Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos: 2019 Week 7 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (4-2) at Denver Broncos (2-4)

During last week’s Broncos/Titans write up, I said I was disappointed the two teams were playing each other because I thought both teams were underrated. Fortunately, when two underrated teams square off, they tend to remain underrated, which is the case with the Broncos. They won that game against the Titans to improve to 2-4, but they’ve been better than their record suggests, as two of their losses came on last second field goals. Their point differential is even and they rank 17th in the NFL in first down rate differential at -0.33%, suggesting they’ve been an average team thus far. Their offense is underwhelming, but their defense has allowed just 9 offensive touchdowns in 6 games and they rank 5th in first down rate allowed at 32.42%.

Despite that, they are 3.5-point home underdogs against a banged up Chiefs team. This line is at least in part because the Broncos are underrated, but the Chiefs may be a little overrated right now, even after back-to-back losses, as the general public may not realize how bad their injury situation is. They are missing the left side of their offensive line and their best defensive player Chris Jones, while starting wide receiver Sammy Watkins and starting cornerback Kendall Fuller are both banged up and may not play as well. 

Most importantly, quarterback Patrick Mahomes is playing at less than 100% through an ankle injury and has not played as well in the past couple games. That could become even more of a problem on a short week without normal rest, especially on the road against a tough defense. Everything this team does revolves around Mahomes and his otherworldly playmaking ability, so having him at less than 100% severely hurts the Chiefs’ chances of playing the way they want to play. Right now, I have these two teams about even in my roster rankings, so a field goal or more with the Broncos at home is stealing. Thursday games can be unpredictable so I don’t want to make this my Pick of the Week, but this will definitely be one of my top plays of the week.

Denver Broncos 23 Kansas City Chiefs 20 Upset Pick +150

Pick against the spread: Denver +3.5

Confidence: High

Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 Week 6 NFL Pick

Houston Texans (3-2) at Kansas City Chiefs (4-1)

The Chiefs got off to an impressive 4-0 start, but they’ve run into some trouble. Last week, they surprisingly lost at home to a Colts team that was missing several key players on defense. Now they host a strong Texans team and they’ll have to do it at far less than 100%. Their biggest absence is defensive tackle Chris Jones, who is the best player on a defense that ranks 28th in first down rate allowed even with him on the field. Without him, they’ll have a lot of trouble stopping a Houston team that ranks 4th in first down rate. 

On top of the absence of Jones, they’ll also be without a pair of starting offensive linemen (Eric Fisher and Andrew Wyile) and leading wide receiver Sammy Watkins. They could get wide receiver Tyreek Hill back for the first time since week 1, which would make up for Watkins’ absence, but that’s far from a guarantee and he may be limited in his first game back even if he plays. Meanwhile, quarterback Pat Mahomes could be at less than 100% with an ankle injury, which was a big problem against the Colts.

With everyone that the Chiefs are missing, the Texans, who are relatively healthy, rank several spots higher than the Chiefs in my roster rankings. They also have a higher first down rate differential (+5.14% vs. +4.27%) and are in a better spot, with the Chiefs having to play again in 4 days on Thursday Night Football, a 43.8% cover spot for favorites. I hate how much line value we’ve lost in the last week (the early line was Houston +8.5 last week, but it has since moved to +4.5), but I have this line calculated at even, so we’re still getting significant value with the underdog. I like the Texans +4.5 as my Pick of the Week and I think the money line is a smart bet as well.

Houston Texans 31 Kansas City Chiefs 30 Upset Pick +170

Pick against the spread: Houston +4.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 Week 5 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (2-2) at Kansas City Chiefs (4-0)

The Colts lost at home to the Raiders last week, but that wasn’t all that surprising. Not only did the Colts have this huge game in Kansas City looming as a potential distraction, but they also were without some of their best players like wide receiver TY Hilton, linebacker Darius Leonard, and safety Malik Hooker. The Colts aren’t much healthier this week either. Hilton looks likely to return, but at less than 100%, and their other starting safety Clayton Geathers is also out with injury. 

This line has shifted from Kansas City -8 on the early line last week to Kansas City -11 this week, but I think that’s justified given the players the Colts are missing and how they looked without them last week. In fact, I’m taking the Chiefs, who have won 5 of 9 home games with Pat Mahomes as the starter by 11 points or more. This is one of my lowest confidence picks of the week though, as I think this line is about right.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Indianapolis Colts 22

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -11

Confidence: None

Kansas City Chiefs at Detroit Lions: 2019 Week 4 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (3-0) at Detroit Lions (2-0-1)

Detroit +7 is one of two lines I locked in earlier this week, along with Cleveland +7. I legitimately don’t understand this line. It was at 6 last week and I thought it might be closer to 3 following the Lions’ upset victory in Philadelphia, but instead it’s gone up to 7. I’ve thought the Lions are an underrated team since before the season started. I loved the way their defense played down the stretch last season, after the acquisition of defensive tackle Damon Harrison and the breakout of fellow defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, and then they added defensive end Trey Flowers to the mix in free agency this off-season, giving them one of the best defensive lines in the league.

Their offense slowed down around the time their defense improved last season, so no one paid much attention to their defensive improvement, but their offense struggles were in large part due to quarterback Matt Stafford playing through a broken back and not having most of his weapons healthy either. I didn’t have them making the post-season coming into the season, but that was more due to how loaded the NFC is more than anything. Off to a 2-0-1 start, the Lions could easily end up qualifying for the post-season when all is said and done. 

Given that, it’s really hard to figure out why they should be touchdown underdogs at home against anyone. The Chiefs are one of the top teams in the league and have a juggernaut offense even without top wide receiver Tyreek Hill and left tackle Eric Fisher, but their defense still has a hard time getting off the field and their average point differential on the road since the start of last season is +6.1, with just 3 wins by more than a touchdown. Why are they expected to beat an above average Lions team by multiple scores?

The one concern here is that Matt Stafford popped up on the injury report on Friday after tweaking his hip in practice. This is obviously something that I didn’t know when I locked this line in earlier this week and all sources are confirming he’ll still play (and the line hasn’t moved), but there’s a possibility he’ll be less than 100%, so that does create some uncertainty here. Unless I hear otherwise on Saturday, I’m proceeding with this as my Pick of the Week because we’re getting so much line value (my calculated line even pricing in the uncertainty with Stafford is Kansas City -1). The money line is also worth a bet, as the Lions have a great chance to pull the upset straight up if Stafford’s injury proves to be nothing.

Final Update: Matt Stafford seems like he’s going to be fine, but the Lions will be without top cornerback Darius Slay, who practiced all week in limited fashion, but was ruled out before gametime when his hamstring injury tightened. That hurts the Lions’ chances of pulling the upset, but they should still be able to keep this close game and cover this inflated spread.

Detroit Lions 24 Kansas City Chiefs 23 Upset Pick +255

Pick against the spread: Detroit +7

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Baltimore Ravens at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 Week 3 NFL Pick

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

When these two teams met late last season, the game went to overtime, with the Chiefs eventually pulling out the victory. Lamar Jackson has taken a step forward in his second year in the league, so the Ravens seem to be a trendy upset pick this week, but they don’t nearly have the same defense as they had last season. In free agency, they lost five of their top-11 in terms of snaps played in 2018 and since then they’ve lost another two, cornerbacks Tavon Young and Jimmy Smith, due to injury. They did add Earl Thomas to the backend of their defense, but he can’t mask all their other losses by himself. 

They’ve gotten off to a good start to the season on defense, but they haven’t faced tough competition at all, going against the Dolphins and Cardinals. The Chiefs are a huge step up in competition and should give the Ravens’ defense a lot of trouble. We haven’t seen Lamar Jackson win a shootout thus far in his career and I wouldn’t expect him to do so on the road in Kansas City. This line is 5.5, but I have it calculated at 8, so we’re getting good line value with the Chiefs. I’m keeping this as a smaller bet though, because the Chiefs could be tired after starting the season with back-to-back road games (teams are 28-52 ATS in week 3 home openers since 1989).

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Baltimore Ravens 23

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -5.5

Confidence: Medium

Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders: 2019 Week 2 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (1-0) at Oakland Raiders (1-0)

The Chiefs won 40-26 week 1, but it came against a Jaguars team that lost its starting quarterback in the first half. The Chiefs had an impressive point total and a 46.67% first down rate (3rd highest of the week), but the Jaguars’ defense is a far cry from what it was in 2017 and the Chiefs continued to have serious issues on defense, allowing the Jaguars to pick up first downs at a 42.00% rate and allowing sixth round rookie backup quarterback Gardiner Minshew to move the ball effectively in his first career action. 

The Chiefs have another easy game this week against a Raiders team whose week 1 win came against an equally underwhelming Broncos team, but it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see the game turn into a shootout. The line isn’t huge at Kansas City -7, but the Raiders could easily get a late garbage time cover at the very least here at home in Oakland. We’re not getting a ton of line value with the Raiders, but I have this line calculated at Kansas City -4.5 with the Chiefs missing top receiver Tyreek Hill and possibly left tackle Eric Fisher due to injury, so Oakland is the pick for pick ‘em purposes. 

Kansas City Chiefs 33 Oakland Raiders 28

Pick against the spread: Oakland +7

Confidence: Low

Kansas City Chiefs 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

During the 2017 off-season, the Chiefs had veteran Alex Smith as starting quarterback, going into his 5th season in that role. He hadn’t played badly, but the Chiefs still had higher ambitions at the position and opted to trade a pair of first round picks to the Bills (27th in 2017 and what became 22nd in 2018) to move up to select Texas Tech quarterback Pat Mahomes to be their quarterback of the future. Quarterback didn’t seem like an obvious need and the Chiefs paid a steep price to select him, but the hope was that Mahomes would give them a younger, cheaper starting option long-term.

Smith had arguably the best season of his career in 2017, but the Chiefs lost early in the post-season again and continued forward with their plan to start Mahomes long-term, sending Smith to the Redskins for a 3rd round pick and starting cornerback Kendall Fuller last off-season. Mahomes became the starter and played at a level that no one expected in 2018, completing 66.0% of his passes for an average of 8.79 YPA, 50 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while adding 270 yards and 2 touchdowns on 60 carries (4.53 YPC). He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked quarterback, only behind Drew Brees, who threw almost 100 fewer passes, and he ultimately ended up winning the NFL’s MVP award over Brees at the end of the season. 

Mahomes obviously deserves most of the credit, but he’s been fortunate to work with head coach Andy Reid, who has always gotten the most out of his quarterbacks, including Alex Smith. Reid had never gotten the opportunity to work with a talent like Mahomes before and now it’s clear that the two have the ability to produce tremendous results together on offense. The Chiefs led the league last season with a 45.18% first down rate, 2% more than any other team in the league last season and the best by any team in recent memory. 

Mahomes probably isn’t going to do what he did last season every single season, but given that he won the MVP in his age 23 season in his first season as a starter, the sky’s the limit for his potential. Barring a catastrophic injury, Mahomes should remain one of the top few quarterbacks in the league again in 2019. If he were to get hurt, the Chiefs would have to turn to failed Dolphins and Jaguars starter Chad Henne, who has a 75.5 QB rating in 53 career starts. Needless to say, he’d be a massive downgrade.

Grade: A

Running Backs

One thing that could slow down Mahomes is personnel losses around him. During their week 12 bye week last season, Mahomes lost feature back Kareem Hunt, who was kicked off the team for domestic violence. Their offense was still strong in the final 5 games of the season, with a 42.77% first down rate, but that’s down from 46.31% through 11 games. Replacement starter Damien Williams averaged 5.12 yards per carry on 50 carries, but he was still a downgrade, for a couple reasons. For one, he’s not nearly the same threat in the receiving game, averaging just 7.0 yards per catch, compared to 14.5 for Hunt. He’s also not the kind of player who defenses have to commit a lot of attention to, which makes life harder for Mahomes. 

Williams is very inexperienced, with a 4.01 YPC average on 183 carries in 5 seasons in the league, but the Chiefs didn’t add much at the running back position this off-season, so he looks likely to be the lead back. They added veteran Carlos Hyde in free agency, but only on a 1-year, 2.8 million dollar deal. He also had just a 3.32 YPC average on 172 carries last season with the Browns and Jaguars and his career 3.99 yards per target average makes him a poor fit for an Andy Reid offense that likes to throw the ball to the backs. 

Hyde has been a better runner in the past than he was last season, so he could contribute in a situational role as a pure early down back, but he’s unlikely to have a big role. The Chiefs also added Darwin Thompson in the 6th round of the draft. Thompson is undersized at 5-8 200, but he has intriguing upside in this offense. He gives them a change of pace to the bigger Hyde (6-0 229) and Williams (5-11 224) and he can contribute as a receiver as well. He might not have much of a role to start the season, but could emerge as a factor down the stretch. In close to two seasons in Kansas City, Kareem Hunt averaged 4.75 yards per carry across 453 carries, 10.5 yards per catch across 79 catches, and scored 25 times in 27 games with the Chiefs. It’s unlikely any of these backs emerge as the threat he was. 

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Mahomes might also be losing Tyreek Hill because of off-the-field issues, which would be an even bigger loss, as Hill was Mahomes’ top target in 2018, posting an 87/1479/12 slash line. Hill has averaged 2.42 yards per route run in 3 seasons in the league and his deep speed makes him a great fit with Mahomes and his cannon arm. Mahomes and Hill connected 20 times last season on passes that went more than 20 yards downfield for 754 yards. No other receiver had more than 15 catches or 543 yards on balls that far downfield.

Hill was only a 5th round pick by the Chiefs in 2016, but the primary reason he was available then was a conviction for domestic violence while in college. Now a few years later, Hill was investigated this off-season for potential child abuse. The investigation turned up no charges and recent reports suggest the NFL believes Hill’s side of the story, but this whole situation is a PR nightmare for the NFL, so Hill could still be looking at a minimum 4 game suspension, especially given his history.

Still, from a football perspective, that’s about as good as the Chiefs could have hoped for when this story initially broke. Around draft day, it looked like Hill’s long-term future could be in doubt after the release of an audio recording that seemed to implicate Hill, so the Chiefs used a 2nd round pick on Georgia’s Mecole Hardman, who is a similarly fast player. Instead of replacing Hill, it’s looking more and more likely that he’ll be playing alongside Hill long-term. Hardman is very raw though and, as a rookie, almost definitely would not be able to replace Hill effectively if he was to get suspended.

If Hill is unable to play, Sammy Watkins would become the #1 receiver. Watkins was the #2 receiver last year, but was limited to a 40/519/3 slash line in 10 games due to injury, Injuries have unfortunately become expected from him, as he hasn’t played all 16 games since his rookie season in 2014 and has missed 18 of 64 games in 4 seasons since. He averages a 60/922/7 slash line per 16 games in his career, despite playing many games at less than 100%, and the former 4th overall pick is still only in his age 26 season. He doesn’t have Hill’s speed, but he definitely has deep ball ability with a career 15.4 yards per catch average. As long as he’s healthy, he should be an effective top target in Hill’s absence.

Hill’s absence would have a ripple effect farther down the depth chart though. Fourth receiver DeMarcus Robinson played 419 snaps last season, 252 of them in the 6 games Watkins missed, and the 2016 4th round round pick would ideally compete for the #3 receiver job with Hardman. If Hill is out, both Hardman and Robinson will likely have to play significant snaps. Both Hardman and Robinson have upside, but Hardman never topped 35 catches in a season in college and figures to have a lot of growing pains as a rookie, while Robinson has averaged just 0.81 yards per route run on 615 routes in 3 seasons in the league.

Especially without Hill, Mahomes figures to rely heavily on tight end Travis Kelce, who is one of the best in the league at his position. He was just about as productive as Hill last season, with a 103/1336/10 slash line, and averaged a 77/975/6 slash line 4 seasons in the league even before being paired up with Mahomes. Also a solid blocker, Kelce has finished in the top-3 among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 5 seasons. He’ll turn 30 later this year, which is a concern, but he hasn’t missed a game with injury in 5 seasons and has shown no signs of slowing down. 

If anything was to happen to Kelce, the Chiefs would be in a lot of trouble because they really lack depth at tight end. Demetrius Harris played 371 snaps as the #2 tight end last season, but he’s no longer with the team and the only replacements they added were Blake Bell and Neal Sterling, a pair of bottom of the roster types. Both drafted in 2015, Bell has played 825 snaps since being drafted in the 4th round, while Sterling has played 402 snaps since being drafted in the 7th round. Combined, they have just 54 career catches. Neither is a lock for the final roster, but one will have to see a role because all of the Chiefs’ other tight ends are former undrafted free agents with no experience. The Chiefs have a talented top-3 in Hill, Kelce, and Watkins, but Hill is facing a possibly long suspension and they have very uncertain depth behind those three. I will revise this grade based on the length of Hill’s suspension, but for now I’m assuming 6-8 games.

Update: Tyreek Hill will not be suspended for any games. I have adjusted this team’s projection accordingly.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

As good as the Chiefs’ offense was last season, their offensive line was a bit of a problem. Mahomes was only sacked 26 times because he’s so hard to take down, but he took another 45 hits, including a league leading 16 hits while throwing. Mahomes takes off and runs a few times per game, so he’s already taking more hits than your average quarterback. They need to limit the amount of times he’s getting hit in the pocket if they want him to continue avoiding injury. 

Despite that, the Chiefs didn’t really do much to address the offensive line this off-season. They do get right guard Laurent Duvarney-Tardif back from a broken leg that ended his 2018 season after just 5 games. Duvarney-Tardif was Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked guard in 2017 and he’s still only in his age 28 season, so he has bounce back potential, but he’s also largely a one-year wonder, earning an average grade from PFF in his other 3 seasons as a starter. He should still be a welcome re-addition if healthy, but he’s had durability issues, also missing 7 games between 2016-2017.

The Chiefs lost center Mitch Morse in free agency though, which kind of cancels out the re-addition of Duvarney-Tardif, and the Chiefs had the 9th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league last season, so it’s not like they can necessarily count on better health in 2019. Morse actually missed 5 games with an injury of his own last season, but he still finished 15th among centers on PFF. Injury replacement Austin Reiter wasn’t bad in his absence last season, but the 2015 7th round pick is very inexperienced, with 5 career starts. He’ll likely remain the starter in 2019, for lack of a better option, and could easily struggle as a 16-game starter.

At left guard, incumbent Cam Erving will compete with Andrew Wylie, who made 10 starts at right guard last season in Duvarney-Tardif’s absence. Erving was a first round pick in 2015 and has made 34 career starts at 4 different positions (13 at center, 1 at left tackle, 15 at left guard, and 5 at right guard), but he’s struggled mightily regardless of where he’s played, most recently finishing 83rd out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF last season in 13 starts. 

Wylie wasn’t great at right guard last season, but he wasn’t bad either and even though that was the first starting experience of the 2017 undrafted free agent’s career, he could still be an upgrade at left guard over Erving. Erving, meanwhile, could potentially kick inside to center, but he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade. Regardless of how it works out, left guard and center figure to be positions of weakness.

This offensive line is much better outside, as left tackle Eric Fisher and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz are one of the top tackle duos in the league. Drafted first overall in 2013, Fisher was a bit of a late bloomer, but he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons, maxing out at 24th in 2016 and finishing 28th in 2018. Still in his age 28 season, he should remain an above average left tackle. 

Schwartz, meanwhile, has been one of the best right tackles in the league since his rookie year in 2012, earning an above average grade from PFF in all 7 seasons in the league, including 2 seasons in the top-14 and a career best 5th place finish in 2018. Going into his age 30 season, he could start to decline soon and it may be tough for him to repeat his career best year, but he should remain one of the top right tackles in the league in 2019. Left tackle, right tackle, and right guard are positions of strength, but left guard and center are positions of weakness and they have questionable depth if injuries strike.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

It’s a good thing the Chiefs were so dominant on offense last season, because their defense was horrendous. They finished dead last in first down rate allowed, with their 419 first downs allowed leading the league by a wide margin and only Oakland and Tampa Bay topping the 49 touchdowns they allowed. They had one of the better pass rushes in the league last season, ranking tied for first in the NFL with 52 sacks, but they allowed the 2nd most pass completions (406), the 6th most rushing yards (2,114), and the 2nd most rushing yards per carry (4.97). As good as their offense was, their defensive struggles limited them to only finishing 9th in first down rate differential at 2.98%.

Mahomes doesn’t have quite the same supporting cast around him in 2019 as he had in 2018 and is unlikely to have a record setting year every year, so the Chiefs need their defense to turn things around. The Chiefs also struggled on defense in 2017, finishing 31st in first down rate allowed, so they understandably felt the need to shake things up on defense this off-season. They fired basically their entire defensive staff, including defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who had been in that role since Andy Reid first took the job with the Chiefs in 2013. Sutton was replaced by former Saints and Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who is an experienced coordinator and also was once the head coach of the Rams, but he has had mixed results throughout his career. 

The changes didn’t stop with the coaching staff. Spagnuolo will transition this defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3 and the Chiefs made several significant moves this off-season to try to fit their personnel to their new scheme better. The biggest moves involved getting rid of edge defenders Dee Ford and Justin Houston, who combined for 22 sacks last season, but were seen as a poor fit for the new 4-3 defense. Ironically, both Ford and Houston ended up on teams that primarily run a base 4-3 defense, in San Francisco and Indianapolis respectively. Ford brought back a 2020 second round pick via trade and the Chiefs avoiding having to give him the 5-year, 85.5 million dollar deal the 49ers gave him to stay long-term, while Houston’s release saved the Chiefs 17 million, but Ford and Houston ranked 11th and 12th respectively among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus last season and will be tough to replace.

The Chiefs used the money they freed up by moving on from Ford and Houston to trade for and extend ex-Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark and to sign ex-Saints defensive end Alex Okafor. Clark and Okafor figure to be their starting defensive ends in 2019. Clark has been a strong starter for 3 seasons and is only in his age 26 season. He’s totalled 32 sacks, 29 hits, and a 12.8% pressure rate over those 3 seasons and was PFF’s 21st ranked edge defender in 2018. 

He was very expensive to bring in though, especially compared to what Dee Ford cost the 49ers. Clark was given a 5-year, 104 million dollar extension that makes him the 4th highest paid defensive player in the NFL in terms of average annual salary and the Chiefs also surrendered a 2019 first round pick and a 2020 second round pick via trade to the Seahawks. He should remain a strong starter for years to come, but the Chiefs probably overpaid. I think Dee Ford being a poor scheme fit was overblown, so they would have been better off extending instead.

Okafor was much less expensive than Clark, coming over from the Saints on a 3-year, 17.9 million dollar deal, but he doesn’t nearly have Clark’s upside. A 4th round pick in 2013, Okafor didn’t show much on his rookie contract, but has proven to be a late bloomer, breaking out as solid starter in the past 2 seasons in New Orleans. He started all 26 games he played, playing an average of 46.8 snaps per game, and totalled 8.5 sacks, 15 hits, and a 9.3% pressure rate, while finishing 28th and 37th among edge defenders on PFF. That’s despite the fact that he tore his Achilles late in the 2017 season. Still only in his age 28 season, Okafor should remain a solid starter in Kansas City on a similar snap count.

The Chiefs also added former Browns starting defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah via trade and they are hoping to get more from 2018 2nd round pick Breeland Speaks, who struggled on 475 rookie year snaps (1.5 sacks and an 8.7% pressure rate in 16 games). Ogbah was a second round pick by the Browns in 2016 and he started all 40 games he played in 3 seasons in Cleveland, but he was a pretty mediocre starter and totalled just 12.5 sacks, 17 hits, and a 7.8% pressure rate. It’s possible he takes a step forward in his 4th season in the league in 2019, but that’s far from a guarantee. 

Other potential depth options include 2017 2nd round pick Tanoh Kpassagnon, who has played just 273 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, and veteran free agent acquisition Jeremiah Attaochu, who had 6 sacks, 10 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate in 2015 with the Chargers, but has played just 408 snaps in 3 seasons since, in part due to injury. Only in his age 26 season, Attaochu still theoretically has bounce back potential, while Kpassagnon still has great physical tools and could take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league. Neither are locks for the final roster, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see either one carve out a situational role. This is a pretty deep group, but they’re unlikely to be as good as they were last season, when Ford and Houston were arguably the best edge defender duo in the NFL.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Chiefs’ defense struggled last season even with Ford and Houston playing at a high level, so Kansas City needs the rest of this defense to step up, now with Ford and Houston gone. One thing the Chiefs did this off-season to try to improve the rest of their defense was letting Allen Bailey, who led Chief interior defenders with 848 snaps last season, leave as a free agent and replacing him with 3rd round rookie Khalen Saunders. Saunders might not make a big impact as a rookie, but Bailey didn’t play well last season, managing 6 sacks, but just 4 hits and a 5.9% pressure rate and he struggled against the run as well, so getting rid of him could be addition by subtraction. 

Saunders will compete for a starting defensive tackle job with Xavier Williams and Derrick Nnadi, who played 424 snaps and 448 snaps respectively last season. Both are solid players against the run, but they managed a combined 2.5 sacks, 1 hit, and 5.6% pressure rate last season. Williams was an undrafted free agent in 2015 and last season was his career high in snaps, so he’s probably maxed out as a player, but Nnadi was a 3rd round pick in 2018 and could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league. The 6-1 317 pounder likely doesn’t have the athleticism to ever develop into a pass rushing threat, but he could develop into a strong run stuffer. The 6-2 309 pound Williams and 6-0 324 Saunders are both bigger defensive tackles as well and is unlikely any of them get much pass rush in 2019. 

Fortunately, Houston and Ford were part of a trio of dominant pass rushers in 2018 and the third member of that trio, defensive tackle Chris Jones, is still on the team. In fact, Jones actually led this team with 15.5 sacks, and he added 14 hits a 14.3% pressure rate as well, despite rushing the passer from the interior. He’s not great against the run, but still finished as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked interior defender overall in 2018. The 2016 2nd round pick is no one-year wonder either, finishing 8th among interior defenders on PFF in 2017 as well, and pressuring the quarterback at an 11.7% rate in 3 seasons in the league. 

Only going into his age 25 season, Jones could keep getting better and will likely become one of the highest paid defensive players in the league (upwards of 20 million dollars) on his next contract. Moving on from Ford and Houston was partially about freeing up money long-term to extend Jones, which will likely happen before the start of the season, with Jones going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2019. Arguably the second best interior pass rusher in the league behind Aaron Donald, Jones elevates an otherwise underwhelming position group, even if he isn’t great against the run.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Chiefs’ defensive front was pretty good last season, led by the trio of Dee Ford, Justin Houston, and Chris Jones, but the back seven had serious problems. If this defense is going to take a step forward in 2019, they’ll need to be better in the back seven, especially their off ball linebackers, which were arguably the worst in the league last season. They didn’t make a major addition, but they signed ex-Cowboy Damien Wilson to a 2-year, 5.75 million dollar deal and sent a 6th round pick to the Jets for middle linebacker Darron Lee, who lost his job when the Jets signed CJ Mosley this off-season.

Wilson has never topped 321 defensive snaps in a season, but he’s a capable run stuffer and plays special teams as well. Lee, meanwhile, could prove to be a steal, as he was a first round pick in 2016, has started 36 games in 3 seasons in the league, and is still only going into his age 25 season. He’s had disciplinary problems and he struggles against the run, but he’s developed into a strong coverage linebacker, finishing 3rd among off ball linebackers in coverage grade on Pro Football Focus last season. Even if he only plays a sub package role, he’ll be a welcome addition for a team with a big need at linebacker. 

Wilson and Lee will compete for playing time with Anthony Hitchens, Reggie Ragland, and Dorian O’Daniel, who finished 1st, 2nd, and 3rd on the team in snaps among linebackers with 944, 583, and 303 respectively last season. O’Daniel wasn’t bad, but the 3rd round rookie didn’t really play that much as purely a situational coverage linebacker, while Hitchens and Ragland finished 95th and 72nd respectively among 96 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF. 

Hitchens has been inconsistent in his career, but he’s been better in the past, even finishing 20th among off ball linebackers on PFF as recently as 2017. Only going into his age 27 season, he has bounce back potential and could benefit from a switch to a 4-3 defense, which he played in with the Cowboys in his first 4 seasons in the league. Owed a non-guaranteed 8.5 million in 2020, in the third year of a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal, Hitchens needs to bounce back in a big way or this could easily be his final season in Kansas City.

Ragland, meanwhile, was a second round pick by Buffalo in 2016, but hasn’t had a great career, missing his rookie year with a torn ACL, getting traded to the Chiefs from the Bills before ever playing a snap for the team, flashing against the run on 321 snaps in 2017, but then struggling in a larger role in 2018. Already in his age 26 season, he still has some upside, but it’s likely he maxes out as a solid run stuffer, if that. 

I’d expect Hitchens to play every down with Ragland and Lee splitting snaps in the middle based on situation and Wilson playing as a third linebacker in base packages, but these roles will be sorted out in training camp. Dorian O’Daniel could also continue seeing a role as a situational coverage linebacker, which would likely come at the absence of Hitchens’ sub package snaps. This isn’t a strong group, but it would be hard for their linebackers to be worse than last season.

Grade: C

Secondary

The secondary was also a problem last season and, unlike in their linebacking corps, the Chiefs made significant changes in the secondary this off-season. Their biggest addition was signing safety Tyrann Mathieu to a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal in free agency. Mathieu effectively replaces long-time Chief Eric Berry, who was released ahead of a 12.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season, but Berry has barely played in the past two seasons, limited to 169 snaps total due to injury. In Berry’s absence, the Chiefs started four other safeties, Daniel Sorensen (3 starts), Ron Parker (14 starts), Eric Murray (9 starts), and Jordan Lucas (4 starts), but all of them finished below average on Pro Football Focus. 

Mathieu is an obvious upgrade over all four players, but it’s fair to wonder if they overpaid him, making him the highest paid safety in the league in average annual salary. A 3rd round pick in 2013, Mathieu was PFF’s 6th ranked safety as a rookie, but tore his ACL at the end of the season and was limited to 428 underwhelming snaps in 2014. He bounced back to finish 1st among safeties in 2015, but tore his ACL again at the end of that season. The Cardinals still gave him a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar extension the following off-season, but he wasn’t the same in 26 starts from 2016 and 2017 and was cut just 2 years and 21.67 million dollars into that extension. 

Mathieu was then forced to settle for a 1-year, 7 million dollar deal from the Texans last off-season, but, after a 2018 season in which he finished 20th among safeties on PFF, the Chiefs are now valuing him among the top safeties in the league. He hasn’t missed a game in two seasons in the league and he’s still in his prime in his age 27 season, but he hasn’t shown his top form since before his second ACL tear in 2015 and the Chiefs are paying him like he’s one of the top few in the league at his position. He helps this secondary, but at a steep price.

The Chiefs also added Juan Thornhill in the second round of the draft. Two safeties who started last season, Daniel Sorensen and Jordan Lucas, both remain on the roster, but they’re both backup caliber players, so Thornhill is likely to start week 1. Thornhill might not have a great rookie year, but he profiles as a long-term starter and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over the safeties the Chiefs had to start last season. 

The Chiefs also made significant changes at cornerback this off-season, though not necessarily for the better. Steven Nelson and Orlando Scandrick, who weren’t bad on 1,164 snaps and 788 snaps respectively last season, are no longer with the team and the only addition the Chiefs made was signing veteran Bashuad Breeland to a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal (incentives up to 5 million). Breeland will start opposite incumbent 15-game starter Kendall Fuller, but the Chiefs will also be counting on 2018 undrafted rookie Charvarius Ward and 2018 6th round pick Tremon Smith to play a bigger role in their second season in the league. They struggled on just 140 snaps and 74 snaps respectively last season and are no guarantee to be any better in 2019.

Fuller is still probably their best cornerback, although he was a lot better in 2017 with the Redskins than he was in 2018 after he was traded to the Chiefs, falling from 2nd among cornerbacks on PFF to 34th. He played a larger role in 2018, playing 1,078 snaps after playing just 720 snaps as primarily a slot specialist in 2017, but he even had issues on the slot last season, going from 0.74 in yards per slot coverage snap in 2017 (3rd in the NFL) to 1.26 in 2018 (32nd). Still only going into his age 24 season, the 2016 3rd round pick still has a bright future and could easily have somewhat of a bounce back year in 2019. He’ll play outside in two-cornerback formations and move to the slot in sub packages. 

Bashaud Breeland will play outside opposite Fuller in two-cornerback formations and opposite either Charvarius Ward or Tremon Smith in sub packages, with Fuller on the slot. Breeland had an up and down tenure in 4 seasons with the Redskins (58 starts), finishing above average on PFF in 2015 and 2017 and below average in 2014 and 2016, but he still was set to sign a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal with the Panthers last off-season as a free agent, before an off-season injury voided the deal. Breeland eventually ended up taking an incentivized minimum deal from the Packers and struggled on 330 snaps in an injury plagued season. The 2014 4th round pick is still only in his age 27 season and has some bounce back potential, but he’s far from a sure thing and the Chiefs don’t have another good option. They’re better at safety this season, but cornerback figures to be a position of weakness unless one of the young players steps up. 

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Chiefs were able to mask their significant problems on defense last season with an offense that was one of the best in recent memory, but they probably won’t be quite as good this season. Kareem Hunt is gone, Tyreek Hill is facing suspension, and, as good as Mahomes is, he might not be quite as good as he was last season every year. The Chiefs tried to fix their defense, but they still have a lot of problems on that side of the ball, problems which will become much more noticable if their offense can’t be historically good again. The Chiefs should be able to qualify for the post-season in the AFC, but they’re a little overrated right now. 

Update: The Chiefs will have Tyreek Hill for the full season, but still may find it tough to match last season’s offensive performance and their defense remains a significant concern.

Final Update: Things continue to go the Chiefs’ way, with the Chargers losing Russell Okung, Melvin Gordon, and Derwin James indefinitely. The Chiefs should be considered clear favorites in the AFC West.

Prediction 11-5, 1st in AFC West