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How the Chiefs’ red-zone offense can be as good as ever

Kansas City’s versatile receiver talents (and an improved offensive line) pose significant problems for opponents.

NFL: Preseason-Kansas City Chiefs at New Orleans Saints Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

In case you missed Tuesday’s news, the Kansas City Chiefs have lost one of their biggest red-zone pass-catching targets: tight end Jody Fortson, who was placed on the team’s Reserve/Injured (injured reserve) list. That ends his 2023 season.

It was an unfortunate gut punch to a player who become a fan favorite in recent seasons — but has struggled to stay healthy. So once again, the Chiefs must march on without a big target who especially excelled in the tight spaces within the end zone; Fortson had earned quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ trust to come down with challenging 50/50 catches.

There is, however, a silver lining in this particular cloud: in 2023 — perhaps more so than ever before during the Mahomes era — the Kansas City offense is stocked with other players who could be trustworthy end-zone targets.

Let’s take a look.

Wide receivers

We’ll start with two wideouts whose names have been on many lips during the team’s just-concluded training camp: second-year undrafted free agent Justyn Ross and second-round rookie Rashee Rice.

Both players have provided practice and game tape demonstrating that they are big, physical targets with strong hands who can pry passes away from nearby defenders. Both are projected to see their first regular-season action in September, so neither has yet had a chance to create an impact on one of head coach Andy Reid’s offenses. Given Fortson’s absence, these two players should have plenty of opportunities for red-zone targets.

Three other wide receivers aiming to improve on their 2022 production — Skyy Moore, Kadarius Toney and Richie James — bring elements of shifty quickness to create openings in the horizontal planes of the red zone. For proof, look no further than Moore and Toney’s touchdown receptions against the the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII, when each was sprung wide open inside the 5-yard line.

These faster players can also continue to be utilized in pre-snap motions for jet sweeps and push passes, forcing defenses to respect their sideline-to-sideline speed. At a minimum, it becomes stress-inducing decoy work for which linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks must account — as if the size (and hands) of Ross and Rice (along with tight end Travis Kelce) won’t be enough of a problem.

In past seasons, the Kansas City offense has had fast wide receivers who excelled with the ball in their hands — but among big-bodied targets, only Kelce (and sometimes Fortson) provided consistent production. With Ross and Rice on the field in 2023, that could change significantly.

Offensive line and running backs

The Chiefs will be entering season with one of the league’s very best interior offensive line trios. At tackle, however, there is a question mark — especially at left tackle.

However, both Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor delivered promising starts in last Sunday’s preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints. Both displayed better foot quickness than their predecessors, which will improve pass protection at all levels of the field — and more time for Mahomes to operate will never be a bad thing.

What now appears to be an improvement in the offensive line also opens up more possibilities for the red-zone running game. When opponents are (correctly) focused on Kansas City’s pass-catchers, the big bodies up front can still open holes for running backs like Isiah Pacheco. With its strength on the interior, the line can create substantial push up the middle — and it can swing runs out wide on the heels of its explosive new tackles.

This is all before taking into account the possibilities for Mahomes to make plays as a runner — or Reid’s screen schemes that heavily feature running back Jerrick McKinnon.

The bottom line

Handing defenses more headaches than they can handle is a sure path to consistent offensive success — and it certainly appears and the Chiefs can present as many difficult matchups as any other team. None of those are bigger than Mahomes, Kelce and Reid.

Yet here, we have focused only on those now surrounding these three future Hall of Famers — which goes to show the offensive potential that’s now in place. Also remember that we’re talking about an offense that scored touchdowns on 70.8% of its 2022 red-zone drives — the league’s second-best mark. There isn’t that much room to go up.

There is, however, pressure to maintain that performance — and with plenty of new faces taking offensive snaps this season, it isn’t guaranteed. But expecting continued excellence probably isn’t a bad idea — because this group is built for it.

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