Roster holes, legitimate worries, and patience: Looking at both sides of a nervous time for Chiefs fans
While the rest of the AFC is stocking up, Kansas City has taken some backwards steps. Looking at why I'm worried and why it'll probably be OK.
This article is unlocked so we can all sit and be nervous together, or at least I can sum up your reasons for worrying (or not worrying). If you want to subscribe for the usual film review pieces, or just subscribe for “let’s all try not to panic together” opinions (rants?) like this one, you can do so for $12 a year by clicking the button below.
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the Kansas City Chiefs have been pretty quiet in the new league year, while the rest of the AFC West… has not.
The Chargers traded for Khalil Mack, signed J.C. Jackson, and signed both Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson, bolstering a defense that was a weak spot for them last season.
The Broncos traded a boatload of picks and a few players for Russell Wilson, filling out a solid roster with the quarterback they’ve been missing for years. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, they signed Randy Gregory, one of the most coveted pass rushers in free agency.
Even the Raiders have gotten in on the action, signing edge rusher Chandler Jones and then trading Yannick Ngakoue (now a non-necessity with Jones/Crosby on the edges) to the Colts for cornerback Rock Ya-sin, helping address a secondary that badly needed help while upgrading their pass rush.
In the meantime, the Chiefs… well, they did sign Justin Reid.
Outside of that, Kansas City’s offseason has been notable mostly for its silence. They’ve brought back fullback Michael Burton, offensive lineman Andrew Wylie, and backup quarterback Chad Henne while retaining tight end Jody Fortson (who, let’s be clear, is a dude I love, but that’s a separate point). They’ve also restructured Frank Clark’s contract to keep him around for the 2022 season.
We’ll talk more about that Clark restructure (which is basically a pay cut) in a bit, but it’s representative of what has the fanbase currently feeling a bit… angsty (and perhaps rightfully so). It’s a retention of the status quo in an offseason where people were expecting to see some big changes.
Watching the AFC West (as well as teams like the Bills, Bengals, and Ravens, all of whom have gotten better in the last week) be aggressive in free agency has been… well, an experience so far. So is it time to start getting nervous? Or is that premature? There are arguments to be made on both sides. Let’s talk about them, starting with the “oh crap” and ending with the “it can still be very OK.”
Why I’m worried
Let’s start with what the Clark deal represents. On one hand, there’s some common sense to the restructure/pay cut. The Chiefs were always going to have to pay dead money, and given their total lack of bodies at the defensive end position it makes sense to try and keep Clark around to have a certain “floor” at the position.
The problem, as I said above, is what that seems to represent. In an offseason where the Chiefs have said they are prioritizing the defensive line, retaining Clark (who, outside of a several-game stretch last season, has been a below-average pass rusher the last 2 seasons) feels like more of the same. It feels like a starting position being awarded by default.
Seeing players like Za’Darius Smith, Chandler Jones, and Randy Gregory sign for not-outlandish money while the Chiefs stand pat (well actually, get worse, given the fact that Melvin Ingram was their best edge defender last year and he has not be re-signed) is concerning. They’ve also passed on multiple interior defensive linemen who could have helped superstar Chris Jones, who has been a one-man show far too often the last 3 seasons.
As of now, the Chiefs have started to run out of options to try and improve the pass rush from last year. Jones is a great player, and will continue to be, but to have a consistently good pass rush a team needs 3 guys who are above average at the very least. As of right now, the Chiefs have Jones and… well, that’s it. We’ve seen in previous years that doesn’t work (every pass rusher needs help. That’s why the Rams keep grabbing help for Aaron Donald). And the pickings in free agency have narrowed considerably.
In the meantime, the Chiefs have (despite the signing of Reid) gotten thinner on the back end as well. Cornerback Charvarius Ward, who was a standout last season and has been solid for multiple years, received a well-earned payday elsewhere and there isn’t an obvious replacement on the roster. The Chiefs are down to 2 cornerbacks (Sneed and Fenton) who have consistently shown the ability to play at a level needed to have success in the NFL. They also are short a safety at the moment, with Tyrann Mathieu, Dan Sorensen, and Armani Watts all being free agents.
On paper, the situation doesn’t look terrific in Kansas City on the defensive side of the ball. As of now, they’ve lost Ingram, Ward, and Mathieu (key contributors), and they haven’t upgraded on problem areas last season (the pass rush from the edge besides Ingram, the interior pass rusher besides Jones, the 3rd linebacker, the 3rd safety) that cost them in multiple games.
In short, Kansas City’s defense was a problem at times last year and it’s demonstrably worse on paper as of right now. That’s a definite cause for concern, particularly when there have been ample opportunities for upgrades/replacements to be made.
In the meantime, the offense (which, to be fair, was once again a top 3 offense in efficiency last season) has remained stagnant as well. While bringing back Burton, Wylie, and Fortson are moves I like, those aren’t any game changers and shouldn’t be counted on to improve on last year’s performance. Further, Byron Pringle is testing free agency, meaning the receiver that was most passably the number 4 option last year may not be back. And while the offense was very good last season, it lacked the consistency it had shown in previous years and feels due for at least some movement/upgrade. That has yet to surface.
And that’s where we get to the fear of what this all represents.
One concern with Chiefs over the last year is the seeming disconnect between their view of some players (or results on the field) vs what the results are. Personnel decisions (playing Sorensen/Niemann over superior options, treating Clark like a franchise defensive end when his level of play hasn’t been there) and even strategic decisions (not altering offensive approach to more of a “ground and pound” once teams started overplaying the pass to a near-comical degree) at least at times give the appearance that the Chiefs have an unwavering belief that their current approach (whatever that approach may be) or “priors” on a player/strategy will be proven correct if they just give it a little more time. While being who you are is a good thing, being able to pivot is a better thing.
Is that fair? Maybe not. Is it still a very real fear, and as of this moment, there hasn’t been much done to alleviate said fear.
Of course (deep breath), there’s another side to this.
Why it’s (probably) going to be OK
Let me bring you back to last year at this time. The new league year began on March 17, 2021 (this year it began on March 16, or yesterday). Both were preceded by a 3 day legal tampering period, so it’s safe to say the league year FELT like it began at that point.
Here’s a look at what the Chiefs did during (roughly) that time period:
Kyle Long (G) signed. Joe Thuney (G) signed. Blake Bell (TE) signed.
Darrel Williams (RB) signed. Taco Charlton (DE) signed. Damien Williams (RB) released.
Keep in mind that Eric Fisher and Mitch Schwartz had been released on March 11, the week before the new year started.
That list is… well, it has Joe Thuney. And Kyle Long was at least a name people recognized, as was Taco Charlton. But really, the only actual difference-maker the Chiefs had signed was Thuney at this point in the offseason.
They were down both of their offensive tackles and desperately needed an upgrade at every position along the interior line. The situation was as dire as any position group in the NFL on a contender. They also had (does this sound familiar?) some very real concerns at the linebacker position and with the pass rush. However, it was the offensive line where the biggest worries were.
What ended up happening? The Chiefs ultimately addressed the offensive line more effectively than anyone thought possible, utilizing a trade to land Orlando Brown and exceptional drafting (part of which was luck) to snag Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith. They also grabbed Nick Bolton, who was better as a rookie than many (myself included) anticipated he would be in the same draft. Before that, they snagged Jarran Reed (who didn’t work out as planned but was an excellent signing at the time) in the “second wave” of free agency. They had also grabbed depth for assurance like Austin Blythe and retaining multiple other interior OL along with Mike Remmers.
In other words, by the time training camp rolled around, the Chiefs had managed to take a massive weakness and turn it into a strength. While it seems nearly impossible for them to make that kind of rebuild along the defensive line (given the amount of luck involved in the draft and the difficulty in finding high-level defensive linemen later in the draft), the overall point is there’s still a great deal of time for the Chiefs to make an aggressive move.
Let’s theorize here… let’s say the Chiefs (this is just an example) traded for Danielle Hunter, then signed Akiem Hicks and JuJu Smith-Schuster. That would leave plenty of room in the draft or second wave of free agency for them to attack the cornerback position (where Veach has shown the ability to find value), and people would likely be more than happy with the improvement in key areas.
That’s just one direction they can go, with the overall point being this… it’s early. There’s lots of time (and still some good players) available for the Chiefs to improve on some obvious problem spots. They’ve shown in the past (the aforementioned offensive line makeover, the total defensive makeover following the 2018 season) that they can do it. It just might take some time.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not nervous. And until they get it done, it will be a nerve-wracking offseason.