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.

Prediction 10-6, 2nd in AFC West

Team Score: 76.15 (10th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 79.68

Defensive Score: 72.62

Team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs: 2018 AFC Championship Pick

New England Patriots (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)

The Patriots won in convincing fashion at home over a strong Chargers team last week, wrapping up an undefeated 9-0 home record, but now they have to go on the road (where they are 3-5) and travel to Kansas City for the AFC Championship game. The common narrative seems to be that they will continue to struggle on the road and, as a result, they are underdogs in a game started by Tom Brady for the first time since week 13 of the 2014 season.

The statistical difference between the Patriots at home and on the road has been very significant this season, beyond even what the records show. At home, 7 of those 9 wins came by double digits, with the only exceptions coming against the Texans and the Chiefs, a pair of AFC division winners. They have a first down rate differential of +9.65% at home. For comparison, the Bears finished 1st in first down rate differential on the season at +6.64%. On the road, however, they have a first down rate differential of -5.29%. For comparison, that would have ranked 29th in the NFL over the course of the season, most comparable to the Washington Redskins.

Fortunately for them, home/road differentials tend to be random more than anything. Over the past 30 seasons, teams with a home winning percentage of more than 90% and a road winning percentage under 50% are 40-36 straight up on the road in week 11 or later and are 21-12 ATS as road underdogs. The Patriots have been incredible at home since 2001, going 141-26 straight up, but they are also 99-49 on the road, including 24-15 ATS and 20-19 straight up as road underdogs. Any time you’re getting points with the Patriots, even against the most dominant of teams, they are worth a bet, as they tend to rise to the occasion against tough opponents, going a ridiculous 38-13 straight up against teams with a better record than them since 2001, including 7-2 in the post-season.

The Chiefs have been a dominant team on offense this season, finishing the regular season by far #1 in first down rate at 45.18% (Rams are 2nd at 43.05%), but they’ve been far from dominant on defense. They finished the season ranked 24th in points per game allowed at 26.3 and were even worse in first down rate allowed at 42.20%, worst in the NFL. Against playoff qualifiers, their defensive numbers were downright ugly, as they allowed 36.0 points per game and a ridiculous 46.54% first down rate in 6 regular season games against playoff qualifiers (2-4).

The strength of this defense is its pass rush, which led the league in sacks, led by edge rushers Dee Ford (13 sacks) and Justin Houston (9 sacks) and interior rusher Chris Jones (15.5 sacks). Combined with their explosive offense, their pass rush has allowed them to dominant weaker opponents. They go up big early with their offense, forcing their opponents to pass more than they’d like (most pass attempts against in the league), which allows their pass rushers to pin their ears back and go after the quarterback. That same formula hasn’t worked as well against tougher opponents, who have been able to exploit their weaknesses against running games and quick passing games. The Patriots both rode of those to victory last week, so it’s not hard to imagine them following a similar formula this week in Kansas City.

The big exception to the Chiefs’ defensive struggles this season came against the Colts last week, in a game in which the Chiefs held the Colts to a 30.19% first down rate in a blowout 31-13 win. However, when you look at their whole season, last week’s performance looks like a fluke, especially when you consider there wasn’t any personnel change that was made between last week’s game and a month ago, when they allowed 67 points combined in a 2-game stretch against the Chargers and Seahawks.

The one player who could boost this defense is Eric Berry, who is expected to play through a heel injury this week, after sitting out the previous 2 games, but he’s played just 99 snaps since week 1 of 2017, so it’s unclear how much having him active will benefit the Chiefs. Unless the Chiefs suddenly became a different defense overnight or Eric Berry can somehow return to Pro Bowl form by Sunday, I like the Patriots’ chances of pulling the upset and they’re a great bet if you can get the full field goal.

New England Patriots 30 Kansas City Chiefs 27 Upset Pick +140

Pick against the spread: New England +3

Confidence: High

Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs: 2018 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Indianapolis Colts (11-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

The Chiefs finished with the best record in the AFC, while the Colts snuck into the playoffs as the 6th seed on the NFL’s final weekend, but statistically the Colts have been the better of these two teams this season, ranking 5th in first down rate at +4.56%, while the Chiefs rank 9th at +2.98%. Not only do they have a significant edge in first downs (+56 on the year, as opposed to -35 for the Chiefs), but they also have a league leading +19 offensive touchdown margin, even better than Kansas City’s +17 offensive touchdown margin.

That’s even more impressive considering how slow the Colts started. After week 6, they sat at 1-5 and ranked just 18th in first down rate differential at -1.47%, but since then they lead the NFL in first down rate differential at +9.02% and they’ve won 10 of 11 games, including last week’s first round victory over the Texans. They have several young players who have gotten better as the season has gone on and their injury situation has improved significantly as well, as they are close to full strength right now, after they were arguably the best injury plagued team in the league to start the season. Andrew Luck has also gotten better as the year has gone along in his first year back from shoulder surgery, with arguably the best team he’s ever had around him.

The Chiefs, meanwhile, have gone in the opposite direction a little bit, starting out hot and then declining in recent weeks. The offense has remained strong, leading the league with a first down rate of 43.34% since week 10, but that’s down from an otherworldly 46.65% prior to week 10 and their defense has not gotten any better, allowing a first down rate of 42.21% since week 10 and a first down rate of 42.19% prior to week 10. They were expecting to get safety Eric Berry back from injury at some point, but he only played limited snaps in a few games down the stretch and seems to be shut down again, missing week 17 and barely practicing this week after the bye.

They may get a boost on offense with wide receiver Sammy Watkins possibly returning after missing all but a few snaps over the past 7 games, but he didn’t get in a full practice this week and would likely be less than 100% and at risk of an in-game setback even if he plays through his recurring foot problems. The loss of Watkins and running back Kareem Hunt (released for off-the-field issues with 5 games left in the season) are part of the reason why the offense slowed down a little down the stretch.

Without those two, even as talented as Pat Mahomes is, he’s had issues keeping pace with what his defense is allowing. They played 3 of their final 7 games against the Cardinals or Raiders, two of the worst teams in the league, and in their other 4 games they either lost or went to overtime. Granted, those four games were against the Seahawks, Chargers, Ravens, and Rams and the Chiefs were competitive in all 4 games, but the Colts are a tough test too and the you’d have to go back to the Chiefs’ 10-point week 1 victory over the Chargers to find a game the Chiefs have played against a top tier team like the Colts in which they would have covered this 5.5-point spread.

At the very least, these two teams are even right now, in which case the Chiefs should be favored by just 3 points at home, but there’s an argument to be made that the Colts are the better of these two teams at the moment, despite what their records say. The Colts also have the edge in quarterback experience, with Luck making his 8th career playoff start and Mahomes in his first. First time playoff starting quarterbacks are just 6-21 ATS at home since 2002, unless they’re facing another first time playoff starter.

We’ve already seen Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson, and Mitch Trubisky lose straight up as home favorites in their first career playoff start. Mahomes is on another level talent wise and it helps that he has an experienced coach in Andy Reid (even if Reid is just 11-13 with one Super Bowl appearance in 13 playoff trips), but the other three quarterbacks also had much stronger defenses supporting them and, even if Mahomes does pull out the win, he won’t necessarily cover this 5.5-point spread. I love the Colts’ chances of covering and I think they have a decent shot at pulling off the straight up upset as well.

Indianapolis Colts 31 Kansas City Chiefs 30 Upset Pick +195

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis +5.5

Confidence: High

Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

Oakland Raiders (4-11) at Kansas City Chiefs (11-4)

The Chiefs just need to win this game to clinch homefield advantage throughout the AFC, but they’re limping into the post-season a little bit, losing 3 of their past 5 games after a 10-1 starts. Those losses have come against the Rams, Chargers, and Seahawks and all 3 losses came by a touchdown or less in games the Chiefs could have easily won, but those are the kinds of teams they’re going to have to beat if they’re going to make a deep playoff run.

Their offense has still been dominant, but the losses have piled up, with right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and wide receiver Sammy Watkins still injured and Kareem Hunt no longer on the team because of off-the-field issues, and their defense has continued to struggle, even with safety Eric Berry returning from injury. Berry has not nearly been 100% and may not even play in this game after sitting out practice on Friday. They’re expected to get top cornerback Kendall Fuller back from a one week absence this week, but he might not be 100% either. The Raiders have played better football of late, so this line is a little high at 14.

That being said, I wouldn’t take the Raiders with any confidence this week. This is a big game for them, playing spoiler against a tough division rival, but they still might not bring their best effort after winning an emotional game at home against the Broncos last week, in likely their final home game in Oakland. The Chiefs’ defense is terrible and the Raiders could easily get a backdoor cover late even if the Chiefs otherwise dominate the game, but we’re not getting enough line value for this to be anything higher than a no confidence pick.

Kansas City Chiefs 33 Oakland Raiders 20

Pick against the spread: Oakland +14

Confidence: None

Kansas City Chiefs at Seattle Seahawks: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (11-3) at Seattle Seahawks (8-6)

Earlier in the week, the Chiefs seemed like the clear pick. The Seahawks have a solid record at 8-6 and have been playing better offensively in recent weeks, but their defense has had trouble getting off the field this season. They’ve played the 2nd fewest defensive snaps in the league, as a result of the offense going 11 of 14 on 4th down on the season and only turning over the ball 10 times, fewest in the NFL, but 4th down percentages and turnovers tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so they won’t always be able to depend on that making life easier for their defense and they rank just 26th in first down rate allowed at 38.51%.

However, the Seahawks could be getting a huge boost defensively this week, with the return of outside linebacker KJ Wright from injury. Bobby Wagner is the linebacker that gets all the attention on this defense, but Wright is arguably the best 4-3 outside linebacker in the league when healthy. Lingering knee issues have limited him to just 133 underwhelming snaps in 3 games this season, a big part of why they’ve struggled defensively, especially since replacement Austin Calitro has been horrendous this season. It’s tough to know if Wright is at 100% or if he’ll play his full snaps, but his return should be a boost for this defense.

Despite that, this line didn’t really shift to adjust for his return, opening at Kansas CIty -2.5 and only falling to Kansas City -2, really insignificant line movement. With Wright in the lineup, I have this line calculated at Kansas CIty -2.5, so we’re getting a little bit of line value with the Chiefs, but not nearly enough to take them with any sort of confidence this week. I think the most likely outcome in this game is a Kansas City win by a field goal, which would cover this spread, but this was one of the toughest games of the week for me to decide on because the Seahawks could easily pull this upset at home.

Kansas City Chiefs 30 Seattle Seahawks 27

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -2

Confidence: None

Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs: 2018 Week 15 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Chargers (10-3) at Kansas City Chiefs (11-2)

These two teams met all the way back in week 1, with the Chiefs winning 38-28 in Los Angeles. That game swung on a few plays though, despite it being a 10-point game, as the Chargers turned the ball over twice and allowed a punt return touchdown (still the Chiefs’ only special teams touchdown of the season). The Chargers actually won the first down rate battle by 6.83%, picking up a first down or touchdown on 48.65% of offensive plays, as opposed to 41.92% for the Chiefs.

They could easily do so again this week and, if they do, they have a good chance to pull the upset. This game is in Kansas City, but the atmosphere won’t be much different, as Chiefs fans filled the Chargers’ stadium week 1, as most visiting fanbases do. Lacking homefield advantage in Los Angeles, the Chargers are 6-0 straight up (5-1 ATS) with an average margin of victory of 10.2 points per game in 6 games outside of Los Angeles this season. That is a trend that dates back to their final few years in San Diego, when they frequently had large visiting crowds, as they are 34-19-3 ATS away from home since 2012.

Divisional road underdogs typically do well in this spot anyway, as teams are 70-43 ATS since 2002 as divisional road underdogs against a team that previously beat them as home favorites earlier in the season. The Chiefs, meanwhile, are in a terrible spot on a short week after going to overtime with the Ravens last week. Understandably teams are just 6-26 ATS on a short week on a Thursday night after an overtime game in the past 30 years.

I considered making this my Pick of the Week, but didn’t for a couple reasons. One is injury uncertainty. The Chiefs are pretty banged up on offense, missing left guard Cam Erving, wide receiver Sammy Watkins, and running back Spencer Ware, who is only starting because Kareem Hunt got kicked off the team, but their defense could be getting a big boost with Eric Berry returning from injury. I say “could” because it’s tough to know what kind of shape he’s going to be in for his first game in 15 months, after missing 28 straight games over the past 2 seasons with injury. He may not even play full snaps this week. On top of that, #1 receiver Tyreek Hill barely practiced this week with a foot injury.

The Chargers, meanwhile, might be getting star running back Melvin Gordon back from injury, but if he’s out again, they’ll also be down to their 3rd string running back. They have some injuries on defense as well, with cornerback Trevor Williams, defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Corey Liuget, and middle linebacker Denzel Perryman all on the sidelines, but they’ve also gotten stud defensive end Joey Bosa back recently, giving them a dominant duo of Melvin Ingram and Bosa at defensive end, which has masked some of their issues at other positions like defensive tackle and linebacker. Their secondary is also playing at a high level, led by #1 cornerback Casey Hayward, dominant slot cornerback Desmond King, and stud rookie safety Derwin James.

The second reason I didn’t want to make this my Pick of the Week is the Chargers’ recent track record against the Chiefs. I normally don’t make too much of a team “having another team’s number” because the NFL changes so much and there usually isn’t a large enough sample size to make that claim, but the Chiefs have had the same head coach and defensive coordinator since 2013 and Philip Rivers is 2-9 against them, with 9 straight losses. That being said, he could easily exorcise those demons this week against a banged up Chiefs team that’s going to be exhausted on a short week and I like getting more than a field goal if the Chargers can’t pull the upset.

Los Angeles Chargers 24 Kansas City Chiefs 23 Upset Pick +160

Pick against the spread: LA Chargers +3.5

Confidence: High

Baltimore Ravens at Kansas City Chiefs: 2018 Week 14 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (7-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (10-2)

The Chiefs are in a very tough spot this week, as they have to turn around and play their biggest remaining regular season game next week against the Chargers on Thursday Night Football. Favorites typically struggle before a short week anyway, going 55-73 ATS since 2012, but that should especially be the case in this one, as I can’t imagine the Chiefs aren’t spending some time on the Chargers this week. On the other side, the Ravens are distraction free, with only a home game against the Buccaneers on deck.

I wish I trusted Ravens’ quarterback Lamar Jackson more in this kind of game though. If the Ravens were starting a healthy Joe Flacco, I’d bet them just because I know what to expect from him, but Jackson’s 3-0 record has come against a pretty easy schedule and I just don’t know what to expect from him in a game where he’ll have to be more aggressive as a passer to keep pace with an explosive Kansas City offense.

Kansas City’s defense has not been very good this year, but they could get Eric Berry back this week finally and even against an underwhelming defense it’s easy for young quarterbacks to make mistakes if they feel like they need to keep up with an offensive juggernaut. I’m taking Baltimore and hoping their defense can keep it close against a Kansas City team that probably won’t bring their best effort this week, but I wouldn’t recommend betting on this with the line under a touchdown.

Kansas City Chiefs 27 Baltimore Ravens 23

Pick against the spread: Baltimore +6.5

Confidence: Low