Our 2022 NFL Preview reaches its midway point in the Midwest, where the Chiefs look to begin a new chapter after falling apart in the AFC Championship Game and parting ways with one of their most prominent playmakers. Despite advancing to their fourth consecutive Conference Championship, Kansas City collapsed in an overtime loss at home to Cincinnati, leading to a number of departures on both sides of the football, chief among them (All-Pro Receiver) Tyreek Hill. As they reload through the Draft and Free Agency, and the rest of the AFC bolsters themselves, are the Chiefs still legitimate Super Bowl contenders? Are they even the class of their own division? Has the sun indeed set on Arrowhead? Read on and find out, folks…
A More Mature Mahomes
For a variety of reasons, this upcoming campaign feels like the second act of what has already been a ridiculously accomplished career for one Patrick Lavon Mahomes II (pictured). In his five years in Kansas City (four as the starting Quarterback), he has amassed a stellar 50-13 record (.793), while leading his team to four consecutive AFC West titles and as many AFC Championship Game appearances, including back-to-back trips to the Super Bowl, in which he hoisted the franchise’s second Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl LV. Along the way he has earned a wealth of individual accolades, including four Pro-Bowl nods and a Most Valuable Player award back in 2018, while throwing for 18,991 yards and 151 touchdowns in comparison to just thirty-seven interceptions. However, in each case that the Chiefs’ season ended over the last two years, he struggled noticeably; in Super Bowl LVI, he spent much of the affair running for his life behind a porous Offensive Line (three sacks, two interceptions and a fumble), while his recklessness cost him dearly in last Winter’s AFC Championship (two interceptions and a fumble). Now, with an exodus of talent around him, what can we expect from the wildly talented Mahomes? (Head Coach) Andy Reid spent much of last season lamenting his Quarterback’s free-wheeling, cavalier play on the gridiron, which led to a career-high seventeen turnovers, with many coming during Kansas City’s uneven 3-4 start. As opposing Defenses began to utilize more and more deep shell coverages in an attempt to take away his options downfield, it took roughly half of the campaign for the 26-year-old to adjust and simply take what they were giving him. And it’s with that said that the mandate for Mahomes is to become more efficient and methodical in his approach, with an emphasis on elevating the play of those around him. After signing that mammoth ten-year, $450 million contract extension two years ago, the time has now come that his salary starts dominating the team’s cap; this season he counts for a whopping $35.7 million with that number rising as high as $50 million over the next eight years (though only six of those years are guaranteed). In this case, it will be more difficult for Reid and (General Manager) Brett Veach to ensure that he has premium talent around him, which makes it all the more imperative that he evolves into a more efficient type of Quarterback.
Shuffling the Deck
It’s no coincidence that in the same Summer that Mahomes’ annual salary was set to inflate dramatically that the Chiefs decided to part ways with (All-Pro Receiver) Tyreek Hill, who himself was asking for a lucrative new contract. Simply put, there wasn’t enough money to go around in Kansas City, as Reid and Veach ultimately traded the explosive vertical threat to the Dolphins in exchange for a First, Second, and a pair of Fourth-Round Picks in last Spring’s NFL Draft, along with a Sixth in 2023. In six years with the franchise, Hill was arguably the most dangerous deep threat in the league, hauling in 479 receptions for 6,630 yards and fifty-six touchdowns, averaging 13.8 yards per catch in the process. In his four years with Mahomes, he averaged 80.9 receiving yards per game on 14.2 yards per catch with aa total of forty-seven all-purpose touchdowns. Furthermore, his elite speed consistently pulled coverage away from his teammates, opening up a wealth of real estate to work within. Unfortunately, the Cheetah wasn’t the only pass-catcher to leave Arrowhead this offseason, as Demarcus Robinson and Byron Pringle also left in free agency, leaving a cadre of new faces for Mahomes to throw the football to. Joining the incumbent Mecole Hardman is (former Steeler Pro-Bowler) JuJu Smith-Schuster (pictured) and (former Packer) Marquez Valdes-Scantling, along with (2022 Second-Round Pick) Skyy Moore. Valdes-Scantling showed flashes of his deep speed in Green Bay, while Smith-Schuster is much more of a physical presence over the middle, though neither have proven to come close to what Hill brought to the table. And this is where Hardman can really make an impact; the 24-year-old possesses blazing speed, but has been largely inconsistent in his three seasons with the club, making more of an impression on Special Teams where he has returned 923 yards on kicks and 500 yards on punts, though the bulk of that production came as a rookie. With (perennial Pro-Bol Tight End) Travis Kelce still roaming the gridiron, this has the look of a very different Receiving Corps, albeit a more controlled one provided someone steps up.
During the past four years of success in Kansas City, the x-factor (or s-factor in this case) has been the play of Steve Spagnuolo’s (pictured) Defense. Hiring the longtime Defensive Coordinator back in 2019 was arguably the most impactful move that Reid has made outside of drafting Mahomes over this period of time, leading directly to their triumph in Super Bowl LV. Every time the Chiefs have put together a string of victories, it’s been the Defense that has been balling out, with Spagnuolo’s trademark pressure packages and disguised coverages proving the ideal complement to an Offense that has rarely ever had problems putting points on the scoreboard. With that said, 2021 was a very uneven season for his troops, who despite yielding the eighth-fewest points in the league (21.4) and totaling the fifth-most takeaways (29), ranked twenty-seventh in total defense (369.0), including twenty-seventh against the pass (251.4) and twenty-sixth in net yards per attempt (6.7), along with twenty-first against the run (117.6) and next-to-last in yards per carry (4.8). Furthermore, they finished a middling eighteenth on third down (40.2%) and sixteenth in the red zone (57.1%), while struggling mightily to generate much pressure with a meager thirty-one sacks (29th Overall). Simply put, if they couldn’t turn you over, they probably weren’t going to stop you. In the offseason, the Chiefs parted ways with (Pro-Bowl Safety) Tyrann Mathieu and (Cornerback) Charvarius Ward in free agency, leaving a number of holes in their wake. With that said, Reid and Veach chose to invest heavily in the Draft, selecting (Cornerback) Byron McDuffie and (Edge) George Karlaftis in the First Round. The former saw plenty of reps on the perimeter and in the slot, drawing comparisons to another previous Washington product (Marcus Peters), and is expected to secure a starting spot this Fall. As for Karlaftis, the Purdue product will be counted upon to bring some sorely needed punch to the pass-rush, which was lacked serious teeth as both Chris Jones and Frank Clark were limited due to injury.
Projected Finish: 9-8
After winning their sixth consecutive AFC West title and appearing in their fourth straight AFC Championship Game, it would be a bold statement to proclaim that the Chiefs will completely fall from their perch as one of most prominent teams in the NFL. However, we have a feeling that their early season struggles from last Fall could be a portent of things to come, with the loss of Hill completely altering their approach on the offensive side of the football. Sure, Mahomes will mask a lot of weaknesses, but it’s hard to argue that they won’t take a step backward in a division that is being universally hyped as the most difficult in the league. With a hellacious schedule ahead of them, this could very well turn into a veritable transition year for Kansas City…