Chiefs have a playoff roster... and an unproven quarterback
The Patrick Mahomes era officially started March 14 when the 2018 league year started and the Chiefs sent quarterback Alex Smith to Washington in exchange for cornerback Kendall Fuller and a 2018 third-round pick.
It was, in some ways, a foregone conclusion given Smith’s high cap number after the Chiefs traded two first-round picks -- 2017 and 2018 -- to Buffalo for the chance to move up and draft Mahomes last spring. Still, for a franchise that made the playoffs only three times between 1998 and 2012 then reached the postseason in four of five years led by Smith, it’s a risk.
It’s especially risky because the Chiefs’ defense was abysmal last season, and that was before cornerback Marcus Peters -- arguably its best player -- also was sent packing during the offseason. That would seem to place added pressure, and with less margin for error, on Mahomes and the offense as Kansas City seeks a third straight AFC West crown.
Turning the reins over to Mahomes is a calculated risk. He’s probably the most physically gifted passer Andy Reid has ever coached. It will be interesting to see how Reid’s offense evolves to fit Mahomes’ style of play, which includes lots of deep shots. During a cameo as the starter in last year’s regular-season finale, Mahomes made some titillating throws many other NFL quarterbacks simply can’t. He’s clearly an elite talent, but can he also process the game at an elite level and limit turnovers?
Mahomes certainly will have help. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill is one of the fastest players in the league, a home-run threat with every touch and seemingly an ideal target for Mahomes’ big right arm. Hill is still not a polished route runner, but he should get the chance to run under plenty of deep balls and flash the peace sign to despondent defenders.
He’ll be paired with free-agent signee Sammy Watkins. Watkins’ production the last two seasons -- 2.9 catches and 44.5 yards per game in 23 appearances for the Bills in 2016 and the Rams last season -- doesn’t justify the $48 million price tag over three years, but a healthy Watkins (circa 2014-15) makes the passing game terrifying for opposing defenses.
Travis Kelce remains among the NFL’s top handful of tight ends, giving the Chiefs’ new starting QB another nearly unstoppable weapon. Losing Albert Wilson hurts the depth at receiver, but Chris Conley and Demarcus Robinson, who showed uncanny chemistry with Mahomes during the 2017 preseason, provide fine reserve options.
Kareem Hunt returns to lead a run game that should help the Chiefs’ offense be among the NFL’s most balanced and explosive. Hunt wore down as last season wore on, not unexpected for a rookie back, but he’ll benefit from a year of experience, a full professional offseason and the return of Spencer Ware. It was Ware’s preseason knee injury that opened the door for Hunt to become the Chiefs’ starter.
Tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz are solid, if unspectacular, but the interior group got pushed around last season. Injuries to center Mitch Morse and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif were a major factor. The Chiefs need those two to stay healthy and for left guard Parker Ehinger to get healthy and capitalize on his potential. The loss of backup Zach Fulton via free agency went somewhat unnoticed, but it’s a massive blow to a group that already lacks quality depth beyond Cameron Erving and Bryan Witzmann.
The Chiefs were gashed on runs inside the tackles and unable to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks, and fans and local media called for defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s job. Instead, Sutton and his 3-4 scheme are staying, and Peters was jettisoned in a move that had the fan base howling mad. To be sure, Peters was mercurial -- which the Chiefs knew before drafting him -- but he also was highly productive, with an NFL-best 19 interceptions during his first three seasons. The move was part of a major secondary overhaul, which appears to signal a change back to an aggressive press-man style.
The Chiefs let three others cornerbacks -- Kenneth Acker, Phillip Gaines and Terrance Mitchell -- leave via free agency and cut free safety Ron Parker. The return of strong safety Eric Berry, who went down in the 2017 opener with a torn Achilles, is a good start in replenishing the back end. He’s one of the NFL’s best at his position when healthy and, as a cancer survivor, one of the most inspirational players in the game. But he’s also 29 years old and returning from another major injury. Don’t be surprised if fourth-round pick Armani Watts challenges for the starting free safety job.
The Chiefs also were thrilled to land Fuller in the Smith trade. He’s one of the top slot corners in the NFL and will get a crack at replacing Peters, along with fourth-year veteran Steven Nelson and former Raider David Amerson, a free-agent signee with chops in press coverage. Keith Reaser and sixth-round pick Tremon Smith also could challenge for reps as the Chiefs appear to be prioritizing ball skills over size under GM Brett Veach.
Despite parting ways with all-time leading tackler Derrick Johnson, the Chiefs feel good about their starting inside linebackers -- Reggie Ragland, who flashed in limited action last season, and Anthony Hitchens, who joined the Chiefs on a five-year deal worth $45 million. Ragland is a thumper the Chiefs need to shore up the run defense, while Hitchens is the type of every-down linebacker who has been missing. Third-round pick Dorian O’Daniel should fit in nicely for Ragland in sub-packages.
Up front is where the most improvement is needed -- and, yes, we’re including the Chiefs’ outside/rush linebackers in that group. Oft-injured Justin Houston and serially disappointing Dee Ford, who is coming off season-ending back surgery, must provide a consistent pass rush. Second-round pick Breeland Speaks was brought in as a versatile reinforcement, but he’ll need time to develop.
Rising star Chris Jones and underappreciated Allen Bailey return and form the nucleus of a strong defensive end group with reserves Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Jarvis Jenkins. Jones has more pass-rushing chops, and Bailey sets a formidable edge in the run game. Inside, the Chiefs now turn to Xavier Williams, a 325-pound native of suburban Kansas City, in the quest to replace Dontari Poe. Williams must create push and occupy blocks to provide space for the ends and outside linebackers to work. Expect third-round pick Derrick Nnadi from Florida State to quickly find a spot in the rotation.
Hill is so dynamic and such a game-breaker, he’ll remain involved on special teams as a punt returner and in select situations as a kick returner. The Chiefs also re-signed speedy De’Anthony Thomas primarily for his special teams ability.
Dustin Colquitt -- the franchise’s all-time leader in punting average, net punting average and punts inside the 20-yard line -- also re-signed during the offseason and will continue to handle punting duties. Harrison Butker, who was a revelation after being signed off Carolina’s practice squad, returns as one of the top young kickers in the NFL. He made 38-of-42 field goals as a rookie, including a franchise-record 23 straight.
Coming off consecutive AFC West titles for the first time in franchise history, the Chiefs remain contenders to win the division, but the rest of the division is looking stronger. Mahomes has to prove he can manage an NFL offense -- protect the football, make good decisions and master Reid’s verbiage-intense playbook -- as well as Smith did for five seasons. The Chargers, Broncos and Raiders all improved significantly on paper. With a first-year starter at quarterback and a retooled defense, the Chiefs face plenty of questions entering 2018. It remains a hopeful time for the Chiefs Kingdom, but Mahomes has a long way to go to live up to the hype.