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Kansas City Chiefs 2018 Season Preview

Read Sport logo Read Sport 12/08/2018 David Howell

Since bottoming out in 2012 and hiring Andy Reid as head coach, the Kansas City Chiefs have become a team you know what to expect from; cautious when they have the ball, destructive when they don’t, and finishing up with a winning record without being serious championship contenders.

They were stuck in a moment. They very much can get out of it.

2017 summary

a group of baseball players playing a football game: Peter Aiken/Getty Images Sport © Peter Aiken/Getty Images Sport Peter Aiken/Getty Images Sport

The new direction for the Chiefs was set in the 2017 NFL Draft, when they traded their 2018 first-rounder to move up for quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The Red Raider gunslinger wasn’t going to be expected to line up in red against the Raiders, or anyone else, right away though; the plan was for him to learn behind Alex Smith to work on the more nuanced aspects of NFL quarterbacking.

What probably wasn’t in the script was the idea that the learning could go the other way – not only would Smith provide Mahomes with a brain, Mahomes would evidently provide Smith with a heart. Smith legitimately started the season as an MVP candidate, his accuracy and discretion suddenly and inexplicably paired with a willingness and ability to go deep to the likes of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Throw in standout rookie Kareem Hunt – who fumbled his first NFL carry but dismantled the New England Patriots for the remainder of the opening-night game in Foxboro and kept going from there – and you have a devastating offense that carried the Chiefs to a 5-0 start. Remarkably, this was the third time this decade – after 2010 and 2013 – that the Chiefs were the last unbeaten team in the NFL.

It couldn’t last. It spectacularly didn’t last, as the offense stopped firing on all cylinders and a defense missing the injured Eric Berry became a severe liability. Losing to the Steelers by six and the Raiders by one – the latter an all-time classic finish involving two untimed downs – was no reason for shame. Losing two games in three weeks to the Giants and the Jets, with a home loss to the Bills in between? That’s another matter. New York teams at MetLife went 2-0 against the Chiefs and 4-10 against everyone else.

However, once the Chiefs settled in with offensive coordinator Matt Nagy calling plays – Reid handing those duties off amidst the midseason struggles – they surged again with three straight home wins to go 9-6 and clinch the AFC West with time to spare. Week 17’s trip to Denver had nothing riding on it, allowing Mahomes to get a live game under his belt, before a Wild Card game with the Titans proved a microcosm of the first three months of the season as the Chiefs blew a 21-3 lead to lose 22-21.

Offseason moves

Well, for a start Nagy has gone, to be the Chicago Bears head coach.

More pertinently, though, the Chiefs have now committed to Mahomes, cashing in on Smith after his unrepeatable 2017 by trading him to a Washington team that paid the price for refusing to commit to Kirk Cousins. Literally; they gave up a third-round pick plus Kendall Fuller, who had a breakout 2017 and still has two years left on his rookie deal.

That latter detail is significant, because the Chiefs – long in cap hell under ex-GM John Dorsey – have now filled two positions (QB and slot corner) with rookie-contract players. That freed them up to make a couple of big moves in free agency, signing Sammy Watkins to add even more speed to the receiving corps and Anthony Hitchens to shore up a linebacking group badly affected by the decline of Derrick Johnson. (For his part, Johnson’s contract was voided and he joined the Raiders’ anti-youth movement.)

There was also one significant trade the other way, as Marcus Peters was unexpectedly jettisoned to the Rams in a deal that can only be assumed to have been for off-field reasons.

Down that first-rouinder, the Chiefs don’t have any likely instant-impact draft picks, though they did trade up in the second for Breeland Speaks and fascinatingly announced the 283-pounder as a linebacker. Picking a big edge-setter like him may well be an attempt to provide balance to the team’s heavily used dime packagewhere third-rounder Dorian O’Daniel is also likely to contribute as a coverage linebacker.

Team strengths

a group of baseball players on a field: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images Sport © Justin Edmonds/Getty Images Sport Justin Edmonds/Getty Images Sport

Mahomes has one of the biggest arms in the NFL and he’s got three of the best vertical threats in the NFLto throw to. That is a scary prospect for any defensive coordinator, and Hunt has the ability to feast on defenses who sell out to stop the deep ball. Throw in a functional O-line, and you have one of the NFL’s top offenses if all goes to plan.

Team weaknesses

It’s not remotely a given that all will go to plan. Mahomes was horribly raw coming out of Texas Tech, going after big plays at the expense of any kind of rhythm. You can get away with that against Big 12 “defenses,” but NFL stop units actually know what they’re doing.

The defense has two elite players – Berry and Justin Houston, both of whom have durability question marks – and not much else in the way of proven building blocks. Only three teams allowed more passing yards last season, despite – or because of? – the Chiefs using a dime package on almost half of all snaps. They also allowed 4.3 yards per carry, tenth-worst in the league, despite never giving up more than 27 yards on one run – suggesting they were giving up back-breaking chain-moving carries time after time. Putting long drives together was all too easy against this team in 2017, and it could happen again in 2018.

Best case

Any team with this much big-play threat on offense has the potential to tear up the league. There’s enough good defensive players for the stop unit to be functional, and functional is all it will need to be if Mahomes and his bomb squad can explode on drive after drive. They tear up the regular season, and it takes a special team – presumably the Patriots – to stop this juggernaut, who in this scenario might well start the 2019 season tipped to win it all. 13-3, first in AFC West, lose in AFC Championship Game

Worst case

a group of football players on a field: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images Sport © Maddie Meyer/Getty Images Sport Maddie Meyer/Getty Images Sport

Coming back from an Achilles tear is no joke – arguably harder than coming back from an ACL tear – and assuming Berry can’t do that at 100%, there’s a massive question mark at the heart of this defense again. Mahomes is a turnover machine and fans call for him to be benched until they realise it’d be for Chad Henne. Hunt is shown to be a one-month wonder and will go from 2017 fantasy darling to 2018 fantasy villain. This team has legitimate crash potential. 4-12, last in AFC West

Prediction

This is a team that seems destined to spark rollercoaster analogies. I’m personally thinking along the lines of Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point in Ohio – terrifying speed, a huge climb, then a huge drop and it’s over far too soon. But (as the last two paragraphs ought to have indicated) this team is very high on the list of teams I’m scared of predicting. 8-8, second in AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos © Justin Edmonds/Getty Images Sport Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos
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