PICKING UP THE PIECES
When you play in a division as strong as the AFC West, you need a lot to go right in order to succeed. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, their luck ran out following an 11--5 mark in Andy Reid's first season as coach, in 2013. Last year Kansas City was one of four AFC teams (along with their West brethren, San Diego) to finish 9--7 and still miss the playoffs. The Chiefs lost both star inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive lineman Mike Devito in Week 1, and after missing most of the first two months with an ankle injury, versatile playmaking strong safety Eric Berry learned that he had Hodgkins' lymphoma. With injuries mounting on the offensive side as well, attrition most likely prevented K.C. from making a second straight postseason appearance.
To challenge the Broncos for the division crown, the Chiefs must again navigate a minefield of challenges on the defensive side of the ball. The offense should be improved with the addition, finally, of some viable weapons for quarterback Alex Smith (free-agent pickup Jeremy Maclin, who caught 26 TD passes for Reid's Eagles from 2009 through '12, for starters) and the continued development of the line, which added two-time Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs, from the Saints.
Defense, however, remains K.C.'s calling card; under Reid the franchise has ceded the fifth-(2013) and second-fewest points ('14) in the league. The unit's biggest problem is nosetackle Dontari Poe's recurring back issues. The 6'3" 346-pounder has keyed the Chiefs' entire attacking 3--4 defense from the inside; not only does he plug the run, but he's also a surprisingly strong interior rusher and often draws enough attention to free up teammates. Poe had surgery to repair a herniated disk shortly before training camp and is not expected to be ready for the start of the season. When he returns—and then how effective he remains—will go a long way toward determining the D's long-term future. But when you're that large and play a leverage position, it's not a good sign to be suffering back issues at age 25. While he's out, Jaye Howard, who has shown flashes of talent, will get the call at Poe's spot. Devito will also take some of Poe's many snaps. (Poe lined up 1,970 times over the past two seasons, more than any other defensive lineman.) A drop-off, however, is inevitable as a healthy Poe is arguably the best young nosetackle in the league.
The D will have to deal too, with No. 1 cornerback Sean Smith missing the first three games because of a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. K.C. doesn't have another talent like the menacing Smith, who can limit the league's top weapons. The alternatives include talented but troubled rookie cornerback Marcus Peters (who was once benched at Washington for head-butting an opponent); second-year man Phillip Gaines, who showed at the end of his rookie campaign he could be ready for an enhanced role; and Marcus Cooper, who struggled last season after an impressive start to his career. Smith's suspension might have been surmountable if the Chiefs didn't follow up a Week 1 trip to Houston with games against Denver and Green Bay. That could leave K.C., which started last year 0--2, in a hole again to begin the season.
The Chiefs also need Tamba Hali to regain some of the magic that made his pairing opposite Justin Houston, the best outside 'backer in the NFL, so tough for offenses to handle. Hali went from 77 total quarterback pressures (sacks, hits and hurries, according to Pro Football Focus) in 2013 to 44 last season. Last year's first-round pick, Dee Ford, isn't ready yet to fill the void that another significant Hali regression would create. And Johnson, 32, is coming back from Achilles surgery.
In the secondary, Berry's return to full health would be a huge boost. His unique ability to move from safety to linebacker in passing situations has been a problem for offensive coordinators. Ron Parker, who can play safety or corner, is a player on the rise. Husain Abdullah and former Raider Tyvon Branch give the Chiefs solid depth at safety.
The offense should improve, and if the defense can stay reasonably free of injury, there are the makings of a very formidable team. The defense, in fact, could be the league's best. But the margin of error is small. Just making the playoffs will again be a challenge.
SI'S PREDICTION: 9--7
ANDY BENOIT ON THE CHIEFS' OFFENSIVE VERSATILITY
With Alex Smith at QB, you have to manufacture offense through play design. Smith has a high football IQ, but he's not a strong-armed trigger-puller who fits balls through tight windows. He's most effective when his first option is clearly defined. Good thing coach Andy Reid is a master architect. He most often lines up his Chiefs in base two-WR personnel, keeping defenses in their base looks, where coverages are more predictable. The most common coverage here is Cover Three—zone with a single high safety—and Reid's West Coast system features a litany of specific Cover-Three-beating route designs. Reid also employs various screens and misdirection elements that define reads for a QB. In 2015, with the addition of Jeremy Maclin (above), Smith finally has a go-to receiver, but in a system like this, that single role isn't as important as versatile personnel, which K.C. has in spades. Explosive back Jamaal Charles has seasons of 1,500 rushing yards and nearly 700 receiving, Travis Kelce is a soaring tight end whose athleticism makes him dangerous after the catch, and second-year hybrid player De'Anthony Thomas brings speed and a reverse-field element that D's must prepare for. The greater the variety of weapons, the more ways Reid can manufacture offense.
NT Dontari Poe