On Friday, NFL.com writer Grant Gordon published a training camp preview for the AFC West — which naturally included a look at the Kansas City Chiefs. Gordon set up three questions to answer for each team in the division.
Most important position battle: Defensive tackle
Chris Jones was as phenomenal as he was underrated in 2018. In a tour de force season, Jones set the NFL record for consecutive games with a sack and was somehow left without a Pro Bowl ticket. The trio of Jones, new defensive end Frank Clark (acquired from the Seahawks) and Alex Okafor (signed from the Saints) produced 32.5 sacks a season ago. The person who starts next to Jones could either buoy the Chiefs’ defensive line to another level or simply be the fourth guy on a pretty good line, plugging some holes and bringing home about 30 tackles. Derrick Nnadi returns after starting 11 games with 35 tackles as a rookie. He’ll be challenged by big-bodied, back-flipping rookie Khalen Saunders. Much like Jones, the Chiefs’ draft was underrated, as it went without a first-round pick, but second-round selection Mecole Hardman will make an instant impact in the receiving and return games, second-rounder Juan Thornhill is likely to start at safety, undrafted free agent Mark Fields is likely to contribute at cornerback and Saunders (picked in the third round) could earn a starting nod. At DT, it’s a battle for a starting spot, with the winner possibly providing a crucial cog in a Super Bowl favorite’s best defensive unit.
I agree that the position battle for the starter alongside Jones will be both interesting and important — and that Nnadi will be the man to beat at the position.
But where is Xavier Williams in this calculation? The fifth-year veteran is entering the last year of his contract. He wasn’t a flashy performer in 2018, but he had a solid year — considering that he only saw about a third of the defensive snaps.
Based on what we have seen, it doesn’t seem likely that Williams would seriously challenge Nnadi. But if Saunders can challenge, does that make Williams expendable? If the Chiefs believe Justin Hamilton is now a serviceable backup, he might be. Williams carries a cap hit of $3.6 million in 2019, but the Chiefs would save just half of that number against the cap if Williams is released.
I agree that Hardman will make an impact — but barring injuries, Friday’s announcement that Tyreek Hill will not serve a suspension should substantially reduce the chance Hardman will see many snaps on offense. His 2019 contributions are likely to be (mostly) limited to returning kicks.
I disagree that Mark Fields is “likely to contribute” at cornerback. But that isn’t a knock on Fields. Instead, it’s a reminder that Keith Reaser is in the cornerback room.
We know the team holds Reaser in high regard. It’s likely he would have made last year’s roster if he hadn’t suffered an injury in training camp — and his performance in the AAF probably increased his stock. Kendall Fuller, Bashaud Breeland and Charvarius Ward are the most likely cornerbacks to make the roster. It seems likely Reaser will grab another spot. So to even make the roster — much less contribute — Fields will have to get past not only sixth-round draft pick Rashad Fenton, but also second-year player Tremon Smith.
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Tyrann Mathieu, safety
By signing Mathieu, the Chiefs got themselves a stud at safety who can really play just about anywhere in the defensive backfield and hugely improve the defensive unit against the pass and rush. More than all that, though, Mathieu brings a swagger to the Chiefs that was absent. They had plenty of star power in their defensive ranks, but perhaps there was more pomp than pop, as a unit that featured the since-departed Justin Houston and Dee Ford (Eric Berry played sparingly) allowed 421 points, ninth-most in the NFL and the highest total among playoff-bound teams. It might be a bit far-fetched to hope for a stingy defense that consistently holds opposing offenses down, considering the high-octane thrill ride that is the Chiefs offense isn’t exactly the D’s greatest ally. Nonetheless, nothing turns a shootout into a blowout like a defense that brings the wood and brings some attitude making a stand. That’s what the Chiefs need, and that’s what Mathieu can provide.
This is a solid take on Mathieu. Over the last two seasons, the Chiefs clearly missed Berry’s on-field leadership — not to mention his knack for cleaning up mistakes made in front of him. Mathieu can do all of that.
Looming camp question: Can Patrick Mahomes continue his ascent to becoming the face of the NFL?
A year ago in this space, the question was whether Patrick Mahomes was ready to become the face of the Chiefs, with just one prior start under his belt. The man of a thousand throws answered that question with a most emphatic yes. When Mahomes unleashes his latest throwing feat, it’s a social media sensation. When Mahomes puts up numbers, they look more like the aftermath of a video game played at rookie difficulty rather than the chronicle-changing bliss they actually prove to be. Beyond the feats of wonder and statistical splendor, Mahomes is the reason the Chiefs are Super Bowl favorites. He’s most certainly a shooting superstar, so quickly has he dazzled, so quickly has he delighted fans in Kansas City and beyond. Will this star sustain or burn out? It must be asked. Can Mahomes lead the Chiefs and coach Andy Reid to the Super Bowl, a quest that was interrupted by the Patriots’ dynasty a season ago? And now that he’s no doubt become the face of his franchise, will the kid with an easy grin and a miracle for an arm take his place as the face of the National Football League?
On Friday evening, I was a guest on a radio show in Honolulu. The host asked me if I expected the Chiefs offense to regress in 2019. “There are a lot of people who think the Chiefs offense will regress this season,” I responded. “Statistically speaking, there’s an argument that’s what will happen. But I’m not sure Patrick Mahomes really fits into anybody’s statistical model.”
I’ll stick with that.