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The Chiefs’ weakest position groups heading into St. Joseph

Spoiler Alert! The situation is not great — but it could be worse.

BRONCOS VS CHIEFS Photo by Joe Amon/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Welcome to part two of our position group rankings. In the first one, we ranked the Kansas City Chiefs’ strongest position groups as training camp begins. Now we’ll rank the weakest ones.

When evaluating positional strength, we will take four things into account:

  1. Star power
  2. Depth
  3. Past performance
  4. Projected performance

The groups that need to step it up


Kick Returners

Kansas City Chiefs vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Super Bowl LV Set Number: X163521 TK1

If Tyreek Hill were still returning punts, Kansas City would not be in this situation. But if he were still returning punts, that would mean he never developed into a top-three NFL wide receiver.

Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle handled most of the kick return duties in 2020.

League-wide last year, 31 players returned 10 punts or more. Out of these players, Hardman ranked 23rd, averaging a pedestrian 7.0 yards per punt return. Throw in a muffed punt in the AFC Championship game, and the picture looks a little bit worse. This is a big year for the third-year return man. Assuming that he is again used for punt returns, it’s time for him to step up and prove he is consistent — and possesses more than straight-line speed.

When we look at kickoffs, the situation seems a little better. Pringle’s first kick return of the year came in Week 7 against the Denver Broncos. He took it to the house for a 102-yard touchdown return. Out of all players who returned 10 kickoffs or more, he ranked first in the NFL, averaging 32.4 yards per return. The problem was that he only returned 10 kickoffs last year. Hardman handled most of the kick return duties the rest of the time, averaging just 20.4 yards per return.

Kicker and Punter

NFL: Super Bowl LV-Kansas City Chiefs vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Not to pile onto special teams — but when the expectation is that you will compete for a championship every year, then you can’t afford to leave points on the field. That’s what Harrison Butker did at an alarming rate last year, missing six extra points during the regular season.

That’s the equivalent of losing a touchdown over the course of the year— on extra points!

With Butker, it was a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In 2020 he made 25 out of his 27 field goal attempts, including going four for four on-field goals over 50 yards. It’s not often that you have a placekicker who makes field goals at an all-pro level while missing extra points at a rate that ranks near the bottom of the league.

The Chiefs were high on undrafted University of Florida punter Tommy Townsend coming into 2020 — so much so that they moved on from their 15-year veteran punter Dustin Colquitt. Possessing a big leg, one Townsend 67-yard punt tied for the sixth-longest of the season — but like Butker, the power of Townsend’s leg is not the issue. Instead, it’s his accuracy. He ranked 21st in average yards per punt (45.0). He did slightly better at pinning the ball inside the 20-yard line, managing this feat 20 times. That ranked 16th in the league — right in the middle of all punters.

Special teams coach Dave Toub has his work cut out for him in 2021. His units must perform better.


The better of the bad groups


Linebackers

NFL: Preseason-San Francisco 49ers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

This linebacker group starts with its veteran leader Anthony Hitchens, a solid contributor since coming to Kansas City via free agency in 2018. The problem is that his tackle totals have gone down every year that he’s been in Kansas City.

One could argue that this is the most crucial year of Hitchen’s career. He’ll be on the wrong side of 30 after this season, with a cap hit of $12.7 million. The Chiefs could save $8.5 million if they were to move on from him in 2022.

Many think this was the presumed logic behind drafting Nick Bolton in the second round of this year’s draft— that the Chiefs are preparing for life after Hitchens. Bolton will still be on his rookie contract through 2024. Looking at his tape, he plays his best when he can play at the line of scrimmage and attack the running game.

The Chiefs also have Willie Gay Jr. on his rookie deal through 2023. Gay showed flashes of promise last season — but with the limitations COVID-19 placed on offseason programs, he sometimes struggled to grasp defensive coordinator Steve Spagnolo’s system. That led to Ben Neimann being on the field for far more snaps than most fans found comfortable.

Hitchens steps up in what amounts to a contract year in a perfect world, totaling 120 tackles or more. Gay makes full use of the offseason to absorb the scheme, allowing the coaching staff to trust him enough to be on the field — where his athleticism can shine. And Bolton easily makes the leap to the pros, becoming an immediate contributor.

Cornerbacks

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

L’Jarius Sneed was a welcome surprise in 2020. He showed an ability to play both on the boundary and in the slot. He had three interceptions as a rookie and posted the league’s third-lowest completion percentage allowed: 46.5%.

He was also one of the better pass-rushing defensive backs in the league. Going into Year 2, expectations for him could not be higher. NFL.com named him to its All-Under-25 team.

On the other boundary, the Chiefs brought back Charvarius Ward on a one-year tender. In three years with the Chiefs, Ward has two interceptions and 19 passes defensed. He is long and athletic enough to justify his starting position on the boundary, but he’s never going to be the guy who coaches can put on an island with the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver — and trust that he will get the job done.

Kansas City’s slot corners possess a whole lot of potential that we hope pans out. Mike Hughes and Deandre Baker are both former first-round picks fighting to redefine themselves in the second act of their young careers. Both Rashad Fenton and BoPete Keys are young players that the Chiefs liked enough to get with late-round picks.

Among these, Fenton has shown glimpses of talent, making us think he probably has the inside track on the fifth cornerback spot.