2016 season preview: Kansas City Chiefs
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The Kansas City Chiefs were one of the most compelling stories of the 2015 NFL season. After starting 1-5 and losing their best offensive player, the Chiefs won 10 straight regular season games, followed by their first playoff victory since January of 1994. The Chiefs began the offseason with a difficult offseason – with defensive stalwarts Eric Berry (88.0 PFF rating last year), Derrick Johnson (87.4), Tamba Hali (87.6), Sean Smith (83.8) and Jaye Howard (81.6) all set to hit free agency, along with emerging guard Jeff Allen (85.5). The Chiefs were able to retain all of said players, with the exceptions of Smith and Allen. A solid draft, the return of star running back Jamaal Charles (79.0), and uncertainty atop the AFC West make 2016 a season of opportunity in Kansas City. Below we summarize how the Chiefs’ personnel stacks up against the rest of the league, and preview each position group heading into 2016.
The solid-but-unspectacular Smith leads the way
Quarterbacks: 19th in PFF’s preseason rankings
The Alex Smith case has always been an enigmatic one – with play that is consistent enough to build a winning team around (as his teams’ records of 49-21-1 over the last five years would attest), but with a lack of high-end production that leaves you wanting more. After a slow start to the 2015 season, Smith graded positively in all but three games in the Chief’s 11-game winning streak. His elusiveness (which earned a 91.7 run grade in 2015, seventh among quarterbacks) has been a nice aspect of the Chiefs’ running game, as well as buffered against some of Kansas City’s shaky offensive line play since he took over in 2013 (although he was responsible for nine of his hurries last season). It will be interesting to see if the Chiefs can reach the upper echelon of the AFC with Smith as their quarterback, as they appear committed to him at least for the near future.
West and Ware did well, but this is Charles’ job
Running backs: Third
The amazing aspect of the Chiefs’ winning streak a year ago was the fact that it began after the season-ending ACL injury to Charles, who has been their best player offensively since 2010. While Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware graded positively as runners in his stead, our Mike Renner aptly wrote “It’s all about Charles (in 2016), though, when he’s healthy; no running back slips through tighter creases along the line of scrimmage, and Charles is a threat to take it to the house from anywhere on the field.” The big-play threat Charles represents has helped the Chiefs curb the offensive difficulties associated with lacking a big play threat on the outside (until Jeremy Maclin arrived in 2015).
Maclin and Kelce form an above-average 1-2 punch
Receiving corps: 28th
The addition of Maclin helped a wide receiver group that was historically inept in 2014 by hauling in 87 of 120 targets in the regular season, dropping just one pass and scoring eight touchdowns (good for a 115.6 passer rating on his targets). Having Maclin on the outside freed up space for tight end Travis Kelce over the middle as well. Kelce, while showing a decline in his overall grade from 2014 to 2015 – mostly due to run-blocking — was still a very dynamic tight end. His 16 forced missed tackles tied for the most among tight ends last season, while his 541 yards after the catch were second. Vying for snaps alongside Maclin are incumbents Albert Wilson, Chris Conley and De’Anthony Thomas, along with newcomers Rod Streater, Demarcus Robinson and Tyreek Hill. Streater is an especially interesting case – with the Raiders in 2013 he had the 26th-best receiving grade in 773 snaps, with a respectable 1.80 yards per route run despite significant limitations at the quarterback position that season.
Plenty of faces to replace two big names
Offensive line: 17th
The Chiefs lost guards Ben Grubbs and Jeff Allen this offseason, while acquiring tackle Mitchell Schwartz to pair with 2013 first overall pick Eric Fisher. Fisher has struggled playing both right and left tackle since arriving in Kansas City, although his grades have increased each year. If he can continue to improve, he and Schwartz (the sixth-highest-graded tackle in the league last season) can be a formidable tackle duo. Mitch Morse held his own last season at center, committing just one penalty, finishing 16th in overall run-blocking grades and 14th in pass-blocking efficiency (97.2) among centers. Guard remains an issue, with unproven players Zach Fulton, Larry Duvernay-Tardif, Jordan Devey, Jah Reid, Jarrod Pughsley and rookie Parker Ehinger looking to replace the production lost by the departures of Grubbs and Allen.
A strength continues to be a strength
The Chiefs’ front seven has been a strength of the team for the entire Andy Reid era, and with the return of Johnson, Hali and Howard, as well as the selection of rookie Chris Jones in the second round of the draft, the group appears set to carry the defense again in 2016. Superstar edge defender Justin Houston had knee surgery in the offseason, which is a concern, since 2014 first-round pick Dee Ford has yet to fully emerge as a third competent edge rusher. As PFF’s Ben Stockwell wrote, the Chiefs’ “defensive line is a force against the run, but is perhaps the most ‘old school’ 3-4 D-Line, offering very little in terms of a pass-rushing force.” This makes the healthy return of Houston, the league’s second-most productive 3-4 outside linebacker last season (with a pass-rushing productivity of 15.3), or the development of Ford (with a pass-rushing productivity of 10.0 last season), an issue of ultimate importance for the Chiefs as the 2016 approaches.
Berry’s big return continues
The return of Eric Berry from Hodgkin’s lymphoma last season was one of the best stories in NFL history. His play on the field earned him PFF’s Comeback Player of the Year award, as well as the team’s franchise tag this offseason. He and Ron Parker, who doubles as a slot cornerback in sub packages, provide the Chiefs with a solid duo at the back end of their defense. Cornerback is another issue, where the narrative surrounding Marcus Peters’ production (nine interceptions) last season overshadowed some of his warts (1,057 yards and eight touchdowns allowed in coverage), as well as the lack of proven talent to replace the loss of Sean Smith. Phillip Gaines (67.9) appears ready to return from an ACL injury, and the 2016 draft brought the Chiefs Keivarae Russell, Eric Murray and D. J. White. However, Smith (the second-highest-graded coverage corner in 2014) was an established corner, whose steadiness in 2015 allowed for some growing pains on the part of Peters. The Chiefs were not the same team defensively when he missed the first three games last season, meaning they will not only need steady improvement from Peters, but also some of the aforementioned newcomers to emerge, in order to ensure a level of play commiserate to that of 2015, where they used six defensive backs more than any other team in the entire NFL.