The difference between the Kansas City Chiefs making it to Super Bowl 53 and getting eliminated from the playoffs may have been just a few inches. Dee Ford was just barely in the neutral zone before a play in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship against the Patriots, negating a game-clinching interception for Kansas City.
The Chiefs were that close, but it wasn’t the only reason their season ended two weeks before a chance at a Lombardi Trophy.
The usually unstoppable Patrick Mahomes-led offense finished with only 290 yards of total offense and less than 21 minutes of possession. The defense — which was shaky all year long — gave up 524 total yards. New England had a six-play, 65-yard touchdown drive in the last two minutes of regulation and a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in overtime.
The Patriots played the much better game and got a deserved win. But the Chiefs were still so, so close.
It’s part of the reason they’re currently tied with New England for the best Super Bowl 54 odds. The Chiefs also entered the offseason with a roster that didn’t need much tweaking — especially on offense. They already averaged more than 35 points per game, something only the 2013 Broncos and 2007 Patriots had done before in a season. And Mahomes, their 23-year-old quarterback who won the AP Most Valuable Player Award in his first full season as a starter, isn’t going anywhere.
The future looks bright in Kansas City, but the team still came up short in 2018. Did the Chiefs do enough this offseason to get over that hump and into the Super Bowl?
A pricy makeover probably didn’t make the Chiefs’ pass rush better
The Kansas City defense gave up the second-most yards in the NFL during the regular season and finished 24th in points allowed. It was bad enough that defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was fired and replaced in January with Steve Spagnuolo. That doesn’t mean the Chiefs’ defense was bad at everything, though.
No team had more sacks than the Chiefs, who finished the year with 52.
That was partly due to teams needing to pass often to keep up with the Chiefs’ offense. However, it was also a reflection of Kansas City’s talented trio of pass rushers.
Chris Jones did the heavy lifting with 15.5 of the team’s 52 sacks, followed by Ford and Justin Houston, who had 13 sacks and nine sacks, respectively. With those three keeping the heat on quarterbacks, the Chiefs were relatively good at preventing big plays. Instead, the Chiefs were nickel-and-dimed to death by offenses.
All of that would lead you to believe that everything on the Chiefs’ defense needs to be addressed except the pass rush. But nowhere on the roster will look more different in 2019.
Filling their shoes are former Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark and former Saints defensive end Alex Okafor. Clark cost Kansas City a 2019 first-round pick to acquire, and was promptly given a five-year, $104 million contract. Okafor was more of a bargain signing with a three-year, $17.9 million deal.
Landing Clark was big for the Chiefs, but he ate most of the money the team saved by releasing Houston and trading Ford.
Was it worth the investment? Maybe not.
According to Pro Football Focus, Clark pressured a quarterback on 64 of his 441 pass rush snaps with Seattle in 2018. PFF’s “Pass Rushing Productivity” formula measures efficiency and Clark’s score of 8.7 was fourth-best in the NFL among players on the field at least 50 percent of the time.
That justifies his huge price tag — as well as his fit in the Kansas City defense — but Ford was third-best at 8.9 and Houston was fifth at 8.6. Okafor was way down at 43rd with a 5.6.
What does it all mean? That the Chiefs’ pass rush will likely take a step backward even after pouring resources into the group.
It’ll mostly be on the Chiefs’ 2018 draft class to step up in year two
A fresh cast of pass rushers wound up the focus of the offseason, but the Chiefs also filled a huge need in the secondary with a couple veteran additions. Tyrann Mathieu and Bashaud Breeland should help the Chiefs slow down passers and make up for the departure of Eric Berry, who was sidelined more often than not in recent years.
But Mathieu and Breeland aren’t going to be enough to turn the defense into a significantly better group — especially if the pass rush falls off.
If the Kansas City defense gets better, it’ll probably be because its young players step up in a big way.
A year ago, the Chiefs spent their first four picks of the draft on defensive players. None did much to help fix the Chiefs’ defensive issues.
Second-round defensive end Breeland Speaks had just 1.5 sacks as a rookie, third-round defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi didn’t do much in his 11 starts, and third-round linebacker Dorian O’Daniel only saw rotational action in the second half of the season. Fourth-round safety Armani Watts spent most of his first season on injured reserve with a core injury suffered in Week 5.
But the defense — including the rookies — improved as the 2018 season went on, even if only a little bit. Nnadi and O’Daniel, in particular, played their best football of the year in December.
If two or three of those second-year players take a step forward during their sophomore campaigns, it’d make a huge difference. The Chiefs could fill their biggest holes with young players already on the roster.
Speaks could give the Chiefs a homegrown pass rusher off the edge to complement Clark. Nnadi could plug up a run defense that allowed five yards per carry. O’Daniel could shape up a linebacking corps that was one of the NFL’s worst in 2018. And Watts could pair with Mathieu to make an opportunistic and dangerous pair of safeties.
The Chiefs went back to the well in the 2019 NFL Draft too. They picked safety Juan Thornhill near the end of the second round, then added defensive tackle Khalen Saunders in the third round. Those are two more players who could lead a turnaround.
Or all those young players could struggle and leave Kansas City stuck in neutral. That’d put the team right back where it was in 2018 — forced to outscore all of its opponents with a prolific offense.
That’s not really infeasible, though.
Kansas City should still score a ton and be hard to beat
The Chiefs’ current state of affairs can’t be discussed without mentioning that Tyreek Hill is under investigation for the alleged battery of his 3-year-old son. He has not been arrested or charged, but he’s been temporarily suspended by the Chiefs during the investigation. He could potentially land on the NFL’s version of paid leave: the commissioner’s exempt list.
It’s possible the investigation ends with no legal ramifications for Hill, and he may avoid punishment from the NFL. But it’s more likely than not that the receiver misses at least a little time during the 2019 season, if he even makes it to the season without getting released by the Chiefs.
He would be a difficult player to replace. The Chiefs drafted speedy receiver Mecole Hardman near the end of the second round, but it’d be silly to count on the same production as a three-time Pro Bowler with 2,662 receiving yards in the last two seasons.
The Kansas City offense lost a few players in free agency too. Center Mitch Morse, tight end Demetrius Harris, wide receiver Chris Conley, and running back Spencer Ware all signed elsewhere.
There’s also the absence of running back Kareem Hunt, who was released in November after video surfaced of him assaulting a woman. The Chiefs’ running game did fine after his departure, but now the team will go a full season without the Pro Bowl back. The additions of veteran Carlos Hyde and sixth-round pick Darwin Thompson will help, but it’s doubtful they can provide what Hunt did.
All of that said, the Chiefs still have Mahomes and nothing matters more than that. Even if he doesn’t throw 50 touchdowns again — and it’s unfair to expect any player to do that — it’s hard to imagine him not being an elite quarterback for the foreseeable future.
He still has All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, wide receiver Sammy Watkins, and two of the best offensive tackles in the NFL with Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz. Andy Reid remains the head coach and Mahomes will still have Eric Bieniemy as his offensive coordinator and Mike Kafka as his quarterbacks coach.
It’s safe to assume another year of the Chiefs dropping an avalanche of points on opponents is coming.
The Chiefs are still a deserved favorite in the AFC West among both oddsmakers and fans.
Having Mahomes and most of the rest of the offense intact means the Chiefs have a head start on most of their competition. Kansas City should to win plenty of games and stay in contention.
But it’s fair to think that the 2019 offseason could chip away at one of the NFL’s best teams. Before the NFL Draft, a FanPulse survey showed 95 percent of Chiefs fans said they were confident in the direction the team was headed. After the draft, it dropped to 85 percent. Kansas City’s lack of a first-round pick and the ongoing investigation of Hill likely explain the slide.
It’s hard to stay on top in the NFL (for everyone except the Patriots), and the Chiefs got through their offseason with more questions than answers. Getting to the Super Bowl doesn’t look like it’ll be any easier of a hurdle for the Chiefs to clear in 2019.