Kansas City Chiefs 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

During the 2017 NFL Draft, the Chiefs made a bold decision that would redefine their franchise for years to come. With a team stuck in good, but not good enough mode, posting five straight winning seasons and making the post-season in four of those seasons, but only managing just one playoff win, the Chiefs decided the best way to upgrade their team was not to use their first round pick on a needed starter on defense, but to package that pick together with a future first round pick to move up to 10th overall to select promising, but raw quarterback Patrick Mahomes to give them a higher upside option under center long-term, with incumbent veteran Alex Smith personifying the good, but not good enough nature of this team.

It could have easily backfired given how much they were giving up to replace a serviceable starter with an unproven commodity and Mahomes didn’t see any meaningful action at all as a rookie, but Smith was traded after the 2017 season and Mahomes instantly became one of the best and most successful quarterbacks in the league. In his first season as a starter, he became just the 2nd quarterback in NFL history to have 5,000 passing yards and 50 passing touchdowns in the same season, winning the MVP for his efforts. 

His Chiefs came up just short in the 2018 AFC Championship, but it was still a remarkable finish for this team to win 12 games and make a conference championship with a defense that ranked dead last in the NFL in first down rate allowed, a testament to the effectiveness of Mahomes and the Chiefs’ league best offense. In 2019, the Chiefs fell to 3rd in first down rate, but that was only because Mahomes missed two and a half games with a knee injury and upon his return he played probably the best stretch of football of his career, leading this team all the way to a Super Bowl victory this time, now supported by a defense pulling its weight by ranking 20th in first down rate allowed.

The 2020 season started as more of the same of 2019, but that changed as the season went on. However, that wasn’t really noticeable because the Chiefs kept winning, just by a lot less, with their final 7 regular season wins coming by 6 points or fewer. The Chiefs finished at 14-2 and with the #1 overall seed in the AFC, despite losing a meaningless week 17 game when their starters didn’t play, but they finished the season just 5th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential and their record was largely the result of a 8-1 record in one score games.

It may seem like an elite quarterback like Mahomes could consistently win a high percentage of one score games, but most elite quarterbacks are unable to do so for an extended period of time, including Mahomes himself, who was just 9-8 in one score games in the first two seasons of his career, so it was concerning to see the Chiefs’ margin of victory (which was 14.4 points per game in Mahomes’ starts prior to the second half of 2020) drop off so drastically. It was especially concerning because there was an obvious culprit, with stud right tackle Mitchell Schwartz going down for the season with injury week 6.

The Chiefs’ offensive line problems became even worse when Schwartz’s counterpart, talented left tackle Eric Fisher, tore his achilles in the AFC Championship. With guard Kelechi Osemele also out for the season, the Chiefs headed into the Super Bowl without their top-3 offensive linemen and it was glaringly obvious, with Mahomes on the run for most of a blowout 31-9 loss, being pressured on a ridiculous 55.4% of his dropbacks, while nursing a toe injury of his own that eventually required off-season surgery.

Simply put, Mahomes is a generational quarterback, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 8.39 YPA, 114 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions in his first 3 seasons as a starter. However, even generational quarterbacks need the right pieces around them to win Super Bowls, as evidenced by poor defense doing the Chiefs in during 2018 and a poor offensive line doing them in last season. Mahomes should compete for multiple MVPs over the next decade and the Chiefs should be perennial Super Bowl contenders, but quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers have shown that doesn’t always result in many actual Super Bowl victories. 

The Chiefs’ ability to surround Mahomes with talent is also about to become a lot more complicated over the next decade, with Mahomes’ record breaking 10-year, 450 million dollar extension set to kick in after this season, representing a significant increase on his cost controlled rookie deal. With salary caps set to rise over the next decade and quarterback salaries always increasing, Mahomes’ deal will probably look like a relative steal in a few years, but there’s no denying that any way the Chiefs structure and restructure it, Mahomes is going to count for a significant portion of their cap for the next decade, some years more than others. 

In the salary cap era, just 7 of 27 Super Bowl winning quarterbacks accounted for more than 10% of their team’s cap and none have accounted for more than 14%. All of those Super Bowl winning quarterbacks are current or likely future Hall of Famers, with Eli Manning standing out as a possible exception in a group that includes Steve Young, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady, so, in that sense, the Chiefs paying that kind of money to Mahomes is a lot more justifiable than teams giving slightly less money to significantly lesser quarterbacks, but it goes to show how difficult it is to build a Super Bowl caliber roster when your quarterback takes up such a large percentage of the cap. The Chiefs should remain contenders in 2021, but I wouldn’t consider them favorites necessarily and certainly not clear favorites, despite their incredible starting quarterback.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The Chiefs’ offensive line was obviously in bad shape after the Super Bowl and things looked to be getting worse when the Chiefs cut both Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, their injured long-term starting offensive tackles, but that proved to be part of a larger plan. The Chiefs saved 18.255 million in cap space by moving on from a pair of players over 30 and coming off of serious injuries and they then used most of their newly found cap space to sign top free agent guard Joe Thuney, who is going into his age 28 season and hasn’t missed a start in 5 seasons in the league. 

A 3rd round pick by the Patriots in 2016, Thuney has developed into one of the best guards in the league. After a solid rookie year, Thuney took a big step forward in his second season in the league and has finished in the top-14 among guards on PFF in all 4 seasons since, with his best season coming in a 5th ranked finish in 2019. As reliable as they come and still in the prime of his career, there is no reason to expect anything different from Thuney in 2021.

The Chiefs also re-signed Mike Remmers, an unspectacular, but serviceable starter who mostly held up as an injury replacement in 10 starts (9 at right tackle) last season, bringing him back on a 1-year, 3.3 million dollar deal. They also signed free agent center Austin Blythe and recently unretired Kyle Long to one-year deals worth 1 million and 1.5 million respectively. With Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who made 57 starts at right guard for the Chiefs from 2015-2019, also set to return after opting out of the 2020 season, the Chiefs seemed set at every position except for left tackle ahead of the draft. 

However, instead of drafting a left tackle as most expected, they swung a surprisingly pre-draft trade for Orlando Brown of the Ravens, in a swap of picks that saw the Chiefs send their first round pick to Baltimore. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Brown is still on his rookie deal, so it wasn’t hard for the Chiefs to fit his 3.384 million dollar salary under the cap, but he’s heading into the final year of his rookie deal and wants top left tackle money, which is why Baltimore decided to move on and get a significant draft pick haul while they could.

It makes for a complicated situation in the long-term because the Chiefs won’t want to let Brown leave for nothing after giving up a first round pick for him, but he’s yet to prove himself as a top left tackle, never finishing higher than 26th on PFF in a single season and playing better on the right side, where he made the first 32 starts of his career, than the left side, where he made the final 10 starts of last season in the absence of the injured Ronnie Stanley. Still, in the short-term, he’s an obvious upgrade for a team previously lacking a reliable left tackle and, only going into his age 25 season, it’s possible he’s still capable of a higher level that he hasn’t shown yet.

After trading their first round pick for Brown, the Chiefs also added Creed Humphrey in the 2nd round for good measure, so an offensive line that once was a huge concern now looks like a strong group. Humphrey could potentially play guard as well, but he’s most likely to see action for the Chiefs at center, where he’ll compete with veteran free agent acquisition Austin Blythe, who can also play some guard. 

Guard is actually where Blythe had the best season of his career, finishing 10th among guards on PFF in 2018 in 16 starts, but he struggled mightily at the position to begin the 2019 season and was subsequently moved to center, where he fared better. He then continued that into 2020, when he finished 13th among centers on PFF. The 2016 7th round pick is a capable starting center, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him pushed for his job by the rookie Humphrey.

Left tackle Orlando Brown and left guard Joe Thuney are the only ones locked into a role on this offensive line. Humphrey and Blythe are competing at center and could play guard if needed, but most likely they won’t be needed to. Not only is Thuney locked in on one side, but Long, Duvernay-Tardif, and Remmers are likely to compete for the right guard and right tackle spots, leaving Humphrey and Blythe as primarily options at center. 

Duvernay-Tardif is the only one of that aforementioned trio who likely isn’t an option to start at right tackle, with all of his career starts coming at right guard, but he might also be the most likely to secure a starting role, having made 57 starts for the Chiefs in the 5 seasons prior to opting out of last season. His best days are likely behind him though, as he struggled in 2019, earning the first below average grade from PFF of his career, after an injury plagued 2018 season in which he was limited to just 331 snaps. Now after a year off, Duvernay-Tardif is going into his age 30 season and is a shakier starting option than he was just a few years ago.

Long is also a shaky starting option, as he basically opted out of the 2020 season, retiring for a year after an injury plagued previous 4 seasons from 2016-2019, a stretch in which he made just 29 starts. Long had earned an average or better grade from PFF in each of his first six seasons in the league after being drafted in the 1st round by the Bears in 2015, but by the end of his injury plagued stretch, Long was a shell of his former self, finishing the 2019 season as PFF’s worst ranked guard on 250 snaps, leading to his temporary retirement. 

Long could be better this season, but only by default, as his best days are clearly behind him, now in his age 33 season. He’s not a bad option to have because he can play both right guard and right tackle and he didn’t cost the Chiefs all that much, but he would be tough to rely on as a starter. He’s also been significantly better at right guard than right tackle in his career, so, in order to be a starter, he would either have to displace the long-time starting Duvernay-Tardif or play out of position at right tackle.

Mike Remmers is probably the favorite to start at right tackle, where he wasn’t bad in Mitchell Schwartz’s absence last season, before the post-season. Remmers is experienced with 88 career starts (70 at tackle, 18 at guard) and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 7 seasons as a starter in his career, but he’s also never finished higher than 34th at his position and his age is becoming a concern, now going into his age 32 season. He could remain a capable starter in 2021, but he doesn’t come with much upside and it’s good the Chiefs have insurance for him. 

Overall, this is a deep and talented offensive line with seven starting options and they have good versatility as well, with multiple players having experience at multiple positions. They’re well positioned to have solid or better offensive line play this season, even when injuries inevitably hit. Early season continuity may be a concern with a unit consistently of mostly off-season additions, but they’ve done a great job re-tooling this offensive line on the fly this off-season, without significant financial flexibility.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

While the Chiefs did a good job of retooling the offensive line, it came at the expense of some other needs, including wide receiver. That’s not to say that the Chiefs weren’t smart to prioritize the offensive line, but it’s the reality for a team that will be working with increasingly fewer resources over the next few off-seasons. Sammy Watkins, who was their #2 receiver when healthy over the past three seasons, signed with the Ravens in free agency and the Chiefs didn’t replace him and instead will rely on inexperienced players like Mecole Hardman, DeMarcus Robinson, Byron Pringle, and possibly 5th round rookie Cornell Powell. 

Given that, the Chiefs figure to once again give heavy target shares to wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce, who were targeted on a whopping 280 of Mahomes’ 588 regular season pass attempts last season, 47.6%, a number that could even increase this season with Watkins gone. Both Hill and Kelce are dynamic players who are among the best at their position, but the lack of a reliable third option is a concern and would especially become a concern if either Hill or Kelce were to miss time with injury.

Kelce hasn’t missed a game with injury since his rookie season in 2013, but that’s not a guarantee he stays healthy all season this year, especially with his age creeping up, now in his age 32 season. Kelce has shown no signs of slowing down, in fact posting a career best 105/1416/11 slash line last season, despite sitting out the Chiefs’ meaningless regular season finale. He has overall averaged a 102/1327/9 slash line in 3 seasons with Mahomes, a jump from an already impressive 77/975/6 average slash line in 4 seasons with Alex Smith, while finishing in the top-4 among tight ends on PFF in 5 straight seasons and 6 seasons overall. However, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his decline begin this season, given his age. 

Even if he’s not quite at his best, Kelce would still be one of the top few tight ends in the league, but it’s something to keep in mind, especially in a top heavy receiving corps that severely lacks tight end depth. Nick Keizer was 2nd on the team in tight end snaps with 302, but the 2018 undrafted free agent finished 80th out of 82 eligible tight ends on PFF in the first action of his career. Fellow 2018 undrafted free agent Deon Yelder played 194 snaps last season, but he’s been underwhelming across just 242 career snaps. 

The Chiefs also brought back Blake Bell, who finished 63rd out of 71 eligible tight ends as the Chiefs’ #2 tight end in 2019, before spending the 2020 season in Dallas. He has some experience, but he has never topped 398 snaps in a season or earned an above average grade in a season from PFF and now he heads into his age 30 season. The Chiefs desperately need Kelce to continue to stay healthy and to not decline significantly.

Top wide receiver Tyreek Hill has more of a recent injury history than Kelce, but he’s still only missed 5 games with injury in 5 seasons in the league and he also remains very much in his prime in only his age 27 season. Off-the-field concerns caused Hill to fall to the 5th round in 2016, but he flashed in part-time action as a rookie and has broken out as a #1 wide receiver in the four seasons since, posting a 75/1183/7 slash line in 15 games with Alex Smith in 2017 and averaging a 86/1345/13 slash line per 16 games in 3 seasons since Mahomes became the starter, serving as the perfect deep threat complement to the big armed Mahomes. Even including his rookie season, Hill has averaged at least 2.16 yards per route run and finished in the top-17 among wide receivers on PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, making him among the most consistent #1 wide receivers in the league. I see no reason for that to change in 2021.

Of the Chiefs’ inexperienced pass catchers, Mecole Hardman has by far the best chance to breakout in a bigger role. A 2nd round pick in 2019 who profiled almost identically to Hill as a prospect aside from the off-the-field concerns, Hardman has yet to surpass 500 snaps in a season, but he’s shown promise with an average of 1.73 yards per route run and 16.4 yards per catch and, with the #2 wide receiver job in this explosive offense seemingly his to lose, he could easily break out with an impressive statistical year in his third season in the league. He may end up being one of those players whose raw stats are more impressive than his actual play, as someone who could get a big target share in an explosive offense that takes a lot of deep shots, but you could do worse as a #2 wide receiver and he comes with plenty of upside.

Even if Hardman can step up as the #2 wide receiver, their depth behind him is pretty suspect. DeMarcus Robinson has gotten opportunity, as the 2016 4th round pick has averaged 426 routes run per season over the past 4 years, but he’s earned a below average grade from PFF in every season and has managed just 0.90 yards per route run in his career, despite incredible quarterback play. 2018 undrafted free agent Byron Pringle is the other realistic candidate for the #3 receiver job because the Chiefs seem to like him, but he’s barely played in his career, totaling just 383 snaps and his 1.46 yards per route run average is nothing to write home about either. This is a talented, but top heavy receiving corps that can’t afford an injury to their top-2 guys.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Chiefs also lack depth at the running back position and instead seem likely to rely on 2020 1st round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire in a larger capacity in his second season in the league. Edwards-Helaire was originally drafted to work in tandem with veteran Damien Williams, but he opted out of the 2020 season, leaving inexperienced 2018 undrafted free agent Darrel Williams as the #2 running back, at least until the Chiefs were able to sign veteran Le’Veon Bell when the Jets released him mid-season. Bell ate up 63 carries and limited Edwards-Helaire to 181 carries and 36 catches, but he wasn’t retained in free agency and Damien Williams was traded to the Bears upon return from his opt out, so Darrel Williams is currently the #2 back again, despite just 93 carries in his career, and Edwards-Helaire seems primed for a larger role.

Edwards-Helaire showed himself to be a good runner as a rookie, averaging 4.44 yards per carry with a 9th ranked 56% carry success rate and, while he benefited from defenses selling out to stop the pass, he still averaged 2.98 yards per carry after contact and earned PFF’s 21st highest run grade among running backs. However, one area he will need to improve if he is going to become a true featured back is as a receiver, as he averaged just 5.50 yards per target and 1.04 yards per route run last season, despite a dominant quarterback throwing him the ball. Even if he can become a featured back in 2021, Edwards-Helaire will still probably come off the field in some passing situations for Jerick McKinnon, a veteran who comes over from the 49ers as a free agent this off-season. 

McKinnon isn’t a candidate to get more than a few carries per game, as he was a mediocre runner in 4 seasons with the Vikings (4.03 YPC on a max of 159 carries in a season) even before missing all of his first two seasons with the 49ers with leg injuries in 2018 and 2019, which continued to limit him in a 2020 season in which he averaged 3.94 YPC on 81 carries. However, he’s a capable pass catcher who had a career best 51/421/2 in his final season with the Vikings in 2017 and continued to show something with a 33/253/1 slash line last season, although his 5.50 yards per target average left something to be desired. He’s a situational pass catching back only at this stage of his career, but he could still see action in a thin backfield. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Chiefs add another cheap, capable running back to the mix at some point, given that it wouldn’t be that hard for them to do so inexpensively.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The biggest and most important need that the Chiefs didn’t address this off-season while prioritizing their offensive line is the defensive end position, where the Chiefs didn’t have a player other than Frank Clark with more than 3 sacks in the regular season. In total, the Chiefs managed just 32 sacks as a team last season, a below average total that is especially disappointing for a team that plays with many leads. That total was despite team sack leader Chris Jones being an interior pass rusher, further highlighting their issues at the edge defender position. 

Despite that, the Chiefs didn’t make a significant addition at the position aside from 4th round rookie Joshua Kaindoh and they actually lost a pair of players from last year’s group in Tanoh Kpassagnon (720 snaps) and Alex Okafor (283 snaps), who, while they didn’t play well, at least have starting experience. Kaindoh figures to have a good chance to earn a significant role as a rookie and, as of right now, it looks like 2020 5th round pick Michael Danna will be the starter opposite Clark, even though he was underwhelming in just 334 snaps as a rookie. 

The Chiefs also took a flyer on former Cowboys first round bust Taco Charlton, who has played for three different teams in just four seasons in the league and has played middling at best across an average of 322 snaps per season, including just 91 snaps last season for a Chiefs team that called him up off the practice squad mid season. Charlton isn’t that young anymore, now in his age 27 season, so it’s a long shot that he has serious untapped potential. The Chiefs will be counting on one or two of Danna, Charlton, and the rookie Kaindoh to surprise, otherwise they figure to once again get poor play at the position behind Frank Clark.

Even Frank Clark didn’t have a great season last season and, while he’s had some big post-season moments, his regular season play has been disappointing in two seasons with the Chiefs, given that the Chiefs gave up not only a first round pick to acquire him, but signed him to a 5-year, 104 million dollar deal that still ranks 6th in the NFL among edge defenders. A second round pick by the Seahawks in 2015, Clark had 32 sacks, 29 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate in his final three seasons with Seattle, but he’s seen that drop off to 14 sacks, 19 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate in two seasons since joining the Chiefs, hampered by multiple nagging injuries. 

Never a particularly good run defender either, Clark hasn’t justified his salary thus far and could be entering a make or break season, owed a non-guaranteed 19.5 million in 2022 on a team that lacks long-term financial flexibility. Still only in his age 28 season, Clark is theoretically in the prime of his career and could bounce back, but that’s not a guarantee now three years removed from his career best 20th ranked finish among edge defenders on PFF in 2018. The Chiefs will need him to bounce back, at a position group that otherwise looks very thin and lacks proven players.

Grade: C

Interior Defenders

As I mentioned, the Chiefs are in a lot better shape on the interior. Chris Jones led the team in sacks last season and, while he had just 7.5 sacks, he added another 21 hits and a 13.6% pressure rate and he had 24.5 sacks combined in the previous 2 seasons, so last year’s relatively reduced sack total is mostly the result of bad luck and I would expect it to bounce back in 2021, with Jones still very much in his prime in his age 27 season. 

A 3rd round pick in 2016, Jones showed a lot of promise as a rookie and broke out as one of the top interior defensive linemen in the league in his second season in the league, finishing in the top-8 among interior defenders on PFF in 4 straight seasons since then. He’s been especially dominant as a pass rusher over the past 3 seasons with 32 sacks, 50 hits, and a 13.9% pressure rate, among the best in the league by an interior rusher, and I wouldn’t expect anything different from him in 2021.

The Chiefs also bring back Derrick Nnadi, who doesn’t get much pass rush, with just 1 sack and 1 hit and a 5.2% pressure rate in 3 seasons since the Chiefs took him in the 3rd round in 2018, but who excels against the run, improving in all three seasons in the league, culminating in a 8th ranked finish in run defense grade among interior defenders. Nnadi played just 460 snaps last season as almost exclusively a base package player and he’s never topped more than 598 snaps in a season, but the Chiefs improved their depth at the position this off-season by acquiring ex-Seahawk Jarran Reed, following his release by Seattle this off-season.

Reed’s release was the result of not being worth a 8.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, but, while he struggles against the run, he’s been an effective pass rusher over the past 4 seasons, with 20.5 sacks, 36 hits, and a 7.7% pressure rate, earning him middling grades overall from PFF, despite his struggles against the run, so he could be a good addition for the Chiefs at the reduced 5.5 million dollar salary they signed him at. He and Nnadi complement each other well and will likely rotate frequently depending on the situation.

Reed addition leaves Tershawn Wharton, a 2020 undrafted free agent who actually finished his rookie season 2nd on the team in interior defenders snaps slightly ahead of Nnadi with 518, with an uncertain role going forward, especially with 2019 3rd round pick Khalen Saunders set to return from an injury that limited him to just 74 snaps in 3 games last season. Wharton wasn’t bad last season, but he could be upgraded on, which the Seahawks did by adding Reed, leaving Wharton to compete with Saunders for playing time. He may win that job, despite Saunders being a higher draft pick, but only because Saunders has yet to show anything across 377 career snaps, struggling as a rookie in limited action before last year’s injury plagued season. This is a deep group overall and it’s led by one of the best in the league at his position in Chris Jones.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Chiefs did address their linebacking corps this off-season, adding Missouri’s Nick Bolton in the 2nd round of the draft, a much needed move because this team lacked an every down linebacker last season, instead stringing together a group of capable run stuffers Damien Wilson and Anthony Hitchens, capable coverage linebacker Ben Niemann, and hybrid safety/linebacker Daniel Sorensen, who saw frequent action as a true linebacker in sub packages. In all, the group wasn’t terrible, but no one played more than 603 snaps and there was definitely room for improvement.

Bolton might not play every down as a rookie and could have growing pains even if he doesn’t, but the potential of him and last year’s 2nd round pick Willie Gay breathe some life into a group that has been mostly a liability for years. Gay was only limited to 269 snaps as a rookie, which was strange because he showed potential in an otherwise underwhelming group and earned the unit’s highest overall grade from PFF, both in overall grade and in coverage grade, but he easily could see a much bigger role in his 2nd season in the league.

Damien Wilson is no longer with the team, but Anthony Hitchens was retained, somewhat surprising, as the cap strapped Chiefs could have saved 6.5 million by moving on from a player who played just 603 snaps last season and struggled in coverage, but he remains and, assuming he isn’t a late cap casualty, he should remain in primarily a base package role and could easily see his playing time fall even more with Bolton being added and Gay likely receiving a larger role. The Chiefs like the veteran leadership of Hitchens, probably the main reason why he remains on the roster, but he’s struggled in coverage throughout his 7-year career, has only surpassed 700 snaps in a season once, and hasn’t earned an above average grade overall from PFF since 2017.

Ben Niemann and Daniel Sorensen are also underwhelming options if they have to continue seeing playing time in sub packages. Niemann isn’t bad in coverage, but he’s a 2018 undrafted free agent whose 499 snaps last season were a career high, and he struggled mightily against the run. Sorensen, meanwhile, has been adequate at best as a coverage linebacker in his career and is unlikely to suddenly get significantly better, now going into his age 31 season. This should be a better group this season, but they need their young players to step up for this group to be significantly improved and no longer be a liability.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Daniel Sorensen may also see some action at safety, but Tyrann Mathieu and Juan Thornhill are locked in as the starters. A second round pick by the Chiefs in 2019, Thornhill had an impressive rookie season, finishing as PFF’s 32nd ranked safety in 16 starts, but he tore his ACL in week 17 and, though he returned for week 1 in 2020, he did not seem to be the same player, finishing 84th among 99 eligible safeties and especially struggling in coverage. Now another year removed from the injury, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him bounce back and resume developing into an above average starter, although that can’t be considered a guarantee.

Mathieu also had a bit of a down year last year, in part due to giving up more big plays than normal, but he still finished an above average 49th among safeties on PFF, after ranking 21st in 2018 and 20th in 2019. A versatile joker type player who can play deep safety, in the box, and on the slot, Mathieu is still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and could easily bounce back in 2021 from his slightly down 2020 season. Both he and Thornhill look likely to be better in 2021 than 2020 and likely to be an above average starting safety duo once again, leaving Sorensen as a reserve safety and situational linebacker.

At cornerback, things are a lot less settled, primarily due to the loss of cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who was PFF’s 38th ranked cornerback last season. While Breeland was their only significant loss at the position and their top-3 returning cornerbacks all received average or better grades from PFF, Bashuad was their de facto #1 cornerback when in the lineup, playing 690 snaps in 11 games, while returning cornerbacks Charvarius Ward, Rashad Fenton, and L’Jarius Snead played just 782 snaps, 527 snaps, and 410 snaps respectively last season. Further complicating the situation, the Chiefs took flyers on a pair of recent first round picks in Mike Hughes and DeAndre Baker, who are likely to be in the mix for roles as well, so this is very much a position in flux.

Snead played the best of all the Chiefs’ cornerbacks last season, finishing 20th among cornerbacks, despite being only a 4th round rookie, but that came across just 410 snaps, so he’s very unproven and not necessarily a guarantee to translate that into a season long starting role. Fenton is a similar situation. The 2019 6th round pick is also inexperienced, having played just 693 career snaps, but he’s flashed a lot of promise on those limited snaps, including a 31st ranked finish among cornerbacks on 527 snaps last season. Like Snead, he has the upside to develop into a solid season long starter, but he’s a projection to a larger role.

With Breeland missing time with injury, Ward played the most snaps among the Chiefs’ cornerbacks last season with 782 and is the most experienced of the bunch this year. After making 29 starts over the past two seasons and largely holding up as a solid starter, he figures to be as close as to a lock to be a starter as the Chiefs have. The 2018 undrafted free agent hasn’t shown a high ceiling thus far in his career, but he’s still only going into his age 25 season and it’s possible that could change.

As much as the Chiefs’ returning cornerbacks are wild cards who are tough to predict, that’s especially true of the former first round picks Mike Hughes and DeAndre Baker, who the Chiefs took flyers on. Hughes was a first round pick in 2018 by the Vikings and showed some promise his rookie year, but he suffered a torn ACL week 6 and his career has been derailed ever since, as he has dealt with more injuries, has struggled when on the field, and has overall been limited to 917 snaps played in 24 games in 3 seasons in the league, leading Minnesota sending him to the Chiefs for a swap of late round picks this off-season. If he can stay healthy, Hughes theoretically still has upside in his age 24 season, but it might be a long shot that he doesn’t get hurt and becomes a capable starter.

Baker, meanwhile, was a first round pick of the Giants in 2019, but he followed up a miserable rookie season in which he finished 121st out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on PFF in 15 starts with an off-the-field incident that led to the Giants cutting ties with him last off-season after just one season. The Chiefs actually picked him up towards the end of last season after his charges were dropped, but he played just 45 snaps total before a leg injury ended his season. If he can stay out of further trouble and stay healthy, he also has theoretical upside in his age 24 season, but like Hughes he might be a long shot. The Chiefs cornerback group has upside, but a lot of uncertainty. This isn’t a bad secondary, but their cornerback situation gives them a high variance as a unit.

Grade: B

Kicker/Punter

The Chiefs were about average overall on special teams last season, finishing the year ranked 17th in special teams DVOA. One big strength for them was place kicking, as they finished above average in place kicking DVOA and missed just two field goals all season. Kicker Harrison Butker strangely struggled more on extra points, missing 6 and going just 48/54, despite making all 18 of his field goal attempts from within 40 yards, but that seems like an anomaly and Butker has been a consistently reliable kicker since entering the league in 2017, making 93.5% of his extra points and 90.9% of his field goals, while missing just twice from inside 40 yards and ranking in the top-7 among kickers on PFF in three of four seasons.

Butker was not as effective on kickoffs and, combined with inconsistent play from their special teamers, that led to the Chiefs finishing slightly below average in kickoff DVOA, but they did at least get good play from their punting unit. They finished with an above average punting DVOA and got a strong season from rookie punter Tommy Townsend, who was PFF’s 8th ranked punter and finished 5th with an average of 4.46 seconds of hang time per kickoff. Both Townsend and Butker seem likely to have above average years again in 2021.

Grade: A-

Return Specialists

The Chiefs returned a punt for a 67-yard touchdown last season, but on their other 27 punt returns they averaged just 3.8 yards per and, even with the touchdown included, they still finished below average in punt return DVOA. Mecole Hardman was their primary punt returner and averaged 7.0 yards per return across 25 returns, including that one touchdown where his supporting cast did most of the work. 

Hardman also struggled with a 20.4 yards per return average across 9 kickoff returns, but Byron Pringle actually led the team with 10 kickoff returns and he took them for 32.4 yards per, including a 102-yard touchdown. As a result, the Chiefs actually finished 4th in yards per kickoff return at 25.8 and they had an above average kickoff return DVOA. Both Hardman and Pringle are candidates for bigger roles at wide receiver in 2021 with Sammy Watkins gone, which could affect how much they are used on special teams, but I would expect both to continue seeing some return action. 

Hardman, a 2019 2nd round pick, had better success on returns as a rookie in 2019, averaging 26.1 yards per kickoff return and 9.3 yards per punt return, so he could bounce back a little in 2021. Pringle is less experienced and has never returned a punt, but he was clearly the better of the two kickoff returners in 2020. The Chiefs could also sprinkle Tyreek Hill in on returns more often to take some of the burden off of Hardman and Pringle. 

Hill was one of the most prolific returners in the league earlier in his career, taking 14 kickoff returns for 27.4 yards per and 86 punt returns for 11.7 yards per and scoring five touchdowns in three seasons, but was taken off of the return unit so he could avoid injury and focus on offense and, as a result, hasn’t returned anything since 2018. He won’t suddenly have a big return role again, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Chiefs use him in certain situations because of how dynamic he is with the ball in his hands. This is an unsettled group, but the Chiefs at least have intriguing options.

Grade: B+

Special Teamers

While the Chiefs weren’t bad on special teams in 2020, it had to be a disappointing year overall for this year, as they had finished in the top-10 in special teams DVOA in eight straight seasons prior to last season, with six finishes in the top-4, coinciding with the arrival of Andy Reid and special teams coordinator Dave Toub, who has interviewed for several head coaching jobs during his tenure with the Chiefs and added the title of assistant head coach a few years ago.

The Chiefs didn’t change much this off-season to try to improve, but that could prove to be the right approach. Daniel Sorensen (167 snaps), Ben Niemann (245 snaps), and Dorian O’Daniel (217 snaps) are their best returning special teamers and all three had above average seasons on PFF, but none of them finished in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF and all three are very proven, so that’s a disappointing finish for them. 

For Niemann, who still finished 110th among special teamers on PFF, it was the worst finish for him in his three seasons in the league, finishing 15th across 259 snaps in 2018 and 8th across 280 snaps in 2019. Sorensen, meanwhile, has four top-100 finishes among special teamers on PFF in seven seasons in the league, including a 86th ranked finish in 2020, and, while O’Daniel’s 80th ranked finish in 2020 was a career best, he’s still finished above average on PFF in all three seasons in the league. It wouldn’t be a surprise for all three to be better in 2021 and even if only a couple are, that would be a big boost for this group.

The Chiefs also retained Nick Keizer (221 snaps) and Armani Watts (353 snaps), who had solid seasons in 2020, but it’s not all good news as Antonio Hamilton (328 snaps) who also had a solid season in 2020, is no longer with the team, replaced by veteran signing Blake Bell, who has been a middling special teamer at best in his career. Their depth will also need to take a step forward from a year ago, but they should at least get strong play from their core special teamers. With good talent at kicker, punter, and returner as well, along with one of the best special teams coordinators in the league, the Chiefs should be closer to their high level 2013-2019 performance than their middling 2020 performance overall.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Chiefs are obviously one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl this season, but they may still be a little bit of an overrated team. They patched up the offensive line problems that caused many of their wins to be close calls in the regular season and that eventually caused their defeat in the Super Bowl, but it came at the expense of not addressing other needs at the offensive skill positions and on defense, not notably their lack of edge rushers. They’ll be contenders, but they’re not the favorites that many may view them as. I will have a final prediction for the Chiefs at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

8/8/21 Update: The Chiefs are one of the teams that benefits from special teams being more predictive than most think, as they should be significantly improved in that aspect in 2021, further solidifying their grasp on being a top level contender.

9/4/21 Update: The Chiefs have some injury concerns on their rebuilt offensive line to begin the season, but nothing compared to what they were dealing with in the post-season last year and they still look like arguably the best team in the league, especially since their special teams seem likely to be significantly improved from a year ago. The biggest thing working against them making their 3rd straight Super Bowl might be fatigue, as this team has played more than anyone over the past two seasons.

Prediction: 14-3 1st in AFC West

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