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2021 Team Report: Kansas City Chiefs

Last updated: Fri, May 28

Offensive Philosophy

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has a West Coast background, but he's a prolific innovator and restless tinkerer, folding in tidbits he's borrowed from other NFL play callers, picked up from the college ranks or dreamed up himself. With Patrick Mahomes executing his plans, Reid's imagination isn't restricted by the limitations of his quarterback. These Chiefs are going to throw early and often, and Reid is going to leverage the speed advantage that Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman and Clyde Edwards-Helaire give him.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Patrick Mahomes
Backup(s): Chad Henne

Starting QB: Patrick Mahomes turns 26 a few days after the 2021 season begins, but despite still being in the pre-prime phase of his career, he's widely regarded as the best quarterback in the league and has already amassed an impressive list of statistical accomplishments, not to mention a Super Bowl ring. The 6-3, 230-pound Mahomes has averaged 307.7 passing yards and 2.5 TD passes over 46 career starts, with a TD-INT ratio of 4.75-1. The toolbox Mahomes brings to work every day is so packed that it's hard to close the lid. He has ideal size, a rocket for an arm, pinpoint accuracy, ample mobility, almost supernatural vision and the creativity of Thomas Edison. Mahomes is capable of completing seemingly any pass from any arm angle, even on a dead run. The offseason releases of OTs Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz raised questions about Mahomes' protection for 2021, but the Chiefs made a late-April trade with the Ravens to get Orlando Brown Jr., a terrific young blocker who, according to PFF, allowed zero sacks and zero QB hits in 389 pass-blocking snaps last season.

Backup QB: Chad Henne will be 36 when the 2021 season begins. His only start since 2014 came last season, when he threw for 218 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions in a Week 17 loss to the Chargers. For his career, Henne completed 59.5% of his throws, with 60 touchdowns and 63 interceptions. Let's just say Mahomes' good health is of the utmost importance to the Chiefs.

Running Backs

Starter: Clyde Edwards-Helaire
Backup(s): Darrel Williams, Jerick McKinnon, Darwin Thompson, Elijah McGuire
Fullback(s): Michael Burton

Starting RB: When the Chiefs took Clyde Edwards-Helaire at the end of the first round in last year's draft, fantasy managers and Chiefs fans expected that the multitalented LSU star would pile up big rookie numbers. He'd had a monstrous final season in Baton Rouge, he was seemingly an ideal fit for the NFL's best offense, and the expenditure of first-round draft capital suggested a meaty role. Edwards-Helaire didn't quite live up to the hype, but he wasn't a bust either. In 13 games, he had 803 rushing yards, 297 receiving yards and five total touchdowns. The problem was that after averaging 113.7 yards from scrimmage over the Chiefs' first six games, he averaged only 59.7 scrimmage yards over the rest of the regular season. He also missed three games. Edwards-Helaire was held out of a Week 13 game after stomach flu had kept him out of practice in the days before, and he missed the final two games of the regular season and Kansas City's first playoff game after sustaining a high-ankle sprain in Week 15. Because he's 5-8, 209 pounds, and because the Chiefs quite likely have the best passing attack in the league, Edwards-Helaire is unlikely to finish among the league leaders in carries. But he faces no real competition as the Chiefs' lead back, and his receiving ability will keep him on the field on obvious passing downs. Edwards-Helaire figures to be a major contributor to this offense in 2021.

Backup RBs: Darrel Williams enters his fourth year with the Chiefs as the clear No. 2 behind Edwards-Helaire. Another LSU product, the 6-0, 225-pound Williams is a physical runner with below-average speed, and he's a competent pass catcher. Jerick McKinnon, signed to a one-year deal in April, is versatile and quick, but he's 29 and has a worrisome injury history. Darwin Thompson, a sixth-round pick in 2019, has only logged 80 touches over his first two seasons, and his 5-8, 200-pound frame probably limits him to a third-down role. Ex-Jet Elijah McGuire signed a one-year deal in March and will compete for a roster spot.

Fullback: Burton will replace all-time Chief Anthony Sherman and have big shoes to fill. He'll mainly be a blocker in the offense and also contribute on both kick/punt return and coverage teams.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman
Backups: Demarcus Robinson, Byron Pringle, Antonio Callaway, Cornell Powell [R], Marcus Kemp

Starting WRs: Tyreek Hill has become one of the more trusted name brands at the position. He's an electrifying playmaker with Formula 1 speed, remarkable ball-tracking skills and good hands. Hill had 15 touchdown catches in 15 games last year and also had a pair of touchdown runs. In four seasons as a full-time starter he's had 12 multiple-touchdown games. Hill has also been a prolific yardage producer, averaging 82.7 receiving yards per game since 2017. There's a big drop-off after Hill. With Sammy Watkins departing via free agency, Third-year man Mecole Hardman is the presumed No. 2. A second-round pick in 2019, Hardman showed tantalizing potential as a rookie, averaging 20.7 yards per catch and 13.1 per target. But the speedy Hardman showed little growth in 2020 and played only 45% of the Chiefs' offensive snaps. This could be a make-or-break year for Hardman, who has to prove that he can be a consistently viable pass catcher and not just a watered-down version of Hill.

Backup WRs: Demarcus Robinson figures to start in three-receiver sets. He hasn't missed a game for K.C. since coming into the league in 2016, yet he's been an afterthought in the offense, with 120 catches in 80 career regular-season games. Byron Pringle has intriguing speed, but he'll turn 28 in November, and the odds of this former undrafted free agent panning out as a diamond in the rough are fading. Antonio Callaway is a player to watch. The 24-year-old Callaway has 4.4 speed and intriguing potential, but he's already been suspended multiple times for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. He'll draw interest from fantasy managers if he can stay out of trouble and earn a spot in the WR rotation. Cornell Powell, a fifth-round pick in this year's draft, was blocked by terrific receivers for most of his college career at Clemson before breaking through with 53 catches for 882 yards as a senior. Powell's measurables and overall college stats aren't dazzling, but it's well worth monitoring his progress in August to see if he can earn a role in the league's best passing attack. Marcus Kemp's contributions come mainly on special teams.

Tight Ends

Starters: Travis Kelce
Backups: Nick Keizer, Blake Bell, Noah Gray [R]

We've exhausted the supply of superlatives for Travis Kelce. The eight-year veteran has led all tight ends in fantasy scoring for five consecutive seasons and has strung together five straight 1,000-yard campaigns, capped off by his career-high 1,416 yards in 2020. He's also hit double digits in touchdowns in two of the last three years. Kelce knows how to get open, has terrific hands, is a load to bring down after the catch and has been remarkably durable for a player who carries such a heavy workload. There isn't much evidence to suggest that either Nick Keizer or Blake Bell would become a fantasy-viable tight end if Kelce were to suffer the first major injury of his career. Perhaps one or both of the two vets will be passed up on the depth chart by rookie Noah Gray, a fifth-round pick from Duke who had 51 catches as a junior, was a team captain as a senior and was timed at 4.62 seconds during his pro day.

Place Kicker

Harrison Butker: Butker will again require a premium kicker pick in fantasy drafts, but his 2020 didn't deliver the goods on the price. While he had an excellent 25-for-27 field goal conversion rate, including no misses under 40 yards and a 4-for-4 line from 50+, he had 11 fewer field goal attempts than 2019, and was only on the fringe of the top 10 in kicker scoring and fantasy kicker scoring. He is one of the best bets to finish in the top 10 once again, but that's not worth a pick as one of the first two kickers off the board, which is his cost in most leagues.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Mecole Hardman

While he has yet to make much of an impact on offense, receiver Mecole Hardman has become a do-everything returner since he was drafted in the 2nd round in 2019, scoring a touchdown via punt return and another via kickoff return in his two seasons.

Punt Returners: Mecole Hardman

While he has yet to make much of an impact on offense, receiver Mecole Hardman has become a do-everything returner since he was drafted in the 2nd round in 2019, scoring a touchdown via punt return and another via kickoff return in his two seasons.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Orlando Brown, LG Joe Thuney, C Austin Blythe, RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, RT Mike Remmers
Key Backups: OL Creed Humphrey [R], OL Kyle Long, OL Andrew Wylier, OL Lucas Niang

The Chiefs traded for left tackle Orlando Brown and signed left guard Joe Thuney to a giant contract. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Kyle Long, and Andrew Wylie are in the right guard mix, and center Austin Blythe arrived from the Rams. Right tackle Mike Remmers has Martinas Rankin, Lucas Niang, and Yasir Durant over his shoulder. This group grades in the lower half due to change, but once settled, they have top-five potential.

Team Defense

The Chiefs defense has ceased being the achilles heel of the team since Steve Spagnuolo took over in 2019, and they leveled off as a top 10 D/ST in most scoring systems in 2020. The unit benefits from favorable defensive game scripts created by the offense, and they were able to add Jarran Reed this offseason after the Seahawks made him a cap cut. They aren't worth a pick before the last round and start with a challenging run of games (Cleveland, Baltimore, Los Angeles Chargers), but the Chiefs D/ST is still a good spot start regardless of matchup and they could get hot when the offense does because they'll face offenses in desperation mode.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Frank Clark, DT Chris Jones, DT Jarran Reed, DE Tim Ward
Backups: DT Derrick Nnadi, DE Joshua Kaindoh [R], DE Taco Charlton, DE Mike Danna, DT Tershawn Wharton

Starting DL: The Kansas City line revolves around the playmaking abilities of Clark and Jones, who both make for strong IDP plays in leagues that prioritize sacks and takeaways. Both slip into stretches of near-unblockable play, terrorizing opposing passers and affecting the overall pass defense in profound ways. The team was forced to shuffle its secondary throughout the 2020 season, but the pass rush provided great support en route to the Super Bowl. Clark was a bit disappointing in his second year as a Chief, but he closed out strong, notching 5.0 sacks and 7 tackles for loss over his final 6 games (playoffs included). The brightest star is Jones; he may never again reach his zenith of 2018 (15.5 sacks), but few interior rushers can boast his dynamic playmaking in the backfield. Nnadi is a run-stuffing specialist who tends to start games, but come off the field in passing situations. He'll clear out even more this year with the dynamic Reed on board. Ward is a former practice-squadder who produced good pressure in a Week 17 start. He's the early favorite to start opposite Clark on the edge, but the spot will be up for grabs in camp.

Backup DL: The Chiefs swooped in fast to sign Reed, whom the Seahawks decided wasn't worth a $9 million cap hit and released. Reed will make for great depth as a penetrating interior presence - he racked up 19.0 sacks over his last 42 games in Seattle. He'll likely see more snaps than most rotational tackles, often pairing with Clark and Jones to make for a truly imposing push up front. Fourth-rounder Kaindoh is a tantalizing prospect from Florida State, with incredible length and burst into the backfield but a long history of missed time. If he can make splash plays in camp, he'll get a foot in the door for situational snaps and a few sack opportunities. Charlton was the No. 28 pick in 2017, but finds himself on his third roster in five seasons. Danna will rotate in on the edges, with Wharton and providing depth inside.

Linebackers

Starters: SLB Willie Gay, MLB Anthony Hitchens
Backups: MLB Nick Bolton [R], WLB Darius Harris, MLB Ben Niemann [R], WLB Dorian O'Daniel

Starting LBs: The Chiefs don't spend much time in base sets with three linebackers, but Hitchens and Gay will always see ample run. Hitchens is the more stable, working the middle for a team-high 57% of snaps. He peaked in 2018 with 135 tackles, which have dwindled over the past 2 years, and he's no longer an attractive fantasy play as a limited run-thumper. The most upside can be found in Gay, last year's second-round pick and the team's future on the second level. Gay has the tools needed for a high-volume, high-impact fantasy linebacker: blazing sideline-to-sideline speed and aggressive tackling, which make up for some of his deficiencies. He was sensational in a Week 16 start against the Falcons, racking up 9 tackles, a tackle for loss, and a forced fumble. He was eased in as a rookie (17 snaps a game on average), but should play a prominent role with ex-starter Damien Wilson gone.

Backup LBs: Harris will start some games, but will typically be the first linebacker off the field when he does. He proved himself valuable depth, though, when pressed into action late in 2020. Niemann is a situational cog who will draw his share of snaps, but isn't a fantasy consideration. He's never posted a 60-tackle season, with just a single sack through 45 games. In fact, it's likely the team took Bolton in the second round as his immediate replacement. Bolton is a thumper in the Hitchens mold, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him push Hitchens himself. O'Daniel is little more than a special-teams contributor.

Defensive Backs

Starters: SS Tyrann Mathieu, FS Daniel Sorensen, FS Juan Thornhill, CB Charvarius Ward, CB L'Jarius Sneed
Backups: CB Rashad Fenton, CB DeAndre Baker, FS Armani Watts

Starting DBs: Mathieu remains one of the game's most versatile and impactful safeties. Tasked as a deep safety, a slot cornerback, a box linebacker, and a pass rusher, Mathieu affects the Chiefs' playmaking defense in a multitude of ways. As a Chief he's averaged 75 tackles, 4 interceptions, 10 pass breakups, and 2.0 sacks, making for an upside DB2 option in fantasy. Sorensen is essentially a third linebacker, specializing in the run game and often exposed badly through the air. He produced 91 tackles last year, but the team would love for Thornhill, a mega-athletic ballhawk over the middle, to eat more into those snaps. Thornhill had an uneven 2020 after an impressive bounce-back from ACL surgery. He has all the tools of a playmaking centerfield-type safety, but will need to show more consistency in 2021. On the outside, Charvarius Ward took a step back after a semi-breakout 2019, but he currently sits atop the depth chart with Bashaud Breeland gone. Sneed may have already surpassed him, though, after an impressive rookie season both outside and in the slot.

Backup DBs: Fenton is another important depth piece that can play either inside or outside. He could even challenge Ward for the starting job if the latter can't work out his 2020 kinks. Baker could also work his way into the rotation; the team thought enough to re-sign him after he broke his leg in his only 2020 appearance. Baker's NFL turn has been a brutal one, but there's certainly some degree of talent in the first-round pick from two years ago. Watts once held promise as a playmaking safety, but has settled in as a special-teamer and pure depth in the secondary.