In Andy Reid the Chiefs trust. Kansas City has reached the playoffs in three of four seasons since hiring Reid as head coach — a remarkable turnaround after four postseason appearances in the 17 previous seasons. General manager John Dorsey also was part of this string of success, but he was unexpectedly let go in late June. Brett Veach, formerly the team’s co-director of player personnel, was promoted in July to take Dorsey’s place.
Last season, the Chiefs broke Denver’s five-year stranglehold on the AFC West and are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time 1995. Kansas City should sustain that momentum for at least one more season behind a ball-hawking defense and good-enough offense, but the question is whether that formula can succeed in the playoffs. So far, it hasn’t.
It’s been 48 years since the Chiefs reached the Super Bowl, and the clock is ticking on several key veterans — including quarterback Alex Smith (33) and linebackers Derrick Johnson (34) and Tamba Hali (33).
Smith is a polarizing figure in title-starved Kansas City despite a 41-20 record in four seasons. Only New England’s Tom Brady (47) and Seattle’s Russell Wilson (45) have more wins during that span. Still, fans openly wonder if Smith, who is regarded as a risk-averse game-manager, can win a Super Bowl. Smith threw for a career-high 3,502 yards last season, but his touchdown (3.1) and interception percentages (1.6) were his worst during his time in Reid’s offense. Nonetheless, Smith’s age and big cap number, not fan handwringing about his style, drove the Chiefs’ decision to draft a quarterback — Texas Tech gunslinger Patrick Mahomes II — in the first round for the first time since 1983. Mahomes isn’t ready to start, but the Chiefs are gambling that, after studying under Smith and learning from Reid for at least one season, he can become a franchise quarterback. Meanwhile, Smith remains the best hope for a Super Bowl run in the short term.
First-team All-Pro Travis Kelce, who brings most of the swagger to Kansas City’s offense, headlines the pass-catching corps and shows no signs of slowing down. He led all NFL tight ends with 1,125 yards last season, but the Chiefs need more production from their wide receivers. Chris Conley (44 catches for 530 yards) or Albert Wilson (31 catches for 279 yards) will need to take a step forward after the release of Jeremy Maclin. Maclin, who missed four games last season with a groin injury and posted career lows of 44 catches, 536 yards and two touchdowns, was let go to clear salary cap space and eventually signed by Baltimore.
The wild card is Tyreek Hill, a speedster who racked up 61 catches for 593 yards with six scores and added 267 yards with three touchdowns rushing plus incredible special-teams value. It will be a treat to watch Reid deploy Hill now that the coach has a feel for all that he can do.
Hill will remain a factor in an otherwise pedestrian ground game. Running back Spencer Ware was fine with 214 carries for 921 yards and three touchdowns, but backup Charcandrick West averaged only 3.3 yards on 88 carries. That’s a big reason why Kansas City invested a third-round pick in Toledo’s Kareem Hunt. Don’t be shocked if Hunt assumes a feature role now that the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, Jamaal Charles, is gone.
Kansas City’s line — Eric Fisher, Zach Fulton, Mitch Morse, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Mitchell Schwartz — returns intact. Parker Ehinger, who started four games at left guard last season before suffering a torn ACL, could supplant Fulton.
The Chiefs have been a top-10 scoring defense four consecutive seasons. Kansas City finished seventh last year (19.4 ppg) and led the NFL with 33 turnovers despite losing three key starters — linebackers Justin Houston (knee), Derrick Johnson (ruptured left Achilles) and defensive end Allen Bailey (torn pectoral) — to injury.
The Chiefs’ $101 million man, Houston, led the NFL with 22 sacks in 2014, but a knee injury cost him 16 games the last two seasons. He returned early from a February 2016 ACL repair, but Kansas City expects the best version of the QB menace in 2017.
On the other side in Sutton’s 3-4 system, Hali is no longer an every-down guy, but he still has a place with his motor and locker-room presence in rotation with Dee Ford, who had a breakthrough season with 10 sacks.
Johnson — who ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon during the 2014 season-opener — didn’t miss a beat coming back from injury the first time and is determined to do it again. He’ll be paired inside with a seasoned version of Ramik Wilson, who was released after training camp and spent six weeks on the Chiefs’ practice squad before starting the final 11 games and finishing third on the team in tackles (76) in 2016.
The return of Bailey — a hulked-out 5-technique who averaged nearly 40 tackles and five sacks in two previous seasons as a starter — bolsters a unit that lost Pro Bowler Dontari Poe. Nose tackle Bennie Logan, who spent the last four seasons in Philadelphia, was signed to anchor the three-man front. Regarded as a fierce run-stopper, Logan (6'2", 315) isn’t as hefty as Poe (6'3", 346), but he could thrive in Kansas City’s 3-4 system. He averaged 56 tackles in 2014-15 in a similar scheme, but his production lagged when the Eagles’ new regime switched to a 4-3 last season. Second-year pro Chris Jones (28 tackles, two sacks as a rookie) is the frontrunner for the other end spot, but the progression of second-round pick Tanoh Kpassagnon (Villanova) bears monitoring in training camp.
The Chiefs’ secondary is in great shape, anchored by five-time Pro Bowler and two-time reigning first-team All-Pro strong safety Eric Berry, who signed a massive offseason contract extension less than two years after beating cancer. Berry has averaged 78 tackles and three interceptions in his five full NFL seasons with a propensity for game-changing plays, such as the point-scoring INTs at Carolina and Atlanta last season that turned around Kansas City’s fortunes. Once a coverage liability, Berry has improved against the pass but remains at his best as a downhill-charging thumper paired on the back end with the versatile Ron Parker, a converted cornerback turned steady and underrated free safety.
It’s up for debate whether Berry or Marcus Peters, one of the NFL’s top shutdown corners, is the team’s best defensive back. Peters has snagged a league-best 14 interceptions since joining the NFL, allowing Kansas City to play more man coverage than any other team in the league. He’s highly competitive, and the Chiefs feed off that fire.
Steven Nelson logged the third-most snaps for Kansas City’s defense last season opposite Peters. He’s something of a Swiss Army Knife, sliding inside for the nickel sub-package with Terrance Mitchell as the second boundary corner. Mitchell was productive with six passes defended in seven games. Phillips Gaines and Kenneth Acker provide veteran depth.
The Chiefs have the league’s most dynamic return specialist in Hill, who scored an NFL-best three return touchdowns and led the league with a 15.2-yard punt return average as a rookie. Hill — who has clocked a 4.24-second 40-yard dash — was a controversial addition in 2016 because of a prior conviction for domestic assault and battery by strangulation of his then-pregnant girlfriend in December 2014, but there’s nothing controversial about his game-breaking ability.
Punter Dustin Colquitt boasts a net average of better than 40 yards in each of the last six seasons and hasn’t had a punt returned for a touchdown since 2012. Fourth-year Tulane product Cairo Santos is the most accurate kicker in Chiefs history at 84.3 percent.
Staying healthy is imperative, but Reid has a deep roster at his disposal and has shown he can navigate teams into the playoffs. But the Chiefs are 1-3 in the postseason under Reid and must advance further or risk a minor rebuild, turning the reins over to Mahomes as part of a youth movement. Expect the lame-duck Raiders to mount the biggest challenge to the Chiefs’ AFC West supremacy.