It's Super Bowl or bust for reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs
It's been 50 years since the Chiefs played in a Super Bowl. That's more than two Patrick Mahomes lifetimes, but the reigning NFL MVP's brilliance last season had KC within an overtime coin flip of playing for the Lombardi Trophy. As Mahomes prepares for his encore, it's clear that the Chiefs' rallying cry is Super Bowl LIV or bust.
Toward that end, Kansas City retooled its defense, the Achilles heel last season. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was fired, and Steve Spagnuolo, a longtime assistant under coach Andy Reid in Philadelphia, was brought in to give the defense a championship-worthy overhaul. The Chiefs dumped the bloated salaries of a pair of franchise icons, outside linebacker Justin Houston and safety Eric Berry, reloading instead with defensive end Frank Clark and safety Tyrann Mathieu as the new leaders of a remade unit.
Mahomes led the Chiefs to a franchise-record third straight AFC West title by throwing for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns last season. Peyton Manning in 2013 is the only other QB in NFL history to throw for at least 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in a season. The Chiefs offense scored the third-most points of any team in NFL history (565) last season, and Reid spent the offseason in the lab tinkering with plays now that he knows all that Mahomes can do. That has to terrify opposing defensive coordinators.
The Chiefs' high-octane offense won't fall off much despite the loss of two key playmakers. Running back Kareem Hunt was released in November after video surfaced of him appearing to shove and kick a woman, and All-Pro wide receiver Tyreek Hill's future with the team — and in the league — is in serious jeopardy amid a child abuse investigation.
The Chiefs don't have a running back of Hunt's ability on the roster, but the stable isn't empty. Reid's system has thrived with agile backs who catch well out of the backfield. Damien Williams, sixth-round pick Darwin Thompson and undrafted rookie James Williams fit that bill. Kansas City signed Carlos Hyde to a tidy one-year contract as an option between the tackles alongside second-year back Darrel Williams. The team also re-signed fan favorite and special teams star Anthony Sherman at fullback.
Losing Hill and his unique skill set probably was a bigger blow. The Chiefs also lost Chris Conley in free agency. Sammy Watkins is now the team's top wide receiver, but durability remains a concern. Second-round pick Mecole Hardman from Georgia offers intriguing speed, but the converted cornerback spent only two years at the position. He'll need time to develop his route tree, leaving the Chiefs to hope that Demarcus Robinson rises to the occasion in a contract year; that Byron Pringle is more than a 2018 preseason wonder; and/or that Sammie Coates is a diamond in the rough.
With Rob Gronkowski's retirement, Travis Kelce is the AFC's top tight end. He's averaged 90 catches, 1,166 yards and seven touchdowns over the last three seasons. Mahomes may lean on him even more. The Chiefs signed Blake Bell in the offseason, but the drop-off behind Kelce, who underwent offseason ankle surgery, is immense.
Along the offensive line, the Chiefs are OK — albeit thin in spots — despite losing starting center Mitch Morse and talented, versatile interior lineman Jordan Devey in free agency. Starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz are solid. Starting guards Cam Erving and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif are serviceable and will be pushed by the Chiefs' top rookie last season, Andrew Wylie. Austin Reiter will get the first crack at replacing Morse.
Sutton's 3-4 base defense is gone. Houston and Berry were cut. Outside linebacker Dee Ford was traded to San Francisco for a 2020 second-round pick. But it's hard to blame Reid and GM Brett Veach for the housecleaning after the Chiefs finished in the bottom 10 in the NFL last season in total defense, passing defense, rushing defense and scoring defense.
Enter Spagnuolo, a former Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator, and his aggressive 4-3 scheme. The Chiefs spent a lot of draft capital in 2018 — the first four picks a year ago were end Breeland Speaks, tackle Derrick Nnadi, linebacker Dorian O'Daniel and safety Armani Watts — almost as if a switch to a 4-3 base was inevitable. It limited those players' impact last season but may ease the transition in 2019.
The pass rush, which tied for the NFL lead with 52 sacks last season, was the lone bright spot. On the surface, it didn't make sense to jettison Houston and Ford, but those losses were mitigated after Kansas City pulled off the trade for Clark with Seattle. The price was steep — a 2019 first-round pick, a 2020 second-round pick and a five-year contract extension at $105.5 million — but Veach and the Chiefs believe Clark is arguably the most complete defensive end in the NFL. If it nets a Super Bowl, it's a steal.
Kansas City also added Alex Okafor in free agency and traded for Emmanuel Ogbah, who should be motivated in a contract year, at defensive end. Defensive tackle Chris Jones led the team with 15.5 sacks last season, and the new scheme should maximize his strengths — quick feet and a knack for penetration. The defensive tackle rotation also includes second-year run stuffer Nnadi, veteran Xavier Williams and uber-athletic third-round pick Khalen Saunders — a group loaded with depth, talent and promise.
Linebacker is more of a question mark. Settling on a middle linebacker will be the first priority. Reggie Ragland will get a chance, but he may not be an ideal fit with limited athleticism and coverage skills. Perhaps Anthony Hitchens, who flourished at the Mike in Dallas, will find a home there and bounce back from a disappointing 2018 season after signing a big-money deal last offseason.
The Chiefs signed another former Cowboy, Damien Wilson, who should fit well at the strong-side linebacker spot, with second-year linebackers O'Daniel and Ben Niemann as possibilities at weak-side linebacker (unless Hitchens lands there). Camp battles and special teams will flesh out the depth with free agent additions Jeremiah Attaochu and Martrell Spaight in the mix.
Mathieu slides into Berry's role as strong safety and leader of the secondary. He and Clark are expected to set the tempo in terms of ferocity. Jordan Lucas and Juan Thornhill — a rangy, long-armed and versatile second-round pick from Virginia — will compete for the other starting safety job, with Watts providing depth.
Cornerback is arguably the weakest position for the Chiefs. Kansas City is banking on Kendall Fuller, who was acquired last offseason in the Alex Smith trade, to return to form as an elite nickel corner. Veteran addition Bashaud Breeland and Charvarius Ward, who showed promise in a late-season cameo as the starter last year, will get the first crack at the outside corner roles, with Keith Reaser and Tremon Smith in the mix to provide depth. Rashad Fenton projects as a developmental nickel corner.
Taken as a whole, it's fair to believe that the pieces are in place for an improved unit. But will it improve enough to make the Chiefs a true title threat? Those answers won't come until September.
The club's longest-tenured player, punter Dustin Colquitt, returns along with placekicker Harrison Butker and long snapper James Winchester. Smith flashed potential last season as a kick returner, though others surely will get a crack at the job in training camp, while Hardman figures to replace Hill at punt returner.
The Chiefs expect to be a Super Bowl contender despite a vastly improved AFC West. They will be if Mahomes doesn't regress too much and the defense improves, even marginally.