We are less than a month away from the Kansas City Chiefs starting up training camp for the 2021 season. I’ve been killing time in this dead period by reviewing aspects of the 2020 Chiefs; now, I’m compiling a list of the 20 best Chiefs players and ranking them based on their individual talent — combined with how vital they are to the team’s success in 2021.
To be clear: no contract implications, no long-term outlook — just 20 players ranked by how talented and essential they are to the team right now. I started with the five players ranked 20 through 16:
20. Center Creed Humphrey
The only rookie in the top 20 squeezes into the very bottom of the rankings.
The importance of the center position is enough to be a strong consideration for the list, and this year’s second-round pick and three-year starter at Oklahoma is a part of the Chiefs’ dramatic wave of upgrades on their offensive line. He (rightfully) doesn’t get mentioned like his teammates Orlando Brown Jr. and Joe Thuney as improvement is discussed, but it’s fair to expect him to be an upgrade over Austin Reiter.
From what there was to see at Chiefs’ organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamps, Humphrey is the starting center. He’ll have dependable, veteran guard play on either side of him — which can only help him in his play-to-play responsibilities. It also allows him to progress as a player faster.
19. Linebacker Willie Gay Jr.
Gay edged out a solid group of young, situational defensive players at the fringes of this list: defensive end Taco Charlton, defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton and cornerback Rashad Fenton were all considered for this spot.
I believe Gay has the highest individual talent ceiling of that group. His top-notch athleticism helps him in coverage — arguably the most important skill a linebacker needs in the modern NFL — but he also has the burst and range to be a playmaker in run defense. Charlton and Wharton are one-dimensional players mainly used in pass-rush situations, while Gay has the ceiling to contribute on all three downs as soon as this year.
Gay has publicly expressed a better understanding of the mental side of things this offseason while also feeling recovered from his late-season knee injury. We’ve also heard good things from beat reporters that had access to practice.
He has a chance to be a difference-maker in 2021.
18. Right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif
After a year off the football field, the starting right guard from Super Bowl LIV is back in prime position to continue where he left off. The practice injury to offseason acquisition Kyle Long leaves Duvernay-Tardif as the clear option on the right side for Week 1.
When we last saw Duvernay-Tardif, he was a key reason the Chiefs’ offensive line played so well in the three-game championship stretch of 2019. He played every snap, helping the offense churn out 120 rushing yards per game.
He had some ups and downs in recent seasons with injuries affecting his play — but the most recent time he played football, he was a very worthy starter.
When you mix in his experience in the system, this should be another upgrade over a starter from last year: Andrew Wylie. Duvernay-Tardif just turned 30 years old, which is a good age for a guard. We don’t know how a season off will affect him — but who knows? Maybe there were benefits for a big guy at his age.
17. Defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi
Entering his contract year, Nnadi comes in as the fourth-highest defensive lineman on this list. They’ve packed the unit around him, but he still has a crucial, individual role in the defense.
Nnadi’s superior strength and low center of gravity allow him to be a very dependable run-stopper from the interior — whether it’s lining up in the A-gap and stonewalling double teams or over-powering a blocker off the snap to disrupt the ballcarrier’s path. He may not give much as a pass-rusher, but his strength leads to effective bull rushes at times.
The addition of defensive tackle Jarran Reed could certainly affect Nnadi’s playing time — but either way, he’s a player that will be available all 17 games and will give you good snaps on early downs. He’s an essential piece to the puzzle at a position that can never have enough depth.
16. Cornerback Charvarius Ward
Ward is suddenly the most experienced player in the Chiefs’ cornerback room. With a Bashaud Breeland return not working out, Ward has the most starts among current cornerbacks under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
He’s played his role generally well in the two seasons. Spagnuolo values physicality and the ability to press receivers off the ball, and Ward’s unique length makes that skill a strength of his. He covers the flat zone well and is a reliable tackler on the edge of the defense.
There have been some bad days for Ward — specifically when he’s matched up with receivers with top-notch speed. His failure to keep up has been attacked by players like Las Vegas Raiders’ Henry Ruggs III in Week 5 last season. The staff understands his limitations and has mostly put him in advantageous positions.
Spagnuolo has acknowledged that Ward and L’Jarius Sneed are the top two at the position, while a clear third cornerback has not emerged. Ward will get every opportunity to prove his worth in his contract year; there is a gauntlet of opposing wide receivers on the schedule.