The Kansas City Chiefs have morphed into some kind of mini-dynasty over the past four years. While they have just one Super Bowl win to show for it, they have made the AFC Championship game in each of the past four years. That is the type of sustained success that every team in the league hopes for but it’s going to get a lot harder to continue that dominance another year.
Kansas City now plays in by far the best division in the sport with the Chargers, Broncos, and Raiders filling out the rest of the AFC West. They also share a conference with the 2022 Super Bowl favorites (the Bills), the 2021 AFC Champions (the Bengals), a team with the greatest coach of all time (Bill Belichick), and several other possible contenders (the Ravens, Colts, Titans).
The Chiefs still have the second-best odds in the AFC to reach the Super Bowl, but it will be a much more difficult journey to get there. They do still have quarterback Patrick Mahomes under center for this season (and the next hundred after it) but he’ll be without star wide receiver Tyreek Hill. Mahomes is the best in the game for a reason and he will still be able to find a way to have success even without his favorite target.
The pressure is really placed on the defense this year. If the offense does take a step back it will be up to the other side of the ball to step up and shoulder more of the load. That leads to increased pressure on defensive tackle Chris Jones as the leader of the defense, especially because the Chiefs lost star safety Tyrann Mathieu in free agency.
Jones is and has been the best player on the Kansas City defense and one of the best defensive tackles in the league but that still does not make him exempt from the improvements the unit needs to undergo. He has been getting better each year of his career but will need his best season yet to carry this Chiefs’ defense.
Jones won’t be alone up front, as Kansas City has some other interior defensive linemen that are just a handful of years into their careers. Derrick Nnadi and Khalen Saunders should be good enough as complementary pieces around Jones to shore up the middle of the defense.
Where the defense really needs a big jump is in the pass-rushing department. Kansas City’s top two defensive ends in sacks last year were Frank Clark and Mike Danna who combined for 7.5 sacks (which is less than Jones recorded by himself).
They are hoping that the additions of veteran defensive end Carlos Dunlap and rookie pass-rusher George Karlaftis will be enough to bolster that area. Dunlap has been an extremely effective pass-rusher but is getting up there in age (33 years old). Though he could feel reinvigorated on the best team in his career with a shot to get to the Super Bowl.
Karlaftis has a chance to be a big-time player for the Chiefs if he can develop but his impact this season could be minimal. The first-round pick could get off to a hot start and have a massive impact in his first season if his elite athleticism translates right away. But if he needs time to learn the game and get his body ready to play at the next level then it could be a year or two before we see the best version of Karlaftis.
There is also some uncertainty at the linebacker position. The group is incredibly young this year after losing veteran starter Anthony Hitchens. That leaves a group led by linebackers Willie Gay, Nick Bolton, and Leo Chenal who are going into their third, second, and first seasons, respectively.
There is a bit of veteran presence in the group but the success of the unit will ultimately be up to those young players. All three were day-two picks so the team does have expectations that they are able to produce. Bolton has a great rookie season in 2021 when he led the team in tackles, so he is already playing well. He will just need Gay to show some improvement and Chenal to be effective in his rookie year.
One thing that won’t help those areas of the defense improve would be continued struggles from the secondary. The Chiefs had one of the worst pass defenses last year, giving up the sixth-most passing yards. The unit will also be without Mathieu in 2022, who was by far the best player in the Kansas City secondary.
The Chiefs did make a move to mitigate that loss, signing free agent safety Justin Reid to take over for Mathieu. Reid is one of the better young safeties in the game and will benefit from playing with more talent around him than he had in Houston. He and fourth-year safety Juan Thornhill have the potential to be a very productive safety pairing for the next few years.
Those two guys aren’t going to fix the issues in the secondary by themselves. They are going to need help from the corners this year if that group wants to not be a weakness. They’ll be without cornerback Charvarius Ward, who departed in free agency, but the talent is still there for a solid group.
The Chiefs will bring back budding star corner L’Jarious Sneed and corner Rashad Fenton, who started nearly half of the games last year. Those two will need more help if they want to shut down opposing passing attacks. Kansas City is hoping that one of the younger players they are taking a chance on pays off at corner this season.
The most probable outcome is that rookie first-rounder Trent McDuffie translates his college success to the NFL. The Chiefs moved up in the draft to get him so they clearly value his potential fit in the defense. But they do have other options in the form of former Texans second-round pick Lonnie Johnson and former Giants first-round pick DeAndre Baker in case McDuffie doesn’t pan out.
There are certainly a lot of unanswered questions surrounding the Chiefs’ defense but, luckily, the offense has far less uncertainty.
We know Mahomes is still going to be one of the top quarterbacks in the league. We know that tight end Travis Kelce will be dominant at the position again. We know that the offensive line will be great again since they’re bringing back Orlando Brown, Joe Thuney, Trey Smith, Creed Humphrey, Lucis Niang, and Andrew Wylie (who accounted for all but two of the offensive line starts in 2021).
The rest of the offense does not have the same reliability as those positions. Wide receiver is an especially unpredictable group this year given the offseason trade of Hill. Fourth-year wide receiver Mecole Hardman is still in place but he is better off remaining in his role and not trying to take over for Hill. Having an elite tight end in Kelce will help take pressure off the receivers, but some guys are still going to need to step up and try to replace Hill’s production.
Kansas City did attempt to lessen the impact of losing Hill by signing some free agents (although it’s nearly impossible to replace what Hill brought to the offense). Their signing of wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster had garnered the most attention due to his previous success in Pittsburgh, but their more underrated acquisition of wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling will be more impactful.
Valdes-Scantling is a perfect fit in the Kansas City offense. He is a very dangerous deep threat with elite speed, which is something that Mahomes can absolutely take advantage of. Smith-Schuster is more of a possession receiver, which will be valuable in the offense, so he won’t be as valuable to the Chiefs.
The offense would also get some production from second-round rookie receiver Skyy Moore this year. expectations won’t be sky high (see what I did there) for him because of the presence of the other pass-catching options. But if he can come in right away and function as an explosive, big-play threat then he will be a very welcome addition.
The last piece that needs to click for the Kansas City offense is the running back spot, more specifically running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The 2020 first-round pick has been solid over his first two seasons but has not lived up to expectations. He needs to really prove that he can be relied on to be on the field (he’s missed nine games in his career) and produce once he is out there.
This has to be the year that Edwards-Helaire makes the jump from serviceable starter to emerging star. If he fails to show improvement in 2021 the team could turn to running back Ronald Jones, who they signed in free agency, but he has experienced similar difficulties in his career.
The offense has certainly been what has carried the Chiefs during their recent run of dominance. Even with the unit expected to take a step back this season, Mahomes and company will still be a great group and will be good enough to get this team where it wants to go.
The true potential of this team will be decided by the defense. Kansas City doesn’t need an elite unit on that side of the ball, they just need something average. The defenses from previous years were never incredible, but they were solid and could force turnovers.
Because of the questions surrounding the defense, I don’t think the Chiefs will win the division. The AFC West is too competitive this year for a team with genuine concerns on defense to finish first. I still think the offense carries this team to the playoffs but it may not go as smoothly as in previous years.
Kansas City has a very tough schedule this season, which will make it much more difficult to overcome a bad defense. Not only do the Chiefs have to play the Chargers, Broncos, and Raiders a combined six times, but they also have games against the Cardinals, Colts, Buccaneers, Bills, 49ers, Titans, Rams, and Bengals. Those are all teams that finished 2021 with a winning record.
That would be a hard schedule for any team to get through successfully, let alone one that lost huge playmakers on both sides of the ball. Due to that difficult schedule, I see the Chiefs finishing with a 10-7 record. I think they are much better than that record suggests but I think they have the unfortunate distinction of facing a grueling schedule this year that will make it much harder for them to be amongst the best records in the game again.