With the first leg of the offseason beginning this week in the form of the NFL Scouting Combine, we thought it to be an excellent time to break down the Kansas City Chiefs roster as to how it stands before any new additions or cuts.
These are the strengths and weaknesses of the current Chiefs roster.
Quarterback: We’ll start with the most important — and the most obvious — strength. We said for years that a team in today’s NFL has to get the quarterback right or nothing else they do matters. It’s a tremendous (and unfamiliar) feeling to say that the Kansas City Chiefs have the best young quarterback in the NFL and the league’s MVP. The phenomenon that is Patrick Mahomes positively affects every group on the offense — and arguably the defense and special teams as well. With Chad Henne, Chase Litton and newly acquired EJ Manuel behind him — barring a surprise — the team can ignore this position for the rest of the offseason.
Running back: This position group was a strength because of Kareem Hunt headed into last offseason. Now, we can see it’s still a strength — even without him. This offense needs balance, and it needs backs that can pass-protect and catch. But the Chiefs have also proven they can find running backs anywhere, plug them in, and roll forward. Damien Williams was tremendous in the latter part of the season, and Darrel Williams looks like he has a bright future as well. The Chiefs will have to decide whether they need Spencer Ware, Anthony Sherman and Charcandrick West. Each should be affordable enough to bring back if needed. Otherwise, we’re confident they can find another running back that can help — even if it’s a UDFA or UFA.
Wide receiver: Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins (when healthy) are among the league’s best starting receiver duos. There are some question marks after that, but at least the other in-house options are young and have some upside. Demarcus Robinson is the most accomplished of the group — which isn’t saying a lot — but he does provide a downfield passing option. Chris Conley has been a solid — albeit unspectacular — receiver for this team, but it feels like he’ll find a new home in free agency. Marcus Kemp and Gehrig Dieter have made their presence felt on special teams and should continue to get opportunities to earn bigger roles. Sammie Coates is the most recent signing, offering intriguing speed with disappointing production thus far. Perhaps a change of scenery (and QB) will make him into a factor? Either way, we could see the Chiefs adding an additional player to replace Conley in this group, but otherwise, it’s a strength that keeps developing under Mahomes.
Interior defensive line: We have to start thinking about the defensive line a bit differently now with the change in scheme — but the Chiefs certainly have some substantial pieces to the puzzle in house. The star of the group, of course, is Chris Jones — coming off his monster 2018 season. Allen Bailey, Derrick Nnadi, Justin Hamilton and Xavier Williams comprise a solid-enough group going into free agency, but a couple of changes are possible. The new coaching staff — notably Brendan Daly, who may bring a more disciplined, more strategic approach from New England — could significantly improve the results from this position group.
Pass rushers: It sounds like Dee Ford will be back, along with a developing Breeland Speaks and (a hopefully developing) Tanoh Kpassagnon. Justin Houston will have some questions about his contract, and we’ll see how that plays out, and whether they need to add via free agency/the draft. Overall, it is safe to assume that the team near the top of the NFL in sacks last season — one that just added a more aggressive defensive coaching staff — will be able to continue to count on pass rushing as a strength.
Tight end: This is both a strength and a need. With Travis Kelce — arguably the league’s best — in this position, you feel good about the production the Chiefs will get in 2019. But behind Kelce, there’s work to be done. Demetrius Harris is a free agent and a candidate to be upgraded. I’d expect the Chiefs to be looking for tight ends in the draft and free agency.
Coaching: Coaching matters in the NFL now more than ever. Salary cap constraints ensure some level of parity when it comes to on-field talent. But as players come and go, the same franchises with the same coaches find success over long periods of time. Teams that have a consistent coaching advantage put players in the position to succeed, and compete with other teams at a chess-match level. Those teams with great coaching staffs also attract good players who want to win and get better. Good coaches are one of the sure ways to ensure that they can do just that.
The Chiefs have been remarkably adept at developing and replacing offensive coaches as they move up the ranks. This offseason, they have also rebuilt the defensive coaching staff under Steve Spagnuolo. The recently announced group features future coordinators and head coaches, and guys with Super Bowl experience. Look for the Spagnuolo’s defense to be more of a flexible, game-plan-dependent unit as opposed to the more rigid, scheme-dependent one fielded under Bob Sutton.
Offensive line: It’s possible that we’re overestimating this group because of Mahomes’ ability to escape and make things happen — but it’s also possible that it’s still not a significant problem. There is a good amount of talent on the offensive line, with tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz locked in — along with Laurent Duvernay-Tardif at right guard. The other two spots could see some turnover this year. Austin Reiter and Andrew Wylie have both become solid contributors, and we can expect them to have roles in 2019. Cameron Erving will still be in the mix at whatever position the Chiefs see for him. Watch the development of Kahlil McKenzie. He’s quietly been working for a full year now and could be a factor. For now, the offensive line looks like a strength because the team has plenty of options, and the unit has proven competent enough to succeed.
Special teams: Stability is the name of the game starting with coach Dave Toub and the kicking battery. The returners have changed around, and I do think that the Chiefs will continue to draft with an eye on special teams ability, but it’s a near certainty that Uncle Dave will have his one-third of the team ready to roll next season.
Weakside outside linebacker (Will): As Craig Stout has noted here, this spot is tailor-made for Dorian O’Daniel. The Will has to be able to chase down running backs and drop into coverage. Typically, undersized but speedy linebackers that can tackle find their homes at this position in the 4-3. (Think early-career Derrick Johnson). In his second season, O’Daniel should thrive here as the starter. Depth is to be determined, but there is a chance players like Ben Niemann could stick as backups.
Cornerback: Kendall Fuller and Charvarius Ward are the only real stable pieces in this position group that have the potential to be better than they were in 2019. Tremon Smith has been solid as a kick returner but has not yet been a real contributor on defense. Orlando Scandrick and Steven Nelson are free agents, and very likely will be gone. Look for significant additions at the cornerback position — either through the draft, free agency or both. It’s arguably the team’s number one need, and they’ll invest in two or three new corners.
Safety: At safety, the Chiefs have players under contract like Eric Berry, Daniel Sorensen, and Armani Watts that might be part of the solution, but each player has his own question mark. Berry’s health continues to be a huge issue — and as a result, his contract is also a huge issue. Sorensen missed much of the season but did make impact plays upon his return. Watts seems to be well-regarded by Brett Veach and Andy Reid, so his return from injured reserve could be a nice boost. Jordan Lucas is a restricted free agent, and a guy we think can help. The new coaching staff will have some tough decisions around this group. It will be interesting to see what they decide. Until it gets sorted out, we have to assume safety will be a position of weakness and need.
Outside linebacker (Sam): Perhaps the most intriguing position on the new-look defense, we honestly have no idea who the Sam linebacker will be in 2019. There’s a solid case that Justin Houston could be a great fit if the Chiefs keep him around, but there isn’t another obvious candidate on the roster. Look for the Chiefs to address this spot early in the process, because an extra pass rusher who can also play in space is a vital role in Spagnuolo’s version of the 4-3 under scheme.
Middle linebacker (Mike): Unlike other positions of weakness, we do know who the starter will likely be in 2019: unless there’s a surprise, Anthony Hitchens will be the guy. But there’s a question attached: can he be a productive contributor to the defense — like he was in Dallas — or will we continue to be frustrated by his struggles in coverage, and his tentative approach to run defense? Until we see for sure, this is a potential — and substantial — weakness for the Chiefs.