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ESPN ranks Chiefs’ roster as the league’s best

Mike Clay and Seth Walder find that Kansas City’s quarterback makes all the difference.

Cleveland Browns v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

On Thursday, ESPN published another list of NFL teams: a roster ranking written by analysts Mike Clay and Seth Walder.

On Monday, our Pete Sweeney reacted to ESPN writer Bill Barnwell’s offensive weapons list, which ranked the Kansas City Chiefs as the league’s 19th-best group.

As Pete noted, “offensive weapons” leaves quarterback Patrick Mahomes out of the equation. But with Mahomes included, Clay and Walder rank the Kansas City roster a little bit higher.

1. Kansas City Chiefs

Strongest unit: Quarterback. Does this even need an explanation? Kansas City’s franchise player, Patrick Mahomes, has already won league MVP, the Super Bowl and the Super Bowl MVP two times each. He achieved all three of those last season — despite the 2022 offseason departure of elite wide receiver Tyreek Hill — cementing himself as the league’s best player. At only 27 years old, Mahomes’ dominant reign is far from over.

No, this certainly does not require an explanation — at least not to us. After the former Texas Tech wizard was named the league’s MVP in his first season as a starter, many national analysts (perhaps reasonably so) figured that Mahomes’ 2018 performance was an outlier; they were reluctant to recognize him as the league’s premier quarterback.

But as we see here, Mahomes’ 2022 season has pretty much eliminated that reluctance. Until someone can knock him off the pedestal, he is unquestionably the league’s best quarterback (if not the best player) — and is now seen as someone who can elevate all of his teammates.

Weakest unit: Safety. The Chiefs said goodbye to Tyrann Mathieu after the 2021 season and moved on from Juan Thornhill this past offseason. Justin Reid, who replaced Mathieu and played 97% of the snaps last season, is a good starter, but the defense will be counting on journeyman Mike Edwards, second-year Bryan Cook or Day 3 rookie Chamarri Conner to step into the other starting role.

As observations from national analysts tend to go, this is actually pretty shrewd. After suggesting pretty strongly that Mahomes raises all of Kansas City’s offensive boats, Clay and Walder can’t very well identify the wide receivers as the team’s weakest unit, can they?

Right now, the first two levels of the Chiefs’ defense look pretty good — and while Kansas City’s young corners made their share of mistakes in 2022, their arrow is still pointing up. That leaves safety — and Clay and Walder are making solid points about the involved players.

X-factor for 2023: LT Donovan Smith. Letting Orlando Brown Jr. walk in free agency and replacing him with Smith, who had the second-worst pass block win rate among tackles last season and the third-highest penalty rate among offensive linemen with at least 500 offensive snaps, was certainly a choice. Considering who will be playing behind him, Smith’s play will be extremely high leverage.

On Thursday, I said in these pages that Kansas City’s offensive line would be one of training camp’s biggest stories. A number of people argued that the battle at wide receiver would be a bigger one — and they might be right.

If we truly believe, however, that the Chiefs will still have one of the league’s top offenses — almost no matter how the wide receiver room shakes out — the wideout battles might not be nearly as critical as many imagine they will be.

But in my view, Clay and Walder are putting it exactly right: whether Smith returns to his pre-injury 2021 form will have “extremely high leverage” on the coming season. If Smith can’t do it, the Chiefs will have to choose between rookie Wanya Morris, the oft-injured Lucas Niang or a relatively unknown player: Prince Tega Wanogho. They might even have to put one of those players on the right side and move Jawaan Taylor to the left.

In short, Smith’s ability to play to his previous standard will determine whether the offensive line will take a step forward (or a step back) in 2023. That’s the definition of an X-factor. We (and Kansas City’s coaches) will need to be watching him like a hawk during training camp.

Nonstarter to know: WR Justyn Ross. In 2018, Ross led college football with an absurd 5.1 yards per route run. Injuries have derailed his career, but it’s hard to forget those numbers.

This is another good choice. It’s one part of the wide receiver story that is bound to get a lot of attention. Some believe that Ross won’t even make the team. Some believe that he’ll not only be one of the Chiefs’ starters but will also be one of the league’s biggest stars.

The truth will probably lie somewhere in between — and if it is, another team will probably be signing a veteran Chiefs receiver after the final roster cutdown.

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