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Can the Chiefs' wide receivers be better than last season?

Let’s talk 2021 vs. 2022 when it comes to Kansas City’s receivers.

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Dallas Cowboys v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Kansas City Chiefs fans want every great player who has ever worn the Arrowhead on the side of their helmet to retire a Chief and then ascend to the Ring of Honor.

Unfortunately, that's not the reality of the NFL. The salary cap is real, and you can't keep everyone forever. Sometimes a player is past his prime. Sometimes he wants more money than the team thinks he is worth. And sometimes, it's just time to call it a day and move on.

Whatever the reason, it doesn't change the melancholy reality that players leave teams. We tell ourselves that are plenty of other fish in the sea. But we don't want other receivers; we want him.

This year's greatest question is this: how will the Chiefs ever replace Tyreek Hill's production?

They won't. He was one of a kind, and he now plays for someone else.

But Hill was only one piece of the equation. In one fell swoop this offseason, nearly the entire Chiefs receiving room was spirited away to the furthest reaches of NFL purgatory. Out of the six wide receivers who made the Chiefs' initial 53-man roster last season, only two unlikely heroes remain.

Mecole Hardman and Daurice Fountain.

In this three-part series, we will look at where the Chiefs' wide receiving corps currently stands in comparison to last season's unit and other wide receiving groups around the league. To do this, I compiled the Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades of every wide receiving unit in the NFL for 2020 and 2021, then took the average grade of each player to get their projected receiver grade for 2022.

Let's use Cooper Kupp as an example.

2020 PFF grade = 81.6

2021 PFF grade = 93

(81.6 + 93) ÷ 2 = 87.3

So Cooper Kupp's projected receiver grade is 87.3. To get the projected grade for rookie wide receivers, I used my previously published rookie projection system to compute their numbers.

For the purposes of this experiment, we are defining receiving unit as the top four wide receivers on the team and a tight end.

2021 Chiefs receiving corps

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Chiefs almost had too much depth at wide receiver last season. The 2021 Chiefs lacked any semblance of a No. 2 wide receiver behind Tyreek Hill. Instead, they had what felt like a handful of number No. 3 or No. 4 wide receivers in Byron Pringle, Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson.

With 159 targets, Hill had nearly double the number of passes thrown his way as the next closest wide receiver on the roster (Hardman at 83.)

This lack of top-end talent was part of the reason why the Chiefs struggled to stretch the field last season — Mahomes' 11.1 yards per completion was the lowest of his career, and it ranked 12th out of 23 quarterbacks who attempted more than 400 passes last year.

To put into perspective how pedestrian of a stat this is, 11.1 yards per completion is 0.1 yards less than Derrek Carr threw last season and is tied with Carson Wentz.

Any time you tie with Wentz in anything, you're on the wrong side of the stat line.

When we look at the average wide receiver grades from 2020-21, we get a picture of just how top-heavy the Chiefs were last year. Teams quickly figured out that when you bracketed Hill and didn't let him beat you over the top, the Chiefs' passing attack suddenly became defendable.

See the second half of the AFC Championship game against the Cincinnati Bengals for reference.

2022 Chiefs receiving corps

NFL: JUN 02 Kansas City Chiefs OTA Offseason Workouts Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When you're attempting to replenish your roster after an exodus like the Chiefs had, the best course of action is to acquire as many talented players as possible.

Don't try to replace what is lost. Build something new.

And that's what general manager Brett Veach and his team have done. The Chiefs signed Juju Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Corey Coleman and Justin Watson on free-agent contracts. They brought back Josh Gordon and Daurice Fountain, drafted Skyy Moore in the second round of the NFL Draft and signed Justyn Ross to an undrafted free-agent contract.

While the Chiefs had no clear-cut No. 2 wide receiver in 2021, the 2022 Chiefs have three of them in JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Skyy Moore.

At first glance, it may seem like the Chiefs are just throwing numbers at the issue, and to an extent, that may be true. But the benefit of bringing in a lot of players when you have targets that are up for grabs is that it breeds competition, and you get the very best out of your players.

Head to head

AFC Championship - Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

While these two units look vastly different from a player-type perspective, when you add together the sum of all of their parts, you get two strikingly similar units as far as overall talent goes.

If you combine all of the scores from each receiver group and take the average score of the player, you find that the difference between this year's wide receivers and last season is approximately 1.06 points in favor of the 2021 unit.

In the grand scheme of things, 1.06 is well within the expected variations of the model. A contested catch here and broken tackle there, and suddenly, this team is outperforming its projections.

Beyond that, a few things could happen that would cause the Chiefs to exceed expectations and surpass the 2021 team.

1. Skyy Moore is that dude.

Here is the caveat: rookie wide receivers struggle to make an impact in Andy Reid's offense. In his 23 years of being a head coach, only two wide receivers have come in and gained over 700 yards receiving in their rookie years, and they were DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. But if Moore comes in and produces right away, he could (in theory) surpass the 75.6 grade I have him projected at. But it's not likely, as, in those good rookie seasons, Jackson and Maclin still only posted PFF grades of 68.9 and 68.8, respectively.

The thing that Moore has going for him is that his release off the line of scrimmage is the best out of any rookie in this class. He is a savvy route runner who easily creates separation at the line of scrimmage.

2. Juju Smith-Schuster plays more like he did in 2018.

Despite being only 25 years old, Smith-Schuster is a grizzled five-year veteran who is not afraid to go across the middle and make the catch to move the chains. This is something that the Chiefs were missing last year.

It's no secret that Smith-Schuster has had a rough couple of years. He was injured for most of the 2021 season, and when he was on the field, he had the noodle-armed Ben Roethlisberger lofting the ball his way.

Roethlisberger had a PFF grade of 55.8 last season. Meanwhile, Mahomes' was 77.5. That's an increase of 21.7 points.

It's not too far-fetched to imagine that with the improved quarterback play, Smith-Schuster's grade bounces back into the low-to-mid-70s this year.

While we are on the topic, the same could be said for Hill. Only time will tell how much he benefitted from playing with Mahomes — and how much he will regress now that he is catching passes from Tua Tagovailoa (68.3 grade.)

3. Mecole Hardman takes a step forward.

Hardman is in the final year of his rookie contract, and they say the contract year is undefeated.

Hardman has always bounced between a deep threat who ran dull routes and a gadget player who needed to be schemed into the game. He is not a player who wins at the line of scrimmage as Moore does. If he can add even a little bit more suddenness to his routes, he has the physical traits to actually do some damage this year.

The bottom line

On paper, the wide receiving unit looks as though it's slightly worse than where it was at this time last year. Losing Hill was a big blow, and despite their efforts, the Chiefs haven't fully filled the void left behind — at least yet.

Then again, if a couple of these things break in the Chiefs' direction, we could be singing a whole new tune by the season's end.

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