News & Analysis

2020 NFL Team Preview Series: Kansas City Chiefs

Jan 12, 2020; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) celebrates against the Houston Texans in the second half of the AFC Divisional Round playoff football game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs put it all together last season on their way to winning the Super Bowl, overcoming a midseason injury to quarterback Patrick Mahomes to earn a bye. Their three wins all needed various levels of comebacks, but it spoke to the offense's explosiveness and the strides made by the defense in 2019. That may be the formula going forward — the Chiefs don't need a shutdown defense to win, but they do need a better version than what they trotted out there in 2018 after losing shootouts to good teams. As long as Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid are paired together, the Chiefs will be right in the Super Bowl hunt. It’s just a matter of staying healthy and catching a few breaks along the way.

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ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS

Additions/players brought back:

DI Chris Jones (re-signed)

RB Damien Williams (option picked up; opted out)

TE Ricky Seals-Jones

CB Bashaud Breeland (re-signed)

T/G Mike Remmers

Losses:

CB Kendall Fuller

EDGE Emmanuel Ogbah

QUARTERBACK

Feb 2, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) celebrates after a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium. Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s what I said about Patrick Mahomes prior to the Super Bowl last season:

Mahomes battled injuries from the get-go as he fought through an ankle injury starting in Week 1 and eventually missed some time with a knee injury. While the Chiefs' offense is still one of the most explosive units in the league, Mahomes took a slight step back from his 2018 MVP campaign. As tantalizing as Mahomes’ highlight reel is, perhaps most impressive in 2018 was that he rarely missed throws. In 2019, though, he saw a four-percentage point increase in negatively graded throws. Part of the regression may be chalked up to injuries, but regardless, Mahomes' talent and the Chiefs' system make up a dangerous offense. He is still more than capable of taking over games and moving the ball down the field in a hurry.

Mahomes is off to an incredible start to his career, backing up his 2018 MVP campaign with a Super Bowl win. He was lights-out in the first two rounds of the playoffs before overcoming a poor three quarters in the Super Bowl to lead a late comeback for the Chiefs. It’s Mahomes’ fearlessness and quick-strike ability that make him so dangerous, and the playmakers around him allow the Chiefs to take full advantage of his downfield passing ability. With a career’s worth of highlights but also few mistakes for such an aggressive style, Mahomes has taken the mantle as the top signal-caller in the league.

RUNNING BACK

The Chiefs have rotated through productive running backs in recent years, and now they add first-rounder Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The former Tiger forced 0.29 missed tackles per attempt throughout his LSU career, second-best among all NFL-caliber running backs since we started grading in 2014. Edwards-Helaire is also proficient in the passing game, both before and after the catch, adding yet another weapon to a deep Kansas City offense.

The young rookie was slated to battle Damien Williams for snaps, but Williams opted out of the 2020 season after having two productive seasons with the Chiefs. His 63.6 elusive rating ranked 12th among running backs last year.

Darwin Thompson also played just 130 snaps as a sixth-round rookie last year after playing only 426 FBS snaps in his one year at Utah State. He's an athletic work in progress.

Expect Edwards-Helaire to be the feature back now that Williams has opted out as this unit continues to produce in one of the NFL's most outstanding offenses.

WIDE RECEIVER

Jan 19, 2020; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill (10) runs against the Tennessee Titans during the second half in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium. Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Few receivers instill fear into opposing defenses like Tyreek Hill; he has 433 more yards on deep (20-plus yard) passes than any other receiver over the past three years. Hill’s game speed is at another level, but he also has the quickness to win at the line of scrimmage and the ball skills to win down the field. The production speaks for itself, but just having Hill on the field opens up the rest of the Kansas City passing attack.

On the other side, Sammy Watkins looked like a future star after an 89.8 overall grade in his second season in 2015, but he’s graded between 69.0 and 74.0 in every year since. The big plays showed up in spurts last season, including in the AFC Championship and Super Bowl, but he’s been a mediocre No. 2 option during his two years in Kansas City. Mecole Hardman may be ready for an expanded role, as his big-play ability was on display in 2019 as a rookie — he had 30 catches for 567 yards (18.9 yards/reception) and six touchdowns. He’s a pure speed receiver who is dangerous both before and after the catch, though he doesn’t possess Hill’s ability to adjust and make plays down the field.

Demarcus Robinson is back in the mix as the third or fourth receiver, and he’s been fine as a complementary piece over the past three years. The Chiefs have a speedy group of receivers that pairs with an outstanding quarterback and offensive system, so look for even more fireworks in 2020. 

TIGHT END

Travis Kelce finished with an 88.5 receiving grade during the 2019 regular season, finishing in the top four among tight ends for the fourth consecutive year. Kelce can do it all in the passing game, from route running to making defenders miss to making the tough catches over the middle. He is also used all over the offensive formation to create mismatches, and when paired with Tyreek Hill, there’s not a more difficult duo to defend in the league.

The backup tight end spot has not been a high-volume one, and it will be a battle between Deon Yelder and Ricky Seals-Jones this season. Yelder has four career receptions, while Seals-Jones might be the more intriguing option as a former college wide receiver who is still relatively young at the position. Seals-Jones has averaged 12.9 yards per reception during his career, and even though he’s earned receiving grades in the 50.0s in each of the past two seasons, he’s still the kind of player the Chiefs could put in a position to succeed.

As long as Kelce is in the mix, the Chiefs will have one of the best tight end units in the league.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Sep 22, 2019; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tackle Mitchell Schwartz (71) looks to block against the Baltimore Ravens during the second half at Arrowhead Stadium. Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City finished right in the middle of the pack in last year’s offensive line rankings before going on an outstanding three-game run in the postseason. Left tackle Eric Fisher got off to a slow start early in his career, but he’s settled in as an above-average tackle, posting a 74.8 grade that ranks 28th among 81 qualifiers over the past three years. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is annually one of the league’s best, as he ranks fifth with an 87.5 overall grade during that same timeframe. Schwartz had one of the best postseason runs in history, leading the Chiefs with a 92.8 overall grade while allowing just one pressure on 142 pass-blocking attempts.

The interior is an athletic group that is generally better in pass protection than in the run game. Left guard Andrew Wylie finished with the 12th-best pass-blocking grade among guards while center Austin Reiter finished ninth at 79.2. In the run game, Wylie was closer to the middle of the pack and Reiter ranked in the bottom third among centers. Right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif opted out of the 2020 season and would have been coming off the lowest grade of his career at 59.7. He’s been a reasonable starter, ranking 37th with a 65.1 grade over the past three years.

The Chiefs also have good depth at tackle, including Mike Remmers, who is better as a backup at this point in his career. Meanwhile, third-round pick Lucas Niang was one of the best developmental options in the draft. Niang was productive at TCU despite technique that needs to be reworked, and he may be a viable starter down the road. Overall, the Chiefs have four mid-level starters and a star in Schwartz at right tackle, a combination that should put them back in the top half of the league if everyone stays healthy.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The newly signed Chris Jones has been arguably the best interior player in the league outside of Aaron Donald over the past couple of seasons — his 132 total pressures over that time frame rank third among interior rushers. His 91.4 pass-rush grade over the same span trails only Donald.

Frank Clark got the big-money deal he sought when the team acquired him from Seattle, but his first season was a letdown. He registered just 47 total pressures in the regular season before an uptick in the playoffs. He earned just a 63.0 overall grade, and even those playoff performances were more flash than substance — he had five sacks across three games but did not earn a grade above 70.0 in any of them.

Outside of that duo, the situation is a little less encouraging. The team has a series of useful role players who have graded solidly but lacks players who have consistently made a difference. Outside of Jones, Terrell Suggs was the team’s highest-graded pass-rusher up front, but even he earned just a 66.9 mark. With his departure, the team needs to find an additional source of pressure.

LINEBACKER

Dec 1, 2019; Kansas City, MO, USA; Oakland Raiders tight end Derek Carrier (85) runs the ball and is tackled by Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Reggie Ragland (59) during the second half at Arrowhead Stadium. Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Only three linebacking units had a lower grade than the Chiefs last season. Kansas City had four players play at least 300 snaps, with Reggie Ragland leading the way with a 63.5 overall grade. Ragland has moved on, though, earmarking Damien Wilson and Anthony Hitchens as the projected starters.

Wilson posted a 50.4 overall grade on a career-high 828 snaps while Hitchens had the lowest grade in the league against the run, at 34.1. Hitchens is a few years removed from looking like one of the good, young coverage linebackers, but he has not performed well in his two years with the Chiefs.

Kansas City has been searching for a good coverage linebacker for a few seasons, and they may have found one in second-round pick Willie Gay Jr. An outstanding athlete, Gay ran a 4.46 and posted high-end jumps at the combine to go with a 90.0 coverage grade on limited snaps last season. If Gay is ready to go, the Chiefs have a place for him in sub-packages immediately.

Dorian O’Daniel and Ben Niemann are also in the mix for nickel snaps, as both players projected as coverage-first players coming out of college and both have been solid in that department in limited time over the past two years.

The Chiefs have enough versatile players in the secondary to mitigate any weaknesses at linebacker, but they also have a few intriguing young players who may be able to contribute this season.

SECONDARY

One of the biggest concerns on the roster of the defending Super Bowl champions is at cornerback, where Bashaud Breeland will open the season suspended and the starters are otherwise Charvarius Ward and Rashad Fenton. Fenton, a sixth-round draft pick a year ago, played 244 snaps last season, including the playoffs, and graded reasonably well after allowing just 53.6% of passes thrown his way to be caught. Last season was Ward’s first as a starter, and he was solid, if unspectacular, snagging a pair of interceptions and breaking up six passes. He allowed just 48% of passes thrown into his coverage to be caught, and those passes yielded a 73.6 passer rating.

Tyrann Mathieu gives the team significant flexibility by taking care of the slot while nominally being a safety. Mathieu is an elite playmaker who saw over 500 snaps in the slot last season in addition to his safety snaps. The team will also hope that Juan Thornhill can return from injury at full strength after a really impressive rookie campaign that saw him tally six pass breakups and four picks during the regular season.

Daniel Sorensen remains on the roster as a dime linebacker/strong safety, and Alex Brown — in addition to rookies L’Jarius Sneed, Thakarius Keyes and Lavert Hill, among others — could fight for playing time until Breeland returns. Sneed could be a sneaky bet to see playing time and perform well. He allowed just a 45.2 passer rating when targeted last season and less than 48% of passes thrown into his coverage to be complete.

DEVELOPMENT NEEDED: MECOLE HARDMAN

Jan 12, 2020; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman (17) runs against Houston Texans fullback Cullen Gillaspia (44) during the first half in a AFC Divisional Round playoff football game at Arrowhead Stadium. Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

This one may be wishful thinking for Chiefs fans, and Hardman is already coming off an excellent rookie season. However, with so many of Hardman’s big plays being based on pure speed, his taking of another step forward as a receiver makes this offense even more dangerous. Much like how Tyreek Hill’s speed is even more valuable given his route running and downfield ball skills, Hardman improving in both areas will give opposing defensive coordinators even more to worry about both now and in the future.

DRAFT CLASS REVIEW

It was a light class for the Chiefs, but first-round running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and linebacker Willie Gay Jr. should see the field early. Third round tackle Lucas Niang is a perfect developmental option who has talent but also the time to sit and learn. Keep an eye on safety/corner L’Jarius Sneed, who ran a 4.37 at the combine and played both safety and corner at Louisiana Tech. He has outside corner size and speed and is well worth a shot to see if he can stick there as a fourth-rounder. 

BEST BET

The Chiefs are a tough team to back in the futures market. They are the odds-on favorite in every conceivable market for good reason, but laying their current price given the uncertainty on what could happen in the 2020 season is not a wise investment. They are the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl, but our simulation has them still offering value at their diminishing odds. 

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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