Over the years, football analytics site Football Outsiders has compiled an annual ranking of NFL teams based on the talent of their players under the age of 25. It’s always been a useful tool to predict which teams could be the most successful in future seasons. More recently, it’s also been a good predictor for short-term success — especially when teams have managed to acquire a quality quarterback in the draft and have the ability to improve the rest of their roster while the quarterback is on their rookie contract.
For 2019, Football Outsiders has made some modifications to its ranking methodology, factoring in the cost and length of the contracts given to each team’s young players. So teams with youthful, productive players still on their rookie contracts will tend to rise in the rankings, while teams that have already extended the contracts of those players (or will soon be doing so) will tend to fall.
This year’s list was published this week in an ESPN In$ider article written by Scott Spratt. The Kansas City Chiefs are ranked third — behind the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts — and above the Houston Texans and New York Giants.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
2018 ranking: 2
Blue-chip players: Patrick Mahomes, QB
Notable graduated players: Tyreek Hill, WR; Chris Jones, DE; Reggie Ragland, LB
The Chiefs land one spot behind the Colts despite getting there in a polar-opposite fashion. With Hill and Jones each turning 25 before the start of the 2019 season and Hunt being released, the Chiefs are left with just one young blue-chip player. But what a player Mahomes is. He earned his 2018 MVP on the strength of 5,000 passing yards and 50 passing touchdowns but was just as historically great with 40.1% DVOA and 2,039 DYAR, both comfortably first at the position. And he will still be 23 years old at the start of the 2019 season and have three years left on his rookie contract.
Mahomes could have propelled the Chiefs to the top spot in the under-25 rankings if he had any help from the team’s 2018 draft picks, all six of whom played defense. Instead, they contributed just 17 combined starts and minimal production. Cornerback Kendall Fuller is still 24 and is an effective run-stopper, and former Jets linebacker Darron Lee immediately became the team’s most accomplished young defender when they traded for him in May for a sixth-round pick in 2020. The Chiefs have to hope that Day 2 safety Juan Thornhill and defensive tackle Khalen Saunders can make quick contributions and help turn around the No. 26 DVOA defense from 2018.
They might not look great on paper, but there can be optimism about the Chiefs’ defense because defensive performance is less consistent from year to year than offensive performance. Meanwhile, the Chiefs’ offense and special teams were so good that they ended up as the No. 1 overall DVOA team in 2018 despite the defensive limitations. This offseason, the team added second-round rookie Mecole Hardman, who has the same makeup of speed and quickness that Hill has. And kicker Harrison Butker is the best under-25 asset at his position, hitting on 62 of his 69 career field goals and leading the league in gross kickoff value in 2018.
Other notable rankings from the list include the Los Angeles Chargers (ninth this year — up from 13th in 2018), Oakland Raiders (14th from 19th), Denver Broncos (23rd from 29th), New England Patriots (31st from 32nd), Los Angeles Rams (24th from 1st) and New Orleans Saints (22nd from 3rd).
Spratt noted that last year, the Rams were at the top of the list and made it all the way to the Super Bowl. “Perhaps,” he said, “this year’s top team can follow suit with a similar formula.” I’m not (yet) convinced either the Browns or the Colts are yet ready to make that step, but their presence at the top of the list does make it clear they will be teams to watch in the seasons to come.
The adjustments Football Outsiders made to their methodology are most starkly reflected in the steep drop the Rams and Saints took from last season. Both of these teams — particularly the Rams — were widely viewed as teams that were making “win now” moves in 2018. It almost worked for both teams. Now, however, they have to face the consequences of their actions.
But the Chiefs — despite making big moves for veteran players in free agency — remained near the top of the list. To me, this suggests that general manager Brett Veach is being very wise about how he is using the team’s resources to acquire talent to succeed in both the short and long term.
There are those who argue the Chiefs are (or should be) in “win now” mode. But I think this list — with its revised methodology — is evidence the Chiefs are doing no such thing; they’re still keeping their eye on the long term. Like their fans, they want short-term success — but they’re not willing to sacrifice their long term goals in order to get it.
Whether you believe the Patriots dynasty is the result of Bill Belichick’s coaching genius or Tom Brady’s talent — or both — one thing is clear: they showed that even in the age of the salary cap, it is still possible to build a team that can be successful for a very long time. The Chiefs are on a road that could do just that.
Are the Chiefs in "win now" mode?
This poll is closed
Yes — but they shouldn’t be
No — but they should be