32 Teams in 32 Days: Kansas City Chiefs
Optimism was moderately high in Kansas City before the start of last season. Todd Haley had been shown the door midseason in 2010. Romeo Crennel had been promoted from interim head coach after he led the Chiefs to a win over the undefeated Packers. Several prominent players were back after missing most or all of the previous season. Unfortunately, talent did not translate into wins for the Chiefs. They never had a lead in 11 games and finished with a franchise-worst 2-14 record for the second time in five years. Now with yet another new regime taking over, how will the Chiefs fare in 2013?
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Regime Changes
Andy Reid brings a strong leadership presence that the Chiefs have lacked in recent years. He is known for getting quarterbacks to succeed in the West Coast offense, and the addition of Alex Smith should be a good match for his system. Reid can get the ball to his playmakers without being as predictable as the Chiefs’ offense has been in the past. On the other side of the ball, he made a smart decision by sticking with a base 3-4 defense that best suits the Chiefs’ roster. New coordinator Bob Sutton has plenty of 3-4 experience, but will also use many different looks in sub-packages to get the most out of the Chiefs.
2. A Fully-Healthy Jamaal Charles
Even though Jamaal Charles did not make our Top 101 Players of 2012, he is still one of the best running backs in the league. Charles is the second-highest ranked RB since 2008 (+42.8), despite missing nearly all of 2011 with an ACL tear. He is a big-play threat with 38 runs of 15 yards or more over his last two full years. While his carries could potentially decrease in Reid’s system, he will see an increase in targets in the passing game. It will be intriguing to watch if he can further develop as a receiving threat out of the backfield. Overall, Charles has a good opportunity to have his best season yet and a full offseason without needing to rehab after his ACL injury should increase his explosiveness.
3. Trio of Linebackers
The linebacking corps is the strength of the Chiefs’ defense. Derrick Johnson has become one of the best inside linebackers in the AFC, ranking third with a +61.9 grade over the last five years. He had 72 solo stops last season, trailing only J.J. Watt out of all defensive players. Tamba Hali has not always played up to his potential thus far in his career but he has proven he is capable of being a game-changing force on defense. His +54.5 grade in 2010 was top among 3-4 outside LBs and he followed it up with a fourth-ranked +29.1 in 2011. Hali had an average season last year, but is entirely capable of regaining his dominance. Justin Houston started his rookie year with a few rough games, but improved during the second half of the season, including six sacks in the final five games. He emerged as one of the Chiefs’ best defenders last year by grading positively in every defensive aspect.
4. Blossoming Flowers
Brandon Flowers may not be a household name, but he has developed into one of the most consistent coverage cornerbacks in the league. His +40.9 coverage grade since 2008 ranks third, behind only Darrelle Revis and Charles Woodson. Flowers has allowed only 50.9% of passes thrown his way to be completed over the last four years. In 2012 he amassed only three interceptions and seven pass deflections, but that is due in part to fewer targets than recent years. There is no reason to think Flowers won’t have the same success again this year.
5. Tight End Depth
After missing the 2011 season due to injury, Tony Moeaki’s return was a subpar year (-4.0), and again his health is in question before the start of the season. When healthy, though, he has shown he can be one of the better blockers in the league while also being a red-zone target. He earned a +15.6 grade as a rookie, ranking him fifth overall in 2010. It remains to be seen where he stands with the coaching staff, as additions Anthony Fasano and rookie Travis Kelce are currently ahead of Moeaki on the depth chart. Fasano isn’t the biggest threat in the passing game, but he is a reliable receiver who was the only TE that didn’t drop a pass last year (minimum 30 catchable targets). He is also one of the best run-blocking TEs in the league with the third (+24.2) and fourth (+20.0) highest single-season grades since 2008. Add in the athletic Kelce, and the Chiefs should have plenty of depth and versatility that will allow Reid to use multiple TE sets to create mismatches against defenses.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Wide Receiver Options After Bowe
Dwayne Bowe, without a doubt, will be the focus of opposing secondaries. The Chiefs need someone to step up as a No. 2 wide receiver opposite Bowe as no other WR on the roster earned a positive grade last year. So far, former 2011 first-round pick Jonathan Baldwin (-2.4) has yet to prove he is ready to be the second option with just 41 catches and two TDs in his first two years. The Chiefs brought in veteran Donnie Avery (-10.4) as competition but he has had problems catching the ball as he was among the league’s worst with an 18.42% Drop Rate last year. Because of his speed, he is seen primarily as a deep vertical threat, which doesn’t seem to match up with Alex Smith’s below-average arm strength. Avery can stretch the field and open up receivers underneath, but will defenses prefer to cover the short routes and force Smith to go deep? Even in a pass-heavy offense featuring Andrew Luck last year, Avery was the only WR in the league without a touchdown on 20 or more Deep Passing targets. Dexter McCluster (-4.1) has shown glimpses of what his versatility can bring to the offense but has been inconsistent throughout his career.
2. Secondary Changes
Outside of Flowers, the rest of the secondary’s performance is uncertain regardless of the name recognition that exists. So far safety Eric Berry has not lived up to being the fifth overall pick in 2010, although that is due in part to missing the entire 2011 season. Berry earned a +0.2 grade and he allowed 63.5% of passes to be completed last season, both of which are average at best. He had a poor start to the season last year, but began to turn his performance around in the latter half. Kendrick Lewis has been a poor tackler throughout his career, with a missed tackle once every 3.6 tackle attempts last season. CBs Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson were brought in this offseason to help solidify the back end of the defense. Smith improved from his league-worst -13.2 coverage grade in 2011, but was still the 37th-ranked CB in coverage last year. He gave up 46 combined first downs and touchdowns when targeted, the most in the NFL. The Chiefs have potential in the secondary, but there is major room for improvement.
3. Dunta Robinson as a Slot Cornerback
Smith is more of a natural boundary defender so it is likely Robinson will end up in the slot when both are on the field. Robinson has played sparingly in the slot as of late, with just 75 snaps over the last four years (1.85% of total snaps). To put that in perspective, 60 players had more snaps in the slot last year alone. Robinson has been near the bottom five in pass coverage the past two years with grades of -7.3 and -11.2. With his adjustment to a role where he is likely see a substantial amount of his snaps, his performance will be key to the secondary’s success.
4. Defensive Line Pass Rush
The Chiefs ranked 27th in rushing the passer last year, their biggest area for improvement on defense. Every defensive lineman had a negative pass rush grade. Tyson Jackson had another disappointing season with just seven total pressures on 275 rushes, which put him last in Pass Rushing Productivity for 3-4 defensive ends. Rookie Dontari Poe performed just as poorly, last for defensive tackles. While he is more of a run-stopper, he has the ability to push the pocket and should improve as well. Mike DeVito was signed in free agency, but he is better at defending the run and will likely be a two-down player. Without any other major additions to the defensive line, any improvement will have to be through development or schematic changes, which puts more reliance on Hali and Houston to create pressure.
5. Alex Smith
Alex Smith is an upgrade at QB over the departed Matt Cassell and Brady Quinn, who combined for eight touchdowns and just two positive grades as starters last year. Smith is very accurate in the short-passing game and fairly mobile, which is a seemingly perfect fit for Reid’s West Coast offense. However, he still has some limitations in passing and won’t have San Francisco’s top-ranked offensive line from last year blocking for him. His arm strength is below average and hinders his ability to stretch the field. His average depth of target was 8 yards or less the last two years, among the lowest of all quarterbacks. In addition, the 49ers’ offense had the fewest pass attempts in the league over the last two regular seasons. How will Smith adjust to taking control of a pass-first offensive approach and being the most important role on offense?
What to Expect
Despite the Chiefs’ lack of success as a unit last year, they have many talented players. Andy Reid will provide the coaching leadership that the Chiefs have been lacking and should be able to get the most out of his players. Their progress on defense starts with the pass rush. If they can get more pressure on opposing QBs, they should easily improve on their league-low 13 takeaways last year. On the other side of the ball, Reid will utilize Charles more effectively, who should be even more explosive since he is fully healthy this year. Most of their offensive success depends on Alex Smith and whether or not he can be the QB the coaching staff needs him to be. Without a doubt he is an upgrade from last year’s signal-callers, but to what degree remains to be seen. He will be better than his first several years in San Francisco, but don’t expect him to duplicate his last two years either. Smith, however, cannot do it by himself and needs someone to step up as a consistent target other than Bowe. Ultimately, if the Chiefs can play to their talent level, then contending for a wild-card spot is not out of reach.
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