Here we go, days away from a new season. The roster is set, the practice squad is rounded out and the Chiefs are ready to put that last bad outing in the rear-view mirror. Pundits across the sports universe have the Chiefs as one of, if not the best team in the NFL and certainly in the AFC, but that is not to say the Chiefs can get complacent as they look for a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how absurd two rookie starters protect the league’s best player would be. Crazy as it sounds, the Chiefs appear to have done one better, and on Sunday, barring injury, for the foreseeable future PM 15 will be under the protection of three rookie offensive linemen.
Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith, and Lucas Niang, a 2020 opt-out, are getting thrown into the fire with some serious responsibility in the eyes of the Chiefs Kingdom. With Humphrey beating out off-season acquisition and presently injured Austin Blythe and Niang getting the nod over Andrew Wylie, Smith seemed almost a foregone conclusion.
However, somewhat surprising was Smith beating out Laurent Duvernay-Tardif for the starting right guard spot. Duvernay-Tardif, another 2020 opt-out, seemed destined to return to his role protecting Mahomes, but on Sunday he’ll be on the bench as (fingers-crossed) draft steal Trey Smith anchors an inexperienced right side of the line.
This complete new offensive line will need to gel and quick as the first four games are critical to the Chiefs establishing an offensive rhythm and getting back to the Super Bowl. There is little room for mistakes and Mahomes did enough running in the Super Bowl. PM 15 needs to feel comfortable in the pocket and the way that will happen is when he has confidence that his new line and rookie protection is solid. The offensive line needs to prove to Patrick early in the season that they will keep his jersey clean.
The run defense has not been good in recent years and the first few games will test where they are for the ’21 campaign. In week one the run defense can expect to see a healthy dose of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. If the Browns are successful on the ground, expect teams to follow by utilizing the same tactics against this squad.
The addition of Jarran Reed and returning defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi are the first line in shoring up the run defense. Reed has been successful as a run-stuffer in Seattle and rejoins fellow former Seahawk Frank Clark in hopes of getting last season’s run games woes in check.
Behind the line, rookie linebacker Nick Bolton, who will see some additional playing time early due to the injury to 2nd year Willie Gay Jr., will need to develop quickly in the early part of this season. Bolton showed some flashes of lateral speed in the preseason and it appears will have an opportunity in the first few games to bring that to the Chiefs linebacking corp.
Tyrann Mathieu needs to get paid. Now, I don’t expect this to happen in the first quarter of the season, but this should be done. The Honey Badger is a pro and lack of a contract will not affect the way he plays the game, but he is the PM 15 of the defensive side of the ball and should be treated as such. The Chiefs are not sporting a Super Bowl ring without his contribution in the playoffs and Super Bowl, the Chiefs know this no doubt. Wouldn’t everyone involved feel better if this were done?
The Chiefs have never coveted the cornerback position. Journeymen and castoffs have been the norm over the last few seasons and have somehow not proved a weakness. I remember a few years ago the Charger’s Keenan Allen scoffing to the media about the Chiefs secondary. Although I am admittedly not an Allen fan, he had a point, well until the Chiefs beat the Chargers twice that season.
This season, the cornerback group seems better than in recent years, and that worries me. I am used to being concerned about the secondary and how they will hold up, now that it seems like a more solid group you would think it would be less of a concern, but that is exactly why it is.
This group behind the draft steal of last year, L’Jarius Sneed, appears on paper to be a considerably better lineup than the last two years. I’ve never been sold on Charvarius Ward, although serviceable, now the Chiefs add Mike Hughes, who impressed in the preseason, return Rashad Fenton, again serviceable, with DeAndre Baker and Chris Lammons.
Hughes and Baker, both one-time high draft picks, showed value in the preseason. But again, like the run defense, will be tested in the early part of the season. If this group appears to be a deficiency, teams will look to attack the secondary. With some quality quarterbacks and receiver duos on the early slate, the early season will be critical in building an identity as to who this defense will be as the season progresses.
Who will step into the role of the number two receiver? Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are known threats and will receive a lot of game-planning by opposing defensive coordinators. The #2 role will be critical in determining how many double-teams those two will face. The easy answer is Mecole Hardman, but the Kingdom waits for him to grab that crown. After an up and down preseason, Hardman will need to establish himself as a threat early this season to take the pressure off Hill and Kelce. If opposing defenses do not see a threat in the #2 spot, then expect the pressure to be on Mahomes to force throws into tight windows to his #1 receiver and safety blanket Kelce.
The preseason darling Daurice Fountain is officially a member of the Chiefs, will he continue to establish himself in the early going to solidify his roster spot? Byron Pringle, who should see some legitimate opportunities in the early part of the season will need to put pressure on Hardman to keep him focused on staying ahead of him on the depth chart.
The Four Horsemen…..I mean tight ends. It is rare for Andy Reid to keep four tight ends on the roster, yet here we are. We saw a four tight end package in the preseason, is that a glimpse of Reid’s plans? The Kingdom awaits to witness what Reid had drawn up with four tight ends on the field.
That should be fun as it is, no doubt, slowly unveiled. The other preseason darling, Jody Fortson, was the guy who added the additional roster spot the to TE room. He had a great preseason both as a blocker and pass catcher. He will need to continue to establish himself in the early part of this campaign to prove worthy of that choice. Blake Bell and Noah Gray round out that room and will both need to show value in the first four games.
Establishing the run early in the season is a must for the Take it Back Tour to be successful. Clyde Edwards-Helaire had a solid rookie campaign, although pundits near and wide expected perhaps a stronger presence. The offensive line issues certainly played into his stats late in the season. If the Chiefs can establish themselves as a strong run team behind the newly revamped offensive line, imagine what Mahomes could do.
The Chiefs need to show an ability and commitment to establishing the run in the early part of the season to force defenses to designate more personnel to stopping the run. More defenders keying on CEH, Darrel Williams, and Jerick McKinnon and a dominant run game will give Mahomes opportunities he hasn’t had since joining the league. McKinnon showed value in the preseason both in the run game and catching passes out of the backfield. A set including McKinnon and CEH would be fun to see.
The Chiefs are on a mission, to wipe away the gut-wrenching loss to the less-then-classy Tampa Bay team. The first quarter (I know the extra regular-season game messes up the quarter of a season thing) of the season will establish who this team is and how other teams approach playing the Chiefs.
The division should be the Chiefs the lose, but the Chargers are healthy for the first time in forever (not playing in the preseason will do that for a team) and will certainly be gunning for the Chiefs in their two shots at the reigning AFC Champs. If the Chiefs can solidify their identity early on, the Kingdom can expect another exciting season, a high playoff seed, and more home playoff games. The team is set and it is time to shake off that last loss. Go Chiefs!