For better or for worse, the 2022 Chiefs are going to be different

If it is at all possible to finish 12-5, win the AFC West for a sixth consecutive year, host an AFC Championship Game and still have a frustrating season, the Chiefs may have accomplished it in 2021. Kansas City reached some of their highest highs in the Patrick Mahomes era — namely their amazing comeback with 13 seconds left in the playoffs against the Bills — but a lot of the season was defined by the lows, culminating in an historic collapse against the Bengals with a third straight Super Bowl appearance in their sights.

Before last season I wrote my annual Chiefs Think Piece, and opined that the most prolific passing attack in the NFL would benefit greatly from transitioning into a power running team. Despite finishing fourth in the league in points scored, and first in most offensive efficiency metrics, it was actually the Kansas City defense that carried the team through their most pivotal stretch of the season.

The Chiefs are the same brand name that everyone has come to respect over the last half-decade, but it won’t be the same flavor that people remember. They’ll probably be good again. They’ll probably excite some folks. But it’s going to look different. Only time will tell if what I expect comes to fruition, or if I’m as wrong as I was last year.

Offense

The narrative surrounding the 2022 season is all about Patrick Mahomes and how he will respond now that his once favorite receiving weapon — Tyreek Hill — is no longer an option. Kansas City chose to use the bulk of draft capital they received from the Dolphins as compensation for Hill on defensive players, and took advantage of free agency to replenish the receiving corps.

Knowing there isn’t one singular replacement for a unicorn of Tyreek Hill’s abilities — i.e. the fastest player in the NFL, who was singlehandedly responsible for opposing defenses changing the way they played the Chiefs — Mahomes and the rest of the offense don’t have a choice: they have to evolve. Whether or not it works is going to be what separates a Super Bowl contender (which the Chiefs could be) from a team that will be in a fight to make the playoffs (which the Chiefs also could be).

One reason why I’m optimistic is because no matter how the offense looks it’s going to be different. Patrick Mahomes used the 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons taking a blowtorch to the rest of the league, which resulted in three AFC Championship appearances, two Super Bowl appearances (2019, ’20), one world title (2019) and one league MVP (2018). It was only last year that opposing defenses colluded to alter their game plans — playing two deep safeties and forcing Mahomes to orchestrate double-digit play drives to score — that the Chiefs got knocked down a peg. When the dust settled Kansas City finished the regular season 12-5, won two playoff games, and lost in overtime by a field goal in the AFC Championship.

I’d be a homer if I concluded that that’s what Kansas City looks like in a “down” year, but it’s the closest thing to the truth I can come up with. Between Week 7 and Week 13 (basically a third of the season) the Chiefs scored more than 22 points just once, and they still finished the year fourth in the NFL in points scored. Because of how opposing teams played them, namely taking the air out of the ball whenever possible, Kansas City had the fewest possessions in the NFL yet the most points per possession. With that as the backdrop, I think you can see where I am headed with what I project for the 2022 season.

The beauty of having WR Tyreek Hill and TE Travis Kelce on the same offense is that it didn’t really matter how good anyone else was. Andy Reid could just dial up those two guys, Mahomes would find one of them, and the offense would score points. The others who caught passes were a hodgepodge of replacement-level players, ranging from Byron Pringle (whom I always kind of liked), Demarcus Robinson (who failed to make the 85-man cut on the Raiders this offseason), Josh Gordon (who didn’t make the initial 53-man roster on the Chiefs), and Mecole Hardman (who did).

In 2022 Kansas City is effectively replacing the production of Tyreek Hill with a handful of legitimate receiving options. Juju Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, rookie second round pick Skyy Moore, Mecole Hardman, and training camp revelation Justin Watson, will all have to contribute for this offense to work. It’s like that old saying that Two Heads Are Better Than One. In this case, Five Receivers Need To Become A Reasonable Substitute For One.

If how much I’ve already written about it is any indication, it’s clear that Tyreek will be missed; you’d rather have one of him than four or five of anything else. But the NFL does not operate on doing the same thing over and over and expecting similar success; it’s a game of constant changes and adjustments, and adjustments to the adjustments. If a home game in the AFC Championship means the rest of the league “figured out” the Chiefs, then that leaves quite a bit of room to expect something more now that Kansas City have the ability to offer a counter punch.

This all goes without mentioning the obvious, so forgive me. But last year I talked about the Chiefs running the football more, and they were really good at it despite not doing it as much as I had hoped. The number one strength of the entire team is the offensive line, behind Orlando Brown (left tackle), Joe Thuney (left guard), Creed Humphrey (center), Trey Smith (right guard) and whomever they decide to throw out at right tackle.

The offense lacks a true number one running back, but the assortment of guys they do have are capable of putting up league average (or better) production behind such an effective line. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is likely to start the year as the most heavily utilized option, but behind him are Ronald Jones (who is an effective runner between the tackles), Jerrick McKinnon (who is the best receiver of the group), and a lottery ticket in seventh round pick Isiah Pacheco.

If Kansas City are genuine about being a more efficient offense, then the running game will need to be used as a legitimate complement to the magic of Patrick Mahomes. I am truly convinced that the Chiefs are at their best when they are bruising and pummeling opposing defenses to death in the running game, and using it as a credible threat to set up their passing game via play action. I know it’s not the most 2022 thing to say because passing is the analytical way to enhance efficiency and, in turn, achieve wins, but what I argue is that the formula they’ve used over the last few years has already been proven. What Kansas City haven’t proved are what they look like when they are multiple, where they can impartially distribute the ball to anyone on the field on any given play.

And that, like I said earlier, is going to be the story of the 2022 season. They replaced Tyreek with three or four other guys, so why not go all the way — completing a full measure — by taking advantage of the running game, too? I honestly haven’t been this excited since Patrick Mahomes was a rookie, for that was the last time that I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the Kansas City offense.

Defense

Experts project the Chiefs to win 10.5 games in 2022, which isn’t bad for a team with the most difficult schedule in the NFL that is also going through a “transition” season. I already talked briefly about the changes on offense, but how about the defense? Is it possible that, despite being significantly younger, Kansas City could have their best defense in the Patrick Mahomes era?

The Chiefs used most of their draft picks on defensive players. And they had a lot of them:

Round 1 (21): CB Trent McDuffie 
Round 1 (30): DE George Karlaftis
Round 2 (30): SS Bryan Cook
Round 3 (39): LB Leo Chenal
Round 4 (30): CB Joshua Williams
Round 7 (22): CB Jaylen Watson
Round 7 (38): FS Nazeeh Johnson*

*Johnson was the only draft pick who did not make the 53-man roster. He will likely end up on the practice squad.

The main focus of 2022 offseason was in the defensive backfield, as Kansas City drafted three cornerbacks and two safeties on top of signing safety Justin Reid to a three-year, $31.5 million deal in free agency. With a wide array of receiving talent around the league the Chiefs got younger, and faster, in an attempt to keep up.

What I think is more important than the Kansas City secondary — and the most important aspect of the defense as a whole — is how they look upfront. The foundation of any successful football team is always at the line of scrimmage, and the biggest gains the Chiefs made during the 2022 offseason were on the defensive line. It all starts with Chris Jones, the second-best defensive tackle in the NFL, but surrounding him are a troika of rushers with decent upside who all have something to prove.

The first is the the 30th overall pick from the NFL Draft, edge rusher George Karlaftis, who found his way to two preseason sacks (for whatever that’s worth) and generally impressed during training camp. The second is late free agent signing Carlos Dunlap, who at age-33 has made a career of getting after quarterbacks with regularity. And the third is Frank Clark, who after a solid 2019 campaign (in his first year with the Chiefs after getting traded by the Seahawks) has more or less fallen off a cliff the last two years.

In a way, all of Jones, Clark, Dunlap and Karlaftis have a lot of motivation this year. Jones is essentially playing for another contract, being in year three of a four-year, $80 million deal where only the first three years were guaranteed. Clark and Dunlap are basically playing to prove they still have something left in the tank. And Karlaftis is a rookie, a guy who wants to earn a massive payday in a couple years.

The most exciting facet of the Chiefs defense is probably in the least meaningful level — linebacker. Nick Bolton proved last season (in his rookie year) to be a strong run defender, and third-year player Willie Gay Jr. has received a ton of hype during training camp despite not earning the trust of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in his first two seasons. He has a chance to be a star, not only running sideline to sideline defending underneath passes but for his elite speed at the position to chase down some of the more mobile quarterbacks around the league.

In the end, unless some combination of pass rushers are able to get home on a regular basis nothing else is going to matter. You can say that about any team, to be sure, but the Kansas City secondary isn’t talented enough at this point to play coverage against elite receivers around the AFC. Veterans Rashad Fenton and L’Jarius Sneed have proven to be at least average, and rookie first rounder Trent McDuffie brings a strong pedigree, but as a threesome they are going to get cooked on repeat without a consistent pass rush.

As an armchair-analyst I tend to be a One Big Thing guy more than dissecting every ingredient that goes into the stew. When it comes to the defense, I am bullish for the simple fact that it no longer includes safety Dan Sorenson or linebacker Ben Nieman. You probably haven’t heard of either of those players, but if you have it’s because they were notoriously getting smoked by more talented, more athletic players on opposing offenses. They kept getting playing time because they had the trust of Spagnuolo, not because they were necessarily the best options.

To me, it’s a big step that neither were retained on small-dollar deals. I think we all enjoyed some of the weird yet crucial impact plays Sorenson made during his time in Kansas City, but they always seemed like so much more because expectations were so low. More often than not he would be the member of the secondary getting picked on, whether he was guarding a tight end or the third or fourth receiver.

Through these additions by subtraction, the Chiefs have significantly more potential to be a consistently average defense with a chance at some upside. Given the amount of young talent it’s probably going to take a month or two before we see the best that they have to offer, if the assumption is that they are good in the first place. I’m not totally sure what a successful season looks like out of this unit, whether it’s finishing somewhere in the top 20 or closer to the top 10, but I am confident that they have enough playmakers to steal a couple games all by themselves.

And that’s something we really haven’t seen from the Chiefs defense in the last five years. The closest thing to it was probably in 2019 when they won a Super Bowl, though no one would confuse that defense as being “great.” They just had a knack for getting stops when the game was on the line. The 2022 unit is likely to frustrate fans during various stretches of the season, but with some injury luck and a few things breaking right it definitely has the ability to reach the highest ceiling of any during the Mahomes years.

Overall Outlook

When I did my AFC West Preview last month I picked the Chiefs to go 11-6 this year. To me the record didn’t matter as much as where they finished in the division — first — because I just have a weird feeling like no matter what happened during the 2022 offseason, with the Chargers loading up, the Broncos getting Russell Wilson, the Raiders getting Davante Adams and Chandler Jones, it’s still going to be Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs celebrating another divisional title in the end.

I’m a Chiefs fan, so that’s the type of prognostication you should expect from this blog. I have simply seen too much of what Mahomes has offered since 2018 to anticipate anything else. Something tells me that the best chance teams had to really get the Chiefs was last year, when the group was slumping and seemingly didn’t have the answers.

Kansas City had an entire offseason to formulate a new way, to make the adjustment to all the adjustments other teams had made. In replacing Tyreek Hill with the best top to bottom group of receivers the Chiefs have arguably ever had seems to signal that they are ready for what’s coming. I also think it helps that they have a chip on their shoulder for all the love the Bills and Chargers and Raiders and Broncos have received from the media over the last eight months.

So yes, I am going into this season with the expectation that the Chiefs are going to win their second Super Bowl, and anything less will be a disappointment. It isn’t the healthiest mindset to have, but as long as Patrick Mahomes is playing quarterback I am going to have a tough time convincing myself of anything less.

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