Pretty much everything about the 2019 Kansas City Chiefs offense was elite.
The unit scored the fifth-most points in the league. They accumulated the sixth-most total yards while turning the ball over at the NFL’s third-lowest rate. They even took it up a notch in the postseason by scoring 39 points per game.
If the Chiefs had one flaw, it was their lack of red zone success. In the regular season, they finished 20th in the NFL with just 54% of their red zone drives ending in touchdowns — although the rate increased to 80% in the playoffs. In the red zone, quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ completion percentage dropped from 66% to 52% — and his passer rating fell from 105.3 to 92.7.
Tight end Travis Kelce was — by far — the team’s most-used weapon inside the 20-yard line. He saw 30.2% of the team’s total red-zone targets, which was third-highest in the league. The closest Chiefs to Kelce’s 19 red-zone targets were running back Damien Williams and wide receiver Tyreek Hill, each of whom had seven.
Yet even with all those of opportunities, Kelce was not as effective as he could have been, catching only 37% of his red-zone targets — which was significantly less than the rest of the league’s top red-zone receivers.
In 2018, the Chiefs converted 72% of their red-zone drives into touchdowns. That was best in the NFL — and the team’s target distribution was significantly wider; five players had more than seven targets.
In order to improve the Chiefs success in the red zone, I believe it’s important to establish a complementary red-zone receiving weapon. So I went through every returning wide receiver’s red-zone targets from 2019, trying to determine which one should see more opportunities.
- Seven red zone targets
- Four receptions
- Three touchdowns
When you’re looking for a red zone threat, wide receiver Tyreek Hill might not be the type of player you’d typically choose. Yet Hill’s unique athletic traits allow him to excel in short-area situations.
One of the better red zone plays from 2019 pic.twitter.com/AyC0uPxpOD— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 19, 2020
The Chiefs love to utilize crossing patterns anywhere on the field. Here, they counter a heavy blitz by forcing the Hill’s defender — who is in man coverage — to follow him from one side of the field to the other.
Hill is arguably the fastest player in the NFL. As long as Mahomes can get the ball away, Hill will beat the defender to the corner of the end zone.
Unfortunately, this was the only deep crossing pattern that Hill caught in the red zone last year.
Even in the snow, it's just hard to stay with him. Hill came in second on the team with 7 targets despite only playing 12 games. pic.twitter.com/wUVV4oTrgE— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 18, 2020
Three of Hill’s seven red zone targets were similar to this play. Mahomes immediately sprints out to one side, using a route designed to get Hill open: a “rub out” concept. The outside receiver runs inward, “rubbing” Hill’s defender to give Hill further separation.
Hill’s game-changing speed and acceleration make him a very threatening weapon in short-yardage scenarios. The Chiefs should take advantage of that — even more than they already do.
- Six red zone targets
- Three receptions
- One touchdown
There’s a reason wide receiver Sammy Watkins was once a top-five pick in the NFL draft. He has impressive speed and quickness — but his size combined with that athleticism is what made him such a coveted prospect.
Could it be Sammy? He showed such ability in Week 1 last year against Jalen Ramsey. pic.twitter.com/GAsAKoZBka— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 18, 2020
In Week 1 — the best game of his career — Watkins showed off every skill he possesses.
In this play, he has the quickness to sell the slant route — and then the strength to separate from All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey back toward the sideline. He also shows the awareness to get deep enough into the end zone for the catch to be a score.
But Sammy has also shown a lack of catch strength in these situations. Week 4 had a few examples pic.twitter.com/UymhxaV1M3— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 18, 2020
On the other hand, Watkins has performances like this one in the Week 4 win over the Detroit Lions. Here we see his first red-zone target: a short crosser that comes open for a touchdown. But Watkins does not account for the trailing defender, allowing him to knock the ball out.
Another TD opportunity here. Not the greatest throw, but at some point, a big body like Sammy has to out-muscle the defender and bring this in pic.twitter.com/BSIZHvWV8W— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 18, 2020
Watkins also got a jump-ball opportunity later in the game — but failed to position himself for a chance to bring in the pass. His larger physique — and his athleticism — should allow him to make these kinds of plays, but I could find no examples of Watkins winning a truly contested catch in 2019.
I believe that inside the 20 yard-line, the Chiefs have utilized Watkins effectively. His red-zone targets do not need an uptick.
- Six red zone targets
- Two receptions
- One touchdown
If you only saw two plays from wide receiver Demarcus Robinson in 2019, you would think the Chiefs forced him into contested-catch opportunities every chance they got. One was a 39-yard touchdown catch against the Oakland Raiders in Week 2, where Robinson jumped and hauled in a pass while a defender was all over him.
How about Demarcus Robinson? He has examples of great jump ball ability and toe-tapping on the sideline, including this great effort pic.twitter.com/jUJZTWcGXq— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 18, 2020
The other was this spectacular catch against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 3. It isn’t a contested catch — but his ability to stretch out for the ball while also being aware of his feet on the sideline is a thing of beauty.
If you watched all of his other plays, you might understand why Robinson saw as many red-zone targets as anyone else.
Here, Robinson fails to earn legitimate separation, but still positions himself to make a touchdown reception. The ball is perfectly thrown, but Robinson does not seal off the defender effectively — and doesn’t have the hand strength to complete the catch.
If Robinson can improve his catching in traffic, he has the necessary athleticism to be a jump-ball or toe-tap receiver on red-zone passes. He just hasn’t had any more red-zone targets than these other Chiefs receivers.
- Two red zone targets
- Two receptions
- Zero touchdowns
He may have only seen one legitimate red-zone pass in 2019, but third-year receiver Byron Pringle made the most of it.
Pringle may have only seen 2 RZ targets in 2019, but one of them helped win the Week 4 game. Catch strength and the ability to absorb big hits are important traits for a RZ weapon pic.twitter.com/Wc9XFvnYav— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 18, 2020
With less than a minute left — and in need of a score — Mahomes hits Pringle on a short crossing pattern. Pringle secures the ball, bouncing off a few big hits to earn the first down — and set up the game-winning touchdown.
With a very small sample size in 2019, Pringle showed his catch strength — and the ability to run through tackles. In general, I believe he deserves more playing time — but especially in red zone and goal-to-go passing situations.
Dark horse candidate: Jody Fortson
After spending all of 2019 on the practice squad, 6-foot-6 wide receiver Jody Fortson is vying for an active roster spot amid a crowded receiver room. It’s unlikely that he makes the team; it just depends on how seriously the Chiefs are taking the search for another red-zone target.
Here — in Week 4 of the 2019 preseason — Fortson displays his freakish length and frame, while also showing off strong hands on a catch over his head.
The roster’s established depth makes it nearly impossible for Fortson to be a legitimate contributor this season. But he checks a lot of the boxes of a typical red-zone receiving threat.
The bottom line
I believe Hill needs to be utilized more often inside the red zone — which the Chiefs did frequently in the postseason. Pringle deserves more opportunities as well, while Watkins and Robinson already see enough red-zone targets. I also think Mecole Hardman should see fewer than the six red-zone targets he had in 2019.
However, we shouldn’t forget that the Chiefs did draft dynamic running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round. By himself, he could open up the red-zone offense — perhaps even becoming the Chiefs’ second-most threatening receiving weapon inside the 20.