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2021 Stats (rank)
Total Offense: 6,746 (3rd)
Offensive Touchdowns: 53 (5th)
Offensive Plays: 1,134 (5th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 703 (2nd)
Rush Attempts: 431 (20th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 342 (2nd)
Unaccounted for Carries: 165 (9th)
In 2021 the Chiefs completely overhauled their offensive line, which worked out surprisingly well. Perhaps so well that they then decided to completely overall the wide receiver position this offseason. After trading Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs added Marquez Valdes-Scantling and JuJu Smith-Schuster in free agency along with Skyy Moore in the second round of the draft. They also signed high-upside undrafted free agent Justyn Ross. This has led to major uncertainty around the target pecking order.
Fortunately, the coaching staff remains stable. Andy Reid is entering his ninth season with the Chiefs and his 24th consecutive season as an NFL head coach. Reid's approach to football is well documented and consistently successful. With Eric Bieniemy entering his fifth season as Chiefs offensive coordinator, we can expect a similar approach from the offense this season, even as the Chiefs tweak their attack to counteract 2021's defensive game plans and account for new personnel.
And it's important to note that the Chiefs, at baseline, are a very pass-heavy team. In the 2021 regular season, they operated with a 10% pass rate over expected, which led the NFL. The Buccaneers (8%) and Bills (5%) were the only other teams above 4%. In the playoffs, they pressed their foot on the gas even harder, jumping to a 12% PROE, while the Buccaneers held steady at 8% and the Bills fell to 1%. The Chiefs weren't just racking up passing attempts against bad opponents; they clearly view Patrick Mahomes as the key to their success when it matters most. Since Mahomes took over as the Week 1 starter in 2018, the Chiefs have had a 64.2% situation-neutral pass rate. Even compared to other pass-first teams, they are playing a different brand of football.
The Chiefs' wide receiver depth chart got a massive shake-up this offseason. Tyreek Hill's trade to Miami dominated the headlines, but Byron Pringle and Demarcus Robinson also departed in free agency, leaving Mecole Hardman as the only incumbent at wide receiver. Since being selected in the second round in 2019, Hardman has had a disappointing start to his career, but he has actually been decent when on the field. He has a career yards per route run of 1.62 and even his 2020 low point of 1.53 is quite respectable. But Hardman has operated as an ancillary receiver; he finished fourth on the Chiefs in routes in 2020, and dropped to fifth in 2021, behind Robinson and Pringle. Hardman will now have an opportunity to prove that he's been underutilized.
Hardman is in a difficult position, however, because his skillset overlaps somewhat with new starter Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Hardman ran Go routes on 28% of his 2021 snaps, making the straight-down-the-field route his most common deployment. Valdes-Scantling ran Go routes at an even higher 38% clip and looks like the more natural successor to Tyreek Hill as the primary deep threat in the offense. Hardman ran a 4.33 40 at the Combine, but Valdez-Scantling's 4.37 was only a hair slower, and as noted by The Athletic's Nate Taylor, he is the only player to have run faster than Hill over the last two seasons.
Hill was more than just a deep threat, though. Go routes made up 23% of his receiving snaps last season, but he was also heavily utilized on Crossing, Hitch, and Out routes, which combined for 46% of his snaps. These routes made up only 26% of Valdes-Scantling's 2021 total, although he was quite decent when running them, with a combined 1.62 YPRR. Valdes-Scantling's ability to layer intermediate routes onto his straight-line field-stretching role will be one of the major determining factors in how targets are distributed in Kansas City this season. Given Mecole Hardman's 1.38 YPRR on Crossing, Hitch, and Out routes, Valdes-Scantling looks like the higher upside outside wide receiver. At a minimum, he is likely to be Patrick Mahomes' primary deep threat, and there's a small but real possibility he emerges as a true No. 1 option. If Valdes-Scantling sticks to his traditional field stretching role, it could allow Hardman to finally deliver on his second round promise.
Hardman's ability to succeed on the outside is another major domino for the offense because he looks likely to be boxed out of slot snaps. JuJu Smith-Schuster is in line to start from the slot, and second-round rookie Skyy Moore is likely to see snaps there as well. Smith-Schuster played 85% of his snaps in the slot in 2020 and 80% in 2021. Hardman, who played 53% in the slot in 2020 and 51% in 2021, will have to operate more from the outside if he is going to handle a full-time role. However, Smith-Schuster may also graduate from a pure slot receiver to a player who can move around the formation. In his 2018 career year, Smith-Schuster played 61% of his snaps in the slot and 39% out-wide. He has upside for a new career year if he can return to that style of deployment.
However, it's worth considering how poor Smith-Shuster's efficiency has been in recent seasons. From 2019 to 2021, he ran 1,356 routes and saw 244 targets for 1,695 yards. Yes, his quarterbacks were a fading Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, and Duck Hodges, but his 1.25 YPRR is still a major red flag. It's easy to forgive his 6.9 yards per target, which could be entirely driven by poor quarterback play. But with a shallow average depth of target of 7.5, his target rate of 18% was also very poor. His shallow routes should have paired solidly with Roethlisberger's quick time to throw, yet Smith-Schuster drew targets like a run-of-the-mill tight end over the last three seasons. Patrick Mahomes gives him access to a high-end ceiling once again, but his recent play indicates a lower-than-ideal floor.
Valdes-Scantling, Hardman, and Smith-Schuster currently make up the Chiefs projected three-receiver set, but things are further complicated by the Chiefs' second-round selection of Skyy Moore, a three-year player out of Western Michigan. Moore was highly productive in college, particularly as a true junior when he delivered a 95-1,288-10 receiving line, which was good for 41% of Western Michigan's receiving yards and 45% of their receiving TDs. Moore played 37% of his career snaps in the slot and should back up Smith-Schuster there to begin training camp. However, Moore was also quite good on the outside, with 3.16 YPRR from the outside in 2021, and he could ultimately see snaps from a variety of locations. Moore may even be used to stretch the field at times. He was shockingly efficient on Go routes in 2021, with 4.79 YPRR, and his 4.41-speed indicates that he may be able to challenge at all levels of the field. Moore's exact path to playing time is murky, but the ultra-productive early-declare second-rounder could ultimately prove to be the Chiefs' best receiver by the end of the season. His all-around skill-set should make all three of the Chiefs' current starting wide receivers nervous. Justyn Ross also lurks as an exciting ancillary option and will make projecting wide receiver route shares extremely difficult if he earns playing time. As a true freshman at Clemson, Ross had more receiving yards than Tee Higgins. His extensive injury history makes it unlikely that he recaptures that magic; his ceiling is immense if he does.
Travis Kelce, meanwhile, is locked in. Kelce drew the ire of agists in 2021 when his average depth of target dropped from 8.9 to 7.6, his target rate dropped from 26% to 21% and his YPRR dropped from a career-high 2.59 to a near career-low 1.92. (2015's 1.89 mark is the only other time he's been below 2.0). Shallower routes, fewer targets, and lower efficiency are genuinely concerning signs for a soon to be 33-year-old. But it's hard not to be excited about Kelce's target upside in 2021. Although Hill's game-breaking ability is gone, it's hard not to feel that the Chiefs will get better play at the WR2-3 positions. That should make it difficult for defenses to completely key on Kelce, despite a high likelihood that he will be the top option in the passing game. If Kelce can stave off a further decline in efficiency he is poised for a huge season.
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The Chiefs completely overhauled their offensive line in 2021, and it paid huge dividends. Kansas City ranked second in Pro Football Focus' run blocking grade in and sixth in pass blocking grade. They return the entire unit in 2022. 4for4's Justin Edwards ranks them as the NFL's second-best line, with expectations that the unit will gel further in 2022. PFF's Mike Renner ranks the line ninth, citing concerns about RT Ryan Niang's pass protection. In either case, they are likely to be one of the best run blocking units in the league, as they were in 2021.
Despite excellent blocking, Clyde Edwards-Helaire struggled badly in his second season. Perhaps still recovering from a post-Super Bowl gall bladder surgery, Edwards-Helaire finished RB36 in NFL Next Gen's rush yards over expected / attempt, RB55 in PFF's breakaway percentage, and RB53 in PFF's elusive rating. He was more promising as a rookie, finishing RB17 in RYOE/att, RB41 in breakaway percentage, and RB16 in elusive rating. Still, even if he plays better this season, Edwards-Helaire faces an early-down squeeze from free agent addition Ronald Jones. When Jones last saw meaningful playing time in 2020, he ranked RB11 in RYOE/att, RB38 breakaway percentage, and RB26 in elusive rating. Jones also threatens Edwards-Helaire's goal-line role and could make the nominal starter dependent on receiving work for consistent value.
But concerningly, Edwards-Helaire finished RB78 in yards per route run in 2021. Ronald Jones, who presumably learned his route running style from studying tape of headless chickens, finished just two spots lower. And shockingly, Jones' 1.10 career YPRR is meaningfully higher than Edwards-Helaire's 0.89. This is not to say that Jones should be expected to see receiving work over Edwards-Helaire; he won't. But it's still not a great sign that the former LSU receiving specialist has delivered the receiving efficiency of a two-down grinder to begin his career.
With Darrel Williams now in Arizona, Edwards-Helaire has a chance to take over third down duties. But unless he takes a step forward in his third season, he could get squeezed on receiving downs by Jerick McKinnon, who saw 17 targets in the Chiefs' three playoff games and was re-signed in June. Overall, the Chiefs backfield profiles as a weekly headache. Edwards-Helaire's youth and draft capital make him the highest upside play, but all three backs are likely to have their (unpredictable) moments.
PointsBet Over/Under: 10.5
The Chiefs have the hardest schedule in the NFL, per Warren Sharp's strength of schedule rankings. They get two games each against the Chargers, Broncos, and Raiders in the loaded AFC West and also face the Bills, Bengals, and Buccaneers on top of playing the 3/4 respectable NFC West. Matchups with the AFC South teams are the only non-Seahawks soft spot in their schedule. With a new wide receiver corps that lacks anyone close to Tyreek Hill's superstar talent, there are going to be frustrating moments and serious growing pains.
And yet... this is a Patrick Mahomes-led team with elite coaching, continuity on the offensive line, and a solid defense. They may struggle to match last season's 12 victories, but I still want the over.