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How the Chiefs can strengthen their wide receiver corps this offseason

This team is an offensive juggernaut at its core; that means they need to be proactive at wide receiver.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

When the Kansas City Chiefs call a pass play, they have MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes dropping back with the option to throw to one All-Pro or another: tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill — who are among the best pass-catching duos in NFL history.

After those two players, it’s OK to identify the drop-off in effectiveness. Wide receiver Mecole Hardman is limited to a role of quick-hitting, horizontal run and pass plays that take advantage of his speed. Byron Pringle is a reliable pass-catcher, and you might try to describe Demarcus Robinson similarly — but both Pringle and Robinson would need to be re-signed as unrestricted free agents.

I’ll point out the developmental options on future/reserve deals, such as Daurice Fountain and Cornell Powell. Still, the point is clear: the Chiefs have not had the second wide receiver that can really take advantage of opponents’ attention towards Kelce and Hill.

When they did have a (healthy) Sammy Watkins in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, he did exactly that — especially in the postseason. They may have had to pay a hefty price for his services, but it turned out to be worth it when it mattered most.

Before the 2022 season, Kansas City needs to find the last third of the pass-catching trio; in this post, we’ll take a look at how they can do just that:

Free agency

There’s no other way to say it: the class of wide receivers hitting free agency is loaded. There are bound to be franchise tags or re-signings that eliminate some of those options from the open market — like Davante Adams with the Green Bay Packers or Mike Williams with the Los Angeles Chargers. Pro-Bowl caliber veterans like Allen Robinson, Chris Godwin, and Odell Beckham Jr. could also fit that category.

Those would all be exciting options — just may not all be realistic. Younger free agents like D.J. Chark and Michael Gallup could demand big contracts, too. I’m in favor of the Chiefs investing heavily in the position — but if they decide to pursue receivers in lesser demand, there are a few names that could fit the bill:

Juju Smith-Schuster

Las Vegas Raiders v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

When the Chiefs took action in free agency last offseason, they targeted Smith-Schuster; head coach Andy Reid sent pictures of the Lombardi Trophy to entice the 25-year old receiver. He eventually signed back with the Pittsburgh Steelers on a one-year deal worth $8 million, taking less money than he was offered by both Kansas City and the Baltimore Ravens.

In 2021, he didn’t begin with much production — then injured his shoulder in Week 5; he didn’t play again until the Wild Card round when he was able to catch five passes for 26 yards against the Chiefs.

Without the opportunity to boost his stock, it’s possible Smith-Schuster signs for a similarly-low figure this offseason — which obviously helps the Chiefs get a deal done.

His play style fits what Kansas City is missing: a receiver with both strength and route-running skills, allowing him to win through physical coverage and get open — while also being a plus blocker. He can be versatile in his alignment, playing from both the slot and the outside — on and off the line of scrimmage.

Keelan Cole

Cincinnati Bengals v New York Jets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

There was no reported interest of Cole last offseason — but just like Smith-Schuster, he was an unrestricted free agent that signed a cheap, one-year deal; the New York Jets got him for $5.5 million. In 2021, he totaled 449 yards and only one touchdown but still showed off the best of his talents in spurts.

Aside from having reliable hands, Cole has the athleticism to get into space in the quick-pass game, with decent speed to be a big-play threat down the field. He also can play on the outside or aligned in the slot. His most notable feature is his lengthy wingspan, which gives him a large catch radius and also helps him win through press coverage.

He may not have the physical style that Smith-Schuster has, but he can still create separation with his route running and get open on his own.

If Kansas City doesn’t take a significant swing, one low-risk option could be Sammy Watkins — coming off a 2021 season with the Baltimore Ravens totaling 394 yards on 27 catches while missing three games due to injury.

The NFL Draft

Looking at the trends of modern drafts, the wide receiver position has been one that can find capable starters past the first round. In recent seasons, receivers like Deebo Samuel, Terry McLaurin, D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown, Diontae Johnson, Tee Higgins and Michael Pittman Jr. were all selected in the second or third round.

On the flip side, the Chiefs’ positions of need like pass rusher or play-making defensive back might be harder to find after the team’s first pick. We don’t know what will happen at this point — but if Kansas City follows that trend and waits until Day 2 for a receiver, there’s one name, in particular, to look for:

George Pickens - Georgia

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Georgia vs Alabama Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It’s mock draft season — and Pickens has been placed in the bottom of the second round in two experts’ two-round mock drafts posted after the Senior Bowl: ESPN’s Jordan Reid predicted Pickens at the 59th pick, while The Draft Network’s Joe Marino did not have a spot for him in his 64 spots.

Personally, these are two draft analysts whose opinion I value; their placement of the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Pickens may reflect the possibility the NFL overlooks the former five-star freshman phenom due to the ACL tear he suffered in March of 2021.

In his first season on campus, Pickens led the team in all receiving categories — totaling 726 yards and eight touchdowns on 15 yards per reception. After a 2020 season disrupted by missed games, he had the spring injury. He did return to play four games in 2021— catching five passes for 107 yards.

Whether or not the Chiefs make a free-agent signing at wide receiver, the team should do its homework on what receivers will be available around their 62nd-overall selection; Pickens may be there, and he has the potential to be the latest second-round breakout receiver.