This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman with contributions from Ian Hartitz and Joe Holka. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
The Chiefs have made the playoffs in each of Andy Reid’s four seasons as head coach, but they’re yet to reach the AFC Championship game. Despite holding the Steelers’ prolific offense to zero touchdowns in Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs weren’t able to get the victory in last season’s divisional round. Minus one future Hall-of-Fame running back, the Chiefs return the same core that has racked up 43 regular season wins since 2013, but the clock on their championship window is ticking faster than ever due to their decision to trade two first-round picks and a third-rounder to select Texas Tech gunslinger Patrick Mahomes with the 10th pick in the 2017 draft. For the Chiefs, 2017 is about getting back to the playoffs, advancing past the divisional round, and preparing for a post-Smith future.
The first stop in Reid’s coaching career took place at Brigham Young (1982), where he served as a graduate assistant. It was here Reid established a relationship with then-quarterbacks coach Mike Holmgren, who was developing the team’s electrifying junior quarterback Steve Young. Reid then spent nine years as the offensive line coach at San Francisco State, Northern Arizona, Texas-El Paso, and Missouri before being named the tight ends and assistant offensive line coach for the 1992 Green Bay Packers, who had just hired Holmgren as a rookie HC.
It was here Reid became a West Coast disciple. In hindsight, the staff Holmgren put together was amazing. Sherman Lewis was the offensive coordinator, Jon Gruden an offensive assistant, and Steve Mariucci the quarterbacks coach. Reid was promoted to quarterbacks coach after five seasons. Under Reid’s guidance, quarterback Brett Favre facilitated an offense that was top-six in scoring two years in a row, and then he was hired as the Eagles head in 1999.
Despite Reid’s sterling record to this point, he wasn’t yet an offensive genius. Holmgren called his own plays in Green Bay, and Reid’s initial 5-11 season didn’t inspire much hope, especially considering that No. 2 overall pick Donovan McNabb completed less than 50 percent of his passes with an absolutely despicable average of 4.4 yards per attempt. The next year, though, Reid led the Eagles to the first of five consecutive seasons with 11-plus wins. McNabb still completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes, but he emerged as a dual-threat gunslinger who could threaten defenses with his legs and big arm. Still, the Eagles continuously came up short in the NFC Championship, and Reid faced scrutiny for failing to initiate a no-huddle attack sooner during their loss to the Patriots in the 2004 Super Bowl. It didn’t help that in 2005 the Eagles finished fourth in the NFC East as McNabb played only nine games due to injuries and wide receiver Terrell Owens played only seven games before being suspended by the team and deactivated for the rest of the season due to causing locker-room turmoil.
After starting 5-6 in 2006, Reid ceded play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who helped lead the team to an NFC East title, but Reid took over again as the play caller after the Eagles finished 17th in scoring in 2007. After four more acceptable but uninspiring campaigns (2008-11), Read was fired following the 4-12 performance of 2012. Given that Reid had functioned as an ancillary general manager since 2001, when the Eagles fired him they basically needed to replace the duties of three prominent positions.
While Reid has always run a West Coast offense, he’s also always tailored it to his quarterbacks. Rather than attempt to turn McNabb or Michael Vick into pocket passers, Reid routinely called plays that leveraged their mobility, and the team benefited. The Eagles ranked 12.1 and 11.5 out of 32 teams in yards and points during his Reid’s tenure as head coach. Still, it’s possible that in Philadelphia Reid was too stuck in his ways. In his final decade with the Eagles, the team was top-10 in neutral pace each season (Football Outsiders), and only twice were they not top-12 in pass attempts.
In Kansas City, however, Reid seems to have learned from his past experiences. In three of four years the Chiefs have played at a bottom-five pace, and the team is yet to rank higher than 20th in pass attempts in any given season. Of course, it was probably easy for Reid to transition in 2013 from an uptempo pass-heavy offense to a slow run-centered system given that he had the NFL’s most efficient all-time runner in Jamaal Charles, a noodle-armed game-manager in quarterback Alex Smith, and a defense that has been top-10 in scoring the last four years. When Reid needs to air it out he still can — Smith has averaged 38 pass attempts in his four playoff games but just 31.7 attempts in his 61 regular season games under Reid — but in general the Chiefs have managed to string together four consecutive winning seasons by controlling the ball with the ground game.
We shouldn’t expect the Chiefs offense to look different in 2017. Reid will likely rely on the running game — the Chiefs have been in the top half of the league in rushing attempts each of the last four years — and Smith will be counted on to make short and efficient throws that put his athletic wide receivers and tight ends in position to make plays. Still, it’s fair to wonder how long Reid will resist the urge to give his big-armed rookie quarterback a chance to prove himself. If/when that happens — and it might not happen this year — expect the Chiefs to begin to look more like the Eagles of the 2000s.
This season the Chiefs will trot out largely the same offense that was on the field for the majority of 2016:
- QB: Alex Smith
- RB: Spencer Ware/Charcandrick West/Jamaal Charles –> Ware/Kareem Hunt/West
- WR: Jeremy Maclin/Tyreek Hill –> Hill
- WR: Chris Conley
- WR: Albert Wilson
- TE: Travis Kelce/Demetrius Harris
- LT: Eric Fisher
- LG: Parker Ehinger/Zach Fulton –> Bryan Witzmann/Ehinger
- C: Mitch Morse
- RG: Laurent Duvernay-Tardif
- RT: Mitchell Schwartz
Considering that he played only 2.64 percent of the offensive snaps last year, the loss of Charles is negligible. Maclin had a solid 2015 season, but injuries and an ineffective 2016 campaign led the Chiefs to designate him as a post-June 1 cut to save $7.2 million in dead money over the next two years. Hill is expected to take Maclin’s role as the playmaking Z receiver in the offense.
Returning all of the players who saw significant snaps last year, the offensive line was mediocre in 2016, ranking 17th with 4.10 adjusted line yards and 14th with a 5.7 percent adjusted sack rate (Football Outsiders). Nevertheless, with continuity and a little improved play, they could have a top-10 unit in 2017. Although Fisher’s career didn’t start well, he’s steadily improved each year, and last season the Chiefs were second only to the Bills with their 2.82 yards before contact on rushes to the left. Expect the Chiefs to continue to run behind Fisher this year.
On defense, the Chiefs finished last season seventh in points allowed and return most of their core players:
- DE: Chris Jones/Rakeem Nunez-Roches
- NT: Dontari Poe –> Bennie Logan/Cam Thomas
- DE: Allen Bailey/Jaye Howard –> Bailey/Jarvis Jenkins
- OLB: Justin Houston/Frank Zombo
- MLB: Derrick Johnson
- MLB: Ramik Wilso
- OLB: Dee Ford/Tamba Hali
- CB: Marcus Peters
- CB: Phillip Gaines/Terrance Mitchell
- SCB: Steven Nelson
- SS: Eric Berry
- FS: Ron Parker
Poe was just Pro Football Focus’ No. 55 interior defender last season, but he was seventh at the position with 876 snaps. The former Eagle Logan and long-time backup Thomas will combine to replace his snaps. The four-time Pro-Bowler Houston played in only five games last year but is healthy now and should form a dynamic duo with Ford, who led the team with 10 sacks last season. In the secondary, Berry, Parker, and Peters form a strong trio supplemented a rotating crew of corners. The front seven and secondary are both top-10 PFF units entering the season.
It must’ve been fun to write about Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson back in the day. Your 2017 Chiefs:
Alex Smith, QB
The cries for Smith’s job reached a fever pitch during the Chiefs’ latest playoff loss, as they failed to outscore a Steelers team that scored only field goals. Despite posting a career-high mark with 3,502 passing yards during the regular season, Smith enters 2017 firmly on the hot seat. Smith holds value as a real-life quarterback in that he can avoid turnovers, complete a lot of short passes, and pitch in as a runner. In DFS, however, he’s unexciting, given that he’s thrown for three-plus touchdowns or 300-plus yards in just six and three games during his 61 starts with the Chiefs.
It’s no secret that Smith has dinked and dunked his way to an 11-year NFL career, but this is really the only way he’s capable of being an average quarterback. While Reid ran aggressive pass-heavy offenses with better quarterbacks in Philadelphia, a similar approach with Smith could result in disaster. Last season 14 quarterbacks averaged fewer than four passes of 20-plus yards per game, but Smith’s inability to make much of these chunk opportunities separates him from the group. Of the cohort only Jared Goff and Cody Kessler threw fewer touchdowns on deep balls, and his 32.6 percent completion percentage was the third-lowest mark.
When Smith did sit in the pocket last season and try to make plays downfield under pressure, the outcome wasn’t good. He posted a 1/1 touchdown/interception ratio and 65.5 quarterback rating under pressure; when clean, a 14/7 ratio with a 98.1 rating. Smith’s average time of 2.23 seconds to attempt a pass was the lowest mark in the league. When he threw the ball in 2.5 seconds or less, he posted a 97.1 rating and a 71.9 percent completion rate; 2.6 seconds or more, 74.9 rating and 53.6 percent completion rate.
While he’s unimpressive, at least with Smith you know what you’re getting. He hasn’t averaged over 17.0 DraftKings points per game (PPG) or a +1.8 Plus/Minus in any number of situations — at home, on the road, etc. — since 2014, but his consistent and methodical play is a virtue. Overall, he’s posted a 70 percent Consistency Rating on the road, an 81 percent mark as an underdog, and an 85 percent mark as a road dog at a ridiculously low ownership rate of 0.9 percent in large-field guaranteed prize pools. This year FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across GPPs of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs. It’s possible that sharp players this year will take advantage of the ownership discount Smith has offered as a road dog. Be sure to monitor our Vegas Dashboard to see how the market views the Chiefs when they’re away from Arrowhead Stadium.
It’s likely we’ve already seen the best version of Smith, whose days as the Chiefs starting quarterback are numbered. He carries little upside and underappreciated risk at his average draft position (ADP) of 188.3 in DRAFT best ball leagues. If Mahomes plays well in the preseason and Smith struggles for a stretch in the regular season, he could get benched.
Patrick Mahomes, QB
Mahomes holds arguably the highest ceiling of the 2017 draft’s three first-round quarterbacks but also the lowest floor. The son of a former major league pitcher, Mahomes has ideal size (6’2″ and 225 lbs.) and athleticism (6.88-second three-cone). Of course, it’s Mahomes’ arm that caused the Chiefs to trade up to select him (60 mph ball velocity), as he’s capable of making any throw on the field.
The question with Mahomes is whether he can transition to the NFL from head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid system at Texas Tech. Kingsbury hasn’t had trouble developing elite college quarterbacks, as he helped Case Keenum set numerous passing records at Houston before guiding Johnny Manziel to a Heisman trophy in 2012.Although they eventually transferred (due to Mahomes) Davis Webb and Baker Mayfield both found success in Kingsbury’s offense in 2013 as freshmen.
As the NFL careers of Keenum, Manziel, and other Air Raid quarterback have demonstrated, it’s impossible to predict NFL success based on a quarterback’s gaudy college numbers:
- QB1: 25 games, 10.7 adjusted yards per attempt, 61/10 TD/INT, 166.1 rating
- QB2: 25, 8.7, 77/25, 152.1
QB1 is Bryce Petty, currently wallowing behind Josh McCown and Christian Hackenberg on the Jets. QB2 is Mahomes. While Petty doesn’t have Mahomes’ physical ability, the point remains that plenty of mediocre quarterbacks have dominated in college, especially in quarterback-friendly Air Raid offenses that play the majority of their games against brutal Big 12 defenses.
Mahomes has passed Tyler Bray on the depth chart and is now officially the backup, impressing in his preseason debut by completing 7-of-9 passes for 49 yards and a touchdown. Beat writers have remarked that Mahomes has made “at least one eye-opening throw” per practice. The starting quarterback job is Smith’s to lose, but Mahomes is positioned to take over if the team struggles. He’s the favorite to start Week 1 in 2018 and is fair value in the second round of rookie drafts in the dynasty format.
Spencer Ware, RB
Ware isn’t a typical lead back. A five-star dual-threat quarterback in high school, Ware’s a mediocre athlete (7.28-second three-cone) who averaged just 4.0 yards per attempt in college at Louisiana State, playing inconsistently due to the presence of Jeremy Hill and Stevan Ridley among other four- and five-star running backs. With a failed college drug test and little production, he was selected by the Seahawks in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, seeing only three carries in Seattle before eventually resurfacing in Kansas City in 2015. Since joining the Chiefs, Ware has averaged 16.02 DraftKings PPG in his 16 contests with double-digit carries. He’s proven to be a capable three-down back, putting together a 33-447-2 receiving line last season after totaling just 410 receiving yards and two touchdowns the previous six years in the pros and college combined.
As Reid said this offseason, 2016 was Ware’s first year as a lead back, and he wore down during the stretch: In Weeks 1-7, he turned 18.3 touches per game into 129.5 yards and 0.5 touchdowns. After suffering a concussion in Week 8 and missing Week 9, he returned in Week 10, averaging 17.1 touches per game for 73.9 yards and 0.25 touchdowns the rest of the way. It doesn’t help that in Week 8 the starting guard Ehinger tore his ACL and missed the remainder of the season. Ware runs hard, and opportunity is everything for running backs, but he’s a limited player. Overall, Ware ranked outside the top-30 running backs in juke rate, yards after contact per touch, and breakaway run rate last season (PlayerProfiler).
Still, even if Ware can’t be Reid’s next Charles or Brian Westbrook, there’s no reason he can’t be his next Duce Staley. Ware played 18 of the team’s 19 first-team snaps during their first preseason game and is firmly entrenched as the team’s starter. Ware offers some value at his 53.5 DRAFT ADP.
Kareem Hunt, RB
There’s a lot to like about Hunt. While he’s a below-average athlete (4.62-second 40), he was second in the nation in 2016 with 98 missed tackles forced, ranking seventh in PFF’s elusive rating and second among all backs in breaking through first contact on 42.4 percent of his runs. Hunt’s competition at Toledo was far from impressive, but he did surpass 100 total yards while averaging five-plus yards per carry against the likes of Fresno State, BYU, Iowa State, Missouri, and Cincinnati. Over his 44 college games, Hunt averaged 125 scrimmage yards and 1.02 touchdowns per game. As a senior in particular he impressed as a receiver, submitting a 41/403/1 stat line after going 32/152/0 in his first three years combined. The Chiefs traded up to select Hunt in the third round, and he’s received great reviews from both Reid and beat writers during training camp. Still, he’s overpriced at his current 109.1 DRAFT ADP. Barring an injury to Ware, Hunt won’t be given the three-down job. Not all backs selected by Reid with mid-round picks turn into Westbrook. Sometimes they turn into Correll Buckhalter, Ryan Moats, Tony Hunt, and Knile Davis.
Charcandrick West, RB
West out-touched Ware and started nine games in 2015, but the Chiefs reversed course last season and made Ware their featured back. Ankle and elbow injuries during the first half of the season sabotaged West from the start, and he finished the year with a putrid 3.3 yards per carry. West has good athleticism (4.46-second 40) and is a competent third-down back (70.6 percent catch rate over the last two years), but he’s clearly third on the depth chart.
Tyreek Hill, WR
The NFL’s fastest player (23.24 mph, Next Gen Stats), Hill scored nine touchdowns on 85 offensive touches and added three additional scores as a return man in an electrifying rookie campaign last year. His performance was eerily similar to his senior season at West Alabama, where he scored eight touchdowns on 92 total touches on offense and special teams despite joining the team shortly before the season started. The year before at Oklahoma State, Tyreek was also an explosive player, compiling 815 scrimmage yards on 133 touches as an all-around utility player, scoring as a runner, receiver, and kick and punt returner. In his first two seasons (at Garden City Community College), Tyreek averaged (as a running back) 109.4 scrimmage yards and 0.90 all-purpose touchdowns per game across 21 contests, capturing an uber-elite 23.8 and 28.2 percent of the team’s receiving yards and touchdowns. Wherever he’s played, he’s consistently posted gaudy efficiency and touchdown numbers as a runner, receiver, and returner.
Hill’s 4.25-second 40-yard speed is special, but so are his 40.5-inch vertical and 6.53-second three-cone: He’s as quick and explosive as he is fast. On account of his athleticism, last year cornerbacks gave him a ton of respect, as he averaged a league-high 8.0 yards of cushion per play. Even so, Hill’s underrated ability as a route runner helped him finish second in the league with 3.5 yards of separation per route. No receiver had more fantasy points per snap last year than Tyreek’s 0.48.
Hill’s was targeted eight-plus times in only two of his 16 games last season, although he posted a league-high 20.0 percent hog rate (targets/snaps, PlayerProfiler) and averaged 8.5 targets per game in four contests without Maclin. The No. 1 wide receiver in Reid’s offense has averaged 111.5 targets and a 66.3-931.2-6.4 line over the past 10 seasons, and Hill might be Reid’s most talented receiver since DeSean Jackson.
Due to Smith’s reluctance to take the top off defenses, Hill’s deep-ball opportunities may be limited next season. Still, his rare versatility could give him a plethora of fantasy-friendly opportunities. Hill’s seven targets inside the 10-yard line last season were as many as Kelce, Mike Evans, and Antonio Brown had. His 24 carries were more than any other wide receiver not named Tavon Austin or Percy Harvin has had since 2000. Hill has been the most explosive playmaker on every team he’s been on for at least the last five years. He has risk at his 45.5 DRAFT ADP, but he’s also one of the premium upside players of the 2017 season. If you want to stack him with Smith (or eventually Mahomes!) in GPPs, do it with our Lineup Builder.
Chris Conley, WR
Conley is the possession receiver in Reid’s offense, but he offers good size (6’2″ and 213 lbs.) and elite athleticism (97th percentile SPARQ-x score, PlayerProfiler). Still, his physical profile didn’t help him much last season, as he ranked outside of the top-80 wide receivers in fantasy points per target and snap. In college, Conley never functioned as a true lead receiver in the Todd Gurley-led Georgia Bulldogs offense, but he did score 20 career touchdowns while averaging over 17.0 yards per catch in three of his four collegiate seasons. He demonstrated some of his big-play ability in the preseason opener, catching both of his targets for 46 yards and having an 83-yard touchdown called back by penalty. Conley would likely emerge as the No. 1 wideout if Hill were injured, but right now he’s the third option in an offense that called the eighth-fewest pass plays last season. Conley has been targeted eight-plus times just once in 32 NFL games.
Albert Wilson, WR
Wilson will once again work as the slot receiver, but his role could be reduced in the offense if the team chooses to use more 12-personnel packages. A prime beneficiary of Smith’s penchant to throw the ball short, Wilson was the team’s most inefficient receiver last year on a per-target basis. He’s yet to have even 60 targets in a season. He played just 45.7 percent of the snaps in 2016.
Travis Kelce, TE
Baby Gronk is a baby no more. In his breakout fourth season, Kelce led all tight ends in yards (1,125) and was second in receptions (85). He’s finished as a top-two tight end in yards after the catch in each of the past two seasons and has proven to be more than capable of making plays both in the slot and on the line. As Reid said this offseason, Kelce can do “everything a wide receiver can do.” While his seven targets inside the 10-yard line leave much to be desired, Reid has admitted as much himself, and the departure of Maclin could enhance Kelce’s role, as he’s averaged 8.8 targets and 90.6 receiving yards per game in his five contests without Maclin over the past two seasons.
Kelce’s target total has steadily risen each season, and perhaps the absence of Maclin could help him best his career-high five touchdowns. The only tight ends to gain more yards than Kelce’s 2,862 through their first four seasons are Jeremy Shockey, Tony Gonzalez, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates, and Jimmy Graham. Considering Kelce played just one game as a rookie and didn’t record a single receiving yard, that’s good. Gronk and Jordan Reed are better tight ends, but neither has proven to be as durable as Kelce, who’s played in 48 consecutive games.
Demetrius Harris, TE
Although he has only a 27-217-2 career receiving line, Harris has become an increasingly important part of the offense over the last three years, playing 44.9 percent of the team’s snaps last year. Harris is a former collegiate basketball player with great size (6’7″ and 235 lbs.) and speed (4.52-second 40), but he’s yet to earn a significant number of targets. Barring an injury to Kelce, Harris is likely to remain little more than the supplementary tight end in 12-personnel packages.
The Chiefs currently have a 2017 win total of 9.0 games with a -125 over and -105 under. They’re also -115 to make the playoffs and -115 not to. In his tenure with the Chiefs, Reid has never failed to his nine wins and has missed the playoffs only once. That said, it’s fair to be skeptical of a team with a lame-duck quarterback and suddenly unstable front office following the firing of former GM John Dorsey. Writing for Rotoworld, Warren Sharp gives the Chiefs the second-toughest 2017 schedule. A season without double-digit wins and a playoff appearance is possible. They exceeded their Pythagorem Expectation by 1.9 wins last season.
The Chiefs are +2,800 to win the Super Bowl, +1,200 to win the AFC, and +240 to win the AFC West. The Chiefs are 10.8-5.2 in the Reid era while the Raiders are 9.5-6.5 over the last two years under HC Jack Del Rio. The Raiders are a team on the rise — but they massively overperformed their 8.7-win Pythagorean Expectation last year with their 12-4 record. They’re the AFC West favorites at +160, but they’re not definitively better than the Chiefs. That said, given Reid and Smith’s separate and collective postseason history, I’m not betting on them to make the Super Bowl.
Even though Reid is 36-27-1 against the spread in Kansas City, games with the Chiefs are 26-37-1 in over/under during that time. Also, Reid has a mythical 16-2 record in games following the bye week. He gets to use his sorcerous powers against the Giants in Week 11 this season.
In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent Chiefs Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.