Two seasons ago, the Chiefs snapped a half-century championship drought, so it might seem strange that returning to the Super Bowl should be considered a disappointment. But the sight of Patrick Mahomes scrambling endlessly and futilely for four quarters behind a patchwork offensive line during a touchdown-free offensive performance certainly soured an otherwise terrific 2020 season.
The walloping Tampa Bay put on Kansas City also highlighted the importance of fixing Mahomes’ protection, which GM Brett Veach addressed via free agency, a blockbuster trade and the draft. The Chiefs’ offense is better and should be more balanced with a more imposing offensive line. If Kansas City’s pass rush rediscovers its mojo and the team stays healthy, the Chiefs deserve to be Super Bowl favorites again. In other words, the rest of the AFC’s mission remains the same in 2021: Chase down the Chiefs or concede a third straight Lamar Hunt Trophy.
Mahomes has dealt with ankle injuries and a dislocated kneecap in recent years. He also briefly got knocked unconscious during the AFC divisional-round win over Cleveland, a game in which he suffered a foot injury that required offseason surgery. Protecting him is paramount. Kansas City wisely committed to Mahomes through 2031 last offseason and wisely committed to trying to keep him healthy for that long this offseason.
The entire starting offensive line will be new in Week 1. After releasing starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, the Chiefs rebuilt, signing former Patriots guard Joe Thuney to a five-year, $80 million deal and trading a first-round pick to Baltimore for left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. Thuney was widely regarded as the top left guard available in free agency — a smart, versatile and tough player as well as a clear upgrade for Kansas City. Brown, a two-time Pro Bowler who is entering the final year of his contract and expects to get paid handsomely, is an undeniably powerful man. There is some concern if he’s agile enough as a pass blocker to be the long-term solution at left tackle, but for this season Brown and Thuney are locked in as starters on the left side. Competition is thick along the rest of the line. Former Rams center Austin Blythe will battle second-round pick Creed Humphrey at center. Humphrey has the tools to stick around the NFL for a long time. The right guard battle features 2019 starter Dr. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who returns from a COVID-19 opt-out, and Kyle Long, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Bears who came out of retirement to join the Chiefs. Lucas Niang, who opted out of his rookie season, should beat Mike Remmers for the right tackle job.
As much as Mahomes loves the new line, second-year running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire may benefit even more. He totaled 1,100 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns last season, but he struggled between the tackles behind an offensive line that had trouble generating push or creating running lanes. The NFL may see more of his talent in 2021 if Edwards-Helaire gets more open-field chances against linebackers and safeties. Darrel Williams and Jerick McKinnon complement Edwards-Helaire well as backfield depth.
Mahomes’ two favorite targets, speedy wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce, were both All-Pros in 2020 — combining for a ridiculous 192 catches, 2,692 yards and 26 touchdowns. The receiving corps gets thin from there. Oft-injured Sammy Watkins is now in Baltimore, but Mecole Hardman Jr., Demarcus Robinson and Byron Pringle have yet to emerge as legit No. 2 receivers behind Hill. Maybe fifth-round pick Cornell Powell can. Powell was a late bloomer at Clemson, but he’s competitive, productive and a good route-runner. Behind Kelce, the Chiefs added an intriguing piece in fifth-round pick Noah Gray, a tight end from Duke with experience at halfback. It’ll be interesting to see how his presence impacts newly acquired fullback Michael Burton’s spot on the roster.
Free agency and injuries took a toll on the Chiefs’ pass rush in 2020, prompting defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to gamble more — his blitz usage went up nearly seven percent — for less production. Kansas City had 32 sacks in 2020 compared to 45 in 2019.
Defensive tackle Chris Jones and defensive end Frank Clark get paid the big bucks and need to put up the big numbers. Both were slowed by injury in 2020, which hurt their production, but positional depth on the edge might be a bigger issue. Taco Charlton, who played well before a season-ending ankle injury last year, returns and shores up the rotation, but some combination of unproven Tim Ward, second-year developmental end Mike Danna, fourth-round pick Joshua Kaindoh and veteran Demone Harris needs to emerge as reliable and effective rotational rushers.
Inside, former Seahawks defensive tackle Jarran Reed can help the pass rush, if healthy, and relieve pressure on the constantly doubled-teamed Jones. Derrick Nnadi and Tershawn Wharton round out Kansas City’s two-deep defensive tackle rotation.
Perhaps the biggest upgrade for the defense comes at linebacker with the addition of second-round pick Nick Bolton, a ferocious tackler with tremendous instincts. He has a bright future as a new-age NFL middle linebacker, but he’ll start his career at weakside linebacker and learn the ropes from veteran middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens. That shifts Willie Gay Jr., a 2020 second-round pick, to strongside linebacker in place of Damien Wilson, who signed with Jacksonville in free agency. Undoubtedly, the Chiefs are more athletic at the linebacker spot and should be better in pass coverage as a result.
In the secondary, Charvarius Ward returns after an uneven 2020 season along with rookie sensation L’Jarius Sneed as the projected starting cornerbacks. Both are big, long and physical, but Deandre Baker could provide intriguing competition. He suffered a gruesome broken femur in the Chiefs’ regular-season finale, but the former first-round pick injects top-tier talent into the defense if he’s healthy. As the slot corner, Rashad Fenton developed nicely in his second season, and big things are expected in Year Three. Strong safety Tyrann Mathieu, a versatile and productive two-time All-Pro in his two seasons with Kansas City, returns as the heartbeat of the defense. The Chiefs also re-signed Daniel Sorenson, a thumping box safety, and hope former second-round pick Juan Thornhill, a rangy ball hawk at free safety, returns to form now that he’s fully recovered from a 2019 torn ACL.
Kicker Harrison Butker’s struggles on extra points — he missed six of his 54 tries last season — masked a career-best performance on field goals. Butker connected on 25-of-27 field goals, including all four tries from 50-plus yards, with a pair of franchise-record 58-yard bombs. Punter Tommy Townsend had a mediocre rookie season, punctuated by a lousy Super Bowl, but he’s got a good pedigree. James Winchester returns at long snapper. Return-wise, Hardman gets the first crack, but Hill remains a dangerous option on punts, and Pringle could push for the kickoff job.
Winning the Super Bowl is all that matters for the Chiefs. It was true last year and will be again in 2021. That’s the franchise’s reality with Mahomes at quarterback. Managing a 17th game and keeping key players healthy will be important, but no more so than for any other team with Super Bowl ambitions. The Chiefs will get pushed by the Los Angeles Chargers in the quest for a sixth straight AFC West championship, but Kansas City will be the favorite once again. Reid won’t be around forever, and the championship window is wide open right now, so the Chiefs will feel some urgency to notch another Super Bowl title and burnish their credentials as a budding dynasty.