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An early look at what the Chiefs’ 2021 WR depth chart could be

After an incredibly interesting start to the NFL off-season with huge names falling into free agency and star players being cut to save cap space, it will be intriguing to see how the Chiefs’ WR room will look next season.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has seemingly been all-but-perfect in the starting role and has adapted to all sorts of adversity with ease. But over the course of the past three seasons, while he has been putting his stamp on the NFL history books, he hasn’t had a crazy amount of turnover within the WR room. That is about to change.

Mahomes has essentially had the same cast of receivers catching his record-setting touchdowns since he made his first start, and while there have obviously been one or two names on the WR depth chart that have come or gone since he took over for Alex Smith in 2018 he has basically been immune to the amount of turnover coming to the receiver room this off-season.

In preparation for the craziness every NFL off-season carries–even though this one will be, and already is, complete insanity–I thought it would be viable to take a “way-too-early” look at what Mahomes’ receiving weapons will look like next season as he and the Chiefs try to make it back to the Super Bowl for the third straight year.

First, there’s the issue of cap space and how it will keep GM Brett Veach and the Chiefs from picking up big names or expensive players. While this has been predicted to be a problem for what seems like forever, this off-season actually could be heavily affected due to the COVID-19 virus taking away fans (for the most part) from last season.

While the Chiefs were one of only 19 teams to allow fans last season that doesn’t mean they’re exempt from the troubles that COVID brought to the cap, on Wednesday Ian Rapoport reported that the salary cap for the 2021 season will be $182.5 million, an 8% drop from $198.2 million last season.

According to Over The Cap the Chiefs are about 4.3 million over the cap, but Veach showed last year that he can produce with limited cap space, and he can do it again this year with a couple restructures, picking well in the draft, and letting go of players that are not as beneficial as they might have been projected to be *cough cough* Sammy Watkins *cough cough*.

When looking into Kansas City’s future regarding wide receivers it’s important to get a base foundation set, so let’s look at who is definitely staying a Chief next year (i.e. who isn’t an unrestricted or restricted free agent):

  • Tyreek Hill, who signed a three-year extension in 2019 keeping him here till the end of the ’22 season
  • Mecole Hardman, still on his rookie deal till the end of the ’22 season
  • Byron Pringle, who is an exclusive rights free agent this season but it does not appear that the Chiefs will waive him
  • Marcus Kemp, who is typically a special teams player, signed an extension with KC on Tuesday

The rest of the current depth chart (minus UFAs or RFAs) are all on reserve/future deals which means they might take a few snaps here or there but are mainly practice squad players that can be cut and re-signed multiple times throughout the upcoming season, and they are: Antonio Callaway, Chad Williams, Jody Fortson, Gehrig Dieter, Maurice Ffrench, & recent K-State star Dalton Schoen.

With no disrespect to Hardman, whom I do believe could take on a bigger role next season, there is simply too large of a gap in talent between Hill and him or anyone else on the depth chart currently which means Veach and KC need to fill that WR2 position with someone more reliable than Watkins and more explosive than Demarcus Robinson–both set to hit free agency this week.

So where should they look for such a player? This year’s off-season, as stated above, is already beginning to look like one of the craziest free agency pools that have ever been assembled in one year. So far the list of available WR in the free agency market are:

  • Kenny Golladay
  • Will Fuller V
  • JuJu Smith-Schuster
  • Marvin Jones Jr.
  • John Brown
  • Curtis Samuel
  • Corey Davis
  • T.Y. Hilton
  • Emmanuel Sanders
  • Antonio Brown
  • Nelson Agholor
  • John Ross
  • A.J. Green
  • Golden Tate
  • DeSean Jackson
  • Keelan Cole
  • Mohamed Sanu
  • Tavon Austin
  • …and more

It’s obvious that this off-season’s free agency class is different than the ones preceding it, mainly because of the superstar status of many of the receivers, but it’s also unique because of the timing of the pandemic and the lowering of the salary cap, meaning some might not get that huge money they might expect any other off-season.

So some receivers might cash in and go to a rebuilding team like Jacksonville, who has the most cap space at $73.7 M, or to the Jets ($69.2 M), but there will always be those who come to a Super Bowl contender for less money because they know what they truly want is a ring, not money, that’s where the Chiefs come in.

Considering the Chiefs already have speed covered in their current depth chart with Hill and Hardman the next likely choice would be for someone big who can win at the line and get the 50/50 balls, someone that Watkins was supposed to be for more than just the first games of the year and the 2020 Super Bowl run.

Someone like Tennessee’s Corey Davis? Davis is 6’3, young (26), and is physical enough to mow over any team’s secondary and jump over any defender for a jump ball. Or someone like Detroit’s Kenny Golladay who has shown time and again (below) that he can make the difficult catches and still have the speed to explode upfield once he’s free of defenders.

Both of these skilled receivers have traits that would make Kansas City a desirable place for them but, like previously stated, they would have to give up the chance for big money like they could get from teams who aren’t over the cap already.

While free agents like Davis, Golladay, and even Detroit’s other receiver Marvin Jones Jr., make a suitable replacement for Watkins there is still work that could be done–especially considering how many big names were injured last season and/or missed games due to COVID.

So who could be a good secondary pickup out of the free agency pool? Someone who won’t cost much and has a good track record on and off the field, maybe someone who is a good placeholder in case the worst happens.

A name that is going by the wayside is former Chiefs WR Chris Conley who spent the last two seasons in Jacksonville learning the hard way that there are major differences between well-run franchises with solid coaching and the way the Jaguars have progressed since their AFC Championship appearance in 2018, perhaps he reunites with the team that drafted him?

Another possible option is recently-announced free agent John Brown who has spent the last four seasons in three different uniforms–Arizona, Baltimore, and most recently Buffalo–but Brown has been nursing foot, knee, and ankle injuries all season, although before this past year Brown had the best season of his seven-year career.

If the Chiefs don’t decide to go deep into the free agency market there is still the 2021 NFL draft that looks to have one of the better receiver classes in recent history.

Obviously, the Chiefs have other concerns that they will look to fill in the draft–maybe a young offensive lineman or a stud linebacker–but when looking at the deep receiving core of guys coming out of college this year there is reason to believe that KC might grab a pass-catcher earlier in the draft rather than later.

One of those receivers is Florida’s Kadarius Toney who had more receiving yards, TDs, and receptions in the 2020 season than he did in his first three seasons combined. His versatility and ability to be an effective backfield player as well as wide receiver makes him a perfect fit in Andy Reid’s system, and although his draft stock has risen significantly within the last few months he could still fall to the Chiefs at #31.

Another receiver that the Chiefs might go after, especially if he falls to #63, is USC’s Amon-Ra St. Brown who has the height (6’1″) and the size (195 lbs) to be the up-and-coming big guy to fill the shoes Watkins will most likely be leaving. He’s been reliable for USC and his route-running abilities have progressed well which should mesh perfectly with Reid’s high-powered offense, not to mention he can be physical at the line and could be a useful blocker in run situations.

One final choice in the draft that might be available at #31 is Rashod Bateman from Minnesota, who would fill every possible gap that the Chiefs might have once free agency takes Watkins and Robinson, he’s 6’2″ and 210 lbs but can move with the best of them, he can win at the line and at the catch point against even the best defensive backs, but he’s also coming off an injured year which could be the only reason KC might pass on him if he falls to them.

So what does the depth chart look like next season? Which receivers will make the cut and which will be brought in to round out one of the best passing teams in the NFL? Well, based on the talent that might lower their asking price as well as the talent that is coming out of college, the depth chart next season will look something like this:

WR1: Tyreek Hill, cause a-duh
WR2: Kenny Golladay, after agreeing to a long-term deal that spreads out his signing bonus due to cap constraints
WR3: Mecole Hardman, who has one year left to progress to where everyone thought his talent level would be at
WR4: Byron Pringle, who could easily take over the WR3 position if Hardman does not play well or moves to mainly return-game play
WR5: Rashod Bateman, who falls to #31 after Toney is drafted mid-1st round

It’s clear Veach is a magician with money and has shown that he can do what it takes to get great players to come to Kansas City so the faith must first be put in him, but if he can’t then the possibility of catching throws from Patrick Mahomes and playing underneath one of the winningest Head Coaches of all time should do the trick.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below or through my Twitter @SportsGuyShawnO and be sure to check out previous stories and Shawn’s Staturdays on!

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