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NFL Draft

Do Chiefs Have A Potential Future Offensive Problem?

  • The Draft Network
  • August 26, 2020
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On the surface, there’s the potential for an issue here. The Kansas City Chiefs were one of four teams last season who didn’t take a snap in 10 personnel (1 RB, 4 WRs), only following up with six snaps in 01 personnel (1 TE, 4 WRs). That’s six total snaps with four WRs on the field for a team fielding unquestionably the best passer in the NFL.

That, by itself, is not inherently a problem. A tight end like Travis Kelce operates essentially as the X receiver for the Chiefs via alignment and in route distribution—Kelce not only received a higher number of targets/game than Tyreek Hill or Sammy Watkins, but a higher percentage of the team’s total air yards as well. As such, the Chiefs’ 12 personnel sets were more like 11 personnel sets, and the 11 personnel sets more like 10. Kelce’s versatility also allows for the Chiefs’ personnel sets to conceal intention by presenting more formations and playcalls than the average sets.

Kelce’s ability to play wide receiver and tight end obfuscates tendency, and is just another on the long list of small but meaningful edges granted to those teams that employ elite tight ends. Both the San Francisco 49ers (George Kittle) and Philadelphia Eagles (Zach Ertz) use their tight ends to their advantage in manipulating personnel as well. No team ran more 21 personnel last season than the 49ers, who force defenses into three-linebacker packages and regularly get plus play-action matchups for Kittle; no team ran more 12 personnel than the Eagles, who used Ertz and budding star Dallas Goedert to deploy nub sets and confuse the opponents’ run/pass strength calls.

With Kelce, the Chiefs don’t necessarily lean into one personnel grouping, but rather just go spread ‘n shred. However, there is a cautionary tale that can be told to the Chiefs by both the 49ers and the Eagles: wide receiver depth. 

Wide receiver depth has been a problem for both San Francisco and Philadelphia the past couple of years. For the Eagles, the cause and effect is fairly clear. With a ton of money and targets going to Ertz, starting receiver Alshon Jeffery grew discontented with his role in the offense; instead of drafting a young receiver early in the 2018 NFL Draft, they brought in Goedert. Come the 2019 season, and with injuries to Jeffery and veteran free agent addition DeSean Jackson, the Eagles were stuck relying on rookie wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside, maligned first-round bust Nelson Agholor, and practice squad developer Greg Ward for their wide receiver production. Even if Arcega-Whiteside had hit, it would have been rough—but he didn’t.

The Eagles were late to the party investing in wide receivers, and likely believed that, with a weaker room, their tight ends could have covered the gap—and they barely snuck into the playoffs as a result.

The 49ers’ issue was far less clear. They did spend more at wide receiver than the Eagles did, bringing in Dante Pettis as a second-rounder in 2018, then chasing him with Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd in the second and third rounds of 2019. Without any big names already on the depth chart or significant free agent additions, these young players needed to hit—and Samuel did. But Samuel fell to the second-round in part due to health concerns that have already limited his first season and look to limit his second season as well. Meanwhile, Pettis fell out of Shanahan’s favor, and Hurd continued to endure the injury problems he displayed in college. 

The 49ers pulled off the trade that some hoped the Eagles would have when they acquired Emmanuel Sanders at the deadline last year, though it cost them a third- and fourth-round selection and only put Sanders on the roster for one playoff run, as he left in free agency for New Orleans. Now, with a first-round pick spent on Arizona State wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk in the 2020 NFL Draft, San Francisco has invested about six total picks (a 1, two 2s, two 3s, and a 4) into five total receivers, draft day trade-ups pushed aside. There’s a chance not one of the receivers they acquire will start Week 1 this season.

The 49ers have looked to youth to fill their wide receiver depth chart and are riding the rollercoaster of inexperience and injury accordingly. They haven’t handed out a major extension or free agent deal to a wide receiver since Pierre Garcon signed a five-year, $47.5M deal that only lasted two seasons. And as such, their wide receiver play has suffered.

The Chiefs are not experiencing the problem that the Eagles and the 49ers are. They not only have a stud wide receiver in Tyreek Hill, but he is satisfied with his role as a premier deep threat in the league on a pass-happy offense that has more than enough targets to share between him and Kelce. They also have invested in him, giving him a three-year extension worth up to $54M

But the Chiefs must remain privy to the pitfalls of the Eagles and the 49ers, especially if they are to continue their pass-happy ways. They have perhaps the best pass-catching tight end in the NFL, and if rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire delivers, could have one of the best pass-catching RBs in the NFL fairly quickly. But that is no excuse to neglect the wide receiver position, which more than ever in the NFL, requires depth as much as it requires plus talent.

In the event of a Hill injury, the Chiefs will turn to second-round rookie Mecole Hardman, another speedster who many expect to have an increased role this year. But Hardman is the only receiver the Chiefs have under contract beyond 2020 besides Hill. Watkins, almost certainly overpaid, is a free agent, as are likely rostered receivers Demarcus Robinson, Gehrig Dieter, and Byron Pringle. The Chiefs have been pulling quarters out of the couch cushions to secure some big contracts like the Kelce extension, Chris Jones extension, and blockbuster Mahomes deal—they will not be able to make big-money moves at wide receiver next year.

As such, wide receiver depth is now a long-term priority in Kansas City, less they fall into the same trap that caught the Philadelphia and even San Francisco offense. Tight end talent and subsequent personnel shenanigans can take you quite far, but there is a cliff, and off its edge, you need wide receivers who can win their matchups. The Chiefs have that guy now, and may even have a second one—but if they think they can survive bargain-binning at the position long-term, they’ll find themselves walking a razor’s edge.

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