2016 NFL Preview: If Chiefs want to make a run, now is the time

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

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It feels weird to call the Kansas City Chiefs a Super Bowl contender. It also feels weird to not call the Kansas City Chiefs a Super Bowl contender.

I don’t know of another NFL team whose ceiling and floor are closer. The Chiefs won 11 games in a row last season, including a demolition of the Houston Texans in the playoffs. You can’t do that unless you’re a really good team. But their season ended pretty much how you’d figure, in a mundane loss to the New England Patriots, who were clearly the better team. There’s no denying the Chiefs are good. I’m just not sure they have another gear.

The Chiefs do everything well. Only three teams finished in the top 10 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA in offense, defense and special teams: Cincinnati, Seattle and Kansas City. They’re well coached (though, yeah, Andy Reid’s clock mismanagement is a real thing). There’s no obvious weakness. But would you feel comfortable picking them to win a Super Bowl?

For those who wouldn’t pick them to win it all (and if you do, I won’t argue too much — it’s hard to go wrong with a team that is rock solid in every part of the game), it’s probably because of Alex Smith and Kansas City’s passing game. You know exactly what you’re getting from Smith. He’s an efficient passer who rarely takes chances and rarely turns the ball over. He’s a good athlete who can help in the running game. He’s going to throw for about 3,300-3,400 yards and roughly 20 touchdowns with six or seven interceptions. You can write that down in pen because at 32 years old he’s unlikely to reinvent himself.

Teams can win big with a quarterback like that. The Denver Broncos won it all last year and their quarterback play was mostly terrible. Smith is far from terrible. But when you don’t have a dynamic quarterback (or at least one capable of a Joe Flacco or Eli Manning type of playoff hot streak), everything else has to go right.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

The Chiefs’ chances would improve if Justin Houston was healthy. He’s the best player the Chiefs have, a dominant pass rusher who can take over a game. But he had ACL surgery in February and nobody seems sure when he’ll be back. Or if he’ll come back and play at an All-Pro level this season. That’s a big question lingering over the Chiefs.

Eric Berry (29) and the Chiefs are looking to overtake the Broncos in the AFC West (AP)
Eric Berry (29) and the Chiefs are looking to overtake the Broncos in the AFC West (AP)

If the Chiefs are going to take the next step, this is the time. The Broncos are vulnerable after winning five straight division titles. The Chiefs have been on deck the past couple years, but the Oakland Raiders are improving fast. The window for the Chiefs to win the AFC West, host a playoff game and perhaps make a deeper playoff run might not be open very long.

There’s a chance if the Chiefs play like they did during last season’s win streak. The running game, even without Jamaal Charles, thrived. Charles should be back and the Chiefs will have perhaps the deepest running back corps in the NFL. Jeremy Maclin gave K.C.  a much-needed No. 1 receiver. Travis Kelce can be a game-changing tight end. The defense is already at a top-10 level, and all signs point to Houston being back at some point this season.

The Chiefs have been good but not great for a long time. That’s summed up by their playoff history, which included seven straight one-and-dones before last season’s wild-card win at Houston. Can they get over that hill and make a deep run in January? This would be a fine time for it.

The Chiefs didn’t add too much, though signing former Cleveland Browns tackle Mitchell Schwartz was a good move. The biggest loss was cornerback Sean Smith, and don’t underestimate what Smith meant to last season’s defense. It really stung that Smith landed with the Raiders. The Chiefs didn’t have a first round pick, though defensive tackle Chris Jones was good value in the second. Grade: C-

When Jamaal Charles suffered a season-ending injury, I thought the Chiefs were done. Kansas City was 1-4 (and fell to 1-5 a week later) and was moving forward without its superstar back. Two running backs in NFL history have averaged 5.5 yards per carry: Marion Motley and Charles. Jim Brown is a distant third at 5.2. The Chiefs reacted to that loss by putting together perhaps the best run game in the NFL and going almost three months between losses. They averaged 4.7 yards per carry as a team, playing two-thirds of the season without a potential Hall-of-Famer at tailback.

Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware both stepped up as capable replacements. Now the Chiefs bring back Charles and have three quality runners. Not many teams can say that.

The Chiefs linebackers are a big reason the defense has been so good. But age isn’t on their side. Derrick Johnson will turn 34 this season. Tamba Hali will turn 33 in November. The most important piece, Justin Houston, is just 27 but he’s coming off ACL surgery in February. The Chiefs might get through this season with all three playing at a very high level, but there’s some reason for concern. And if the linebackers fade, so will the defense.

There’s not much to say about Alex Smith that hasn’t been said. He has become the delineation point for quarterbacks. If you’re ranked above Smith, you’re considered above average. Below Smith, you’re below average. He’s just 32 years old, so he will probably be the Chiefs quarterback for a while.

There was some shakeup behind Smith because Chase Daniel took a huge payday to be the Philadelphia Eagles’ backup. Smith has been healthy in his career, but if he goes down the Chiefs would probably turn to Aaron Murray, who has never appeared in a regular-season game.

Eric Berry, Kansas City’s great safety, or Jamaal Charles would be a fine pick. So would Jeremy Maclin or Travis Kelce, because they are so important to the passing game. But the answer is Justin Houston. If there’s a Chief who could have a Von Miller-like postseason, it’s Houston. He is one of four players in NFL history to have a 22-sack season. Kansas City’s dreams of a special season rest on the health of Houston’s knee.

Cosell: “I think they really know how to use Alex Smith effectively. I think they understand what he is, and what he isn’t. He isn’t an aggressive downfield thrower. So they’ve gotten a lot of the run game involved with Alex Smith — they’re not the Carolina Panthers with Cam Newton, but there are similar principles at times and Alex Smith is a very deceptive runner as a quarterback.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Chiefs and the rest of the AFC West.]

From Yahoo’s Brad Evans: Koko B. Ware! Backup Spencer will not only secure the No. 2 gig, he may drop elbows from the top rope.

Spencer Ware is a snake in the grass. When he outperformed Charcandrick West post-Charles injury late last season, he was nothing short of marvelous. Yes, the sample size was rather small (three games), but in contests in which he racked double digit touches he averaged a galactic 6.65 yards per carry. In those tilts he also totaled four touchdowns.

Under the hood, Ware was equally impressive. His 34.6 juke rate (No. 10 among RBs), 1.06 fantasy points per opportunity (No. 12) and 3.8 yards after contact (No. 1) seriously stood out. He is light years ahead of West in terms of efficiency and poses a threat to the JC of KC. His bloodhound nose for the end zone and improved hands should allow him to generate 8-10 touches per game out of the gate, many of those likely coming near the goal-line. Scratch the lottery ticket in the wee hours (203.1 ADP, RB67).

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Marcus Peters tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions last season. In 2014, the entire Chiefs team had just six interceptions. Peters, Kansas City’s first-round pick, had a remarkable season and won defensive rookie of the year in a landslide. Although Sean Smith left in free agency, Peters will be Kansas City’s No. 1 cornerback for years to come.

CAN TRAVIS KELCE GET EVEN BETTER?

A lot of people expected Kelce to explode last season. Then he put up pretty much the same stat line he posted in 2014. He had 67-862-5 in 2014 and 72-875-5 in 2015. Both seasons were fine. But it seems like there’s a much bigger season coming soon. Kelce was fantastic in last season’s opener, catching all six targets for 106 yards and two touchdowns against the Houston Texans. It seemed like the breakout was happening. That ended up being Kelce’s last 100-yard game of the regular season. A 128-yard game in the playoff win against the Texans reminded us of Kelce’s upside.

Perhaps Kelce will never have a Rob Gronkowski-level season because the Chiefs’ offense is built around the run game. But he has the talent to put up much bigger numbers than we’ve seen.

Although Kansas City seems like a team that’s good enough to get to the playoffs but not good enough to go all the way, they were on the verge of something big last year. If it hadn’t been for a really bad decision to call a useless running play at the end of regulation in Week 2 against the Denver Broncos, which led to a fumble and a shocking game-winning touchdown, perhaps Kansas City would have beat Denver in overtime. With an overtime win that night (and everything else remaining the same over the rest of the season), the Chiefs would have finished 12-4 with an AFC West title. With an 11-1 conference record, they would have been the AFC’s No. 1 seed. The story of the 2015-16 NFL season might have been a lot different.

If the Chiefs were that close to being a top seed in the AFC, and most of the pieces are back including a healthy Jamaal Charles, then Kansas City has every right to dream about a Super Bowl.

Like every team, a ton of injuries could sink their season. Outside of that, it’s hard to see the Chiefs slipping too far. They don’t have many exploitable weaknesses and the schedule is projected to be easier than last season. However, you never know how long you can be a contender in the NFL and a year with eight or nine wins and no playoff berth would be a huge disappointment.

For the moment, the Broncos are ahead of the Chiefs in these rankings. The Super Bowl champs get the benefit of the doubt. But I like the Chiefs … to a point. Maybe it’s Alex Smith and the Chiefs’ limited passing game or maybe it’s that they haven’t made a deep playoff run since Joe Montana was wearing pads, but I can’t bring myself to put them in that small group of teams that can win a Super Bowl this season.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Detroit Lions
20. Indianapolis Colts
19. Jacksonville Jaguars
18. Washington Redskins
17. Buffalo Bills
16. Baltimore Ravens
15. Oakland Raiders
14. New York Jets
13. New York Giants
12. Houston Texans
11. Dallas Cowboys
10. Minnesota Vikings 

 

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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