Kansas City Chiefs at Las Vegas Raiders: 2020 Week 11 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (8-1) at Las Vegas Raiders (6-3)

Typically the rule of thumb with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs over the past few seasons has been to pick them unless there is a good reason not to, as they are 28-16-2 ATS with Mahomes under center since his first season as a starter in 2018. You might think that’s just because Mahomes caught everyone off guard in his first season and that oddsmakers have sufficiently compensated in recent years for how good Mahomes is, but Mahomes is actually 18-8 ATS winning his MVP at the end of the 2018 season, as he’s had a much better defense supporting him over the past two seasons

This line is decently high, favoring the Chiefs by 7 points over the Raiders, but that’s not good enough reason to go against the Chiefs, as the Raiders have only been a middling team this season, only slightly above average in point differential (+14) and schedule adjusted first down rate differential (+0.20%), and are still not fully healthy, missing a pair of starting offensive linemen in Richie Incognito and Trent Brown, as well as talented defensive end Clelin Ferrell and every down starting linebacker Cory Littleton.

On top of that, the Chiefs are in a great spot, coming off an extra week of rest, facing a team that they will be desperate to get their revenge against, after the Raiders shockingly handed the Chiefs their first loss of the season back when these two teams met in week 5, which may have simultaneously been the Chiefs’ worst performance of the season and the Raiders’ best performance. I would expect a better effort by Kansas City by default this time around, but Andy Reid is 21-9 ATS all-time in season with extended rest and big road favorites typically cover after a bye in general, going 52-26 ATS since 1989 as road favorites of 4 points or more. I would need this line to drop to 6.5 for this to be a bigger play, but the Chiefs should take care of business in this one, so they’re worth a bet even at 7.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Las Vegas Raiders 24

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -7

Confidence: Medium

Carolina Panthers at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 Week 9 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (3-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (7-1)

It might go without saying, but the Chiefs are on an incredible run right now. Dating back to last year’s bye, a 16-game stretch including the post-season, the Chiefs have just one loss and 12 wins by double digits and have a first down rate differential of +5.44% over that stretch. They have a competent opponent this week with the Carolina Panthers coming to town, but the Panthers have some injury issues and I have the Chiefs as likely to get another double digit win, with a calculated line of Kansas City -10.

That is exactly where this line is, but the Chiefs are also in a great spot, as big home favorites before a bye. Since 2010, home favorites of 7+ are 34-18 ATS before a bye. The Panthers, meanwhile, have back-to-back tough games, which typically makes it tough for a team to play as well needed to keep it close against a superior opponent. The early line has the Panthers as 6.5 point home underdogs against the Buccaneers next week and teams are 114-208 ATS since 2010 before being home underdogs of 4.5 or more, including 38-72 ATS as underdogs of a touchdown or more. The Panthers will need to be fully focused in this one, but they may have an eye on next week as well. This isn’t a big play, but I don’t see this being close.

Kansas City Chiefs 38 Carolina Panthers 24

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -10

Confidence: Medium

New York Jets at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 Week 8 NFL Pick

New York Jets (0-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (6-1)

This is the biggest line of the year so far, favoring the Chiefs at home by 19.5 points. Normally I don’t like to bet on massive favorites like this and for good reason, as favorites are 17.5+ are 7-15 ATS over the past 30 seasons (though 3-1 ATS over the past 8 seasons), but this line arguably isn’t big enough and it’s smaller than it was on the early line last week, when the Chiefs were favored by 21. I’m guessing the Jets’ close game against the Bills last weekend is the reason for the movement, but that 8-point loss to an overrated Bills team is the Jets’ closest game of the year and they have been outscored by an average of 16.9 points per game in their 7 losses. It’s not hard to imagine the Jets losing by 20 or more against arguably the top team in the league.

The Chiefs are also in a great spot, as they have another easy home game on deck, while the Jets have a divisional clash with the Patriots and could easily not be as focused as they need to be this week to keep this one close. Favorites of 6+ are 82-42 ATS since 2008 before being favorites of 6+ again the following week when their opponents will next be underdogs of 6+ again the following week and all three of those conditions are likely to be true in this one. I wouldn’t make this a huge bet, but I see no reason other than fluky plays or a backdoor cover that this game is within three touchdowns.

Kansas City Chiefs 30 New York Jets 6

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -19.5

Confidence: Medium

Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (5-1) at Denver Broncos (2-3)

The Broncos just got their second win of the season last week, but they’re a lot better than their record suggests, as they’ve faced one of the toughest schedules in the league thus far. The Broncos did get to play the Jets, but they beat them pretty easily and they’ve also played the Buccaneers, Steelers, Titans, and Patriots and have lost by more than one score just once. They benefited from the Patriots not having a lot of practice time and missing key players on the offensive line, but that was still an impressive win last week in New England. The Broncos’ offense has struggled, but head coach Vic Fangio has once again coached up a defense that is outplaying expectations (1st in first down rate allowed at 30.86%) and, when adjusted for schedule, the Broncos rank 14th with a +1.62% first down rate differential.

The Broncos have done that despite significant injury problems and they are starting to get healthy. Starting quarterback Drew Lock has thrown just 37.3% of the team’s pass attempts this season, with bottom of the roster caliber quarterbacks playing in his absence, and Lock will also get a trio of weapons back this week that he didn’t have last week in wide receiver KJ Hamler, tight end Noah Fant, and running back Melvin Gordon. Even their defense is getting reinforcements with top outside cornerback AJ Bouye and starting defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones both set to return this week. Even if their defense can’t continue to outperform its talent likely significantly, the Broncos’ offense should improve enough to compensate.

The Broncos schedule doesn’t get any easier with the Chiefs coming to town, but they should be able to play the Chiefs close like they have most of their tough opponents this season, especially since the Chiefs are heading in the opposite direction injury wise. Already without starting wide receiver Sammy Watkins and starting guard Kelechi Osemele last week, the Chiefs will be without their top offensive lineman Mitchell Schwartz this week. The Chiefs should still win this game, but this line is way too high at 8. Even going against Pat Mahomes, the Broncos should be a safe bet this week.

Kansas City Chiefs 24 Denver Broncos 20

Pick against the spread: Denver +8

Confidence: High

Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Las Vegas Raiders (2-2) at Kansas City Chiefs (4-0)

The Raiders got some early hype after their 2-0 start, including a nationally televised win over the Saints week 2, but they barely beat the Panthers week 1 and their win over the Saints wasn’t as impressive as it seemed, as the Saints were banged up, typically start seasons slow, and still won the first down rate battle by +8.77%, despite the final score. Over the past two weeks, the Raiders have been exposed more against a pair of tough teams in the Patriots and Bills.

Injuries have been part of the problem over the past two weeks, as the Raiders were without a pair of starting offensive lineman and their starting outside wide receivers last week. They’re expected to get right tackle Trent Brown and wide receiver Henry Ruggs back from injury this week, but left guard Richie Incognito and their other outside wide receiver Bryan Edwards remain out and they’ll also be without a key player on defense in defensive tackle Maurice Hurst. Overall, they rank just 26th in my roster rankings in their current state.

That’s going to be a problem for the Raiders on the road in Kansas City against arguably the top team in the league. Dating back to week 11 of last season, the Chiefs have won 13 straight games, including 3 playoff games, and they’ve won those games by an average of 14.4 points per game with a +8.57% first down rate differential over that stretch, including a 2nd ranked +7.04 first down rate differential through 4 games of this season. They’re also very healthy relative to the rest of the league, both top cornerback Chavarius Ward and top defensive lineman Chris Jones set to play this week after missing some time earlier this season. The Chiefs should be able to win with relative ease over the Raiders, though this line is high enough at -11.5 that I wouldn’t want to bet this one.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Las Vegas Raiders 20

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -11.5

Confidence: Low

New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 Week 4 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (2-1) at Kansas City Chiefs (3-0)

At one point it looked like this game might not go on as scheduled, with Patriots quarterback Cam Newton testing positive for coronavirus on Saturday, at the same time a Chiefs practice squad player tested positive. However, after re-testing both teams, it appears to be isolated to the two players and this game will go on as scheduled, with the obvious difference being that the Patriots will have to start to veteran backup Brian Hoyer rather than Cam Newton. 

That’s clearly an impactful absence, as Newton has been one of the more effective quarterbacks in the league this season, leading an offense that ranks 2nd in the league with a 45.77% first down rate. More so than the passing game, the Patriots’ run game figures to be significantly affected by the switch to Hoyer, as the threat of Newton taking off and running has helped propel this running game to 5.09 yards per carry (5th in the NFL), as opposed to a 25th ranked 3.81 yards per carry last season, when they ranked 21st in first down rate even with Tom Brady under center. 

The Patriots’ offensive line is better this season, but their wide receivers aren’t and their defense has taken a big step back, ranking 22nd in first down rate allowed after leading the league in that metric by a wide margin in 2019. Because of how many teams around the league have been plagued with injuries, the Patriots still rank 21st in my roster rankings even without Cam Newton and they do still have a solid supporting cast, but it’s hard to see this being a competitive game anymore.

Of course, the line has shifted to compensate, with the Patriots opening up as 10.5-point underdogs when the line was re-posted, after being 7-point underdogs earlier in the week. I was originally leaning towards New England, possibly for a bet, with my calculated line being -4.5, but without Newton, that calculated line shifts up to 9.5 points. We’re still getting a little bit of line value with the Patriots, who may be better prepared for the abrupt shift because they are going to a quarterback who has been in the system for years, while the Chiefs spent all week game planning for a very different kind of quarterback, but there’s way too much uncertainty for this to be worth betting.

Kansas City Chiefs 27 New England Patriots 17

Pick against the spread: New England +10.5

Confidence: Low

Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (2-0) at Baltimore Ravens (2-0)

This is arguably the biggest game of the early season so far. Not only could it be an AFC Championship preview, but it could also decide the #1 seed in the AFC, as the winner would have a one game lead and the tiebreaker. That #1 seed is especially important under the new playoff format because, not only would the #1 seed host that eventual AFC Championship as usual, but also they would avoid playing on wild card weekend, which #2 seeds now have to do. In addition to the present implications of this game, this is also the third installment in what looks like it could be a long-time rivalry between the two best young quarterbacks in the game in Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, who have won the last two MVP awards respectively.

The Chiefs are defending Super Bowl champions and won the previous two matchups between Mahomes and Jackson in 2018 and 2019, but despite that they are 3.5-point underdogs in Baltimore, where the Ravens won’t even have the benefit of normal homefield advantage. This line might not seem huge, but about 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less and this is the most points Patrick Mahomes has been given as an underdog since his 3rd career start back in week 2 of 2018 (Mahomes is 4-0-2 ATS all-time as an underdog). 

That being said, I actually like the Ravens in this one. These two teams haven’t met since week 3 of last season and the Ravens are a much more complete team now than they were in either of their previous two matchups, primarily due to Lamar Jackson’s continued emergence as a passer and the addition of top cornerback Marcus Peters on defense. The Ravens have won their last 10 meaningful regular season games by an average of 22.2 points per game and, while their home playoff loss to the Titans is a black mark on their recent record, that game largely swung on an highly uncharacteristic -3 turnover margin and 0 for 4 on 4th down by the Ravens. Even including that game, the Ravens have a ridiculous +12.39% first down rate differential in their last 11 meaningful games.

The Chiefs are on a strong run of their own, winning their last 11 games, including three playoff games, with a +7.90%% first down rate differential over that stretch, but that number is still significantly behind the Ravens’ recent run, even if strength of schedule is factored in. The Ravens also have the obvious edge in this early season, with a +11.09%% first down rate differential, compared to +2.19% for the Chiefs. 

My roster rankings also give the Ravens a 3-point edge, suggesting they should be favored by 4.5 or 5 points, even with the diminished homefield advantage. The Chiefs have some question marks on their offensive line and defense, while the Ravens are a more complete team overall. I wouldn’t recommend betting on this if only because it’s silly to ever bet against Mahomes as underdogs of this many points, but the Ravens have the edge on paper and it wouldn’t surprise me if they ended up winning more easily than most people expect.

Baltimore Ravens 34 Kansas City Chiefs 27

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -3.5

Confidence: Low

Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (1-0) at Los Angeles Chargers (1-0)

The Chargers snuck out a close victory in Cincinnati last week, on the strength of a +2 turnover margin. That was certainly not the norm last season, as the Chargers finished with a 2-9 record in games decided by 8 points or less and had a league worst -17 turnover margin on the season. It’s not unexpected though, as turnover margin and close game record tend to be highly inconsistent year-to-year. Case in point, the Chargers were 6-1 in games decided by 8 or less and had a +1 turnover margin in 2018, with largely the same roster as 2019.

The Chargers only finished 5-11 last season, but they actually ranked 7th in the NFL in first down rate differential (not far behind their 2nd ranked finish in 2018), which bodes well for their chances in 2020, as first down rate is a much more predictive stat than turnover margin or close game record. I wouldn’t expect the Chargers to be as good this season in first down rate differential, downgrading from Philip Rivers to Tyrod Taylor under center, and they haven’t started the season with better injury luck, losing stud safety Derwin James for the season after he missed 11 games last season, but Taylor is better than most give him credit for, now in an offense that fits his skillset well again, and the Chargers are getting healthier this week, as big off-season addition Trai Turner will make his debut at right guard after missing the opener, which should give this offense a boost.

The Chargers are running into a juggernaut in the Chiefs, but they played the Chiefs twice down the stretch last season when the Chiefs were hot and on their eventual Super Bowl run and the Chargers kept those games between 7 and 10 points and were even closer in first down rate differential at -2.12% and -1.75% respectively. This line gives them 9 points of cushion and they’ll also have one benefit that they didn’t have last season, which is that they won’t have to face a road crowd, something they always do against the Chiefs, regardless of where they play, even at home. In fact, with the Chargers able to pump in fake crowd noise, this team might have some real homefield advantage for the first time in years. 

The Chiefs are also in a tough spot, as they could easily look past the Chargers with a huge Monday night matchup in Baltimore on deck, while the Chargers have an easy game against the Panthers on deck. Underdogs are 76-38 ATS since 2016 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs and all three of those conditions are almost definitely true here. I like the Chargers’ chances of keeping this close, especially with the Chiefs pretty banged up on defense with starting #1 cornerback Chavarius Ward and rotational defensive linemen Alex Okafor and Khalen Saunders out. This would be my Pick of the Week if I wasn’t terrified of the Chiefs.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Los Angeles Chargers 27

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +9

Confidence: High

Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (0-0) at Kansas City Chiefs (0-0)

The 2020 NFL season is underway, with the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs playing host to the Houston Texans, a team they defeated 51-31 in the AFC divisional round, en route to their Super Bowl victory. This season will be unlike any other, with pandemic restrictions significantly reducing stadium capacity, in many cases down to zero. In the MLB, we’ve seen next to no benefit to being the home team in front of an empty stadium, with the average MLB home team actually being outscored by 0.02 runs per game, when teams normally have an advantage of 0.15 runs per game at home. 

There is established sleep science that sleeping in a familiar bed leads to enhanced performance, so I wouldn’t say there will be no homefield advantage this season, especially with there being some fans in attendance in many markets, and with home teams having access to fake crowd noise to try to make life more difficult for opposing offenses, but it is clear that the standard three point advantage for homefield can’t be used this season. Instead, I would recommend something in the 1-1.5 point range, depending on whether or not limited fans are allowed.

They will be in this one, with up to 16,000 fans joining the Chiefs in celebrating their Super Bowl victory. Super Bowl winners normally do pretty well in their first game back, especially at home, going 10-4-1 ATS since 2004, but this line seems pretty inflated, favoring the Chiefs by 9.5 points. If the Chiefs defense plays like it did down the stretch last season, this line is justifiable, but their defensive talent is suspect outside of their top guys, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they regressed back to their early 2019 season form. I wouldn’t recommend betting on the Texans, who are in worse shape than they were last season, but there’s more value taking the points for pick ‘em purposes. You can read more in depth on both teams and others in my season previews.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Houston Texans 23

Pick against the spread: Houston +9.5

Confidence: None

Kansas City Chiefs 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It seems hard to believe now, but there was a time when the Chiefs taking Patrick Mahomes with the 10th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft was controversial. Not only was Mahomes considered a boom or bust prospect, but remember the Chiefs were coming off of a 12-4 season and seemed to have a viable quarterback in place in Alex Smith and the two first round picks (#27 in 2017 and eventually #22 in 2018) they gave up to move up to take Mahomes at 10 could have been used on non-quarterbacks to add pieces to an already strong roster. 

It’s the kind of decision that could have badly backfired if they had selected a quarterback who didn’t pan out, but Mahomes has proven the Chiefs to be spectacularly right for taking a chance on him. Mahomes spent his rookie year on the bench behind Smith, only starting a meaningless week 17 game, and then the Chiefs traded Smith to the Redskins for a 3rd round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller and anointed Mahomes the starter for his second season in the league in 2018. 

All Mahomes did was win the MVP in his first season as a starter, joining Peyton Manning as the only quarterback in the 5,000 yard/50 touchdown club, while completing 66.0% of his passes for an average of 8.79 YPA and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked quarterback, only behind Drew Brees, who had almost a hundred fewer pass attempts. Overall, the Chiefs led the league with a 45.18% first down rate on the season, the highest single season mark in recent memory.

The Chiefs’ 2018 season ended in the AFC Championship game, but that was hardly Mahomes’ fault, as he got them within a defensive penalty of making the Super Bowl, despite being supported by a league worst defense that allowed a league leading 42.20% first down rate on the season. In 2019, with a better supporting cast, Mahomes was able to take this team all the way, giving him a regular season and a Super Bowl MVP in his first 2 seasons as a starter, the only quarterback in NFL history to do that.

The story is a little bit more up and down than that, as Mahomes dealt with leg injuries early in the 2019 season and at one point looked like he had suffered a potentially devastating knee injury during a week 7 game against the Broncos, but he ended up only missing two and a half games, returning in week 10 to take this team all the way. In fact, that knee injury may have been a blessing in disguise, as it allowed Mahomes to fully rest a lingering ankle injury that could have limited him all season if he didn’t rest it. 

In the last two games between injuring his ankle and going down with the knee injury, he had completed just 55.4% of his passes for an average of 8.03 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions and had led the Chiefs to a 40.36% first down rate, after a 45.34% first down rate in his previous 20 career starts prior to the ankle injury. Even at less than 100%, Mahomes is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but the Chiefs likely would not have won the Super Bowl if he remained limited for the rest of the season.

Upon Mahomes’ healthy return in week 10, the Chiefs lost their first game in close fashion to a Tennessee team that turned out to be better than they looked at the time, but then the Chiefs ripped off 9 straight wins en route to the Super Bowl, including 7 wins by double digits. Including the Tennessee loss, the Chiefs had a 43.06% first down rate in 10 games after Mahomes returned. Mahomes also earned PFF’s highest quarterback grade from week 10 on and was arguably better down the stretch last season than he was in his MVP season, which just shows the kind of player he can consistently be if he can stay healthy long-term.

Mahomes’ injury also lined up with when this defense started playing better, which may be coincidence more than anything, but the Chiefs allowed a 34.36% first down rate in their final 10 regular games and their three post-season games, starting with that game against Denver, a drastic improvement from a 41.85% first down rate allowed in Mahomes’ previous 22 career regular season starts. All in all, the Chiefs had a +7.82% first down rate differential from Mahomes’ return in week 10 through the Super Bowl, so it’s not surprising they were able to go all the way. I’ll get into their defense later, but if they can be even serviceable on that side of the ball this season they should be very much in the mix to become the NFL’s first back-to-back champion since the 2003-2004 Patriots.

With Mahomes still only going into his age 25 season, there’s no question that he has the potential to be the best quarterback in the NFL for the next decade. The only question was how the Chiefs would keep him long-term and how much they’d have to pay to do so. There was speculation that the Chiefs would get creative with his contract structure and they certainly did, signing Mahomes to an unheard of 10-year extension that pays him 450 million in new money, with another 25 million available in incentives for Super Bowl appearances and MVPs. On top of that, because of the structure of the deal, the whole contract is functionally guaranteed.

Those are eye popping numbers, but the Chiefs were always going to have to break the bank to keep Mahomes long-term and it’s a more team friendly deal than you’d think because of the length and the way the cap has been going in recent years. Including the 2 years and 28 million remaining on his current rookie deal, it’s a 12-year deal in total that keeps him under team control through 2031. If you look at just the first 4 years of the extension, Mahomes is set to make 155.8 million in new money, 38.95 million annually, which is obviously a lot, but it’s not a bad value when you compare it to the 35 million, 33.5 million, and 32 million annually that Russell Wilson, Jared Goff, and Carson Wentz got annually on 4-year extensions, as those three are all older and not as good as Mahomes. Most estimates had a 4-year extension for Mahomes valued at 40 million annually this off-season, so in that sense the Chiefs got off easy.

After the first 4 years, Mahomes is set to take home 294.6 million in new money over 6 years, an average of 49 million annually, but that’s actually where the real value of this deal comes in. In just the past 6 seasons, the salary cap has increased 50% and the average salary of the highest paid quarterback (prior to Mahomes’ new deal) increased by 60% from 22 million to 35 million, so it’s conceivable that just 4 years into Mahomes’ extension, the highest paid quarterback could be making 55 million annually (a roughly 60% increase), making Mahomes’ 49 million dollars annually look like a bargain by comparison, with another 6 years to go on the deal. As much money as this is, the Chiefs almost definitely would have ended up paying him more over the next twelve years if they had signed him to a series of shorter term deals.

Anyway you look at it though, it’s a lot of money and a steep increase from his rookie deal, so there’s concern that the Chiefs won’t be able to keep talent around him long-term. That will definitely become a concern at some point, but the way this deal is structured, his cap hits are just 5.347 million and 24.807 million over the next two seasons respectively, so it won’t hamper them just yet. In fact, they managed to bring back the 2nd most snaps of any team in the league this off-season and have a good chance to repeat as a result. However, with Mahomes becoming the Chiefs 11th player making more than 8 million annually (169.9 million combined), something will have to give at some point, even if the cap keeps climbing like it has.

No team has won the Super Bowl since 1994 with more than 12.5% of the cap committed to the quarterback position and just 6 teams have won it over that stretch with a quarterback taking up more than 10% of the cap. Mahomes is set to count between a projected 12%-19% of the cap throughout most of his new contract, but if any quarterback is capable of being the exception it’s Mahomes. We’ve already seen him take a less than stellar supporting cast, including a terrible defense, to the brink of the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs obviously hope they never have to use their backup quarterback, especially since their backup is an underwhelming option in Chad Henne, who has just a 75.5 QB rating in his career in 53 starts and hasn’t made a start since 2014. Matt Moore wasn’t horrible last season in Mahomes’ absence last season, completing 59 of 91 for 659 yards and 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and if the Chiefs can convince him to come back for his age 36 season he’d probably be a better option than Henne. Either way, this team will go as Mahomes goes, so they’d be in a lot of trouble if they had to turn to a backup regardless of who it is.

Update: Moore has been re-signed.

Grade: A

Running Backs

As good as this offense was down the stretch last season, the Chiefs were still able to potentially add a new dimension to this unit when they used the 32nd overall pick on LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The Chiefs didn’t have a bad running game last season, rushing for 4.18 YPC, 20th highest in the NFL, but that was primarily because teams couldn’t stack the box against the run, for fear of Mahomes beating them deep. They also had the 6th fewest carries in the league with 375 and that includes 43 carries by Mahomes himself, so running backs were really not a big part of this offense in 2019.

The Chiefs used to have a dominant feature back, using a 3rd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Kareem Hunt, who not only played well on the ground, rushing for 2,151 yards and 15 touchdowns on 453 carries (4.75 YPC) in 27 games, but also was a big threat out of the backfield as a receiver, averaging a 47/494/6 slash line per 16 games. However, Hunt was kicked off the team in the middle of the 2018 season for disciplinary reasons. In his absence the Chiefs have turned to Damien Williams as their lead back and used both Williams and aged veteran LeSean McCoy in tandem together last season (111 carries and 101 carries respectively).

Williams hasn’t been bad, rushing for 4.68 YPC on 161 carries in 27 games with the Chiefs, but he’s a 6-year veteran who has never topped 111 carries in a season and he has a career 4.19 YPC average, so he’s a very underwhelming lead back. Edwards-Helaire, meanwhile, profiles more similarly to Hunt as a player, as he’s not only a talented runner, but also he was the best pass catching running back in the draft. McCoy is no longer with the team and Damien Williams looks like the clear #2 back right now, so Edwards-Helaire should be a big part of this offense. How big of a part remains to be seen, as they still may want to keep Williams somewhat involved so they don’t overload the rookie, but Edwards-Helaire has feature back upside as a rookie and looks like an obvious upgrade at a position of need.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Aside from the upgrade at running back, the rest of this offense looks more or less the same as the one they won the Super Bowl with last season. Left guard Stefen Wisniewski is the only missing starter on offense and he’s a middling player who only made 2 regular season starts, so he won’t be hard to replace. The Chiefs will likely go back to Andrew Wylie, who began last season as the starting left guard before missing time with injury and eventually losing his job. Wylie went undrafted in 2017, but has earned a slightly above average grade from Pro Football Focus on 21 starts over the past two seasons, so he’s not a downgrade. 

The other option would be Mike Remmers, a veteran who can play both tackle and guard. Remmers was a solid starter in his prime and earned a middling grade from PFF last season in 14 starts at right tackle for the Giants, but he’s now going into his age 31 season and may end up as versatile depth more than anything. With Wisniewski and swing tackle Cameron Erving gone, the Chiefs needed to replenish depth upfront this off-season and they did just that with Remmers, even if he doesn’t end up beating out Wylie to start week 1.

Aside from that, the rest of this offensive line is the same as last year and they could possibly be better this season with better health. Left tackle Eric Fisher was the most notable absence, as he missed 8 games in the regular season and his replacement Cameron Erving finished 85th out of 87 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF last season. Fisher isn’t a spectacular player, but he’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in each of the past 6 seasons (85 starts), maxing out at 24th in 2016, so having him in the lineup for 16 games or close to it would be significant.

Right guard Laurent Duvarney-Tardif also missed a couple games due to injury, but that’s been the norm for him, as he’s never started all 16 games in 6 seasons in the league. He played at a high level in 2017, finishing 19th among guards on PFF in 11 starts, but he’s otherwise been a middling starter in 57 career starts, so that year looks like an obvious outlier. Still in his age 29 season, Duvarney-Tardif should remain at least a capable starter when on the field, though he’s likely to miss time at some point if history is any indication.

Center Austin Reiter and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz were the only two Chiefs offensive lineman to make all 16 starts last season. Reiter was serviceable in his first full season as a starter, finishing 23rd out of 38 qualifying centers on PFF, after the 2015 7th round pick flashed on 333 snaps in the first 4 seasons as his career prior to last season, and, though he’s relatively unproven, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him have a comparable year in 2020.

Schwartz, meanwhile, is hands down their best offensive lineman and arguably the top right tackle in the whole league. Schwartz has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 8 seasons he’s been in the league, including three seasons in the top-15 among offensive tackles, He’s going into his age 31 season now, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down, setting and matching a career high 5th ranked finish at his position over the past two seasons respectively, and he has no injury history, missing just 6 snaps total in his entire career, including a 7,894 consecutive snap streak that ended last season. Even if he slows down a little bit, it would be a surprise if he wasn’t one of the best in the league at his position again. He leads an overall solid offensive line that should benefit from better health in 2020.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The Chiefs could also benefit from better health in the receiving corps, as #1 wide receiver Tyreek Hill was limited to 563 snaps in 12 games by injuries last season. Hill still finished with a 58/860/7 slash line, as he was highly efficient on a per route run basis, ranking 4th in the NFL with 2.45 yards per route run. That’s largely par for the course for him, as he’s averaged 2.42 yards per route run in 4 seasons in the league. He’s also finished in the top-12 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons in which he’s been a starter. Still only going into his age 26 season, if Hill can stay healthy all season with a healthy Mahomes in 2020, he should match or surpass his 87/1479/12 slash line from 2018 (4th in the NFL in receiving yards).

If Hill can stay healthy, the Chiefs should have a pair of thousand yard receivers in 2020, like they did in 2017 and 2018, with tight end Travis Kelce having surpassed that mark in four straight seasons. A 3rd round pick in 2013, Kelce had significant injury concerns coming out of the draft and missed his whole rookie season with injury, but he remarkably hasn’t missed a game due to injury in 6 seasons and he has had at least 862 receiving yards in each of those seasons, including 103/1336/10 and 97/1229/5 slash lines in two seasons with Mahomes. He’s not a great run blocker, but he can hold his own and has overall finished in the top-4 among tight ends on PFF in 5 of the past 6 seasons, including 4 straight seasons. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he has shown no signs of decline, he has no recent injury history, and, even if he does decline a little, he would still be one of the top tight ends in the league.

The Chiefs also have good depth in the receiving corps. Most thought #2 wide receiver Sammy Watkins and his 14 million dollar non-guaranteed salary were gone this off-season, but the Chiefs were able to come to an agreement to bring him back for 9 million. Watkins never developed into the #1 receiver it looked like he would be, after going #4 overall pick in 2014 and putting up a 60/1047/9 slash line in just 13 games in 2015, as a series of injuries have seemingly sapped his explosiveness and limited him to a 54/754/5 slash line per 16 games over the past four seasons, with no full 16-game seasons played since his rookie year, but he’s still a solid #2 wide receiver who has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 6 seasons in the league and who is still only going into his age 27 season. He’s almost a guarantee to miss time at some point, but he should be an asset while on the field.

With Watkins and Hill both missing time last season, DeMarcus Robinson played 735 snaps, but he was highly ineffective given the offense he played in, totalling just a 32/449/4 slash line and averaging just 0.96 yards per route run. Robinson is a good athlete who went in the 4th round in 2016 and he’s still only in his age 26 season, but he should have averaged more than 0.87 yards per route run in his career, given the offense he has played on. There was some speculation that Robinson could get a big contract somewhere this off-season based on upside, but that speculation never made much sense and Robinson ended up having to take a 1-year, 2.2975 million dollar deal back in Kansas City. 

It’s very possible Robinson won’t be any higher than 4th on the depth chart this season, as 2019 2nd round pick Mecole Hardman flashed on 471 rookie year snaps and seems to have earned a bigger role, especially if Robinson is his only real competition. Hardman finished with a 26/538/6 slash line on 41 targets (13.1 yards per target), while averaging 1.84 yards per route run as well. The speedster is a perfect fit for this vertical offense and, while he might not be quite as efficient in a bigger role in 2020, he still has a chance to put up good production even as the 4th or 5th option in the passing game.

The Chiefs also upgraded at the #2 tight end spot this off-season, signing Ricky Seals-Jones to replace Blake Bell, who finished 65th out of 73 qualifying tight ends on PFF on 398 snaps last season. Seals-Jones isn’t much of a blocker, but he’s averaged a decent 1.29 yards per route run in three seasons in the league. He won’t get much playing time or many targets behind Travis Kelce, but he’s a better fit for the #2 tight end role than Bell was. This is a deep and talented receiving corps overall.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

One key player whose days with the team could be numbered after the Mahomes extension is interior defender Chris Jones, who remains unsigned long-term after being slapped with a 16.126 million dollar franchise tag. Jones wants upwards of 20 million annually on a long-term deal, something he could get if he hit the open market, as he’s finished in the top-8 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons, has totalled 31 sacks, 33 hits, and a 12.3% pressure rate over that stretch, and is still only going into his age 26 season. However, the Chiefs really don’t have the flexibility to add another big deal long-term. Jones has recently said he won’t play for the Chiefs without a new deal and, while he has plenty of financial incentive to not actually sit out the season, it’s possible the Chiefs end up having to explore a trade for him before the season starts if they don’t want to meet his asking price. 

If they do end up trading him, they may end up settling for less than they could have gotten had they moved him earlier in the off-season. Considering the Colts gave up the 13rd overall pick to acquire DeForest Buckner from the 49ers and gave him 21 million annually on a long-term extension, the Chiefs probably could have gotten a similar deal had they been willing to move Jones before the draft. Now at the very least the Chiefs wouldn’t get an asset that could help until 2021 if they moved Jones and it’s debatable if they could even still get a first at this point in the off-season, with the Chiefs running out of time to reach an extension.

Obviously the ideal would be to keep him for at least one more year on the franchise tag, as they have to cap space to do so and don’t have anyone close to being able to replace him at the defensive tackle position. Derrick Nnadi was the other starter and played 598 snaps total. He was adequate against the run, but got no pass rush, with 1 sack, no hits, and a 6.1% pressure rate on the season. The 2018 3rd round pick also had a similar year on 448 snaps as a rookie prior to last season. He may take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league, but that’s not a guarantee and it’s very possible he never develops as a pass rusher and his ceiling is as an above average situational run stuffer.

The Chiefs also used a 2nd round pick in 2019 on an interior defender in Khalen Saunders, but he didn’t show much on 303 rookie year snaps. He could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, but even in that case I wouldn’t expect him to be more than a solid rotational player. Saunders particularly struggled as a pass rusher, with just a 2.0% pressure rate on the season, so the Chiefs used oversized defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon (6-7 289) inside somewhat frequently in passing situations, but he struggled as well. He may have to play that role again though, for lack of a better option. The Chiefs have some young talent at this position, but Chris Jones elevates the position group by himself and if they had to trade him before the season begins, this would become a big position of weakness.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

Tanoh Kpassagnon also saw significant snaps at the edge defender position, especially down the stretch, playing 691 snaps total, but he earned below average grades from Pro Football Focus as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher. The reason he had to play significant snaps down the stretch is because both Alex Okafor (42.1 snaps per game) and Emmanuel Ogbah (41.0 snaps per game) suffered season ending injuries. Ogbah is no longer with the team, but Okafor returns from injury, as does 2018 2nd round Breeland Speaks, who missed all of 2019 with injury. Those three will compete for snaps on the edge, with Frank Clark locked into an every down role (51.8 snaps per game) at one spot.

Clark is obviously the best of the bunch, though he did struggle to begin last season due to a neck injury. From week 11 on, he was PFF’s 40th ranked edge defender and totalled 4 sacks in 6 games with a 12.2% pressure rate. That’s much more in line with what he did in his three prior seasons, when he earned an above average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons (career best 20th in 2018) and had a 12.7% pressure rate with 33 sacks in 47 games. Still in his prime in his age 27 season, Clark should continue being an above average starter in 2019 if he’s healthy. The Chiefs probably overpaid by giving up a first and second round draft pick to acquire him and give him a 5-year, 104 million dollar extension, money that could have been better spent on Chris Jones, but if they can keep both Clark and Jones for 2020, they should be a strong inside/outside pass rush duo.

The rest of this group is questionable. Speaks came into the league with a lot of upside as the 46th overall pick in 2018, but his long-term projection is more questionable now after he struggled on 475 snaps as a rookie and then missed all of 2019 with a knee injury. Kpassagnon also went in the 2nd round, back in 2017, but he struggled in the first significant action of his career in 2019 and is no guarantee to get better. 

Okafor is the veteran of the bunch and has some history of success, finishing 28th among edge defenders on PFF on 486 snaps in 2017 and 38th on 658 snaps in 2018, but he struggled mightily last season, finishing 114th out of 118 qualifying edge defenders on 421 snaps before the injury, and he’s been very inconsistent throughout his career. Injuries are also not new for him, as he’s missed 34 games and suffered three season ending injuries in 7 seasons in the league. He has some bounce back potential, but, like the rest of this group aside from Clark, he’s not a reliable option.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Chiefs’ linebackers were their worst position group last season. Of the 5 players who played any significant snaps for them, only Reggie Ragland, a situational run stuffer who played 235 snaps total, earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus, and he’s no longer with the team. The Chiefs addressed this position in the second round with Willie Gay and he could easily play a significant role, even though he’s still a raw rookie. Damien Wilson (709 snaps), Anthony Hitchens (699 snaps), and Ben Niemann (400 snaps) were their top-3 linebackers last season in terms of snaps played and, even though all three struggled and are underwhelming options, they should all be in the mix for roles again in what looks like a weak group again.

Hitchens is the most proven option, as he earned an above average grade from PFF as a rotational player in 2016 and 2017, but he’s also finished below average in his other 4 of 6 seasons in the league and he’s really only their most proven option by default. Wilson was a first year starter last year, never topping 321 snaps in 4 seasons in the league prior to last season, but he wasn’t even good as a reserve, so it’s hard to see him ever developing into a capable starter at this point. 

Niemann, meanwhile, is a 2018 undrafted free agent who barely played as a rookie before struggling in a larger role in 2019. With the unproven rookie Gay as their only potentially good coverage option, the Chiefs could frequently use three safeties in sub packages, with one lining up near the line of scrimmage as a coverage linebacker, something they did somewhat frequently last season. Linebacker looks likely to be a position of weakness again.

Grade: C-

Secondary

The biggest reason for the Chiefs’ defensive turnaround last season was their safety play, as not only is safety a position where the Chiefs go three deep in sub packages, but they also have one of the better safety duos in the league as their starters in base packages. That wasn’t the case at all in 2018, when their horrendous defense had probably the worst safety play in the league, but the Chiefs fixed the problem quickly by signing Tyrann Mathieu to a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal and using a second round pick on Juan Thornhill last off-season. Together, they made all 16 starts and finished 21st and 33rd respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus.

Mathieu’s career has been a winding road since entering the league as a 3rd round draft pick in 2013. He appeared to be on his way to Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2013 and 2015 respectively, finishing 9th and 1st respectively at his position on PFF in those two seasons, but both seasons ended with a torn ACL and he wasn’t nearly as good in injury plagued seasons in 2014 (428 snaps) and 2016 (561 snaps). 

He played all 16 games in 2017, but wasn’t as good as he had been previously, so the Cardinals released him ahead of the 4 years and 42.5 million remaining on his 5-year, 62.5 million dollar extension. However, he’s bounced back pretty well over the past two seasons, finishing 20th among safeties in 2018 on a one-year deal with the Texans and then 21st last season in his first year in Kansas City. Perhaps most importantly, he’s stayed healthy, playing all 48 games over the past 3 seasons. 

Still in his age 28 season, Mathieu should remain at least an above average safety for several more years if he can continue avoiding injury. Thornhill has his own injury concerns, coming off of a torn ACL suffered in week 17, which complicates his projection for 2020, but he could easily remain an above average starter and continue getting better long-term. So far everything seems to have gone well with his recovery, as he’s reportedly considered likely to be ready for week 1, roughly 8 months after the injury. The Chiefs also still have veteran Daniel Sorensen, who has struggled when he’s had to play every down in his career, but was capable in a sub package role last season (563 snaps), primarily playing as a coverage linebacker.

At cornerback, the Chiefs have to replace Kendall Fuller, their only real off-season loss (4-year, 40 million dollar deal from the Redskins this off-season). Fuller was an underwhelming player last season though and was only playing a part-time role down the stretch, while expected replacement Rashad Fenton flashed a lot of potential on 166 rookie year snaps. Fenton is still obviously a projection to a larger role, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was comparable to Fuller, who finished 78th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF.

Fenton could end up as high as 2nd on the depth chart coming into the season, which would guarantee him an every down role. His primary competition for that job would be veteran Bashaud Breeland, although Breeland is facing potential discipline for an off-the-field incident and could be sidelined to begin the season anyway. Breeland has generally been a solid starter throughout his career (77 starts), but he’s coming off of a terrible season in which he finished 122nd out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF in 15 starts. Still only in his age 28 season, Breeland has some bounce back potential whenever he’s allowed to play, but he’s obviously a shaky option. While he’s absent, the Chiefs would likely turn to 4th round rookie L’Jarius Sneed, who is expected to be the #4 cornerback.

Chavarius Ward is the nominal #1 cornerback of this group, largely by default, as Ward was solid in his first significant action last (16 starts), but likely lacks #1 cornerback upside, as a former undrafted free agent (2018). He finished 39th among cornerbacks on PFF last season, which isn’t bad, but there’s no guarantee he’s even that good again. The Chiefs talented safeties mask their cornerback problems a little bit, but this secondary has obvious concerns at corner.

Grade: B

Conclusion

There’s no question the Chiefs will have a dominant offense this season and for the foreseeable future as long as Mahomes is under center. The question is if their defense is closer to the unit that struggled to begin last season or the one that played well down the stretch during their Super Bowl run. If it’s the latter, the Chiefs should be considered favorites to repeat. If it’s the former, the Chiefs should still be in the mix, but not as the favorites. I tend to side with the latter more because, outside of Tyrann Mathieu, Frank Clark, and Chris Jones (who may get dealt before the start of the season), this is a pretty underwhelming group, but there’s no doubt this is one of the top few teams in the league any way you look at it.  I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Final Update: The Chiefs lost Damien Williams and Laurent Duvarney-Tardif to opt outs and will be without Bashaud Breeland and Mike Pennel to start the season due to suspension. This is still one of the top teams in the AFC, but a repeat is far from a guarantee.

Projection: 11-5 (1st in AFC West)