At their best, the Chiefs are playoff-caliber.
The Chiefs proved it a season ago with their sound, stout play en route to a wild card berth. The Chiefs forced 36 turnovers and committed a mere 18. Their defense proved too tough for weaker opposition. By early November, the Chiefs were 9-0 and had all but made the postseason.
However, the Chiefs had peaked early. They won just two of their final eight games, including a 45-44 playoff loss at Indianapolis marked by Kansas City blowing a 28-point third-quarter lead.
In the end, there was no doubting where the Chiefs fit in the NFL’s power structure. They were much stronger than the league’s weakest outfits, but they just couldn’t handle stepping up in class. The Chiefs were 10-0 against clubs who missed the postseason but just 1-6 against playoff entrants, with the lone victory against Philadelphia in September.
With seven games against 2013 playoff teams, including league elites Seattle, San Francisco, New England and Denver, the Chiefs must fare better against top competition if they are to improve upon their work from a season ago.
The Chiefs have a strong defensive front seven, with outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, nose tackle Dontari Poe and inside linebacker Derrick Johnson all making the Pro Bowl a season ago. Moreover, the Chiefs’ first-round pick, Dee Ford, will add to the pass rushing depth behind Houston and Hali. Playmaking strong safety and fellow Pro Bowler Eric Berry leads the back end of the defense.
The offense has some skilled core players, too. Tailback Jamaal Charles is among the best at his position in the game. Quarterback Alex Smith takes care of the ball and played very well in the Chiefs’ wild card loss, throwing for 378 yards and four touchdowns. Smith’s future will be a storyline to watch; he’s in the final year of his contract. Smith’s top target, Dwayne Bowe, is the Chiefs’ go-to receiver. Bowe can still perform like a No. 1-caliber target; he lit up the Colts for eight catches and 150 yards in the playoff loss.
In 15 NFL seasons, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has overseen 10 playoff clubs. And his best teams have usually played into January. Of the five teams he’s led that missed the postseason, three had losing records, and two were 8-8.
The Chiefs don’t have a wealth of receiving talent beyond Bowe, who will draw the bulk of attention from opposing secondaries. The Chiefs didn’t add any major pass catching help in free agency or the draft, leaving wide receivers Donnie Avery, A.J. Jenkins and Junior Hemingway and tight end Travis Kelce as the complementary pass catchers to watch.
The Chiefs’ offensive line lost three key players in free agency, with left tackle Branden Albert and offensive guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah all departing. That’s quite a drain on the line’s talent and depth.
The Chiefs’ secondary also has undergone some changes. The club released cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Dunta Robinson and didn’t re-sign free safety Kendrick Lewis. After Kansas City struggled against the pass down the stretch, some changes were probably to be expected on the back of the defense. But it will be interesting to see how the Chiefs fare against good passing teams.
The Chiefs’ offensive line will have new full-time starters at left tackle, right guard and right tackle. Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick in 2013, will step in at left tackle, with Donald Stephenson the favorite at right tackle after finishing out the season at the position. Ex-Colt Jeff Linkenbach is an option at right guard.
The defense will have multiple fresh faces in the starting lineup. At defensive end, ex-Raiders defensive tackle Vance Walker could step in for Tyson Jackson, who signed with Atlanta. At inside linebacker, the Chiefs will have to replace the departed Akeem Jordan. The secondary will have two new starters, with Chris Owens, Phillip Gaines or Marcus Cooper potentially getting the call to take over for Flowers at cornerback and second-year pro Sanders Commings a possible replacement for Lewis.
In the kicking game, rookie De’Anthony Thomas could replace Dexter McCluster (now with Tennessee) on punt returns.
With so many departures, the Chiefs’ younger players have a chance to show what they can do. Let’s see if any of the pass catchers can take a step forward this summer. Similarly, could a rookie like Zach Fulton or Laurent Duvernay-Tardif push for playing time at right guard? Also, will second-year pro Nico Johnson or free agent addition Joe Mays start opposite of Derrick Johnson at inside linebacker? At defensive end, Walker seems the likely starter, given that the Chiefs gave him a three-year deal, but fourth-year pro Allen Bailey could also be in the mix for more reps.
The Chiefs’ young defensive backs will also have an opportunity to earn playing time. Rookie Gaines and second-year pro Cooper will compete with free agent signee Owens for snaps at cornerback. At free safety, Commings and veteran Husain Abdullah look to be the top options.
The Chiefs don’t get the benefit of a favorable early schedule this season. Four of the club’s first six games are against 2013 playoff clubs — road trips to Denver (Sept. 14), San Francisco (Oct. 5) and San Diego (Oct. 19) and a home game against New England (Sept. 29).
And that’s not it for tall orders for the Chiefs. Witness this three-game stretch from Weeks 11-13: home vs. Seattle (Nov. 16), away at Oakland (Nov. 20), home vs. Denver (Nov. 30). Of that trio, the matchup against the Raiders looks most favorable, but it comes only four days after playing the defending Super Bowl champions, and it involves traveling from the Central Time Zone to the Pacific Time Zone.
In the end, if the Chiefs play above-average defense and ball-control offense, they can again compete for a playoff spot. The postseason ranks always seem to include a team or two like this — a grinder that out-executes the opposition.
That said, the most interesting issues with the Chiefs are the bigger-picture ones. How will Smith play in his second year in Reid’s offense and in an contract year? Will some of the club’s younger players step up their games? The Chiefs would seem to be counting upon it, given all the talent that walked out the door in the offseason.
Some will write off the Chiefs, given the way the club finished 2013. But they do have a system that works, and if some of the kids can play, they might again be right in the playoff picture. Still, the schedule looks tougher, and there are some obvious areas of concern, with the playmaking of the offense the obvious worry.