The Kansas City Chiefs enter the 2020 season in an unfamiliar place: on top of the NFL world. After a 50-year championship drought, the Chiefs, now powered by the best coach/quarterback duo in the league, have a target on their back and a Lombardi Trophy in their hand. And, somehow, that wasn’t the most outrageous part of the Chiefs’ last nine months.
After winning the Super Bowl, the Chiefs had the most expensive — and the most impressive — offseason in football. They turned $177 in cap space into a half-billion-dollar extension for their superstar quarterback, extended their historically great tight end, worked out a long-term deal with their dominant interior pass rusher, and kept the grand majority of their title-winning team together, all while adding new weapons through the draft.
Any reigning Super Bowl champion heads into their next season with high expectations, but the Chiefs, especially in a division still finding its footing, feel like a borderline shoo-in to at least return to the AFC Championship Game. Standards that high are rarely met by teams outside of New England, but therein lies the challenge for the 2020 Chiefs. Everyone knows they’re an excellent team. They have to prove that they’re building a dynasty.
The Chiefs’ offense was operating at partial-capacity for the majority of 2019. Seriously.
Star wide receiver Tyreek Hill was injured in the first quarter of the Chiefs’ season-opener and didn’t return until Week 6. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins missed two games. Left tackle Eric Fisher was injured early in Week 2 and didn’t return until Week 11. Starting running back Damien Williams played in only 11 games. His backup, Darrel Williams, ended the season on injured reserve after playing in the first 12 games.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes sprained his ankle in the Chiefs' Week 1 game at the Jacksonville Jaguars, and he was bothered by the ankle for the first quarter of the season before more severely re-aggravating it in Week 5. In Week 7, Mahomes suffered a dislocated right kneecap and somehow returned in Week 10. Mahomes was excellent in his return, though the Chiefs lost the game to the Tennesee Titans. The 2019 Chiefs did not lose again.
Why bother with the trip down unpleasant-memory lane? To make something about the Chiefs completely clear: their offense has not reached its ceiling. Certainly, the deficit-destroying comebacks throughout the playoffs were much closer to the real thing, but in the regular season, the Chiefs were a rocketship missing a couple of thrusters.
Even the Chiefs’ playoff offense should be improved upon in 2020. The Chiefs have replaced running back Damien Williams, who opted out of the season, with the NFL Draft’s only first-round running back, Clyde Edwards-Helaire. I was stunned when the pick was announced on draft night, as I have been staunchly against spending a high draft pick on a position as volatile as running back. But now that Edwards-Helaire is in Kansas City, he’s going to improve the Chiefs’ offense — by degrees, if not leaps and bounds. But even a few plays per game where Edwards-Helaire moves the needle will keep the Chiefs’ offense on the field for another set of downs.
The Chiefs’ defense has taken some unfair criticism in the last year. Last offseason, the team retooled its less-dynamic side of the ball and saw obvious, tangible growth over the course of the season.
In the first half of the year, the Chiefs' defense was, by many metrics, perfectly average. That alone is more credit than most tend to offer them. With the addition of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, safety Tyrann Mathieu and defensive end Frank Clark, the culture of the defense was just as overhauled as the scheme itself. (Personally, I think “locker room culture” can be overblown, at least when it gets blame or credit for other more tangible things we don’t fully understand, but it’s legitimately true in this case.) Spagnuolo came to Kansas City alongside an impressive roster of position coaches and dramatically improved the defense in every way. Then, over the course of the last several games of the regular season and in Kansas City's playoff run, the defense allowed an average 16 points per game. The Chiefs have scored fewer than 16 points in exactly one Patrick Mahomes start, so that would do just fine.
Ultimately, the questions of 2020 for KC’s defense are twofold: 1. Can they sustain their late-season success? 2. What will happen at cornerback?
Spagnuolo has expressed his belief that defense doesn’t just pick up where it left off at the end of the previous season, so there could be some hiccups early in the year for the Chiefs' defense. However, with Clark and star defensive tackle Chris Jones presumably healthy entering their second year in Spagnuolo’s system, there are plenty of reasons for optimism.
At cornerback, even with the emergence of Charvarius Ward, the suspension of Bashaud Breeland for the first four games of the season leaves the Chiefs with far more questions than answers at the position. If there’s a weak link in this defense, it would likely start at corner.
Finding losses on the Chiefs’ schedule in 2020 is a challenge. Andy Reid dominates the AFC West, the AFC feels like it contains two legitimate contenders, and the Chiefs’ NFC South opponents are interesting, but not terribly dominant.
I have the Chiefs going 14-2, with a loss at Baltimore in Week 3 as the defense stumbles without confidence at cornerback and at New Orleans in Week 15.
Expected Depth Chart
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QB: Patrick Mahomes (Chad Henne, Matt Moore)
RB: Clyde Edwards-Helaire (Darrel Williams, Darwin Thompson, DeAndre Washington)
FB: Anthony Sherman
WR: Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman (Demarcus Robinson, Byron Pringle, Jody Fortson)
TE: Travis Kelce (Ricky Seals-Jones, Nick Keizer)
OL, left to right: Eric Fisher, Kelechi Osemele, Austin Reiter, Andrew Wylie, Mitchell Schwartz (Mike Remmers, Martinas Rankin*, Greg Senat, Nick Allegretti, Yasir Durant)
DE: Frank Clark, Alex Okafor (Tanoh Kpassagnon, Breeland Speaks, Taco Charlton, Mike Danna)
DT: Chris Jones, Derrick Nnadi (Mike Pennel*, Khalen Saunders)
LB: Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, Willie Gay Jr. (Ben Niemann)
CB: Charvarius Ward, Bashaud Breeland*, Rashad Fenton (L’Jarius Sneed, Antonio Hamilton, BoPete Keyes)
S: Tyrann Mathieu, Juan Thornhill (Daniel Sorensen, Tedric Thompson, Armani Watts)
*Bashaud Breeland and Mike Pennel have been suspended to start the 2020 season for four and two games, respectively. Martinas Rankin will likely begin the season on the PUP list. This roster includes 56 players in total, with those three likely inactive when the season begins.
What do you expect from the 2020 Chiefs? Who missed the cut in my projection that you're hoping to see on the final roster? What will be the Chiefs' record this season? Leave your thoughts in the comments below and follow us on Twitter @SIChiefs and @jbbrisco.