Offseason to-do list for the Kansas City Chiefs
Despite a season-ending 27-20 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion, the Kansas City Chiefs had a very compelling season. Starting the year with a 1-5 record and a season-ending injury to starting running back Jamaal Charles (79.0 season grade), the Chiefs rattled off 10 consecutive regular season wins, as well as a postseason triumph against the Houston Texans, their first playoff victory since 1993. Kansas City’s strength remains its defense, which finished the season as PFF’s fifth-highest graded unit, helping them place third in total points allowed.
Justin Houston (91.6 overall grade, 1–100 scale) and Tamba Hali (87.2) were PFF Pro Bowlers as edge rushers, while Derrick Johnson (86.7) and Eric Berry (87.7) returned from injury and significant ailment, respectively, to post Pro Bowl seasons in the middle of the defense. Jeremy Maclin (82.0) supplemented an offense sorely in need of playmakers coming into the season, hauling in 87-of-88 catchable passes in the regular season (the best drop rate in the NFL) and eight touchdowns. D.J. Alexander and Jamell Fleming led a special teams unit that finished in the top six in PFF grades at the conclusion of the regular season, despite jettisoning its top two performers (Kelcie McCray and Josh Martin) from 2014.
In this article, we explore three priority areas for the Chiefs moving into this upcoming offseason, as they look to build upon their third consecutive winning season and second playoff birth in three years:
Upgrades along the offensive line
While the Chiefs finished a respectable 16th in the league in run blocking grades, quarterback Alex Smith (71.9) was under pressure on 37.3 percent of his dropbacks during the 2015 regular season, which was 10th-highest in the NFL. In response, his accuracy percentage dropped from 74.4 (13th in the NFL) to 55.8 (25th) when under pressure. To give Smith and the passing offense more of a chance moving forward, upgrades to the offensive line are necessary.
Despite the Chiefs’ overall success during his tenure, offensive line has been an issue in all three of Andy Reid’s seasons as head coach, with 2013 first overall draft pick tackle Eric Fisher (67.9) failing to grade positively in any of his three seasons. In 2015, he ranked 31st among tackles with a pass blocking efficiency of 94.7 during the regular season, allowing four sacks, two hits, and 27 total hurries. The other tackle spot rotated mostly between Jah Reid (36.2 in 760 snaps) and Donald Stephenson (34.6 in 715 snaps), with neither playing well. Guards Jeff Allen (85.6) and Ben Grubbs (70.9) graded out positively, but neither played over 600 snaps on the season, and were often replaced by Larry Duvernay-Tardif (50.1 in 843 snaps), who’s play left something to be desired. Allen, an upcoming unrestricted free agent, finished tied for the fifth-best run blocking grade (89.5) among guards. Rookie center Mitch Morse (72.2) graded out in the middle of the pack among centers, and figures to be in Kansas City’s long-term plans.
Getting Grubbs back from injury and re-signing Allen (the third-highest graded guard in free agency) should be sufficient at guard, as should the incumbency of Morse at center. Acquiring at least one starting-caliber tackle in free agency or the draft should be a significant priority this offseason. Solid options such as RT Ryan Schraeder (87.0) of the Falcons, RT Mitchell Schwartz (86.6) of the Browns, and LT Cordy Glenn (85.0) of the Bills exist in free agency, while first-round prospects Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame and Jack Conklin (only 11 pressures allowed in 2015) of Michigan State will be within the vicinity of their draft position come April. Manuel Ramirez (86.3) of the Lions, Amini Silatolu (78.3) of the Panthers, and Tony Bergstrom (76.4) of the Raiders are depth options in free agency for the interior of the line.
Retaining key free agents on defense
Berry, Johnson, cornerback Sean Smith (84.2), defensive linemen Jaye Howard (81.6) and Mike Devito (74.2), sub-package defensive backs Husain Abdullah (80.2) and Tyvon Branch (78.2) are all important contributors to the defense and will be unrestricted free agents this coming spring. While the Chiefs have some cap space (between $25–$35 million) to work with, certainly not all of these players will be retained.
While all four of the safeties in the Chiefs’ rotation (Berry, Ron Parker, Branch, and Abdullah) graded positively in 2015, Berry is both young (27 years old) and a true difference maker. In four full seasons, he has 10 interceptions, three defensive touchdowns, six sacks, nine QB hits, 21 QB hurries, and 141 stops. His retention should be Kansas City’s top priority in the offseason. While the Chiefs used Branch and Abdullah liberally in 2015, much of this playing time can be attributed to the loss of second-year nickel cornerback Philip Gaines (67.9) in Week 3. The return of Gaines makes Branch and/or Abdullah more expendable this offseason.
Smith has emerged as a solid cornerback since arriving in KC in 2013, finishing 11th and 12th among cornerbacks in cover snaps per reception the last two regular seasons. Smith’s 6-foot-3-inch length and reliability (he missed just two tackles and allowed only 126 yards after the catch in 2015) complement the gambling nature of the shorter (6-foot) Marcus Peters (73.8), whose nine interceptions as a rookie were often overshadowed by what he surrendered (1,057 yards and eight touchdowns) in coverage. The Chiefs’ struggles in coverage during his three-game suspension, along with the lack of similarly-skilled and obtainable options on their current roster, in free agency or in the draft, should put re-signing Smith a close second on the Chiefs’ offseason priority list.
Johnson (33 years old) is getting up there in age, but responded from a 2014 Achilles injury with his second-highest graded season as a pro, and is easily the Chiefs’ best inside linebacker. His 0.56 yards per coverage snap was the best amongst NFL inside linebackers in 2015. Ramik Wilson (60.3 in 130 snaps) and Josh Mauga (67.1 In 527 snaps) would probably take over if Johnson were to leave, with the former being inexperienced and the latter a liability in two seasons as a starter. PFF’s latest mock draft has the Chiefs taking Scooby Wright of Arizona, which would be another option to either complement or replace Johnson in 2016.
While Howard and Devito represent roughly 1,100 snaps of positively-graded play along the defensive line in 2015, the Chiefs play enough 2-4-5 nickel alignment to absorb the loss of one or both of them, especially with the presence of solid linemen Dontari Poe (76.7) and Allen Bailey (74.8) under contract for 2016.
Wide receiver help to complement Maclin
While the addition of Maclin helped the Chiefs put to bed their historic wide receiver ineptitude from 2014, more help is needed in order to move the offense forward in 2016. Albert Wilson (64.5) did force nine missed tackles on 42 receptions (on 69 targets), with just three drops, and while Chris Conley (60.0) caught 23-of-40 targets with two touchdowns and just two drops, their collective productivity would be better-suited for a third or fourth receiver role. Jason Avant (61.9) made some big catches in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, but he will be an unrestricted free agent this spring. While the best free agent option at wide receiver (Alshon Jeffery, 94.2 overall grade) will probably be outside of the Chiefs’ price range, options exist for potential difference makers in the draft, where Leonte Carroo (4.11 yards per route run) of Rutgers and Sterling Shepard (second-best receiving grade in the nation) of Oklahoma should be available in the vicinity of the Chiefs’ draft position in April.
The Kansas City Chiefs broke through in many ways in 2015. From fighting through a very slow start, to winning their first playoff game since 1993, the franchise proved that they belong in the AFC contender conversation moving forward. Upgrades along the offensive line and at wide receiver, along with retaining some of their key defenders, should help them continue to fulfill the promise present since the Andy Reid era started with nine straight wins to begin the 2013 season.