As teams across the league pondered their final cutdowns on Monday, ESPN released its annual list of the Top 100 NFL players for 2021. Seven Chiefs — more than any other team except the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — made the list.
For the second consecutive season, the Chiefs’ quarterback was at the top.
1. Patrick Mahomes • QB • Kansas City Chiefs • 2020 rank: 1
Mahomes was under pressure too often last season, particularly in Super Bowl LV. The Chiefs appear to have fixed the problem by rebuilding their offensive line, which could feature five new starters. Mahomes had surgery to repair turf toe shortly after the Super Bowl, but showed no ill effects during training camp. — Adam Teicher
Signature stat: The Super Bowl LV loss was only Mahomes’ second below-average QBR game of his career. In the regular season, he has had a QBR of 50 or better in 98% of his games, which is far ahead of the next best QB who debuted since 2006 (Lamar Jackson at 76%).
What they are saying: “The unique thing about coaching Pat is that before you have an opportunity to correct him in the film room, he’s already letting you know, ‘Hey, on this play I screwed this up’ or ‘On this play, I should have done this.’ Those are the things that you love about him.” — Eric Bieniemy, Chiefs offensive coordinator
2021 projection: 4,896 passing yards, 37 TDs, 10 INTs (328 yards/4 TDs rushing)
...then came his favorite wideout.
5. Tyreek Hill • WR • Kansas City Chiefs • 2020 rank: 11
Hill’s standing as his team’s No. 1 receiver hasn’t been in doubt since he became a starter. After losing Sammy Watkins, the Chiefs have no other wide receiver who has been a regular for an entire season. That increases Hill’s importance to the Chiefs as their only proven wideout. — Adam Teicher
Signature stat: Hill has 19 career touchdowns of more than 50 yards, including 12 receptions, five kick returns and two rushes.
What they are saying: “He’s got the speed, and he has the quickness, but it’s the technique and fundamentals that he uses to get open. There are a lot of fast and quick guys in this league, but to play wide receiver, you’ve got to have the rest of it, and he’s worked very hard at getting that.” — Andy Reid, Chiefs coach
2021 projection: 1,369 receiving yards, 10 TDs
...followed by his favorite tight end.
10. Travis Kelce • TE • Kansas City Chiefs • 2020 rank: 17
Kelce turns 32 in October but showed no signs of a career decline last season, instead having his best statistical season. Coach Andy Reid has said he has no plans to limit Kelce’s snaps this season in response to the longer, 17-game regular season. In fact, Kelce said he spoke with Reid and asked for more reps, not less. — Adam Teicher
Signature stat: Kelce is the only NFL tight end to have five straight 1,000-yard seasons — the streak is active and ready to continue.
What they are saying: “Everyone here has watched him grow before their eyes. ... He still comes to work every day wanting to get better, so you love that part of him. He brings energy every day.” — Andy Reid, Chiefs coach
2021 projection: 1,322 receiving yards, 11 TDs
Then one of the team’s defensive leaders appeared.
25. Tyrann Mathieu • S • Kansas City Chiefs • 2020 rank: 36
Mathieu is not only versatile — he played at least 100 snaps last season as a safety, linebacker and slot corner — but he does it all well. The Chiefs frequently send Mathieu on a blitz, and he had a pass rush win rate of 28.6% last season. He also had six interceptions, plus another in the playoffs. — Adam Teicher
Signature stat: Mathieu is the only player with at least 300 snaps at slot corner and safety in a season over the last five years. And he has done it each of the last three seasons.
What they are saying: “Tyrann is the ultimate professional and really has been his entire career in the league and definitely with his couple years with us. I know he’s going to be at his very best this year.” — Clark Hunt, Chiefs chairman
2021 projection: 77 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble
...followed by that unit’s most well-regarded player.
41. Chris Jones • DT • Kansas City Chiefs • 2020 rank: 29
Jones will play more — though probably not exclusively — as an edge rusher this season. That should give him the opportunity for more sacks. The Chiefs will look for favorable matchups with Jones and their other defensive linemen, and he could wind up posting significant sack numbers at multiple positions. — Adam Teicher
Signature stat: Jones’ pass rush win rate last season was 20.9% for snaps when he lined up on the edge and 20.3% for plays when he lined up on the interior.
What they are saying: “My favorite gap is any gap I can get to the quarterback in. But I feel good rushing off the edge.” — Jones
2021 projection: 7 sacks, 48 tackles, 2 forced fumbles
Then came one of the team’s new faces on the offensive line.
97. Joe Thuney • G • Kansas City Chiefs • 2020 rank: NR
The Chiefs may have five new offensive linemen who didn’t play for them last season, but Thuney is the key piece. The potential to have three rookies starting on the line plus a left tackle in Orlando Brown Jr. who is trying to master a new position makes Thuney’s experience vital. — Adam Teicher
Signature stat: Thuney has the third-highest pass block win rate at guard since 2017, when the stat was created (95.1%)
What they are saying: “Joe is an impressive player. He’s everything you want in an offensive lineman with his toughness and work ethic. He’s also very intelligent, and you can see that translate on the field.” — Andy Reid, Chiefs coach
...followed by yet another one.
100. Orlando Brown Jr. • OT • Kansas City Chiefs • 2020 rank: NR
Brown will exclusively play left tackle for the Chiefs. He has acknowledged he does not have the classic mobility skills considered necessary for a top left tackle, but the Chiefs believe that with his size — 6-foot-8 and 345 pounds — strength and ability to handle the rush, he will be more than adequate at his new position. — Adam Teicher
Signature stat: Brown was the only player in 2020 to have 100 pass block win rate plays lined up at both left and right tackle, and his pass block win rate was virtually the same at each position. Both were slightly above league average: 89.5% at left tackle and 88.8% on the right side.
What they are saying: “The thing that I’m impressed about is the mistakes that he does make, he doesn’t repeat them. That’s a great sign.” — Eric Bieniemy, Chiefs offensive coordinator
Comparisons between this list and NFL Network’s Top 100 — which concluded its step-by-step release over the weekend — are inevitable. The main differences are that the NFL Network list is based on a vote among players — and they are asked to base their votes on what the players did in the previous year — while the ESPN list is based on votes from a 50-member panel and is meant to predict the top 100 players for the coming season.
You could say that being voted into the NFL Network list is kind of like being selected for the Pro Bowl while making the ESPN list is more like becoming an All-Pro — with NFL players taking the place of NFL fans in the former list.
While both rankings picked the same top five Chiefs — in close to the same order — the predictive nature of this list made it possible for Kansas City’s new offensive linemen Joe Thuney and Orlando Brown, Jr. to claim spots near the bottom. Since neither player made this ranking a year ago, it’s clear that the ESPN writers who make up most of the 50-member voting panel believe that Thuney and Brown will be better when playing next to each other on the left side of the line.
Beyond that, I agree that the Chiefs should have three offensive players in the top 10 of this ranking. The spot Mathieu occupies is higher than the one he had on the other list. That feels right to me.
However, while this list has Jones ranked below Mathieu — the NFL Network ranking had Mathieu ranked below Jones — I’d say that if we’re talking about predicting what will happen in 2021, Jones should still have been listed ahead of Mathieu. It seems to me that aside from Chiefs beat reporter Adam Teicher, few writers appreciate how much more productive Jones could be in 2021 while he is more frequently moving between the inside and outside of the defensive line. That projection of seven sacks seems low to me.