The Chiefs for the most part in 2017 enjoyed a successful offensive season thanks to their starting quarterback and offensive coordinator. Now Kansas City hopes to have an even bigger year without Alex Smith and Matt Nagy.
Coach Andy Reid and Nagy’s replacement, a promoted Eric Bienemy, have gone to work with second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs found their feature running back in Kareem Hunt last year, but now they are trying take the passing game to the next level and being more aggressive to compliment Mahomes’ big arm.
Smith is not the only familiar name gone. Defensively, linebacker Derrick Johnson signed with the rival Raiders in free agency, and cornerback Marcus Peters was dealt to the Rams. That’s quite a shake-up for an established AFC playoff team.
Below are the Chiefs’ notable depth-chart changes on both sides of the ball as training camp approaches.
The most surprising element of Smith’s career season at age 33 was the fact that he led the league in both adjusted yards per attempt (8.6) and passer rating (104.7). He delivered more explosive pass plays without compromising his efficiency.
In Mahomes’ lone rookie start, the Chiefs’ meaningless regular-season finale against the Broncos, the young QB came through with a 51-yard bomb early in the game — a hint of how special he can be with his arm talent. Kansas City sitting him behind Smith was the right decision; it allowed Mahomes to refine his other attributes beyond his cannon.
Mahomes did enough as a rookie backup to indicate his time to be the starter had arrived. Reid and his staff are confident Mahomes can mentally handle anything thrown at him, and they have been floored with how quickly the QB has settled into the offense.
As good as Smith was last season, that production was his ceiling. In relation, Mahomes’ upside is through the roof, and Reid is the right coach to harness that arm and keep the big-play ability high while also minimizing the mistakes that come with throwing deep into coverage.
Mahomes’ quick maturation is bound to lead to the subsequent hastened breakout, especially with established and improved support from skill players.
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The Chiefs know exactly what they have in Hunt, a back who can do everything well, similar to Jamaal Charles in his prime. But they go into the season with a potentially new understudy plan behind their second-year stud.
Spencer Ware is not fully back from the major knee injury that opened the door for Hunt’s emergence. With Hunt dominating touches last season, Charcandrick West saw his backup role turn into just a handful of carries.
That led the Chiefs to sign former Dolphin Damien Williams and former Cardianal Kerwynn Williams. Damien is a coach-pleasing pure backup and an asset in passing situations as a willing blocker and receiver. Kerwynn got a crack at some early-down power work in Arizona while David Johnson was injured.
If Ware is not healthy and West continues with his ineffectiveness, then Williams and Williams will form the more comfortable committee behind Hunt. Given its recent backfield injuries, Kansas City was smart to double down on insurance for its insurance.
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The Chiefs getting Sammy Watkins was a huge win in free agency. After cutting Jeremy Maclin last year, their passing game tended to get predictable, especially during their midseason slump. The team was short on legitimate threats behind the trio of Hunt, Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce.
Watkins represents a major upgrade over Albert Wilson to complement Hill. Watkins’ limited numbers in his only season with the Rams (39 catches, 593 yards) were misleading; he was a vital scoring threat (8 touchdowns) who proved he can be a tough target over the middle when needed. Most importantly, with his history of foot injuries, he managed to play in 15 games.
Watkins’ presence in LA was key to the team being able the spread ball around to Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. That bodes well for the production of Hill and Kelce in KC.
Watkins also has not lost his calling card as a speedy deep threat, as he averaged 15.2 yards per catch last season. Hill was at 15.8 with Smith last season. Now factor in a more aggressive downfield approach with Mahomes.
The Chiefs will be more about stretching the field, and with Watkins and Hill drawing attention, things should open up better for Hunt and Kelce on short-to-intermediate routes. Reid says Mahomes has been acing his work against the blitz in practice, so should defenses attempt to rattle the young QB with extra pressure, the Chiefs will be prepared to respond with big plays against single coverage.
Rarely can one splurge in free agency rev up an already dangerous offense, but that’s the case for Reid and GM Brett Veach. They knew they needed a player like Watkins to accelerate the return on their Mahomes investment.
The second level of the Chiefs’ defense will look weird without Johnson and the edge-rushing presence of Tamba Hali. Kansas City’s notable additions to replace them are former Cowboys starter Anthony Hitchens and rookie second-round pick Breeland Speaks.
Hitchens will start next to Reggie Ragland, who last year turned out to be a great preseason pick-up. Ragland racked up tackles as a strong run defender, but he struggled in coverage, which remained a strength for Johnson.
Not only does Hitchens bring coverage ability, but he’s younger than Johnson (26 vs. 35) and offers more active legs to support Ragland against the run. The Chiefs now have a stronger backbone in the middle of their defense compared to what they had entering training camp last season.
Justin Houston remains a stud at outside linebacker. But fellow incumbent starter Dee Ford, a 2014 first-rounder, needs to rebound from an injury-riddled 2017 season of low production after posting 10 sacks in 2016. Frank Zombo is 31 and needs to be relegated to special teams.
That means the Chiefs need significant contributions from both Speaks and last year’s second-rounder at the position, Tanoh Kpassagnon, who is learning how to better use his massive frame (6-7, 280 pounds). Speaks was a versatile defender at Ole Miss; he played tackle, end and linebacker and produced at each position.
With his ability to get to the QB from different angles, Speaks has an opportunity to earn the most snaps opposite Houston.
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Kendall Fuller arrived in Kansas City via the Smith trade, and the Chiefs already know he’s an elite, young nickel corner. The question is whether Fuller can develop into the kind of corner who can play more regularly outside in the mold of Peters.
The Chiefs are confident Fuller has the shutdown skills needed for the outside, and he can remain an asset inside against three-wide sets. The only place where Fuller might be a drop-off from Peters is in run support.
The No. 2 corner position in Kansas City features a battle between newcomer David Amerson, who had a shaky final season with the Raiders derailed by a foot injury, and Stephen Nelson, who was so-so as a third-year player last season. If Amerson can rediscover his 2015 form, the Chiefs will be better overall at corner. Nelson can then become a strong outside third corner. If Amerson falters, the door will open for Keith Reaser to get significant snaps and build upon a good finish to last season.
Eric Berry will return at one starting spot after his recovery from the torn Achilles that cost him 15 games last season. Although Berry turns 30 in December, there’s no indication that he will slow down as a dominant playmaker. The big question mark is the free safety position.
Given Berry’s consistent thumping against the run at strong safety, the Chiefs need to play the free safety with the most playmaking upside against the pass. Last season, Daniel Sorensen filled in well for Berry in coverage, but he was atrocious against the run and would be a liability if moved to free safety. The Chiefs moved on from Ron Parker, who was bad all-around.
While Sorensen holds off the likes of Robert Golden and Eric Murray as the top swing backup, the player to watch is rookie fourth-rounder Armani Watts.
Watts, an experienced stat-sheet stuffer from Texas A&M, was a ball hawk against speedy competition in the SEC. Thanks to the clean-up ability of Berry, the Chiefs can live with the potential of youthful mistakes as Watts aggressively chases big plays downfield.
In the same way the Chiefs will rely on Mahomes offensively, they need their defensive youth to serve them well in 2018, too.