Around this time every year, teams start to find the cracks in their roster construction, and the Kansas City Chiefs are no different.
Late in 2019, the Chiefs' needs were clear: linebacker, cornerback and, to a lesser extent, running back. Heading into the 2020 season, cornerback and linebacker were still areas of concern, but now different needs have emerged as the season has gone on.
Emerging as a positive surprise, the Chiefs' cornerback room seems to be legitimately good. Corner has been a position the Chiefs have not invested much into by way of salary or draft picks, but the position group continues to richen with talent and depth.
Charvarius Ward is a restricted free agent this offseason, which means a team would have to give up draft capital to get Ward if tendered by the Chiefs, making it likely that Ward will return in 2021. After Ward, Rashad Fenton and L’Jarius Sneed will be returning as well. Both Fenton and Sneed have shown stretches of very good play in the NFL already in their young careers and will be looking to become impact players on the defense in 2021. The Chiefs also picked up DeAndre Baker, the former New York Giants first-round pick, and have his player rights for the next three years. Even if Bashaud Breeland leaves the Chiefs, there are still heaps of young, cheap cornerback talent on the Chiefs' roster going forward.
While the issues at linebacker are still somewhat apparent, these issues are only pervasive due to the Chiefs' insistence on playing Ben Niemann. Niemann is the 71st-ranked linebacker by Pro Football Focus so far this year out of 86 qualifying linebackers. Still, he seems to be the team’s preferred linebacker in nickel coverage and sometimes plays in dime coverage as well. Meanwhile, Anthony Hitchens is the 37th-ranked linebacker by PFF and has noticeably been a player with a positive value for most of the year. While rookie Willie Gay Jr. seems to have needed time to adjust to the NFL, the hope is that a full offseason to continue his transition to pro speed will land him in the starting lineup in 2021. Paired with Hitchens, linebacker might not be a position of weakness for the Chiefs next year.
A position group that could definitely get some love is the offensive line, especially the interior offensive line. While the Chiefs' pass-blocking has been adequate this year, the run-blocking has been horrendous.
One thing to note with the Chiefs offensive line next year, however, is that many players that could be contributors in 2021 are not present on the roster currently. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (opt-out), Lucas Niang (opt-out), Mitchell Schwartz (injury), and Martinas Rankin (injury) all have missed major time in 2020 and will be back in the mix for playing time next year. If the Chiefs are concerned about Schwartz and don’t think Niang can start at right tackle in his first year on the field, then tackle could be a need for the Chiefs as Schwartz isn’t getting younger and back injuries for an offensive lineman are scary. Center also will be a need regardless of who is returning, as it’s the weakest position on the offensive line between Austin Reiter and Daniel Kilgore, with Reiter starting the majority of the games so far.
So if the Chiefs are fine at cornerback, linebacker, and offensive line... what are their future needs?
There is one position group on each side of the ball that needs attention very soon.
The more apparent need of the two from watching the Chiefs in 2020 is at defensive end. While the Chiefs have seemed “deep” at defensive end in recent years, the depth itself has been either lackluster or injured. Almost every Chiefs defensive end, even Frank Clark, has had a scarce impact and only average overall play so far this year.
You can see both Frank Clark and Tanoh Kpassagnon in the wrong quadrant of the graph. Low pass rush win-rate on few double-teams.
Taco Charlton stood out with solid pass-rush production before suffering a fractured ankle, but the only time a Chiefs defensive end has steadily popped this year has been when Chris Jones moves to the edge. The Chiefs have invested in defensive end a lot recently with two recent second-round picks in 2017 and 2018 in Kpassagnon and Breeland Speaks in addition to the trade for Clark which came with a $104 million contract extension. The results of these investments have been disappointing. With a position as important as defensive end, though, there will probably need to be more expenditure on it in the future.
It’s hard not to talk about the future roster-building for the Chiefs without noting that the salary cap in the NFL might drop in 2021. The salary cap could fall as low as $175 million in 2021, which would be impactful to one position group in particular on the Chiefs: wide receiver.
It was a small miracle the Chiefs were able to bring back Sammy Watkins for the 2020 "Run It Back" campaign, however, it’s very hard to imagine a way the Chiefs can keep Watkins in 2021. Demarcus Robinson is also a free agent after this season, and while he’s a quality role-player, there is also a good chance he isn’t in the Chiefs’ future plans.
If Watkins and Robinson don’t come back in 2021, the Chiefs will have a dire need at X WR. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the X receiver position and came to the conclusion that the future Chiefs X WR is not on the current roster. Yes, that means Mecole Hardman would not assume that role in the future. His skill-set doesn’t match an X WR and it’s hard to see him improving enough in his deficiencies so he can play the X. That means the Chiefs have a big need at wide receiver unless they are higher on Byron Pringle than they are letting on.
The good news for the Chiefs going into the 2021 offseason is that they will have a lot of ammo in the 2021 draft. The Chiefs are projected to have eight draft picks as of right now, with six of their seven original picks, minus the sixth-rounder that was sent to the Tennessee Titans during the 2020 draft so the Chiefs could move back into the draft to select BoPete Keyes in the seventh round.
On top of the six picks the Chiefs already have, they are projected to have a fourth- and fifth-round compensatory pick from losing cornerback Kendall Fuller and defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah in free agency. With the news that teams could get two third-round picks if a minority coach is hired from the team, the Chiefs could also net a third-round draft pick in 2021 and 2022 if offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is hired to be a head coach this offseason.
This amount of draft capital would be a great tool for the Chiefs to fill their roster holes in an offseason that will likely have little salary cap room. While the Chiefs' needs are a bit surprising, the reality is that the Chiefs will have the resources they need to address these needs and continue to bolster their roster as they maintain their status as a Super Bowl front-runner for years to come.