The Kansas City Chiefs have a strong defense and signed Jeremy Maclin to bolster their receiving corps, but can they rely on QB Alex Smith to get the job done?
Sometimes, teams set certain statistical landmarks during a season that they really wish they hadn't. Take for example, the 2014 Kansas City Chiefs, who managed to go through an entire NFL season without a single touchdown reception from any of their receivers. The last time that happened to any NFL team was the 1964 Giants, who finished their season 2-10-2, and were guided by the immortal quarterback Y.A. Tittle in his final professional season.
How does this happen in the modern era? Well, if you're the Chiefs, you put your offense in the fairly capable hands of QB Alex Smith, who will never color outside the lines. You have a receiver corps led by the perennially underachieving Dwayne Bowe, and buttressed by sub-characters like Donnie Avery, Jason Avant, and draft bust A.J. Jenkins. You rely more on screens and quicker passes because your quarterback has a limited arm, and you wind up in a small schematic box. It's not the ideal solution for head coach Andy Reid, but that's what the Chiefs came up with in 2014.
Bowe departed for Cleveland in the offseason and was replaced by former Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin, who came into the league under Reid in 2009. Maclin had a career year under Chip Kelly in 2014, with 85 catches for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns. His nine catches of 20 yards or more marked a higher total than all of the Chiefs' receivers combined last season. The Chiefs signed Maclin to a five-year, $55 million contract with $22.5 million guaranteed, but can he take in those deep passes with a quarterback in Smith who doesn't throw the ball downfield? Last year, per Pro Football Focus, Smith completed a grand total of eight passes over 20 yards in the air in 24 attempts, by far the lowest total of any full-season starting quarterback in the league. And that's not a function of Reid's risk-averse play-calling—he always had a vertical component in Philly when his quarterbacks could handle it.
“Absolutely,” Smith said in April, when asked whether he could let it fly more often. “For one, the deep ball for sure is something that gets a lot of attention. It’s a matter of time and striking when it’s right and being able to take advantage of those opportunities that are few and far between. When you get them, you’ve got to be able to hit them. That’s kind of the nature of it. They are a lower percentage just across the board.”
The Chiefs didn't make the playoffs in 2014, but they came close with a 9–7 record, which was primarily the function of a defense that ranked second in the NFL in points allowed and seventh in yards allowed. And the prime mover in that defense was outside linebacker Justin Houston, whose 22-sack season would have put him in the pole position for the Defensive Player of the Year discussion were it not for that pesky J.J. Watt fellow. That defense was made stronger in the first round of the draft, when Kansas City took a chance on Washington's Marcus Peters—a ridiculously talented player who ran afoul of Huskies coach Chris Petersen and got himself kicked off the team. Peters showed at his pro day that he hadn't missed a step, and he'll be a big factor right away.
So, the Chiefs seem to have their paradigm for success: A fundamentally limited quarterback, decent receivers, a good rushing attack led by Jamaal Charles and a defense that will have to hold everything down. Smith saw success in a similar structure when he was in San Francisco under Jim Harbaugh, but eventually, the decision was made to replace Smith in favor of someone more impressive and explosive. Before the Chiefs can hit that next level, they may have to make the same decision. As it stands, it seems as if they're banking on an offense that isn't quite what the NFL requires at the top tier.
Best acquisition: Ben Grubbs, LG
Grubbs was acquired from the Saints for a fifth-round pick as part of New Orleans' off-season salary cap dump, and he'll fit right in on the Chiefs' offensive line. Last season was a bit down for Grubbs, as it was for most of New Orleans' offensive line, but the hope is that Grubbs, who was traded for a fifth-round pick and given a four-year, $24 million deal with $10.6 million guaranteed in his new home, will bolster a line that had its problems in 2014. The two-time Pro Bowler has been working hard to pick up a new scheme and new terminology, as the Saints moved between power/gap and zone blocking during his time there.
“My first initial thought was that I am going to a good situation," Grubbs said after the trade in March. "Andy Reid is a great coach and has a good history. I know that the guys that he has with him kind of reflect his image, so that’s a plus for me. As far as the offense, I know that running the ball is important to him, having a balanced offensive attack is important. I consider myself a balanced player. When I was in Baltimore we had an offensive coordinator, I can’t remember his name at the moment, he came from a west coast team. I mean, he came from a West Coast offense, so I’m familiar with the way things are going to go."
Biggest loss: Rodney Hudson, C
The Raiders gave Hudson an enormous contract—$44.5 million over five years—to replace center Stefan Wisniewski on what's become a fairly impressive offensive line. Hudson ranked third overall in Pro Football Focus' rankings for centers, and he was a relative bastion of strength on a line that wasn't always what it could have been. And given Reid's focus on line play, the loss of Husdon is a problem. Right now, the Chiefs are alternating rookie Mitch Morse and third-year player Eric Kush at that position.
Underrated draft pick: Rakeem Nunez-Roches, DT, Southern Miss (217th overall pick)
Nunez-Roches was born in Belize, and lived in his mother's car for a time when they moved to America. Eventually, his family settled in Alabama, and he learned to love football early. Picking Southern Miss over Wisconsin, Arkansas and Memphis, he became the Golden Eagles' best defensive player in 2014, amassing three sacks and 14 tackles for loss. He started to show up on a lot of underrated lists, and the Chiefs may have themselves a real bargain here in the sixth round.
In Bob Sutton's defense, which requires its interior linemen to play multiple gaps, Nunez-Roches has a step up, as he's already proven himself to be a versatile player.
“He played on the nose [at Southern Miss]," Chiefs Assistant Director of College Scouting Dom Green said of Nunez-Roches. "He played some three, a little end. They kind of moved him all over the place because he is an athletic guy. He’s a big dude. He has weighed 326 before. His best weight is probably where he is at now, 307 to 312. Guys that can run a 5.0 flat 40, you put on the Alabama tape you can see the speed. You can see the motor. You can see the explosiveness in his body.”
More than that, though, is Nunez-Roches' consistent effort, which he says comes from his hardscrabble upbringing.
“Growing up and seeing the hardships of my mom from job to job, being homeless periodically from here and there, having to move a lot of places, relocating depending on job security," he told the team's official site. "I really took that and I ran with it. Just seeing my mom and I knew I wanted to be in the best situation where I grew up to put her and my kids in the best situation. I think that’s what motivated me to be the best I can be. On and off the field.”
Nunez-Roches will most likely be a rotational player to start, but he could work his way into a starting job over time.
Looming question for training camp: Can Chris Conley pick up the slack?
Before he was drafted in the third round by the Chiefs, Conley may have best-known to the nation for the Star Wars-themed student film he made, which combined Han Solo and Georgia head coach Mark Richt in some really... interesting ways.
Now that he's part of the NFL, Conley's more important film is all that Georgia tape, where he showed himself to be a blur on the field. And when you put his height/weight/speed numbers together, Conley looks like a guy who could take things to a new level in the Chiefs' receiver corps. Yes, it's a low bar, but one starts where one must. The Bulldogs weren't a juggernaut in the passing game, but Conley still managed to grab eight touchdowns on just 36 receptions in 2014. The 6-2, 213-pound target, who ran a 4.35 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, needs a few mechanical fixes at the next level, but the Chiefs would be wise to invest the time in this future George Lucas, as Jeremy Maclin will need a second banana sooner than later.