The Chiefs struck gold with the 10th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, selecting franchise quarterback Patrick Mahomes. It was a risky move at the time because, not only was Mahomes considered a raw prospect, but the Chiefs had to give up a pair of first round picks to acquire the pick they used on Mahomes and did so at a time in which they were coming off of three playoff appearances in four seasons with veteran quarterback Alex Smith, opting to take their quarterback of the future rather than using those draft picks to build around their existing quarterback to try to win right away.
Mahomes proved to be well worth the wait though, after Alex Smith was traded the following off-season, as Mahomes immediately won MVP in his first season as a starter and took the Chiefs to a 12-4 record and a play away from a Super Bowl appearance, despite a defense that ranked 28th in the NFL in efficiency. In Mahomes’ second season as a starter, the Chiefs’ defense was much improved and Mahomes led them all the way to a Super Bowl victory.
Mahomes and the Chiefs followed that up with a similar season in 2020, actually improving their regular season record to 14-2 after going 12-4 the year prior, before ultimately losing in the Super Bowl when their offensive line injuries became too much for them. Last season, the Chiefs didn’t make it back to the Super Bowl, but won 12 games again, led the league in offensive efficiency, and only lost the AFC Championship game in overtime again after blowing a late lead.
The Chiefs had to pay big to keep Mahomes long-term, signing him to a 10-year, 450 million dollar extension two off-seasons ago that shattered records at the time, but that could look like a steal a few years down the line. The extension hasn’t even technically started yet and already Mahomes’ contract is third in average annual value behind Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson and, while Mahomes is unlikely to play the entire 10-year contract without a new extension, that likely won’t come for at least 5-6 seasons and by that point Mahomes’ average annual salary might not even be in the top-10 at his position anymore, given the rising costs of locking up a franchise quarterback long-term.
I often bring up that since the start of the salary cap era in 1994, just 5 of 28 Super Bowls have been won by a quarterback with a cap hit that was more than 11% of the salary cap and all of those quarterbacks are Hall of Fame caliber players, as a cautionary to teams paying non-elite quarterbacks elite quarterback money, because it’s very tough to surround a non-elite quarterback with enough talent to win with if that quarterback is taking a significant percentage of the cap. That doesn’t apply to Mahomes though, as he looks on his way to a Hall of Fame career, even only heading into his age 27 season.
In total, Mahomes has arguably had the greatest first four seasons as a starting quarterback ever, not only leading the Chiefs to consistent team success, but also consistently being one of the top individual quarterbacks in the league, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 8.10 YPA, 151 touchdowns, and 36 interceptions in 62 starts over the past four seasons. He’s actually coming off his worst season as a starter, with defenses adjusting to the Chiefs’ offense and taking away their deep passes more effectively, but he still finished with 66.3% completion, 7.35 YPA, 37 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. Barring a fluke injury, I see no reason to expect Mahomes to drop off any time soon.
If Mahomes does suffer an unfortunate injury, he would be replaced with backup Chad Henne. Henne is best known for his play closing out a playoff victory over the Browns in 2020 after Mahomes suffered a concussion, but he’s made just one start in the past seven seasons, he has just a 76.2 career QB rating, and now he’s heading into his age 37 season, so it’s safe to say he would be a big liability if he had to play for an extended period of time. Mahomes has only ever missed two starts in his career though, so he hasn’t shown any propensity for getting injured and, assuming that remains the case in 2022, he should remain among the league’s best quarterbacks and an MVP candidate.
Even if Mahomes’ contract is a relatively great value for a player of his caliber, it still does hamper the Chiefs’ ability to keep talented players at other positions long-term and the first casualty of that came this off-season when the Chiefs traded Mahomes’ long-time #1 wide receiver Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins for a first and second round pick, with Hill going into the final year of his contract and ultimately signing a 4-year, 120 million dollar extension with the Dolphins.
Hill averaged 2.31 yards per route run since joining the Chiefs as a 5th round pick in 2016 and he’s had a 91/1294/11 slash line per 16 games since Mahomes’ first season as a starter in 2018, while finishing in the top-17 among wide receivers on PFF in all six seasons in the league, so he’ll obviously be missed, but Mahomes is a talented enough quarterback that he can overcome the loss of a key player like that. In fact, in four games without Hill in 2019, Mahomes averaged 8.97 yards per attempt with 8 touchdowns to 0 interceptions, while leading the Chiefs to a 3-1 record in their only extended action without Hill.
It’s a small sample size, but historically we’ve seen elite quarterbacks like Mahomes lose their top receiver and be fine without them, even if it caps the upside of the offense a little bit. Beyond that, the Hill trade made sense for a few other reasons. One was just the amount the draft capital they got back for Hill, picks 29, 50, and 121 in this year’s draft and a 4th and 6th round pick next year. Hill is also going into his age 28 season and, while I don’t expect him to suddenly fall off a cliff abilities wise, his new contract takes him through his age 32 season and wide receivers in their age 32 season are about 70% less likely to surpass 1000 yards receivers than a wide receiver in his age 27 season. Hill also might decline quicker than most receivers, given his reliance on his athleticism and speed.
The Mahomes/Hill connection also was less effective last season than it had been previously, resulting in 7.79 yards per target, after averaging 10.01 yards per target from 2018-2020. That was almost definitely the result of teams playing the Chiefs with two high safeties on more plays than ever in 2021, forcing Hill to become more of an underneath receiver, which led to Mahomes having the worst season of his career, at least in a relative sense. The Chiefs figured to continue seeing that kind of coverage against Hill going forward, neutralizing his blazing speed a little bit, so they decided to trade Hill at the peak of his value ahead of the final year of his contract and revamp Mahomes’ receiving corps without Hill.
The Chiefs did a pretty good job replacing Hill, signing Marquez Valdes-Scantling to a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal, signing JuJu Smith-Schuster to a 1-year, 3.25 million dollar deal, and using a 2nd round pick on wide receiver Skyy Moore. The Chiefs also didn’t bring back Byron Pringle (42/568/5) and DeMarcus Robinson (25/264/3) this off-season, so this is a completely revamped group, with Mecole Hardman (59/693/2) being their only notable returning wide receiver. Hardman will compete for roles with the three newcomers.
Smith-Schuster is the most intriguing of the three new additions and has the most upside of the three in 2022. A 2nd round pick by the STeelers in 2017, Smith-Schuster burst onto the scene with slash lines of 58/917/7 and 111/1426/7 respectively in his first two seasons in the league, while averaging 2.12 yards per route run between the two seasons and finishing 24th and 15th among wide receivers on PFF. However, Smith-Schuster has seen that production drop off dramatically in the three seasons since, averaging just 1.30 yards per route run over that stretch.
One way to look at it was Smith-Schuster was able to play at a high level early in his career because he faced constant single teams opposite the Steelers’ actual #1 wide receiver Antonio Brown, but then Smith-Schuster couldn’t hold up against tougher coverage once Brown left. Another way to look at it is Smith-Schuster’s significant drop off in production coincided with an equally significant drop off in his quarterback play, with Ben Roethlisberger missing most of the 2019 season and then not nearly being the same upon his return in 2020 and 2021.
Either way, Smith-Schuster is only going into his age 26 season and could easily benefit from a fresh start, but it especially helps matters that he’ll have elite quarterback play again. His recent injury history is a concern (16 games missed in the past 3 seasons) and the Chiefs are going to spread the ball around more in 2022, so Smith-Schuster won’t be a true #1 wide receiver, but he would be my pick to lead this wide receiver group in receiving yardage this season. He figures to be a steal on a cheap one-year contract. Rookie Skyy Moore also has upside, but it’s unclear how much he’ll be able to give them as a rookie, even if he could develop into an above average starter long-term. Moore will have a role in this offense, one that could grow as the season goes on, but I wouldn’t expect a huge rookie year contribution from him.
Hardman will probably play ahead of Moore, having shown a lot of promise across the first three seasons of his career (1.68 yards per route run) and having finished second among Chiefs wide receivers in receiving yards last season. The Chiefs have been hesitant to give the 2019 2nd round pick every down snaps, but his target total has increased in every season in the league (41, 62, 83) and his skill set most closely resembles Tyreek Hill out of any of the Chiefs’ options and he’s only in his age 24 season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him have a career high in touches and targets with Hill gone.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling was my least favorite of the Chiefs’ off-season additions, just because I thought he was a little overpaid at 10 million annually, but he’s not a bad addition. Valdes-Scantling was never overly productive in Green Bay, despite playing with Aaron Rodgers, but he played a valuable role as a deep threat (17.5 yards per catch in his career) and can play that same role in Kansas City with Mahomes.
Valdes-Scantling has only caught 49.7% of his career targets and has had problems with drops in the past, but he didn’t drop a single target last season and still averages 8.72 yards per target for his career, because of his big play ability. His career 1.37 yards per route run average is underwhelming considering the offense he played on, but that has jumped to 1.46 over the past two seasons and I would expect him to be around that in 2022 in a similar role with his new team.
Tight end Travis Kelce will of course remain a fixture of this offense, especially with Hill gone. He probably won’t see an uptick in target share, just because he already had 134 targets (2nd in the NFL among tight ends) last season and because the Chiefs figure to spread the ball out to their wide receivers more. It’s also concerning that Kelce dropped off a little bit last season, especially since he is now heading into his age 33 season. Kelce still averaged 1.84 yards per route run and finished 4th among tight ends on PFF in overall grade last season, but for Kelce those were both his worst since 2015. Even at less than his best, Kelce is still one of the best tight ends in the league, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he dropped off even more in 2022 and his best days are probably behind him at this point.
The Chiefs don’t have a good long-term replacement for Kelce yet, with the closest thing they have being 2021 5th round pick Noah Gray, who struggled mightily on 289 snaps as a rookie, finishing 63rd out of 65 eligible tight ends on PFF. He was a decent blocker, but averaged a microscopic 0.27 yards per route run. He at least has upside though, which is not true of their other backup tight end option Blake Bell, a 7-year veteran with just 58 catches and a 0.85 yards per route run average in 97 career games, who saw 321 snaps for the Chiefs last season.
Bell has developed into an above average blocker and will likely remain useful in that role in 2022, even in his age 31 season, but he gives them no receiving upside. This receiving corps doesn’t have the high end talent it used to, with Tyreek Hill gone and Travis Kelce on the decline seemingly, but this is also a deeper receiving corps than they’ve had in years and it’s one that Patrick Mahomes should continue to be highly effective with, even if this offense probably doesn’t have the same upside it used to.
I mentioned the Chiefs’ offensive line was what held their offense back in their Super Bowl loss to the Buccaneers during the 2020 season. The Chiefs underwent a complete overhaul of this group last off-season after that loss, with several big investments leading to five new starters upfront in 2021, and the results were impressive, a big part of why the Chiefs’ offense was able to be the most efficient in the league in the regular season in 2021.
In some ways, the Chiefs made a direct choice between improving the offensive line long-term and keeping Tyreek Hill. The Chiefs traded a first round pick in 2021 to get left tackle Orlando Brown from Baltimore and used a second round pick on University of Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey, draft picks they essentially got back in the Tyreek Hill trade. The Chiefs also gave left guard Joe Thuney a 5-year, 80 million dollar deal in free agency (3rd highest paid guard in average annual salary) and will need to pay a big price to keep the currently franchised Orlando Brown long-term, which made it very tough for the Chiefs to give Hill the money he wanted.
It’s probably a better use of resources for the Chiefs, as the three aforementioned linemen were all among the best in the league at their respective positions last season, with Brown finishing 30th among offensive tackles on PFF, Humphrey finishing 1st among centers, and Thuney finishing 8th among guards. They might not be quite as good in 2022, but they should all play at a high level again. Humphrey is relatively unproven, only in his second season, but he has a sky high upside long-term, while Brown and Thuney are both proven over multiple seasons, with Brown finishing in the top-30 among offensive tackles on PFF in 3 straight seasons and Thuney finishing in the top-14 among guards in 5 straight seasons. Thuney is in his age 30 season, which is a mild concern, but he hasn’t shown any signs of dropping off yet and Brown is still very much in his prime in his age 26 season.
The Chiefs also found a steal in the 6th round of last year’s draft, taking Trey Smith, who finished his rookie season as PFF’s 16th ranked guard as a rookie. Smith fell because of concerns about a medical condition, which could still be a concern long-term, but he didn’t show any ill-effects from it as a rookie and he could easily remain an above average starter, with the talent to be a first or second round pick aside from the medical concerns. Right tackle Lucas Niang completes this offensive line, with the 2020 3rd round pick returning to the starting lineup for the second straight season, after sitting out his rookie season during COVID.
Niang was limited to 9 starts by injury in 2021, but when on the field, he proved to be an asset, earning middling grades from PFF as a starter. Niang still hasn’t played a lot in two seasons in the league, between opting out as a rookie and missing time with injury last season, but he still could remain at least a solid starter going forward and he has the upside to be even more than that. Niang could face competition from veteran Andrew Wylie, who was decent in Niang’s absence last season and generally has been a capable starter in five seasons in the league (42 starts), but Wyle will most likely be the swing tackle, giving them excellent depth at the position, while having the ability to move inside to guard if needed as well.
The Chiefs also brought back former starting center Austin Reiter as a backup this off-season and, while he struggled in his lone season in Miami last season, finishing 39th among 41 eligible centers on PFF in 5 starts, and would undoubtedly be a big drop off from Humphrey if he had to fill in for him, but he wasn’t a bad starter for the Chiefs in 2019 and 2020, finishing 22nd among centers on PFF in 16 starts and 10th among centers on PFF in 12 starts respectively, so he’s a good reserve option too. With a talented starting five and good depth, this is one of the best offensive lines in the league.
After winning the Super Bowl, the Chiefs used the 32nd overall pick to upgrade their backfield, taking running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, but he has been a disappointment thus far in his career, as often happens with first round running backs. Edwards-Helaire has missed time with injury in both seasons, playing 3 games and 7 games respectively in 2020 and 2021 and, even when on the field, he has neither established himself as a true feature back, nor has he been overly efficient. As a rookie, Edwards-Helaire averaged 13.9 carries per game and 4.2 targets per game, but he averaged just 4.44 yards per carry and 5.50 yards per target and, in his second season in the league, he saw even less usage, with 11.9 carries and 2.3 targets per game, while continuing to average just 4.34 yards per carry and 5.61 yards per target.
With Edwards-Helaire missing significant time, primary passing down back Darrel Williams actually led the Chiefs with 144 carries last season, as opposed to 119 for Edwards-Helaire, but 90 of those came in the seven games Edwards-Helaire missed and, though Williams was a decent pass catcher (1.30 yards per route run), he struggled as a runner, averaging just 3.88 YPC. Williams is also no longer with the team, but the Chiefs replaced him with Ronald Jones, who is probably even more of a threat to Edwards-Helaire’s early down role, as Jones has an average of 4.45 YPC on 488 carries in four seasons in the league.
In many ways, Jones is a similar back to Edwards-Helaire, an early down runner who provides minimal in passing situations (1.13 yards per route run for his career). Even if he’s a redundant player though, he was still worth signing on a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal, as Edwards-Helaire has not seized the lead back job yet, despite every opportunity to do so, and so the Chiefs need competition for him for carries, as well as insurance in case he misses more time with injury. Jones is also a 2018 2nd round pick who is still only in his age 25 season, so he has plenty of talent and upside. How the carry split will work out remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if it was close to 50/50.
With both Edwards-Helaire and Jones not offering much on passing downs, the Chiefs’ primary passing down back figures to be Jerick McKinnon, who has been decent in that role in his career, averaging 1.28 yards per route run if you exclude his rookie season. He’s never been much of a runner though (4.05 YPC for his career) and he had his career detailed by a major knee injury, costing him all of 2018 and 2019 and limiting him to totals of just 114 touches and 25 touches over the past two seasons respectively.
McKinnon is now in his age 30 season and probably won’t see a significantly bigger workload in 2022, but he won’t be needed much as a runner anyway and could give them 30-35 catches as their primary receiving back, with Jones and Edwards-Helaire also mixing in a little in passing situations. This isn’t a great backfield, but it’s a decent one at the very least and their two top lead backs both are young with upside.
With the Chiefs’ offense ranking 1st in efficiency last season, their weakness was their defense, which regressed after solid seasons in 2019 and 2020 to finish 29th in defensive efficiency in 2021, more comparable to their defense in 2018. The Chiefs’ defense got better as the season went on though, a big part of why they won 9 of their final 10 regular season games after starting just 3-4. There are several reasons why they got better on defense in the second half of the season, including simply that defensive performance tends to be more inconsistent and unpredictive week-to-week than offensive performance, but one big reason was the addition of veteran edge defender Melvin Ingram in a trade with the Steelers.
Not only did Ingram play well in his own right (10.4% pressure rate, PFF’s 2nd ranked edge defender in run defense grade from week 9 on), but his addition allowed them to move Chris Jones back to the interior, which he played at a much higher level. Ingram did not re-sign with the Chiefs this off-season though, ahead of his age 33 season, so the Chiefs were once again in need of edge defender help, which they found in the first round of the draft, using one of their first round picks to select edge defender George Karlaftis. He’s a raw prospect who will likely have growing pains as a rookie, but he has a very high upside and should still be able to make an impact in year one.
The Chiefs are hoping Karlaftis can form a talented edge defender duo with Frank Clark, but that would require Clark to play at a level that he hasn’t played at consistently for the whole season since 2018, which was his final season in Seattle before the Chiefs sent a first and second round pick to for the right to extend him on a 5-year, 104 million dollar deal. Clark hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t been worth that kind of money and draft compensation, earning mostly middling grades from PFF and totaling 18.5 sacks, 31 hits, and a 10.2% pressure rate, down from 33 sacks, 28 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate in his final three seasons in Seattle.
Clark is also coming off arguably the worst season of his career. He wasn’t bad as a pass rusher, even though his position leading 4.5 sacks are not impressive, as he added 12 hits and a 10.8% pressure rate, but he struggled mightily against the run and finished as PFF’s 106th ranked edge defender out of 129 eligible in overall grade. Originally owed 19.5 million this season, Clark had to take a pay cut down to 9.175 million to stay on the roster. Even though he’s only in his age 29 season, a significant bounce back would be a surprise at this point.
Even with Karlaftis being added, there isn’t much depth at this position though, so both Clark and Karlaftis figure to play big snap counts, with Clark likely to be around the 657 snaps he played last season and Karlaftis possibly being around there as well, despite being raw, for lack of a better option. Michael Danna, a 2020 5th round pick, is their top returning reserve (534 snaps) and he’s a decent run stopper, but he hasn’t shown much at all as a pass rusher in his career (7.2% pressure rate) and is no guarantee to be any better in 2022. The Chiefs also have 2021 4th round pick Joshua Kaindoh, who is expected to take on a bigger role in year two, but he played just 46 snaps as a rookie and is a total unknown in a significant role. This is still an underwhelming position group with depth concerns.
As I mentioned, the biggest impact that the mid-season addition of edge defender Melvin Ingram had was that it allowed Chris Jones to move to his natural position on the interior, where he finished as PFF’s 3rd ranked interior defender from week 9 on, after struggling by his standards to begin the season on the edge. That was a huge boost for an interior defender group where every other significant contributor finished the season with a below average grade from PFF.
That high level of play is nothing new for Jones either, as he finished in the top-8 among interior defenders on PFF in four straight seasons prior to last season. Also a solid run stopper, Jones excels as a pass rusher, with 49.5 sacks, 71 hits, and a 12.8% pressure rate in 90 career games, despite primarily rushing from the interior, where it is much harder to consistently get to the quarterback. Still only in his age 28 season, with just 7 games missed in 6 seasons in the league, there is no reason to expect him to fall off in 2022. Having him on the interior for a full season should be a big benefit to this defense.
With Jones spending almost half the season on the edge, Jarran Reed led this position group with 711 snaps played last season and he’s no longer with the team, but he struggled mightily, finishing 122nd out of 146 eligible interior defenders on PFF and won’t be missed, especially with Jones expected to stay on the interior all season this year. Derrick Nnadi (449 snaps) and Tershawn Wharton (501 snaps) both return and should see similar roles, with Nnadi re-signing on a 1-year, 2.75 million dollar deal this off-season. Both Nnadi and Wharton finished below average overall on PFF in 2021, but both are at least decent in one aspect of the game, Nnadi as a run defender and Tershawn Wharton as a pass rusher, and they work pretty well in tandem together, with Wharton usually coming in for Nnadi in sub packages in passing situations.
Wharton has a career 7.4% pressure rate in two seasons since going undrafted in 2020, but has struggled mightily against the run, especially in 2021, when he finished as PFF’s 133rd ranked interior defender out of 146 eligible in overall grade, despite his pass rush ability. Meanwhile, Nnadi has just a 5.2% career pressure rate, but finished in the 66th percentile or higher among interior defenders in run defense grade on PFF in each of his first three seasons in the league, prior to a down season in 2021. Only in his age 26 season, Nnadi was a 2nd round pick back in 2018 and has a good chance to bounce back as an early down run stuffer in 2022, with Wharton rotating in as a decent interior pass rusher in sub packages.
The only addition the Chiefs made to this group this off-season was Taylor Stallworth, who joins the Chiefs as a free agent on a near minimum deal, after averaging just 249 snaps per season in four seasons in the league, with a career high of 331 in a season. He’s been okay in that role, with his best season coming last season, when he played that career high in snaps and finished in the 57th percentile among interior defenders on PFF in overall grade, especially providing value as a pass rusher, with 3 sacks, 10 hits, and a 10.1% pressure rate in a limited role, but he finished 126th among 139 interior defenders on 253 snaps in 2020, so he’s not a proven player, and he figures to face competition from Khalen Saunders for reserve snaps.
Saunders is a wild card who isn’t a lock for the final roster, but he could theoretically still have upside. He’s been limited to 521 snaps in three seasons in the league, in part by injuries that have limited him to 22 games total over that stretch, but he also hasn’t been terribly effective even when on the field and won’t be guaranteed a role in 2022. With a full season of Jones on the interior and Nnadi likely to bounce back as an above average run stopper, this group should be better than a year ago and Jones is an elite player who elevates an otherwise middling group by himself.
Along with the addition of Melvin Ingram, another reason why this defense got better as the season went on is that their linebacker play improved significantly. At the beginning of the season, 2020 2nd round pick Willie Gay missed the first four games of the season with injury, leaving raw rookie 2nd round pick Nick Bolton and mediocre veterans Ben Niemann and Anthony Hitchens as their top linebackers. In week 5, Gay returned, which coincided with an improvement by the rookie Bolton, and pushed Hitchens and Niemann into smaller roles, especially when Gay took on a bigger role after week 7 (39.3 snaps per game in week 7 on).
Gay wasn’t incredible or anything, but he held up pretty well against the run and in coverage and was a significant upgrade on Niemann and Hitchens, who ultimately finished the season 67th and 76th out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF across 558 snaps and 597 snaps respectively. Bolton was actually probably their most impressive linebacker, even if he didn’t play in a lot of coverage situations, ranking as PFF’s 9th ranked overall off ball linebacker and their 5th ranked off ball linebacker in run defense grade in week 5 on (35.5 snaps per game).
Hitchens and Niemann are no longer with the team, which isn’t really a problem, but it does mean they’ll be counting on the young guo of Gay and Bolton for much bigger roles this season, with depth concerns behind them. Both have a lot of upside and have shown a lot of promise on the field thus far in their careers, with Gay also flashing a lot of potential on 269 snaps as a rookie before last season’s solid performance, so it’s possible they could both break out as above average starters in an every down capacity or close to it, which would obviously make this a position of strength for the Chiefs, but they’re also a projection to a larger role and depth is a concern if either struggles or gets injured.
The Chiefs signed veteran Jermaine Carter in free agency and he will compete with 3rd round rookie Leo Chenal to be the third linebacker in base packages, coming off the field in sub packages for an extra defensive back. Carter struggled as an every down player with the Panthers in 2021, finishing 79th out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on 852 snaps, but the 2018 5th round pick was better on snap counts of 261 and 284 in 2019 and 2020 respectively and might not play much more than that with the Chiefs, unless something happens to Gay or Bolton. Chenal, meanwhile, might be too raw to contribute as a rookie, but projects as a solid run stuffer long-term and could be useful as a base package player in year one. This isn’t a bad group, but they’re relying on a largely unproven young group, albeit one with a high upside.
Another reason why their defense got better as the season went on is their secondary was healthier than it was to begin the season, with top safety Tyrann Mathieu missing week 1 and top cornerback Charvarius Ward missing weeks 3-6. Both of those players signed elsewhere this off-season though, so the Chiefs needed to replace them, as well as cornerback Mike Hughes, who only played 509 snaps in 17 games last season as a part-time player, but finished as PFF’s 8th ranked cornerback across those snaps.
Mathieu is being replaced in the starting lineup by free agent Justin Reid, who signed a 3-year, 31.5 million dollar deal this off-season. It’s a surprising amount of money for a player who has finished below average on PFF in back-to-back seasons, including a 91st ranked finish out of 98 eligible in 2021, falling off significantly after ranking 27th and 14th in his first two seasons in the league. Reid is only in his age 25 season though, so the Chiefs are betting on the 2019 3rd round pick having significant bounce back potential, now away from the Texans’ terrible defense. He might not be quite as good as he was in his first two seasons in the league, but I would expect him to have a good chance to at least be a solid starter in 2022.
The Chiefs also used a 2nd round pick on safety Bryan Cook, who could take over for Reid if Reid continued struggling in a significant way, but Cook was likely mostly drafted as a long-term replacement for their other starting safety Juan Thornhill, who is going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2022. The Chiefs could also use three safety packages regularly to mask their lack of depth at linebacker, something they did somewhat frequently last season, when 3rd safety Daniel Sorensen played 699 snaps on the season. Sorensen was PFF’s 95th ranked safety out of 98 eligible last season though, so they should be able to use three safety sets more effectively this year, with Reid, Cook, and Thornhill.
A 2nd round pick in 2019, Thornhill has mostly been a solid starter in his career, finishing 32nd among safeties on PFF in 2019 and 31st in 2021, though he did tear his ACL at the end of 2019, which seemed to limit him into 2020, when he fell to 84th out of 99 eligible safeties. Another year removed from that injury, without any other significant injury history and still in his prime in his age 27 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Thornhill had the best year of his career in 2021, but the Chiefs don’t seem to think they’ll be able to afford to keep him long-term.
To replace their two departed cornerbacks, the Chiefs used their other first round pick on cornerback Trent McDuffie and will also likely give a bigger role to 2019 6th round pick Rashad Fenton, who has shown a lot of promise as a part-time player the past two seasons, finishing 31st and 5th among cornerbacks on PFF the past two seasons respectively. The Chiefs also have 2020 4th round pick L’Jarius Sneed, who was solid on 918 snaps last season in his first season as a starter, after finishing 20th among cornerbacks across 410 snaps as a rookie. He figures to play a similar role as he did last year, playing the slot in sub packages and outside in base packages, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he took a step forward in year three.
DeAndre Baker remains as a depth option, after flashing potential on 212 snaps last season. Baker was a first round pick by the Giants back in 2019, but he struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 121st out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on 970 snaps as a rookie, and his career was derailed by off-the-field problems, getting cut by the Giants and barely playing for the Chiefs down the stretch (45 snaps) in 2020. Baker is still only in his age 25 season and, though he hasn’t proven much, he still has upside, so he’s a good reserve option to have.
The Chiefs also acquired another reclamation projection this off-season, acquiring Lonnie Johnson from the Texans for a conditional 2024 7th round pick. Johnson originally came into the league with a lot of upside as a 2nd round pick with great physical tools, but he struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing dead last among 135 eligible cornerbacks across 531 snaps. The Texans moved him to safety for his second season in the league and, when he earned a middling grade from PFF across 702 snaps it seemed like the Texans had found a position for him long-term.
However, Johnson ended up struggling so much at safety in 2021, again finishing dead last at his position on PFF, that he was moved back to cornerback down the stretch in a futile attempt to get something out of him, before the Texans traded him for minimal compensation this off-season. Johnson is already in his age 27 season, so he’s running out of time to make good on his upside, so he’s nothing more than a pure flyer and is not guaranteed a role or even a roster spot, regardless of if he ends up at cornerback or safety. The Chiefs have lost some key players in this secondary from a year ago, but they did a good job replacing them and this still looks like a solid group overall.
The Chiefs had great special teams play last season, ranking 3rd in special teams DVOA, which was a significant part of why they were successful as a team. That was nothing new for the Chiefs either, as they have finished in the top-10 eight times in nine seasons since Andy Reid’s first season in Kansas City, in large part due to the presence of special teams coordinator Dave Toub and the organization’s overall emphasis on having a good special teams unit. Toub also consistently coached high level special teams units in his 9 seasons with the Bears, prior to joining the Chiefs.
The Chiefs did lose a trio of players who all finished in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF last season, Armani Watts, Ben Niemann, and Dorian O’Daniel, in free agency this off-season, but they added Deon Bush, who was also in the top-50 last season, and they still have Noah Gray and Marcus Kemp, who were top-50 special teamers a year ago, so they still have a good group of core special teamers, even if they aren’t as good as a year ago. On top of that, they’ll bring back the same kicker Harrison Butker, the same punter Tommy Townshead, and, while they lost kick returner Byron Pringle, punt returner Mecole Hardman should be able to pull double duty and could even prove to be an upgrade. I would expect this to be at least a top-10 special teams unit again.
The Chiefs’ offense will decline a little without Tyreek Hill and with tight end Travis Kelce getting up there in age, but they ranked 1st in offensive efficiency last season, so even if they decline, they should still remain one of the top offenses in the league. Meanwhile, their defense, which ranked 26th in efficiency last season, should be better this season, in part because defensive performance tends to be much less consistent and predictive long-term than offensive performance and in part because their defense got significantly in the second half of last season, after getting healthier and moving Chris Jones back to the interior.
They probably won’t be any better than a middling defense, but they won’t need to be great to be a complementary enough unit to the Chiefs’ offense for this team to remain among the best in the league. The division rival Chargers have taken a big leap this off-season and look like one of the best teams in the league, which is a concern for the Chiefs, but even if they have to go back to the post-season as a wild card, they should remain a contender in the AFC. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC West