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Roster Ratings: Identifying the Chiefs’ adequate starters

Breaking down each player on Kansas City’s roster and where he ranks.

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In this series, we’re looking at 60 players who have a chance to make the Kansas City Chiefs’ 53-man roster for 2023 — whether they’re locks or on the bubble.

We’re organizing them into eight categories: roster cornerstones, quality starters, adequate starters, replacement-level players, quality depth players, non-roster players, rookies and those whose evaluations are yet incomplete.

The first two articles of this series focused on the 5 roster cornerstones and 9 quality starters. So now, let’s consider the team’s adequate starters.

What is an adequate starter?

In this exercise, an adequate starter is a player who will definitely start — and would likely start on several other rosters. However, unlike the first two categories (cornerstone and quality starter) they could be replaced with a better player. It might not be easy to find a better replacement player, but the team would still consider an upgrade.

Who are the Chiefs’ adequate starters?

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Linebacker Willie Gay: After three years in Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, Gay is basically the same player he was coming out of the draft. While he is a freak athlete at the position, his inconsistencies on (and off) the field limit his potential.

Running back Isiah Pacheco: There are many Kansas City fans who expect Pacheco to have a big season. Considering he is a seventh-round pick, he’s a tremendous player. His explosiveness and aggression make him a great fit for the Chiefs — although his lack of vision (and limitations in the passing game) keep him from being elite.

Tackle Donovan Smith: While playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Smith had a solid 2021 season followed by an abysmal 2022 performance. For the coming season, he’ll probably be somewhere in between. The 30-year-old tackle has probably reached his physical peak. Kansas City is hoping that playing next to one of the league’s best interior offensive linemen will help elevate his play.

Running back Jerick McKinnon: 2022 was one of the best seasons of McKinnon’s nine-year NFL career — mostly because he was able to stay healthy. That’s something with which he’s struggled. He has tremendous value as a leader (and in pass protection), but his health (and lack of impact as a pure runner) limit him.

Wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling: Has there ever been a more boom-or-bust player? Watching the AFC Championship game, he looked like the team’s best weapon. But two weeks later in the Super Bowl, he didn’t have a single catch. While his speed and field-stretching ability is valuable, this variance keeps him from being anything more than adequate.

NFL: AFC Championship-Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Wide receiver Kadarius Toney: A year after selecting him with the 20th overall pick, the New York Giants walked away from Toney. That has to mean something. While his early returns with the Chiefs are encouraging, we need to see significant improvement in both his health and his route-running. He has a skill set that could make him a cornerstone — but until the Chiefs find a way to unlock them (and he is always available) he is only adequate.

Cornerback Jaylen Watson: This seventh-round pick came out with a bang, sealing Kansas City’s Week 2 win against the Los Angeles Chargers with a pick-6. But later in the season, he also battled with Joshua Williams for playing time. His 2023 performance will be the key to his future.

Cornerback Joshua Williams: The rawest of the three cornerbacks the Chiefs drafted in 2022, Williams had some obvious struggles — especially against the Buffalo Bills in Week 6. But his growth led to Brett Veach trading Rashad Fenton to the Atlanta Falcons. It feels like Williams is a step behind Watson. In camp, he’s likely to be battling rookie Nic Jones for playing time.

Defensive end Mike Danna: As a rotational edge rusher, Danna has found his stride — particularly rushing from the inside. He’s able to occasionally win one-on-one matchups (and take advantage of busted protections) that let him rush free. With Frank Clark — one of the team’s best run defenders — headed to the Denver Broncos, Danna will play a big part in setting the edge in 2023.

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Defensive end George Karlaftis: Right now, winning with power and hustle are the second-year player’s finest traits. To take the next step, he’ll need to develop another pass-rushing move, improve his hand fighting or get more bend around the edge. Still, the 22-year-old played 65% of 2022’s defensive snaps — which is big for a rookie. There’s lots of room for the Purdue product to ascend.

Linebacker Drue Tranquill: It seems like it’s too good to be true that a one-year deal for the former Chargers linebacker fell into the Chiefs’ hands — and if it seems that way, it probably is. Just the same, his abilities in coverage (and on special teams) could provide a big impact. His limitations in the running game (and in filling gaps) are part of the reason why he was available in free agency.

Tight end Noah Gray: In 2022, Mecole Hardman, Skyy Moore, Kadarius Toney and Isiah Pacheco all had fewer receiving yards than Gray did. While some of that was the result of injuries (or the roles individuals played in the offense), Gray solidified himself as the team’s second tight end. His blocking improved enough that Kansas City could keep Blake Bell inactive in the postseason.

Safety Mike Edwards: Even though he’s projected to be the third safety, Edwards will still get plenty of snaps. While he isn’t the most reliable player in coverage (or tackling), he will certainly be a factor: he brings something to the secondary that it lacked last season: ball production.

The bottom line

With 27 players rating as adequate or above, the Chiefs’ roster is in excellent shape — and it’s a big part of what has made the team a perennial Super Bowl contender. This team’s floor remains incredibly high for 2023.

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