a torn ACL, cancer, and now a torn achilles. He’s now going into his age 30 season, so he might not be the same player when he returns, but he’s played at least 15 games in his other 5 seasons and has finished in the top-5 among safeties on PFF in his last 3 healthy seasons, so his return should be a big boost for this secondary even if he’s not at his peak.

At cornerback, the Chiefs lose Peters, but they’re significantly deeper, after adding Kendall Fuller and David Amerson in the off-season. They also should have Steven Nelson healthy after he was limited to 9 games by injury last season. Those should be their top-3 cornerbacks this season and they will compete for roles. Fuller has the most promise of the bunch and was a steal in the Alex Smith trade. He fell to the 3rd round in 2016 because of injury and was mediocre on 475 snaps in an injury plagued rookie season, but he broke out as PFF’s 6th ranked cornerback on 719 snaps last season, excelling on 637 slot snaps. Only 23, Fuller is already an excellent slot cornerback and deserves a shot at an every down role. He’s not the most proven or durable player, but he has a very high upside.

Nelson can also play both outside and on the slot. Injuries limited him to 512 snaps last season, but he’s made the start in 22 of the 24 games he’s played in over the past 2 seasons and has been a decent starter, holding his own in coverage and excelling against the run. Now healthy, the 2015 3rd round pick could have the best year of his career in the final year of his rookie deal in 2018 if he can stay healthy, still only going into his age 25 season.

Amerson, on the other hand, is just an outside cornerback, but he did finish 14th among cornerbacks on PFF in 12 starts in 2015. Amerson has 56 starts in 5 seasons in the league, since going in the 2nd round in 2013, but he’s finished below average on PFF in 4 of 5 seasons in the league and is coming off of a season in which he was limited to just 287 snaps by injuries. Owed 6 million non-guaranteed, the Raiders released him and the Chiefs picked him up on a 1-year, 2.25 million dollar deal this off-season. He may open the season as the 3rd cornerback, but he has some bounce back potential, still only in his age 27 season.

The one big weakness in this secondary is the other safety spot. Ron Parker and Daniel Sorensen led this team in safety snaps in Berry’s absence, but they finished 86th and 88th respectively out of 89 eligible safeties on PFF. Parker is no longer with the team, while Sorensen is not guaranteed a starting job, even without another good option. Eric Murray was their 3rd safety last season (437 snaps), coming in when Sorensen would move to linebacker, but he too struggled. Murray was a 4th round pick in 2016 and is only going into his age 24 season, so he has some upside, but he’s a converted cornerback who played just 65 snaps as a rookie and did not play well in a larger role in 2017.

The Chiefs like 2017 6th round pick Leon McQuay, but he played just 46 snaps as a rookie and it’s anyone’s guess if he’s ready for a larger role. They also used a 4th round pick on Texas A&M safety Armani Watts, but he probably won’t be ready to make starts as a rookie. They signed veteran Robert Golden in free agency and he’s been a valuable reserve for the Steelers, earning solid grades in 3 straight seasons, but he hasn’t topped 400 snaps in any of those seasons and would be a projection to a larger role. The Chiefs could end up using multiple starters at the position and none of them are guarantees to be any good. Outside of that, this is an improved secondary, thanks to the return of Eric Berry from injury.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Chiefs might be better defensively in 2018, but they still have problems on that side of the ball and they are switching to an unproven quarterback after getting a great year from veteran Alex Smith in 2017. Mahomes has a huge upside and has plenty of talent around him, but it would be harder for him to be better than Smith was last season and the Chiefs are also unlikely to turn the ball over as infrequently. They could have a tough time making it back to the post-season.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC West

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