In this weekly series for Arrowhead Pride, I'll ask one big question about the Kansas City Chiefs' season. Last week, I wrote about Jawaan Taylor and whether his penalties were a fluke or a real issue.
This week, we're once again discussing a hot-button issue in the Chiefs Kingdom;
Do the Chiefs need to acquire a possession wide receiver?
Oh man, another wide receiver post.
This is my eighth post since the season started — and will be the fourth one revolving around wide receivers. I'd love to talk about other aspects of this team — the defense playing well through four weeks or Isiah Pacheco's emergence in his second season. I would even like to gush even more about Leo Chenal's play.
Unfortunately, the wide receiver room has always been the biggest concern about the team going into the season, and those concerns have only been exasperated a month into it. This issue came to a head on Sunday, where the Chiefs receivers combined for 12 targets, six catches and 65 yards.
Since that game ended, I can only think about the wide receivers. There were plenty of concerns about the group before the season, but the optimism behind keeping seven wide receivers for the first time led us to believe this group had too much talent to let leave the building. Similar to throwing a ton of talented rookies on defense last year and letting them develop, the Chiefs were going to do that with wide receiver.
Through four weeks, that hasn't worked. For the season, the Chiefs are currently seventh in dropback EPA and eighth in dropback success rate. This isn't concerning by any means, but if you factor out the game against the Chicago Bears, the results don't look as good. Prior to Week 3, the offense was 17th in dropback EPA and 21st in success rate. In Week 4, individually, the Chiefs finished 13th in dropback EPA and eighth in success rate. These aren't daunting numbers (unlike what the Cincinnati Bengals are currently facing), but it's certainly a far fetch from the dominant passing offenses in the past.
When I think of the passing offense holistically, I come back to our question for this post: do the Chiefs need a possession wide receiver? And if so, how can they get one?
Before answering that, we need to backtrack a bit, starting with when the Chiefs first started Patrick Mahomes. When the Chiefs inserted Mahomes into the lineup, the offense underwent a complete overhaul. In the context of this article, the way the Chiefs distributed their wide receiver targets drastically changed. I decided to take a look at the target share for the top five wide receivers in targets for the Chiefs every year since 2018.
The results are shown below:
Target share for top-5 WRs (by targets) for KC (2018-23)— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 2, 2023
23: 13.3%, 10.5%, 9.1%, 9.1%, 6.3%
22: 16.4%, 13.2%, 5.5%, 5.5%, 5.4%
21: 25%, 13%, 9.4%, 6.4%, 2.2%
20: 22.1%, 10.1%, 9.7%, 9%, 2.8%
19: 16.1%, 15.9%, 9.9%, 7.3%, 2.9%
18: 24.3%, 9.8%, 9.2%, 5.9%, 0.9%
Mahomes first season starting also saw the ascent of Tyreek Hill into one of the best receivers the game has ever seen. With that emergence came a huge increase in volume. In the three seasons Hill played all 16 games (he missed four in 2019 due to a shoulder injury), Hill received 24.3%, 22.1% and peaked at 25% of the Chiefs' targets in 2021.
With Hill being a dominant force the league had never seen before, the Chiefs decided to pepper him with targets as much as possible. This all had to change once the Chiefs traded Hill.
When the Chiefs did trade Hill, much of the sentiment was around building a more balanced offense. The Chiefs signed JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling to be reliable veterans who could quickly pick up the offense and provide Mahomes reliable options to throw to.
All things considered, this worked.
The Chiefs had the most efficient passing offense by EPA and success rate. The offense centered on Travis Kelce as the hub while having Valdes-Scantling, Smith-Schuster and Jerick McKinnon fill in the gaps receiving-wise. In particular, Smith-Schuster stood out as a secondary weapon for Mahomes. As a reliable zone coverage beater with good size and hands, the Chiefs had two weapons to unlock the middle of the field and beat the zone coverages that plagued them in 2021. By spreading the ball and diversifying their targets, the Chiefs' offense became brutally efficient rather than boom-or-bust.
Even with that change in mindset, there was still a hierarchy in the receiving room outside of Kelce. Smith-Schuster was the No. 2, Valdes-Scantling was the No. 3, and everyone filled in the gaps around them. Even with this diversified look, the Chiefs had the talent and structure to build a hierarchy of how to distribute the ball in efficient ways.
Now that Smith-Schuster is gone, there was hope that a new hierarchy would emerge. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened.
Through four weeks, the Chiefs have four receivers who have a target share above 9%. This isn't the first time this has happened — the Chiefs also saw this in 2020. However, the Chiefs still targeted Hill 22.1% of the time. Currently, the Chiefs' leading target at wide receiver — Rashee Rice — only accounts for 13% of targets.
The Chiefs were hoping to build an offense with as much balance as possible, and they've achieved that to the extreme. Spreading the ball out and diversifying your offense isn't a bad thing by any means. Forcing a defense to cover more grass is always a good thing. However, the NFL is about personnel. Plays in football aren't just scribbles on a notecard. Guys have to win on specific routes, and the more talented you are, the more complex routes you can run. Defenses have to cover you in more specific ways that take away from other structural parts of their scheme.
As of right now, nobody on the Chiefs outside of Kelce dictates the way a defense plays. Teams aren't scrambling trying to figure out how to stop the Chiefs. The Chiefs are almost playing left-handed since they haven't been able to dictate how a defense wants to play them and draw counters to that. Even if your baseline depth at wide receiver is better and you have more options in your room in totality, if no receiver can step up and fit in a bigger role, depth becomes obsolete.
I love to think of football like basketball — probably because it's the only other sport I watch. In basketball, forcing them into rotation is the optimal way to beat a defense. Once you get a defense scrambling, open shots emerge for role players. There's a philosophy in basketball that getting five players who can help get teams into the rotation is the best way to build a team, but what truly brings a defense scrambling is superstar talent who can create great shots.
The Chiefs are a team that has a superstar in Kelce but now needs a second player who can take some of the creation load off of him.
How do the Chiefs find that player? Is that player on the roster currently? Do they need to explore avenues for trade? Can the Chiefs afford to wait until the trade deadline to decide this? Will they try force-feeding someone to yield a possession receiver out of thin air?
Even if Smith-Schuster wasn't a superstar, his value as a secondary option next to Kelce was imperative. When he was healthy, the offense hummed since everyone maximized their role. From my vantage point, the Chiefs are missing that in-between from the role players and Kelce. I'm not sure how they'll find that, but to me, it's imperative they find that option.
The avenue in which they identify that player will be fascinating to monitor.