Last year: 11-5, won Wild Card round

Key Numbers

Point Differential: +118

Scoring Offense: 25.3 ppg, 9th in NFL

Scoring Defense: 17.9 ppg, 3rd in NFL

Andy Reid had quite a season as head coach of the Chiefs. His team sputtered out of the gate, going 1-5 as both sides of the ball struggled. Just as the fans and media got their pitchforks sharpened, Reid turned it all around. The defense rose up, Alex Smith took his game to heretofore unprecedented heights at quarterback, and the Chiefs kept on winning. Ten games in a row, plus a playoff victory, capped the remarkable turnaround. Expectations are high for an encore, as much of the key roster components return in an AFC West that appears up for grabs.

Five Key Questions

1. How well does the new-look secondary come together?

The secondary was one of the best, most impactful units in the entire league last season. However, two starters must be replaced.

Safety Husain Abdullah and corner Sean Smith are both gone. Abdullah retired, while Smith defected to the rival Raiders. Neither hole will be easy to fill.     

Fortunately, the two returning starters are both very impressive. Safety Eric Berry made a triumphant return from cancer, and though he might have lost a little off his deep range he remains a significant factor against both the run and pass. Few safeties are quicker to diagnose and react than the savvy veteran, and with another year of good health under his belt he could have an even more impressive 2016.

Marcus Peters proved worthy of being a No. 1 corner right off the bat. The rookie from Washington showed he has the coverage instincts, quick reactions and confidence to make plays. Peters should earn all sorts of postseason awards and accolades if his career arc continues.

At corner, it’s up to an ongoing youth movement to provide the answers. Phillip Gaines quickly earned a starting role as a third-round rookie in 2014 and played well enough to stay prominent in the rotation in 2015 before a torn ACL shelved him. He’s slightly built but has a good feel for what the offense is trying to do and tackles well. Observers indicate Gaines should be a full go before the start of the season.

He will have to fend off a pair of rookies in KeiVarae Russell and Eric Murray. Russell is a third-round pick from Notre Dame who was great early in his Irish career before missing the 2014 season as part of an academic scandal. His 2015 campaign did not impress, as he was slow to recognize and not much faster to react. The potential is there with Russell, who has the coveted size and speed. He might wind up moving to safety if corner doesn’t work out. Murray is a fourth-rounder from Minnesota who consistently played bigger than his 5’11” size. The Chiefs will love his tackling and aggressive nature, but his average speed and athleticism limit his ceiling. He’s got all the makings of a good fourth CB.

Steven Nelson will man the slot. A third-round pick from Oregon State, he played limited reps as a rookie. Chiefs folks are talking Nelson up, but it’s hard to extract a great deal of promise from barely 50 reps last year. He was not very agile as a Beaver, but he’s definitely an NFL-level tackler in the slot. Rookie DJ White looks like the fallback option. Keep an eye on undrafted rookie Vernon Harris, who brings great length and an opportunistic bent from Dartmouth.

Safety sees former slot corner Jamell Fleming making the move further off the ball. I’m not sold that’s a wise decision, though his willingness to hit was his best quality in coverage. It’s either Fleming or Ron Parker, another converted corner. Parker is a strong blitzer and gets his nose dirty, and he is best used in a joker role where he can line up anywhere in the secondary. As a third safety/outside corner, Parker is fantastic. Asking more of him takes away from Parker’s game. Daniel Sorenson is more of a small linebacker than safety and earns his roster spot on special teams. Oft-injured vet Stevie Brown would be a nice comeback story if he can latch on with the ninth team to sign him.

2. Can the pass rush be a consistent factor?

This question is difficult to answer ahead of time, mainly because of the uncertain status of top dog Justin Houston. In 2014 Houston bagged a league-high 22 sacks, but a knee injury that cut five games off his 2015 season lingers. He had ACL surgery in February, and even with a rapid recovery he’s apt to miss at least the first handful of games. It wouldn’t be surprising if Houston missed the entire season. If he rushes back, he risks not only further injury but also a distinct decline in play. Houston might be fine come October. The Chiefs are praying he will be, but it’s hard to believe those prayers will be fully answered.

The Chiefs didn’t bring in any outside reinforcements at linebacker, so it’s all on internal development and coaxing one more functional year out of aging Tamba Hali. The veteran Hali, who turns 33 in November, has “just” 12.5 sacks in the last two seasons while primarily working opposite Houston. He’s got a balky knee of his own and doesn’t play the run nearly as well as he used to, so it’s right to question how much he can contribute.

Dee Ford desperately needs to step up and prove the first-round pick in 2014 wasn’t wasted in taking him. In his first two seasons the Auburn product has 5.5 sacks in limited reps. He did play better late in the regular season, though in the playoffs Ford was a distinct non-factor. The defense can accept him being stiff and too easy to block against the run if he can bend the edge and pressure the opposing QB, but thus far Ford has only shown that a handful of times in two years.

The rest of the cast are castoffs. Andy Mulumba, Dezman Moses and Frank Zombo all flopped out of a Green Bay organization equally thirsty for competent pass rush help. Jonathan Massaquoi did the same in Atlanta. Rookie Dadi Nicolas has length and speed but almost zero football IQ and will cede at least 80 pounds to most offensive tackles; he played at Virginia Tech in the low 220s and the added weight to 235 at the Senior Bowl visibly slowed him.

Inside backer Derrick Johnson is a decent blitzer, but he’s far more useful being the jack-of-all trades in the middle of the defense. Johnson turns 34 this year but remains a very good all-around backer. He netted 4 sacks last year and could equal that, but asking him for more is likely to harm the rest of his contributions. Josh Mauga has 1.5 sacks in two full years starting next to Johnson inside. He’s a run defender and a good one at that, but not natural in coverage or blitzing. Perhaps Sorenson can help a little when he gets reps.

Obviously the front threesome will need to help, and they are capable of chipping in for sure. A healthy season from nose Dontari Poe certainly assists. Even though his career high is 6 sacks in 2014, Poe is exceptional at collapsing the interior protection with his quick first step and ability to sustain strength with his leg drive and tenacity. He was battling a back injury last year and that definitely impacted his ability to get into the backfield.

Jaye Howard remains one of the more underrated talents in the league. The left end is tailor-made for mild-mannered Defensive Coordinator Bob Sutton’s outside-in 3-4 attack. Howard earned a nice new contract with 5.5 sacks and very active play in his breakout 2015. I expect No. 96 to continue his upward ascent. Not having to play on the nose so much with Poe returning can only help. On the right side, Alvin Bailey will see more action after Mike DeVito’s retirement. The Bailey who played in nickel packages and even fronts will be just fine, but he has to do more in the base D. The only real depth comes in the form of second-round pick Chris Jones, but the Mississippi State product has a chance to be an impact talent in time. He actually reminds me of Howard coming out of Florida and has the athleticism to play all over the line.

3. Will the passing offense produce explosive plays?

If you ask the common NFL fan one thing they know about the Chiefs, it’s the struggles of Alex Smith and the offense to produce touchdowns and big plays from the passing game. That perception is overblown, but based in a harsh reality nonetheless.

At least Smith is trending in the right direction. His yards per completion went up from 9.9 in 2014 to 10.3 last year, improving from 28th to 23rd in the league. A year after infamously failing to throw a TD pass to a wideout, Jeremy Maclin caught 8 from Smith in his first year in Kansas City. Then again those numbers are down for Maclin from his Philly days, notably his yards per reception, which plummeted a full three yards in almost the same number of catches.

With a year of experience throwing to Maclin and Albert Wilson, Smith should feel more comfortable attacking even more down the field. Wilson is moving to primarily operating in the slot, which will require some adjustment but better fits his twitchier-than-fast skills. He was a nightmare for the Chargers, and the coaches feel moving him inside will help him cause bad dreams for more opponents.

That should give more time to Chris Conley, who has speed to burn on the outside. The third-round pick from Georgia caught 17 passes as a rookie. Considering his iffy hands and relative lack of quickness and strength in getting open in college, that’s not a bad foundation. If he can catch 30 passes for 450 yards and 3 TDs, Conley can really help diversify the offense with his long speed. I believe he is capable of that, though Raiders import Rod Streater is legit competition to cut into those opportunities. Streater posted much better numbers than that in a much worse overall offense in Oakland back in 2013, though has done little since. Fourth-round pick Demarcus Robinson was a major headache for opponents at Florida but an even bigger headache for coaches and teammates. If he gets his act together, he’s an X factor.

Either way, Smith has a lot of speed at his disposal; between those guys and Maclin, a former track star at Missouri, the Chiefs receivers can threaten any defense down the field. They can also challenge after the catch, and Smith’s accuracy plays nicely into that. With Travis Kelce one of the better receiving tight ends in the league (139 catches, 1737 yards, 10 TDs in ’14-15), it’s on Smith and the play calling if the Chiefs passing offense doesn’t produce more highlights and big plays. New Offensive Coordinator Brad Childress, who in no small part lost his head coaching gig in Minnesota by asking too much of Christian Ponder, must resist the urge to rein in Smith and stay too conservative.

Smith will always be a cautious passer. It’s in his nature and it’s how he resurrected his career. Yet in watching several Chiefs games from the last two years, it’s clear from afar he is leaving opportunities on the field by not trying to attack deeper or with passes requiring a higher degree of difficulty. If so many can see that while watching the Chiefs, surely Smith and Andy Reid see it too…right?

4. Does the young offensive line gel?

The offensive line was a jumbled mess last season. Not one player started 16 games at any position, and four different players got the nod at right tackle. None fared well.

Cohesion will be a big key. To that end, the Chiefs signed Mitchell Schwartz to solve the right tackle riddle. Schwartz played quite well for Cleveland against Khalil Mack and Von Miller, the primary AFC West nemeses he’ll face in KC. He will help in pass protection for sure, though Browns fans--and most unbiased analysts--will tell you his run blocking needs a lot of help. With former No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher finally starting to play reasonably well on the left side, the Chiefs should be a lot better on the edges. They even have promising depth at tackle with rookie Parker Ehinger, who many project to kick inside but is a player who showed me real NFL tackle potential at Cincinnati and during the Senior Bowl week.

Then again, Ehinger worked with the first team at left guard in minicamp, and reports both internal and external are bullish on his performance there. If he clicks there, it makes the tackle pool a lot shallower but could upgrade the troublesome guard spots. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif showed some promise in an up-and-down season at right guard, but it remains to be seen if he can be the long-term answer. The hope is stability to his right will help the young Canadian. His lower body coordination remains a work in progress.

A healthy return by Mitch Morse at center would be nice. Morse played well as a second-round rookie from Missouri, better in the run game than pass protection but adequate in the latter. A concussion cost him three games and he did not look right once he came back. Both he and Duvernay-Tardif are good on the move, not so much in tight quarters.

If that is the starting line, the Chiefs had better hope at least three of them start all 16 games. The depth does not inspire confidence. Jah Reid has proven with two teams now he is not really a guard, nor a good enough tackle. Jordan Devey somehow got a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots but was arguably the worst player on a bad 49ers team last year. Zack Fulton struggled while playing out of position at center as a sixth-round rookie. He’s likely the top reserve guard. Then again the team doesn’t really have a backup center unless Seattle castoff Drew Nowak adds some needed bulk and steps up…which could happen. 

5. Which 2015 edition was real?

For the first six weeks of the 2015 season, an argument could be made the Chiefs were the worst team in football. They were 1-5, losers of five in a row. The defense ranked 30th in yards per play. Only four other teams had fewer takeaways. Star running back Jamaal Charles was just lost with a torn ACL. Reid looked befuddled and defeated on the sidelines.

Context to those losses matters, even if it was hard to see in its time. Four of those six games were on the road. The only team they played that didn’t wind up in the playoffs was Chicago. For a team with endemic offensive line issues, a scattershot passing offense and inconsistent (other than punter Dustin Colquitt) special teams, things sure looked bleak.

Reid never wavered. He found combinations that worked on the offensive line and found some hot hands to fill in for Charles at running back. The defense stiffened, notably on first downs. More offensive drives made it to the red zone. The Chiefs ripped off 10 wins in a row, made the playoffs and even picked up a rare playoff win, the team’s first since Joe Montana was at quarterback. They even made a real game out of a loss in New England in the next round.

Context is also important here. Of those 10 games, just two came against playoff participants. Neither of those two teams, Pittsburgh nor Denver, had their starting quarterback for the loss. The Lions fired their offensive coordinator on the airport tarmac heading to the date in London. Cleveland nearly beat them despite Johnny Football’s atrocious performance, likely the last time he’ll ever suit up. Four of the wins came against inferior AFC West foes Oakland and San Diego. I won’t ever poo-poo division road wins, but both those games had the feel of the opponent losing more than Kansas City winning.

Anytime a team has such a starkly split season, it’s hard to put a lot of stock into either the good or the bad. I do like to believe in the power of finishing strong and carrying momentum into the next season despite having people who have actually studied this telling me it’s hogwash. Yet at the same time, it’s pretty easy to see these Chiefs being the 1-5 team and riding out an easy schedule to playoff glory.

Reid is a veteran coach, and despite losing Doug Pederson the staff around Reid is experienced and has earned the players’ trust and respect. Reid actually had a very similar type of team in Philadelphia a decade ago. His 2006 Eagles opened 4-1, lost 5 of 6 and then won out, capturing a playoff win before falling gamely in the Divisional Round. The following season the same core team, bringing back 18 starters, opened 1-3. Did Reid learn from this lost momentum? Is it even relevant? Unfortunately we have to wait to find out, but the point that we probably shouldn’t place too much emphasis on the blazing finish is well taken here.


The core team returns largely intact from a squad that ripped off 10 straight wins after a rocky start. Winning the playoff game over Houston should give them confidence heading into 2016. Getting Jamaal Charles back on offense helps mitigate the iffy status of Justin Houston on defense.

The schedule sets up interestingly. A Week 4 bye follows a road date in Pittsburgh, and then sees Kansas City travel to archrival Oakland. There is a rough patch of three road games in four weeks that includes trips to Denver and Carolina, last year’s Super Bowl combatants. Yet the final month sees three home games before a finale in San Diego, a team that doesn’t figure to be in the playoff mix by that time.

Carrying over momentum is a tricky thing. As noted above, Reid hasn’t exactly done well with it in the past. Yet the style the Chiefs play lends itself to a more consistent product after last year’s wild tumult. It might not translate into as many wins, however…

I worry about the youth on defense and the likely loss of Houston. I worry Alex Smith peaked last year. I worry Reid did, too. There is too much talent in too many key spots for this Chiefs team to simply go away, however. It’s very difficult to envision them winning any fewer than 7 games if they stay relatively healthy. Yet it would take quite a crazy confluence of events for this team to win 11 once again. Then again, that happened last year and Chiefs fans should rightly believe it could once again. Kansas City goes 8-8 in 2016. 

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