So far this season, no Kansas City Chiefs position group has been under more scrutiny than its wide receivers.
This is my seventh article of the 2023 season. Three of them have been focused on wideouts. Before the season began, it was — by far — the position group for which I had the biggest concern — and through four weeks, I don’t feel much better .
These concerns came to a head on Sunday night against the New York Jets. Even though Kansas City emerged with a 23-20 victory, the team’s wide receivers combined for 12 targets, six catches, 65 yards and no touchdowns. Before Kansas City’s second-to-last drive, its wideouts had combined for six targets, two catches and 22 yards.
There’s no other way of saying this: having wide receivers with so little productivity isn’t a viable way to build an efficient passing offense. The Chiefs — like most offenses — tend to run their offense out of 11 personnel — that is, with three wide receivers. If you’re running 66% of your plays from 11 personnel and passing out of it 73% of the time, your wide receivers have to be more productive.
So, what are the biggest issues with the team’s wideouts? Since I’ve spent a lot of time watching the film on these players, I wanted to take a statistical look.
Here are five stats that highlight some of the Chiefs’ problems at the position.
1. Wide receiver usage
While watching Sunday’s game, it felt like the wide receivers weren’t really involved in the offense. So I decided to see if this was a trend.
Here we see the percentage of targets, completions, yardage and touchdowns attributed to the Chiefs’ wide receivers during quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ five years as the starter. So far this season, the position group hasn’t been noticeably lower in any area over most seasons. In fact — outside of the percentage of of touchdowns — 2023’s wideouts are surpassing last year’s group in every passing category.
There is, however, one big variable: tight end Travis Kelce being absent in Week 1. If you count just the three games in which Kelce has played, wide receivers accounted for 44% of targets, 46% of catches, 56% of yards and 17% of touchdowns — which again, outside of touchdowns, compares pretty closely to 2022’s championship season.
So what’s the big difference?
2. Target distribution
In 2023, the Chiefs have had seven wide receivers on their 53-man roster. It’s a first for an Kansas City team under Andy Reid — and even after Richie James went on the Reserve/Injured list, all seven have been active for each game. Similar to last season, the plan was to evenly distribute the ball among the wideouts. That’s exactly what the team has done.
Here’s how targets have been distributed between the top-five wide receivers during the Mahomes era.
It’s easy to see that in the last two seasons, the Chiefs have spread the targets among more players — but in 2023, that’s been taken to an extreme. Four wideouts — Rashee Rice, Skyy Moore, Justin Watson and Kadarius Toney — have had at least 9% of the targets. This also happened in 2020 — but that year, Tyreek Hill had 22%. So far in 2023, Rice has just 13%.
3. Rashee Rice against man and zone coverage
There’s been a lot of clamoring for Rice to get on the field more — and I get it. Through four weeks, he’s arguably been the team’s best wideout.
But unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Right now, Rice has one concrete skill: beating teams in zone coverage. When he’s been playing against zone, he’s done an excellent job identifying the coverage and finding the right spot.
This is very simplistic stuff that'll get you on the field, but love this from Rashee. Switch release vs. C2, Rashee is the zone outlet vs MOFO. Perfect sitdown in his route, clears the defenders, turns upfield, should've been a TD— Nate Christensen (@natech32) September 26, 2023
This is needed to play in the slot pic.twitter.com/3wN3HCUuzo
The problem is that teams don’t sit in spot-drop zone coverage for every play. A lot of teams will run at least some man coverage — and some teams will run it a lot. Against man coverage, Rice has been... well... useless.
Per PFF: Rashee Rice against Zone Coverage— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 2, 2023
- 11 targets, 11 catches, 127 yards, 6 1st Downs
Rice against Man Coverage
- 5 targets, 0 catches, 1 Drop
So far this season, Pro Football Focus says that Rice doesn’t have a single catch against man coverage. This is because so far, he’s struggled to generate separation at the top of his routes — and lacks the release package to get a step on an opposing cornerback.
This, however, is typical for a rookie — and shouldn’t be the sole barrier to getting him on the field. In the past, teams have run lot of zone coverage against Kansas City. That would benefit a player like Rice. However...
4. Man coverage against the Chiefs
During Sunday night’s game, New York certainly played that card.
Jets played man coverage around 40% of their defensive snaps, per PFF. And when they did, it was typically clamps across the board. Chiefs have a significant WR problem. pic.twitter.com/d1JOkK7SF4— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) October 2, 2023
The Jets could do this because they have two elite cornerbacks: Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed. So they were willing to play tight coverage, forcing the Kansas City’s wide receivers to beat them.
Does this mean that teams must have elite corners to play man against the Chiefs? Not necessarily.
Without top-notch corners, it will be harder to pull off, of course — but we should still expect other teams to replicate New York’s game plan. If Kansas City’s wideouts continue to struggle against man coverage, it will make it much easier to defend against them.
Against Man Coverage, Travis Kelce is currently registering a 0.0 passer rating when targeted— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 2, 2023
He has caught only 1 of 5 passes in those situations, for 10 yards
This is especially true if Kelce isn’t beating man coverage as well as he used to.
5. Marquez Valdes-Scantling targets
Among all the team’s wideouts, Valdes-Scantling has the most well-established role. But at this point of his career, he is what he is: a vertical X receiver. He’s just not going to give you a lot underneath as a possession receiver. He can, however, help take the top off the defense with vertical routes downfield. So even as the team’s most experienced wide receiver, he was never going to get a large number of targets.
Even so, Valdes-Scantling just hasn’t been a significant part of the offense in 2023. He’s had just nine targets. In 2022, he had 81 — including 23 through Week 4. Valdes-Scantling simply can’t be the group’s veteran — and still get so few targets. The team must find a way to get him more involved.
The bottom line
The Chiefs currently have a wide receiver problem. The team hoped that the depth at the position would make up for a lack of top-end talent and experience. So far, that hasn’t happened.
I believe Kansas City needs another possession wide receiver. Outside of Kelce, they have no such player — and that seems like a problem. At this stage of his career, you can’t ask Kelce to be the entire offense. Someone needs to take some of the load from his shoulders — but no player has stepped up to do that.
The good news is that it’s early. Someone might emerge.
But the bad news is that if someone doesn’t, the Chiefs will not be the passing machine we’ve grown accustomed to watching.
Something has to change. Currently, the offense isn’t constructed to be an efficient, down-to-down passing offense. Having a structured hierarchy of wide receivers plays an important role in how opponents defend you — and until Kansas City finds a way to establish one, its passing offense will probably continue to struggle.