NFL News & Analysis

Kansas City Chiefs 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Nov 8, 2020; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) talks in the huddle during the first half against the Carolina Panthers at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

It’s rare that you can say a Super Bowl appearance qualifies as a disappointing season for any team, but it did for the Kansas City Chiefs this past year. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed the world that Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs weren’t invincible. Now, Kansas City is tasked with proving that the performance was an aberration and that there is no true “blueprint” out there on how to beat them. 

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The Chiefs' roster features impressive high-end talent, but there are plenty of areas where the team can stand to improve. That leads into an interesting offseason where Kansas City could choose to go several directions early in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): – $23,132,376 (sixth-lowest in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 31, 63, 95, 127, 159, 223

Projected 2021 offense 
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Patrick Mahomes 4 / 32 $24.8 million
RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire 17 / 70 $2.5 million
WR Tyreek Hill 14 / 127 $15.9 million
WR ?
WR Mecole Hardman 72 / 127 $1.4 million
TE Travis Kelce 1 / 71 $13.3 million
LT Eric Fisher 11 / 38 $15.2 million
LG ?
C ?
RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif N/A $4.8 million
RT Mitchell Schwartz 14 / 38 $9.8 million

All of the talk about this team post-Super Bowl was about the state of its offensive line. The unit performed disastrously against a talented Buccaneers pass rush in the Super Bowl, but the Chiefs hope to get both Fisher and Schwartz back in 2021. The word “hope” is important because there are concerns about Schwartz’s recovery from the back injury that cost him most of last season. If he is able to return, a reliable tackle duo such as that one raises the floor for the offensive line as a whole.

Kansas City’s interior offensive line is the biggest problem area as things stand right now. Duvernay-Tardif should resume his role as the team’s starting right guard, but the Chiefs will need to make a decision on free agent center Austin Reiter and whether Nick Allegretti will be the team’s starting left guard moving forward. 

At wide receiver, it seems unlikely that free agent Sammy Watkins will be back, leaving an opening at WR2 for the Chiefs. Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle could push for bigger roles, but I would expect Kansas City will look to bring in talent to complement Hill and Kelce. 

How big of a problem is the Chiefs' offensive line situation?

As always, losing gave way to questions in Kansas City about a problematic positional group that contributed to the team's failure to lift a second consecutive Lombardi Trophy. The death knell to the unit was Eric Fisher’s injury in the AFC Championship game that forced Mike Remmers to swing from right to left tackle and Andrew Wylie to step out to right tackle. Those two recorded pass-blocking grades of 40.9 and 32.9, respectively, at their new positions — the lowest marks of any player along the team's offensive line. 

Getting back Fisher and (hopefully) Mitchell Schwartz from injury goes a long way toward solving the Chiefs' offensive line concerns. Duvernay-Tardif and 2020 third-round selection Lucas Niang are also expected to return after opting out of the 2020 season. The Chiefs will need to address the center position with Austin Reiter expected to enter free agency, but the offensive line doesn’t profile as the pressing need that some have made it out to be. 

After all, it didn’t stop the Chiefs from going 16-2 while standing out as the second-most efficient offense by expected points added per play in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl despite injuries and opt-outs. 

Why does Kansas City need a reliable third receiving option despite two elite threats in Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill?

PFF's Eric Eager recently looked into the importance of depth at the receiver position. His findings can be summarized into the following: PFF grades for second and third receiving options correlated with EPA per play at a higher rate than a team’s primary receiving option. That phenomenon was only amplified in the postseason.

It’s something that popped up in the Super Bowl for the Chiefs, as they got next to nothing out of any receiver not named Kelce or Hill. Sammy Watkins led the rest of the group with just 13 receiving yards, allowing the Buccaneers to focus on limiting Kansas City’s top two options. 

Adding a reliable third option in the passing game that defenses have to respect should be one of the bigger priorities for the Chiefs this offseason.  

Will Mecole Hardman ever become a bigger part of this offense?

It’s clear that Hardman’s speed can stress opposing defenses, and good things have happened over the past two seasons when the Chiefs got the ball into his hands. Among all wide receivers with 50 or more targets since 2019, Hardman’s 139.8 passer rating when targeted ranks first in the NFL. 

Hardman's efficiency has been in a limited role early in his career. His 634 regular-season routes are a clear fourth at the position for Kansas City — behind Demarcus Robinson (958), Hill (943) and Watkins (802). And there was no clear step taken from 2019 to 2020 from a production standpoint despite drawing nearly 30 more targets this past season, either. 

Hardman has value in the role he’s currently utilized in. Those manufactured touches on jet sweeps or end-arounds and the threat he poses on deep routes are important elements to Kansas City’s offense, but Hardman has yet to show he can step in and fill Watkins’ role in the offense. Kansas City giving him the opportunity to produce in that larger role would be a big vote of confidence for the third-year receiver. 

Potential targets at open spots

Wide receiver: Keelan Cole, Cornell Powell

Over the past three seasons, the no Chiefs wide receiver has run over 60% of their routes from the slot. The team rotates guys in and out, with both Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce spending some time on the inside. That gives appeal to a free agent option such as Cole, who has run 802 routes from the slot and 962 routes out wide over the past four years with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He profiles as an affordable third option in the Chiefs' passing game. 

Powell is a wide receiver prospect who won’t find himself among the top options in a talented class because he isn’t the most explosive athlete and racked up little production prior to his fifth year at Clemson. PFF lead draft analyst Mike Renner wrote this of Powell in the PFF Draft Guide, “Powell is very NFL-ready in many ways and can step on a field in Year 1, but I'm just not sure he's more than a complementary piece.”

An NFL-ready complementary piece who might fall down draft boards because of his perceived ceiling sounds like exactly what the Chiefs need. 

Interior offensive line: Austin Reiter, Wyatt Davis

Reiter has been the Chiefs' best interior offensive lineman over the past two seasons as the team’s starting center. He is not going to move the needle in a big way as a run blocker, but his 82.7 pass-blocking grade since 2019 is one of the better marks at the position in the NFL. Given how often the Chiefs pass in neutral situations, that should be a skill set the team covets. It makes sense for Kansas City to retain Reiter this offseason. 

At guard, the Chiefs feature two capable starters in Nick Allegretti at left guard and Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff at right guard, but neither’s presence should prevent the team from looking at potential upgrades. 

Davis is a potential draft target at the back end of the first round if the Chiefs are intent on improving the interior of their offensive line. His player comp in the PFF Draft Guide is Kevin Zeitler — one of the better pass-protecting guards in the NFL — and he possesses the kind of physical tools that could boost Kansas City’s run game. 

Projected 2021 defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
EDGE Frank Clark 93 / 109 $25.8 million
DI Chris Jones 2 / 126 $21.9 million
DI Derrick Nnadi 26 / 126 $2.4 million
EDGE ?
LB Anthony Hitchens 57 / 83 $10.7 million
LB Willie Gay Jr. N/A $1.2 million
CB ?
CB L’Jarius Sneed 31 / 121 $0.9 million
CB Rashad Fenton 26 / 121 $0.9 million
S Tyrann Mathieu 36 / 94 $19.7 million
S Juan Thornhill 65 / 94 $1.3 million
S ?

Under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo since 2019, the Chiefs' defense has been significantly better defending the pass than the run. Kansas City ranks dead last in EPA allowed per run play (0.020) compared to ninth in EPA allowed per dropback (0.028) over that two-year stretch. 

A big part of that is the development of young players in the secondary who weren’t taken with premium draft picks. Sneed (fourth-round pick), Fenton (sixth-round pick) and Charvarius Ward (undrafted free agent) have been key contributors early in their careers. The Chiefs will have to retain Ward as a restricted free agent this offseason, but there is no reason to expect they won’t. 

The other player who has played a big role in Kansas City’s secondary and will either have to be retained or replaced is safety Daniel Sorensen. He played over 1,000 snaps for the Chiefs this season, but his 48.4 PFF grade was one of the worst marks on the team. 

Along the defensive line, the Chiefs could certainly add a starting-caliber edge defender opposite Clark, who has failed to live up to his price tag in his first two seasons with Kansas City. The Chiefs will probably look to add that player on the cheap seeing that both Clark and Jones are already making over $20 million per year.  

Why might linebacker not be as big of a concern as it’s made out to be for Kansas City?

I included six defensive backs in the table of Chiefs projected starters because few teams in the NFL have employed more dime than them over these past two seasons under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Their 33.5% of plays in dime since 2019 rank third in the NFL — behind only the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams. In other words, the Chiefs will have only one off-ball linebacker on the field on plenty of plays, and you’ll rarely see more than two on the field. 

The dead cap space associated with a potential release of Anthony Hitchens would make that move difficult to stomach, pointing to the idea that he will be back again next season. While still not all that exciting, Hitchens' 50.8 PFF grade last season was the best of his tenure with the Chiefs. Kansas City should be excited about 2020 second-round pick Willie Gay Jr.’s prospects next season, though. He earned a 68.1 overall grade in limited playing time and could push for a larger role in 2021. 

The Chiefs should look to continue to improve their linebacker depth around the margins this offseason, but it’s not a position where it makes a ton of sense to invest premium resources given how often they have five to six defensive backs on the field.    

Do the Chiefs need additional pass rush help despite paying over $20 million per year to Frank Clark and Chris Jones?

When you’re paying two defensive linemen the kind of money that Kansas City is with Jones and Clark, the hope is that their success makes everyone else’s job easier as a pass rusher. That’s what we’ve seen in recent years with Aaron Donald and the Los Angeles Rams due to the attention he commands, and Jones may be as close to that dominant pass-rushing presence as any other interior defender in the league. He now has three straight seasons of 90.0-plus PFF pass-rushing grades

The issue is that Clark hasn’t come close to stressing opposing offensive lines in a similar manner since joining the team two seasons ago. His 60.4 pass-rushing grade since 2019 ranks 82nd among 111 qualifying edge defenders in the NFL. 

Still, his 89 pressures over that span rank second on the team by a wide margin because there simply hasn’t been any other consistent pass-rushing threat outside of Jones and Clark. The Chiefs' 31.2% pressure rate over the past two seasons ranked 20th in the NFL despite them spending big on that duo and blitzing at a top-10 rate. Kansas City could very well look at a starting-caliber edge rusher opposite Clark with its first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.    

How good was L’Jarius Sneed’s rookie season?

Sneed wasn’t taken until the tail end of the fourth round in the 2020 NFL Draft, but he was the best rookie cornerback in the league — something PFF’s lead draft analyst Mike Renner explored more in depth in the build-up to the Super Bowl. He allowed just a 53.4 passer rating on throws into his coverage while playing over 150 snaps both in the slot and outside at cornerback. That led to a season where he led all rookie cornerbacks in PFF wins above replacement despite missing significant time due to injury. 

It remains to be seen exactly what Sneed's role with Kansas City will be in 2021, but his play this year left little doubt that he will play a part next season. The fourth-round selection stands out as one of the better value picks in last year’s draft.   

Potential targets at open spots

Edge defender: Carlos Basham Jr., Rashad Weaver

I gave the Chiefs two “power” options here at edge defender who make some sense in their defense. 

Basham wasn’t quite as dominant across seven games in 2020 (71.2 PFF grade) as he was in the two prior years with 80.0-plus overall grades in both 2018 and 2019, but he has the kind of size and power that should translate to the NFL level. He can make an impact as a run defender and a pocket pusher, even if he isn’t going to win with bend around the edge. 

Weaver is a similar mold of 4-3 defensive end. He isn’t the athletic freak that many edge defenders in this class are, which will likely push him down draft boards, but his combination of size, length, power and technique still give him a good chance of developing into a quality starter at defensive end. Weaver missed the 2019 season with injury but produced PFF grades of 83.1 and 89.5 in his final two seasons at the University of Pittsburgh.    

Cornerback: Charvarius Ward, Tyson Campbell

With each of the Chiefs' two starting cornerback options hitting free agency, the team will have to make a few decisions in the secondary over the coming months. It would be a surprise if Ward — one of those two cornerbacks — isn’t brought back as a restricted free agent this offseason. He earned coverage grades above 65.0 in each of the past two seasons. 

Bashaud Breeland may make less sense to bring back given some of the Chiefs' salary cap concerns, the promising play of the younger Sneed and the potential development of DeAndre Baker. If the Chiefs are looking to add depth to the cornerback position this offseason, it will likely be done cheaply or through the draft. 

A former five-star recruit, Campbell has the length and tackling ability that should play well in Kansas City’s press-heavy zone coverage scheme. He also possesses the movement skills to stick with receivers in man coverage. There are some concerns about his instincts and playmaking ability outside, but it wouldn’t be a bad developmental play for the Chiefs to take a chance on his traits. 

Safety: Trevon Moehrig, Richie Grant 

Safety might not stick out as a glaring need for Kansas City with Tyrann Mathieu and Juan Thornhill already in the fold, but as I mentioned earlier, the team runs a lot of dime packages. Daniel Sorensen is set to hit free agency after playing over 1,000 snaps for the Chiefs this past season. They’ll need someone to fill his role. 

Moehrig is PFF’s top safety in the draft class and would classify as good value should the Chiefs choose to target him at the back end of the first round. His bottom line in the PFF Draft Guide reads, “There aren’t many holes to pick in Moehrig’s game. He’s got a skillset that will fit in any scheme in the NFL.” The Chiefs should value that versatility, and he has plenty of experience in the split-field safety looks that Kansas City likes to run in his time with TCU.

Grant is another guy who has the ability to play multiple roles at the NFL level, seeing snaps both deep and around the line of scrimmage across his time with UCF. He not only brings the instincts that you love to see at the safety position, but he also profiles as a strong presence against the run, evidenced by a 90.0 run-defense grade this past season. That’s an area where Sorensen struggled this past season, posting a 31.5 run-defense grade. 

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