Most fans expected the Kansas City Chiefs to improve upon their 2-14 record of 2012, but few could have predicted what they did last season. With new coach Andy Reid and new quarterback Alex Smith, the Chiefs won their first nine games and finished the year with an 11-5 record and a wild card berth. Few will ever forget the epic collapse in their playoff game against the Colts which ended the season.
This offseason was filled with more losses than gains, as the Chiefs’ offense lost their three best starting offensive lineman from last season. On the defensive side of the ball, the Chiefs said goodbye to stalwarts like Brandon Flowers and Tyson Jackson. This season the Chiefs are hoping that even without those players, they can build on the success of 2013 and win their first playoff game since 1993.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Dual-threat Jamaal Charles
When discussing the Chiefs, Jamaal Charles is always the first name that comes up. One of the best running backs in the entire league, he enjoyed one of his finest seasons last year. His +19.1 overall grade was his highest ever and his 19 touchdowns led the NFL. What makes Charles so difficult to defend is his ability to be just as dangerous in the passing game (+7.1 grade) as he is in the run game (+11.3 grade). Last season, his 63 total missed tackles forced was the fourth-highest number in the league. It helps that Charles gets to run behind Anthony Sherman, last year’s highest-graded fullback (+16.7 blocking). Even without his offensive line’s help, Charles still manages to excel as shown by his 12th-best Elusive Rating. If Charles stays healthy, look for the Chiefs to lean on him offensively once again this season, and expect Charles not to disappoint.
2. A Dynamic Duo
No team boasts a better outside linebacker duo than the Chiefs do with Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, who last season had a combined overall grade of +53.9. Houston was our highest-graded 3-4 outside linebacker, and he missed five games with an elbow injury. Where these two really excel is when they rush the quarterback. Last season, they combined for 136 total pressures and 22 sacks. They finished the year ranked third and fourth in our Pass Rushing Productivity with Houston earning a 14.1 mark and Hali finishing at 12.2. When these two linebackers are healthy, there are very few teams in the league that can slow them down.
3. The Run-Stuffing Front Seven
Last season the Chiefs’ run defense was one of the best in the NFL, and look for that to continue this season. They finished third overall with a +50.5 grade, and will look to improve upon that this season. Of their starting front seven, only one player (newcomer Vance Walker) finished last season with a run defense grade below +1.0. This unit, anchored by elite defensive tackle Dontari Poe and standout run stopping end Mike DeVito (+16.4 run defense grade), allowed only nine rushing touchdowns all of last season. They’ve also improved by bringing in linebacker Joe Mays (currently expected to miss time with a wrist injury), who had a +2.5 run defense grade last season. This is good news for the Chiefs, as this season they face some of the best rushing offenses in the NFL.
4. Alex Smith
Last season it was easy to assume that Alex Smith only had a good season because he faced weak defenses in the first half of the year. Once he was forced to play from behind, against teams like the Broncos and the Chiefs, he would struggle. However, in those first nine wins Smith received just a -4.2 overall grade. In the remaining seven games Smith finished with a +8.4 grade. When the Chiefs were forced to throw and play a high scoring game, Smith showed that he could keep up. In those seven games, the Chiefs’ offense averaged 43 points per game. While he does have his limitations, as highlighted in our analysis of his work during our QBs in Focus series, if the Chiefs allow Smith to go to work passing, this offense could be even better than it was last season.
5. Ball Security
The fastest way to lose a game of football is to turn the ball over. The Chiefs clearly took that to heart last season, as they had the fourth fewest turnovers in the league with 17, including the fewest interceptions thrown with nine. Smith is one of the better quarterbacks in the league when it comes to ball security, having averaged an interception every 69 attempts over the past three seasons. The league average over that same span (for QB’s with at least 100 pass attempts) is one interception every 37 attempts. At running back, Jamaal Charles turned the ball over a mere two times last season, on 329 total touches. It’s a great sign for the Chiefs when their two best players won’t cost them a game with a turnover.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. An Offensive Line to Forget About
The Chiefs’ offensive line is without a doubt the weakest starting unit on the team. Last season, the Chiefs had a respectable line, fairly above average in pass and run blocking. Yet after an offseason that saw them lose their three best starters in Geoff Schwartz (+18.9 overall grade), Jon Asamoah (+9.2) and Brandon Albert (+5.9), this season could be a rough one. Center Rodney Hudson and his +4.4 grade is the highest rated player on the line. The other four projected starters for the Chiefs combined for a dreadful -50.4 overall grade last season. Eric Fisher struggled at right tackle, and now will be asked to defend Alex Smith’s blindside. Steve Palazzolo took a more in-depth look at the struggles of the Chiefs offensive line that can be found right here.
2. A Trip to the West Coast (Schedule)
Many pointed to the Chiefs’ lack of tough opponents last season as the reason for their success. They only played six games against playoff teams and lost all but one of them. Their 11 wins came against teams with a win percentage of 0.343 compared to five losses against teams with a win percentage of 0.688. While it doesn’t necessarily tell the whole truth, it paints a picture of a team that won games that it was supposed to and nothing more. This season they won’t have that luxury. The Chiefs have to play seven games against playoff teams, as well as games against the Steelers and Cardinals (the two best non-playoff teams in the AFC and NFC last season). They play eight games against top ten graded defenses this season. They play the four teams that made the AFC and NFC Championships last season. If the Chiefs are to improve on last season, they are going to have to beat some seriously talented teams.
3. Who’s Catching What Smith is Throwing?
Dwayne Bowe is a deep threat receiver. That is what he excels at, and that is what he needs to do to contribute to the Chiefs. The problem with that is that Smith does not like to throw deep. Since Bowe came into the league he has averaged 24 Deep Passing targets per season. This past season he was targeted only seven times on throws over 20 yards. Smith really needs to open up his game and throw it deep to Bowe if he wants him to excel. Behind Bowe, the Chiefs really have nobody else to pick up the slack. When Donnie Avery and his career -39.4 grade is the next best option, it shows how much trouble their receiving group could be in. The lone bright spot at this point is tight end Travis Kelce, who has put up a +5.0 grade in three preseason games and even made our Team of the Preseason: Second Team. However, he did a lot of that damage against second-team players, so that doesn’t mean he’ll shine come the regular season.
4. Average Secondary
Eric Berry is an elite talent and easily one of the best strong safeties in the league. He is one of the best in coverage, but is even more talented when it comes to rushing the passer. His Pass Rushing Productivity rating of 20.8 was the second best among safeties in the league. But behind Berry, the rest of the Chiefs secondary doesn’t give much reason for optimism. Marcus Cooper and Sean Smith have never been anything more than average corners. Husain Abdullah is nothing spectacular, never getting a grade higher than +1.0 in any regular season game last year, but never going below -0.7. This is a unit that can be taken advantage of by good receivers, as shown by the 339 yards per game passing they gave up in their six losses last season. Given some of the offenses they’ll play this season (Broncos, Patriots, 49ers) the secondary will need to improve somehow if they want to compete.
5. Lack of Depth All-Around
While the Chiefs have a solid amount of good starters on both sides of the ball, it is their lack of overall depth that is concerning. According to our Chiefs depth chart, the team only has 10 backup players with enough information on them to actually place them in a category, and only three of them are at least average. The Chiefs have 21 backups that are either rookies, or have not played enough NFL snaps to warrant any judgment. If any of the Chiefs elite or above average talent go down with an injury, they are going to have a tough time finding someone from their bench that is capable enough to replace them.