On Monday, the football analytics site Pro Football Focus released one of its extensive yearly lists: the top 101 players of the 2021 NFL season. Based entirely on the player grades that the site assigns to the league’s players — embellished by notes written by PFF’s Sam Monson — the 2021 list included six members of the Kansas City Chiefs.
27. C Creed Humphrey
2021 Snaps: 1,328 | 2021 PFF Grade: 92.5
PFF 101 Rank, 2020: unranked
The Chiefs overhauled their entire offensive line after last season’s Super Bowl defeat, and drafting Humphrey was a major part of the success of that endeavor. The second-round center played like the best in the game from Day 1, allowing 12 pressures in 20 games across almost 1,400 snaps of action, including the playoffs. Humphrey’s run blocking was elite and looked like something we would hope to see from an established veteran.
The highest-ranked Chiefs player, the rookie from Oklahoma, was also PFF’s highest-ranked center in 2021. It’s safe to say that with the 63rd pick of last spring’s NFL Draft, general manager Brett Veach hit it big.
32. TE Travis Kelce
2021 Snaps: 1,041 | 2021 PFF Grade: 87.1
PFF 101 Rank, 2020: 3
Kelce and the Kansas City Chiefs had their lull during the 2021 season, but when all was said and done, he still racked up 1,424 yards and 12 touchdowns including the playoffs. He averaged 1.92 yards per route run, and passes thrown in his direction resulted in a 112.4 passer rating for his quarterback. Kelce scored in each of his last six games and was a go-to receiver during some of the team’s biggest “gotta-have-it” situations of the season.
Coming in as PFF’s fourth-ranked tight end (behind the Baltimore Ravens’ Mark Andrews, the San Francisco 49ers’ George Kittle and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Dallas Goedert), Kelce had a down season by his standards. But that was less about him than it was about the struggles the entire Kansas City offense faced throughout the season. Still, he collected his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard season — a record that no other tight end has come close to matching.
33. WR Tyreek Hill
2021 Snaps: 991 | 2021 PFF Grade: 87.1
PFF 101 Rank, 2020: 20
Hill is one of the most terrifying playmakers in the game, and the fact that he was still able to amass over 1,200 yards and score nine touchdowns with the league on an almost religious mission to take away the explosive plays from Kansas City’s offense tells you a lot about how good he is. Hill caught 71.6% of passes thrown his way and still had a 75-yard score to his name in the regular season and one of 64 yards in the playoffs.
Ranked sixth among wideouts (the Los Angeles Rams’ Cooper Kupp, the Green Bay Packers’ Davante Adams and the 49ers’ Deebo Samuel topped the list), Hill had the lowest yards-per-target figure (7.8) since his rookie season — another reflection of the team’s effort to transition to a different style of offense.
38. DI Chris Jones
2021 Snaps: 764 | 2021 PFF Grade: 83.4
PFF 101 Rank, 2020: 25
The Chiefs started the year playing Jones as a full-time edge rusher, which seems absurd given the fact he typically weighs in at 310 pounds and is 6-foot-6. The fact that he was moved back inside tells you how well the plan worked overall, but Jones wasn’t bad on the edge, registering 21 pressures in six games before he became a full-time interior player again. Once he moved back inside, he was back to being a dominant force as a pass-rusher, finishing the year with 75 pressures, including 10 in the playoffs.
Ranked third among interior defensive linemen (after the Rams’ Aaron Donald and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Cameron Heyward), Jones finished the season strong after the edge-rusher experiment concluded. While many fans continue to count sacks (in which Jones tied for 21st in the league with nine in 2021), PFF (and the Chiefs) value Jones based on quarterback pressures.
63. G Joe Thuney
2021 Snaps: 1,328 | 2021 PFF Grade: 82.6
PFF 101 Rank, 2020: unranked
Kansas City invested huge money into Thuney last offseason as part of a concerted effort to overhaul the offensive line, and he repaid them with a fine season. Thuney earned a 90.5 pass-blocking grade — the best of his career — while blocking for quarterback Patrick Mahomes for the first time. He allowed 17 pressures all season, the same number as a season ago but on 445 more pass-blocking snaps.
It’s doubtful that a year ago, many Kansas City fans would have predicted Thuney would be a member of the 2021 Chiefs team — or that he would make such an impact. The sixth-ranking player in a group led by the Dallas Cowboys’ Zack Martin, the Cleveland Browns’ Joel Bitonio and the New England Patriots’ Shaq Mason, Thuney’s acquisition must be considered a success.
69. QB Patrick Mahomes
2021 Snaps: 1,308 | 2021 PFF Grade: 81.8
PFF 101 Rank, 2020: 7
Mahomes and the Kansas City offense had a very strange season, each struggling at various points and not quite looking the same as in previous years. Mahomes more than doubled his interception total from 2020 but actually had a lower turnover-worthy play rate (2.8% versus 3.2%). The big difference came on big-time throws, where his rate more than halved from last season as teams concentrated on eliminating explosive plays from the Chiefs’ offense. Even in a relative down year, Mahomes tossed 37 touchdowns and needed only 13 seconds to execute a game-saving scoring drive in the playoffs.
Kansas City’s quarterback being ranked ninth in a group led by the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Tom Brady and the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen is probably something else we wouldn’t have predicted a year ago. But in 2021, Mahomes turned in six of the 10-worst statistical performances of his career. (Two of the four remaining games are Super Bowl LV and his first start against the Denver Broncos in 2017). So neither his PFF grade (or his ranking) for 2021 should surprise us. But in the Divisional round playoff against the Bills, Mahomes demonstrated he is capable of making the adjustments needed to continue his success in the NFL. The next hurdle is to do it consistently.
Since every Chiefs player who had been ranked on the 2020 edition of this list dropped dramatically from the year before, it would be pretty easy to find the whole thing very depressing. But three of the team’s players (Kelce, Hill and Mahomes) fell for essentially the same reason: the team’s difficulty in adjusting its style to consistently beat defensive schemes that were specifically designed to blunt Kansas City’s explosive offense. The team will have its work cut out for it in 2022.
Just the same, only three teams — the Cowboys, Packers and Rams — put more players on the 2021 ranking, which represents roughly the top 5% of all players who took snaps this past season. And despite the team’s problems, it still managed a sixth straight AFC West title — and came within a play or two of making its third consecutive Super Bowl.
It will be fascinating to see what the 2022 version of this list will look like.