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.
10. Anthony Hitchens
The Chiefs’ defensive play-caller cracks the top 10 as he enters his fourth season in Kansas City. He’s been the starting MIKE linebacker for the entirety of the Steve Spagnuolo era.
Spagnuolo has often expressed Hitchens’ value as an on-field extension of the coaching staff. You can see it before every play: based on the offensive formation, he’s adjusting defensive line alignments and pointing at off-ball players to communicate responsibilities. From one play to another, Hitchens’ intelligence plays a big part in the success of the Chiefs’ defense.
This has been apparent when Hitchens has had to miss time — when backup MIKE linebacker Ben Niemann has stepped in. The defense has been less likely to be in the right position.
For some of his flaws, Hitchens plays a vital role in the team’s defense.
9. Clyde Edwards-Helaire
The second-year running back has a chance to elevate into a much more significant role in 2021. He had a promising rookie season — earning 1,100 yards from scrimmage — but there’s reason to believe a big breakout is coming.
Statistically, the Chiefs relied upon Edwards-Helaire in the passing game in 2020, giving him 54 targets — but as I pointed out in my film review of his receiving abilities, many of those targets were dump-offs or check-downs instead of plays designed for him. In 2021, I believe we’ll see more emphasis on getting him the ball in the passing game, which will put him in space and let him use his elusiveness.
Such an uptick in receiving opportunities — combined with the much-improved offensive line — could turn Edwards-Helaire into Kansas City’s third offensive weapon behind big-time playmakers Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.
8. L’Jarius Sneed
After as impressive a rookie season as we’ve ever seen from a fourth-round pick, Sneed has suddenly become one of the most important players on the team. His ability as a coverage defender, blitzer, tackler and slot defender make him the third-highest defensive player on my list.
Once Sneed returned from his early-season collarbone injury, he was the team’s primary slot defender — and he excelled in a role that is undeniably one of the NFL’s most challenging positions. Nowadays, offenses attack the slot with their best weapons, forcing defenses to put one of the best defensive backs in that spot.
Sneed’s ability to fill that role allows teammates like safety Tyrann Mathieu to move around the formation — rather than be relied upon to cover the slot. Even when the Chiefs are expecting a pass. his willingness to make tackles at the line of scrimmage helps the defense stop the run, too.
He’s a rising star in this league. If he takes a step from his first year to his second, he could be a Pro Bowl candidate.
7. Joe Thuney
The theme of the 2021 offseason has been how much the Chiefs improved the offensive line. That started with the signing of former New England Patriots left guard Joe Thuney — a second-team All-Pro in 2019 and a player who is widely regarded as one of the best at his position.
It’s true: guards may be the least important of the three types of offensive linemen. The Chiefs have historically used late-round draft picks or cheap veterans to fill these roles. It was clear that quarterback Patrick Mahomes didn’t trust his interior linemen to build a wall in front of him last season. Bringing an elite guard into the mix helps solve that problem.
Thuney’s presence can also help young interior linemen — like rookies Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith — progress. As he starts next to Humphrey, he can help the rookie with any communication or recognition issues.
No matter how you slice it, Thuney will play a significant role in the success of the Chiefs’ offense — especially when he’s playing alongside the next player on my list:
6. Orlando Brown Jr.
The drastic improvement of the offensive line was solidified when the Chiefs traded for former Baltimore Ravens tackle Orlando Brown Jr. Kansas City’s newest left tackle may not have the same level of top-end experience that Thuney has, but his position makes him the more important player.
The Chiefs have long understood how critical it is to have dependable, top-level offensive tackles as the bookends of their line. In 2013, they spent the first overall selection on Eric Fisher — and in 2016, signed former right tackle Mitchell Schwartz to a big free-agent deal. Now that their runs have come to an end, the Chiefs quickly addressed the position with a 25-year-old Pro Bowl player (who has a high ceiling) as the long-term solution at left tackle.
As good as Fisher was in his position, Brown’s bigger frame and superior strength give him a chance to take it a step further. This season, he’s clearly the team’s most important offensive lineman.