2019 NFL preview: Chiefs have NFL's best offense, but can the defense keep up?

Frank Schwab

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2019 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on July 31, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

The cliche is often repeated and not really true. Defense doesn’t win championships.

More than a few Super Bowl champions had mediocre defenses. The 2006 Indianapolis Colts are the example cited the most, though their defense came alive in the postseason. The 2009 New Orleans Saints weren’t a lock-down defense, but they made big plays. The 2011 New York Giants finished 27th in points allowed and 25th in yards allowed, and weren’t great in per-play stats either. The 2016 and 2018 New England Patriots each finished 16th in defensive DVOA, Football Outsiders’ popular per-play metric.

The Kansas City Chiefs won’t have a great defense this season. That doesn’t preclude them from winning a Super Bowl. But it adds a degree of difficulty.

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The Chiefs were good enough to win a Super Bowl last season, then their defense failed in the AFC championship game. Kansas City allowed 37 points, 524 yards and a staggering 36 first downs to the Patriots. New England held the ball for 43:59. And still the Chiefs took that game to overtime, only to be let down when the defense couldn’t get a stop on three straight third-and-10 plays on New England’s game-winning drive. Even with that horrendous defensive performance, the Chiefs still end up in the Super Bowl if Dee Ford had not lined up offsides on what would have been a game-ending Tom Brady interception.

From now until the moment if and when Andy Reid lifts a Lombardi Trophy, what happened that evening will be on the minds of all Chiefs fans. Kansas City can look like the best team in football with MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes, go 12-4 like it did last season, get the No. 1 seed in the AFC again and host a conference championship game at Arrowhead Stadium, but will the defense get the one stop it needs when it counts most?

There were defensive changes, but they don’t clear up all the questions. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was fired and replaced by Steve Spagnuolo. Spagnuolo has led one top-10 defense since 2008 and three of his last four defenses finished 32nd, 32nd and 31st in yards allowed. The Chiefs added safety Tyrann Mathieu and pass rusher Frank Clark, but moved on from pass rushers Dee Ford and Justin Houston. The Chiefs’ cap situation didn’t allow them to build a new defense. There were additions, but there were subtractions too.

“I think we’ve got a great challenge ahead,” Mathieu said on Fox Sports, via the Kansas City Star. “I told our group, ‘This is going to be a tough hill to climb, especially where those guys were last year.’ They brought myself and Frank Clark in, and I think anytime you can bring two guys in that really have a chip on their shoulders, an edge, a certain personality, you can rub off on a lot of guys in a positive way. I think that’s why they brought me in, Kansas City, for one was to really kind of raise the tide of everybody around me, and so it’s going to be a fun season.”

Maybe a new look is all the Chiefs need. A scheme change to a 4-3 with Spagnuolo could click, Mathieu’s playmaking ability could transform the defense and Clark might replace what Houston and Ford did. The Chiefs don’t need the defense to be good, they need it to be good enough.

Mahomes is almost certain to regress from the second 5,000-yard, 50-touchdown season in NFL history, but he could regress and still be the best quarterback in football. There have been endless debates about whether or not Tyreek Hill should have been suspended by the NFL and there’s no need to go through them all again, but Hill won’t miss any time and that’s a big deal for the Chiefs offense. Travis Kelce is the best tight end in the game. After a strong finish last season, Damien Williams seems capable of filling the lead running back role. Kansas City’s offense will be ridiculous again.

Maybe that’s enough to win a Super Bowl. The Chiefs were one play from winning an AFC title last season. This time around, the Chiefs just need their defense to make that one play.

Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, left, watches quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) warm up. (AP)
Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid, left, watches quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) warm up. (AP)

Kansas City made some significant changes. Dee Ford was traded to San Francisco after it didn’t seem he’d fit in a scheme change, and Justin Houston was let go. That’s 109 career sacks leaving town. Kansas City traded with Seattle for defensive end Frank Clark, and gave him a five-year, $104 million extension. Eric Berry was coming off another injury-filled season and he was let go, replaced by Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu, who was signed to a three-year, $42 million deal, is a versatile playmaker who will have an impact. The Chiefs lost three other free agents who got more than $5 million per season: center Mitch Morse, cornerback Steven Nelson and defensive tackle Allen Bailey. All three will be missed. A trade for pass rusher Emmanuel Ogbah, sending safety Eric Murray to Cleveland, was a worthwhile gamble. The Chiefs didn’t have a first-round pick and used their top second-round pick on fast receiver Mecole Hardman, which seems a little redundant now that Tyreek Hill hasn’t been suspended. Fellow second-round pick Juan Thornhill has impressed already and could start at safety. There were a lot of changes, but it’s hard to say the Chiefs got significantly better.

GRADE: C

Damien Williams showed late last season that the Chiefs might not miss Kareem Hunt. Hunt was cut late last season after video surfaced of him shoving and kicking a woman, and that put Williams in a key role. Williams scored 10 touchdowns in the Chiefs’ final six games, including playoffs. He had two 100-yard rushing games and also caught 28 passes. Andy Reid has typically preferred to have one workhorse back, and the Chiefs have indicated Williams is the clear starter. Williams has played five NFL season and has never logged more than 50 carries in a season so it’s far from a guarantee he could handle 250 or more touches this season. But the Chiefs should feel good Williams can produce at a high level after his finish to last season.

We all know the defense as a whole is the answer, so instead let’s look at the end of last season. The Chiefs were great during a 9-1 stretch and not so dominant after that. Kansas City was 4-4 after that start, including playoffs, and two wins came over the Oakland Raiders. One win was a fairly miraculous overtime home victory over the Ravens, fueled by a dramatic fourth-down conversion. Kansas City gave up at least 29 points in five of those eight games. It’s not like the Chiefs were bad down the stretch, they just weren’t as dominant as they were early in the season. Hopefully for Kansas City, the lackluster finish isn’t what carries over.

Here’s where we have to talk about Patrick Mahomes’ regression. Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star did a fantastic job summing it up, and here are a couple of the key points:

• Mahomes led the NFL with an 8.6 percent touchdown rate. Since 2012, every QB to lead the league in that category threw at least 12 fewer touchdowns the next year.

• Mahomes was the 11th quarterback to throw for at least 4,500 yards and 40 touchdowns. Of the first 10, three missed most or all of the following season due to injury. The remaining seven had, on average, 463 fewer passing yards and 13 fewer touchdowns. None of them improved in yards or touchdowns the following season.

Mellinger also laid out some historical reasons the Chiefs offense as a whole will regress. None of that means Mahomes or the Chiefs will be bad. Mahomes could take a big step back and still win MVP; he was that good last season. It’s just practically impossible to assume Mahomes and the Chiefs repeat what they did in 2018.

We all know how good tight end Travis Kelce is. His production is more impressive when you learn he has been dealing with an ankle issue for three years. Brooke Pryor of the Kansas City Star reported that Kelce had minor offseason surgery to tighten ligaments and stabilize joints associated with the ankle.

“I wouldn’t say it bothered me to the point that it hindered my game, it’s just something that was nagging really Monday and Tuesday was where it really got me the most,” Kelce told Pryor. “And then sometimes here and there in practice, I’d roll my ankle just because of how loose the joint was.”

It’s hard to imagine Kelce being any better. Since his second NFL season (Kelce played only one game as a rookie), he hasn’t posted fewer than 862 yards in a season. He has at least 1,000 yards each of the past three seasons and had 1,336 yards last season. That broke Rob Gronkowski’s single-season record, though George Kittle of the 49ers broke Kelce’s short-lived record later in the day. With Patrick Mahomes throwing Kelce the ball, a fourth straight 1,000-yard season seems to be a lock.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “For the most part, the key components in the Kansas City offense are known commodities and name brands. No one needs to be talked into Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, or Tyreek Hill from a stat-expectation standpoint. Maybe you’ll pay the lofty price for them, and maybe you won’t. But everyone sees explosive potential there.

“That’s not the case with starting RB Damien Williams, who is a ticklish potential pick in the late-second or early-third round. Those against Williams point to his lack of pedigree (he wasn’t drafted) and his scarce playing time with the Dolphins. And heck, at this time last year, Williams was No. 3, at best, on the Kansas City depth chart. On the pro side, Williams apologists blame his lack of Miami playing time on a suspect coaching staff, and they feel he would have been drafted out of college if not for off-field issues. And look how Williams stuffed the stat sheet at the end of last year.

“I’m not dug in on Williams, but he makes sense to me as someone’s early third-round pick. The hit rate in that third wave is surprisingly mediocre if you go through the historical record. I’m willing to sign up for plausible upside on an Andy Reid offense, and if it turns into a missed pick, it’s something you can recover from. For those who don’t buy into the Williams case, Carlos Hyde should be one of your mid-round targets.

“Williams sits at 27 in Yahoo ADP, and he’s slightly more expensive in the NFFC. The Yahoo price seems reasonable; while he isn’t a target player for me, I’ll be considering Williams at that ticket.”

[Yahoo fantasy preview: Kansas City Chiefs]

If you were concerned that the Chiefs’ defense isn’t getting a fair shake, here are some NFL rankings from last season:

• 24th in points allowed

• 31st in yards allowed

• 32nd in first downs allowed

• 31st in passing yards allowed

• 22nd in passing touchdowns allowed

• 27th in rushing yards allowed

• 31st in yards per rush allowed

• 29th in rushing touchdowns allowed

• 32nd in plays per opponents’ drives, 31st in yards per opponents’ drives, 28th in points per opponents’ drives

• 26th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA (32nd in run defense DVOA)

The Chiefs were solid in yards allowed per pass (tied for 16th), interceptions (tied for ninth) and they were very good sacking the quarterback (tied for first ... though three of their top four in sacks last season aren’t on the roster anymore).

Kansas City’s defense will look a lot different this season, and it has a lot of ground to make up.

IS CHRIS JONES’ CONTRACT DISPUTE A BIG DEAL?

It’s telling that we’ve gotten this far in the Chiefs’ preview without mentioning Jones’ name. He’s one of the most under-appreciated players in the NFL. Jones was fantastic last season on the Chiefs’ defensive line, picking up 15.5 sacks. Somehow, he didn’t make the Pro Bowl. He’ll be a huge part of the Chiefs’ shift to a 4-3, but he stayed away all offseason looking for a contract extension. Presumably Jones won’t hold out past early August. He needs to report by Aug. 6 to get an accrued season toward free agency. But it’s a situation worth monitoring. It’s not ideal for one of your best players to enter the season with bad feelings about his contract.

If Patrick Mahomes can repeat 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns, we’re going to have to start entertaining the thought that we might be watching the greatest quarterback in NFL history. That’s not hyperbole; in 99 NFL seasons no quarterback has come close to having a season like Mahomes did in 2018 and then repeating it. Of course, quarterbacks are judged by Super Bowls. If Mahomes is anywhere close to his 2018 MVP form the Chiefs will contend again. It’s not like the Chiefs defense will be worse, and Kansas City was as close as you can get to making a Super Bowl without actually making it last season. It’s possible that by the end of the season, Chiefs fans are celebrating a long-awaited championship, Mahomes has a second MVP and we’re seriously considering if this is the NFL’s next dynasty. Mahomes is that good.

Here’s the problem for the 2019 Chiefs: Anything but a trip to the Super Bowl is a nightmare scenario. Another trip to the AFC championship game and a loss is just another disappointment for a fan base that has been scarred. Anything less than a trip to the AFC title game is a bigger disappointment. And if the Chiefs offense regresses, the defense can’t get out of its way and Kansas City doesn’t make the playoffs? Oh my. When you lose in overtime of a conference championship game and you have the player any general manager in his right mind would pick first to build his franchise around, expectations are high. It’s a lot to live up to.

On Monday, Nov. 18 in Mexico City, and again in Kansas City for the season finale on Dec. 29, the Chiefs play the Chargers. Those might be the two best matchups in the NFL all season. It’s not fair that the Chargers’ biggest home game of the season is happening in Mexico, but the NFL doesn’t care about fairness when it comes to its international games. That’s an enormous edge for the Chiefs. It’s hard to pick the winner of the AFC West before we see how the Melvin Gordon and Russell Okung situations play out for the Chargers. If the Chargers are all happy and healthy, I’d lean slightly toward them to win the AFC West. And I’d have the Chiefs as the NFL’s best wild-card team. It also wouldn’t shock me if the Chargers screw things up and the Chiefs are again hosting an AFC championship game. These AFC West powers are evenly matched. And whoever wins the division will have a good shot at representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. Mark your calendars for those games.

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Miami Dolphins

30. Oakland Raiders

29. New York Giants

28. Cincinnati Bengals

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Washington Redskins

25. Detroit Lions

24. Buffalo Bills

23. New York Jets

22. Denver Broncos

21. San Francisco 49ers

20. Jacksonville Jaguars

19. Atlanta Falcons

18. Tennessee Titans

17. Carolina Panthers

16. Minnesota Vikings

15. Seattle Seahawks

14. Baltimore Ravens

13. Pittsburgh Steelers

12. Houston Texans

11. Dallas Cowboys

10. Cleveland Browns

9. Green Bay Packers

8. Philadelphia Eagles

7. Chicago Bears

6. Los Angeles Chargers

5. Indianapolis Colts

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab