The Kansas City Chiefs are less than a week away from the start of the most important period of their season. The regular season ups and downs are behind them. All that matters is how they play now.
The same goes for individual players. They know these games are where fans, coaches, and the front office will form significant impressions. When it comes to contract negotiations and offseason team interest, playoff performances hold more weight than regular season play.
And with a large contract for quarterback Patrick Mahomes looming, managing the team’s salary cap will become difficult.
So let’s look at five Chiefs players who have opportunities to prove whether they are worth keeping.
At $19.2 million, Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins had the highest 2019 cap hit of all NFL wide receivers. His production certainly did not match his price, with just 52 passes for 673 yards and three touchdowns during the regular season. It is an underwhelming box score — but with a closer look, it gets worse.
Watkins’ performance in the 40-26 Week 1 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars makes up a big chunk of his stat line; the 198 yards he gained that day make up 29% of his season yardage. In fact, that was the last time Watkins gained over 64 yards in a game. That was also the last time he found the end zone; all three of his touchdowns happened almost four months ago.
He has, however, made important contributions. He deserves credit for keeping himself healthy and on the field; while he did miss three games earlier in the year, he’s been available since Week 8. In the close 26-23 win over the Minnesota Vikings, he led the team in targets and had a few tough grabs. He also made some crucial catches in the big 23-16 win over the New England Patriots.
But the bottom line is that it’s basically impossible for Watkins to be back in 2020 without a restructure of his contract; once again, his $21 million cap hit will likely lead all NFL wide receivers. He’ll need to be nothing short of heroic in the postseason to be considered for retention. But he should be a key piece to the offense in the playoffs; in the last postseason, he led the team with 16 targets.
For much of the year, it has looked like a disappointing campaign for cornerback Kendall Fuller, who is set to hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent.
Leading up to the broken thumb he suffered in Week 6, Fuller had allowed a passer rating of 135.2 — the 11th-highest mark of any NFL cornerback. His injury forced the Chiefs to re-arrange the defense — and the changes very well may have aided the unit’s resurgence down the stretch. Rookie safety Juan Thornhill was given the responsibility to patrol the deep field more often, while safety Tyrann Mathieu’s usage in the slot was increased.
Since he returned in Week 13, Fuller’s role has been minimized — but it has also changed. Before his injury, he lined up as a slot cornerback on 82% of his snaps. Following his return, that dropped to 35%. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has been using him in a versatile fashion that takes advantage of his football intelligence and reliable tackling skills.
With the loss of Thornhill to an ACL injury, the secondary may see another round of re-arrangement. Fuller should get enough opportunities to prove whether the Chiefs should re-sign him or not; an impressive postseason could make the difference.
In a highly scrutinized Chiefs linebacker unit, soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Reggie Ragland has quietly been one of the steadiest performers down the stretch.
The start of the season wouldn’t have suggested it. Ragland was inactive for the first two weeks — and didn’t play more than 10 defensive snaps in any game through Week 6. But there was a noticeable shift in linebacker personnel in Week 7’s 30-6 win over the Denver Broncos — a dominating defensive performance that Ragland highlighted with a sack, two blitz pressures and a fumble recovery for a touchdown. Since then, Ragland has been a bigger part of the defense.
According to Pro Football Focus, Ragland has been the team’s highest-graded linebacker since Week 7. Although he’s had fewer total snaps than teammates Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson, 14.1% of his snaps against the run have resulted in run stops. Wilson is behind him at 8.6%, followed by Hitchens at 7.8%. In addition, the coaching staff has been making use of his pass rushing ability from the SAM linebacker position. Since Week 7, Ragland has led Chiefs linebackers pass rushing snaps with 61 — 26 more than Wilson and Hitchens.
In the postseason, he has an enormous opportunity to prove his worth. Given the strengths of the team’s potential opponents, the run defense will obviously be important. A good showing should strengthen the chance that general manager Brett Veach — the man who traded for Ragland — will keep him around.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has a track record of drafting and developing interior offensive linemen in Kansas City. He has a proven ability to succeed with subpar talent on the interior; two of the team’s three starting interior linemen are late draft picks on cheap rookie deals.
But the third is a guard with the NFL’s 11th-highest cap hit.
Like the others, starting right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif was a late-round pick that Reid developed. But instead of continuing to recycle the position, the Chiefs signed him to a five-year contract in 2017. His play this season has not matched the financial commitment the Chiefs have made in him.
In addition to missing two games with an injury, it’s been noticeable that Duvernay-Tardif has been pushed around this season. He has contributed to the lack of protection for Mahomes — which has led to the quarterback losing trust in the pocket.
The Chiefs could consider moving on from all three starters — but Duvernay-Tardif is the expensive one. His cap hit will be just under $9 million in 2020. Should the Chiefs decide to move on, it would save them close to $5 million.
But if the sixth-year veteran improves his play in the postseason, it could allow the Chiefs to make an easy decision: to maintain continuity along the offensive line. You don’t want too much turnover — but Duvernay-Tardif’s play in 2019 has been replaceable.
With a big performance in his final games, cornerback Bashaud Breeland has a chance to earn more money on a free agent deal — whether it’s from the Chiefs or not.
The 27-year-old — who will be an unrestricted free agent — has had issues with defensive penalties. But that has slowed in the second half of the schedule. He’s made crucial plays — including an interception of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and knocking away what would have been a game-winning pass at the end of that crucial game. His 77.4 passer rating allowed is the 10th lowest mark among all NFL cornerbacks with at least 500 coverage snaps. He also has the sixth-lowest number of yards per coverage snap.
It appears likely Breeland will be paid handsomely by another team as the Chiefs transition to a younger cornerback group — but the postseason could change that. A clutch stretch of play could solidify his role on the Chiefs defense for the foreseeable future — or jack up his price for a team with more money to spend.
Which Chiefs player has the best chance to prove his worth during the playoffs?
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