Plus, the importance of Travis Kelce, a big addition to the O-line, why cornerback Marcus Peters could be special, and why there’s a silver lining to the Justin Houston injury
1. It’s become almost politically incorrect to label Alex Smith a “game manager.” People who do so are made to feel close-minded and ignorant. Whatever. Not only is Smith indeed a game manager, but he’s the most game manager-ish game manager in the NFL. It’s not even close, in fact. People aren’t wrong for defending Smith, they’re just wrong in the way they do so. Instead of saying Smith is “much more than a game manager,” what they need to say is “Smith is a prototypical game manager, and for the Chiefs, that’s just fine.”
2. What makes Smith a game manager: He doesn’t throw interceptions, but in the same vein, he doesn’t throw deep-intermediate and tighter window completions either. You can’t see this on TV, but it’s always glaring on film. Smith needs passing windows to be clearly defined. Or, to be less polite but more accurate, he needs windows to be “huge and utterly unobscured.” He’s also a half-field reader, never scanning smoothly back across the field when his initial looks are covered. That might be because Smith lacks nuance in his pocket mechanics. He has a bad tendency to bring the ball down and lose his throwing position when progressing from one read to the next. He doesn’t step and slide within the pocket, he either climbs it (a good thing) or, more often, tucks and runs (usually a bad thing). All are symptomatic of limited arm strength. All that said, Smith still works for the Chiefs because Andy Reid’s system is brilliant at employing route combinations that target specific, predicted coverages. And Smith, for all his shortcomings, is adroit at reading coverage. Also, you must consider Smith’s scrambles. They can turn some of his overly cautious decisions into positive gains. This doesn’t make up for the cost of leaving open receivers untargeted, but it takes off some of the sting. The Chiefs started 1-5 last season. Smith averaged 4.88 yards a rushing attempt (excluding kneel downs). After that, the Chiefs finished 10-0. During that time, Smith ran about twice as frequently on third downs as he had before and overall averaged 8.26 yards a rushing attempt (excluding kneel downs).
3. Because of how Reid’s system is designed, and because of how Smith executes it, the Chiefs don’t need big-time wide receivers. They’re fine as long as their wideouts can run on schedule.
4. Travis Kelce is the most important player on Kansas City’s offense. The fourth-year tight end’s flexibility gives Kansas City a de facto third receiver. That aids the two-tight end packages that Reid enjoys. If defenses play nickel against these (treating Kelce as a receiver), Reid runs the ball. If they play base (treating Kelce as a tight end), he throws. And those throws come against predictable coverages, since few pressures and disguises come from base. That’s a huge aid to Smith.
5. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was a great free agent signing. A QB like Smith and a system like K.C.’s are dependent on the blocking holding up. Schwartz makes K.C. one of the league’s few teams that doesn’t have to worry about it’s right tackle in pass protection. Now we’ll see if Eric Fisher on the other side can build on last year’s improvements and finally stabilize. It was a little surprising he got a big contract extension last week; Fisher has still yet to fully blossom into a consistent player.
6. It’ll be interesting to see how Kansas City’s offense performs in 2016. Last season it averaged just 20 points a game in losses. In wins, the Chiefs averaged 27.7 points (the offense was responsible for 25.0 of those points, defense and special teams had the rest). Notable, however, is that of the offense’s 25 points, about a touchdown’s worth of them came on possessions that began in the opponent’s territory. It’s unlikely the Chiefs will see such good field position on a regular basis again this year.
7. 2015 Defensive Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters can soon become a top-five cover corner, but he has work to do. He must become more willing in run support, otherwise offenses will continue to employ formations that make him the force player along the edge. He also must eradicate the mental gaffes that he’s been prone to. Experience will likely take care of that. If Peters smooths out those rough edges, his instincts in matchup zone and especially man coverage, coupled with pure athleticism, will make him special.
8. Justin Houston’s ACL injury hurts, no question. He’s a tremendous edge-setter, backside pursuer and, of course, all-around pass rusher. But there’s a silver lining to his absence: more snaps for Dee Ford. The 2014 first-rounder has an intriguing blend of speed and body control, allowing him to bend the edge and execute hesitation moves. With more reps, Ford might also prove versatile. Last season, for example, he successfully covered the NFL’s top receiving back, Danny Woodhead, on a wheel route to seal a Week 14 victory over San Diego. Probably less than 10 edge players in football could do that.
9. Kansas City’s front seven will be one of the toughest in the league to run against. It’s one of the few that still regularly uses old-school two-gap principles out of a pure 3-4. In that 3-4 is Dontari Poe, the nimblest nose man in the game; Jaye Howard, the league’s most overlooked run-stuffer (and also a commendable pass rusher), and Allen Bailey, who is Jaye Howard Lite but might still lose some playing time to second-round rookie Chris Jones. The man cleaning up behind this line is inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, a fiercely swift reader and reactor.
10. A big key to coordinator Bob Sutton’s defense, which is built around man coverage and blitzing, is the flexibility of the safeties. Eric Berry, Ron Parker and Jamell Fleming are all experienced in man coverage, both inside and on the perimeter. Berry, of course, is the best of the bunch. With Husain Abdullah retired, expect Berry (once he rejoins the team) to reclaim the dime linebacking job that led to his breakout campaign in 2013. With three safeties likely to be on the field in passing situations, the Chiefs defense is that much faster, including on blitzes.
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