With one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL, in addition to a shiny new first-round quarterback in Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City will look to finally get past their first-round playoff exits and compete for championships. These are the players that are going to need to step up in order for them to truly contend this season and beyond.
*Note: this is not a list of the 10 best players on each roster, but rather who needs to stay healthy, and perform/outperform expectations in order for their team to have success this season and beyond.
10. RB Kareem Hunt
Last year’s rushing title champion, Hunt, won’t necessarily need to be performing at that level due to the new man under center in Patrick Mahomes, in addition to all the weapons surrounding the gunslinger. Nevertheless, the run and pass game both rely on setting each other up. Should Hunt struggle in his second year in the league, Mahomes and the entirety of the hyper offense being created in Kansas City will suffer. He’ll be tasked with at least playing at an above average level of play, which he is more than capable of performing at.
9. DE Chris Jones
There’s no questioning that the Chiefs run defense needs to improve from last year. One of the lone bright spots from last year, Jones contributed as the best down linemen in his sophomore season. After tearing his MCL after the Titans playoff loss, as well as having surgery prior to last season’s training camp, Jones staying healthy will be critical to keeping the trend of building up a run defense that is getting an infusion of young talent under the new GM Brett Veach.
8. C/LG Mitch Morse
Somewhat less of a household name, the KC faithful know that Morse is one of the most important pieces next year on the offensive line in order for the offense to click. Center and left guard are the two question marks where competition is available at the moment, and Morse is almost certain to fill one of those spots presuming he can remain healthy.
He projects more as a center, but also has the capability to play left guard. After missing 11 games last season, he’s now in a training camp battle against the likes of Cam Erving, Parker Ehinger, and Bryan Witzmann for the two positions, and the primary backup role that will almost certainly at some point see action along the line somewhere next season. Morse is highly considered the most likely to secure one of the starting spots, and when he does, he will need to maintain some consistency in protecting what is essentially a redshirt freshman in new signal caller Patrick Mahomes.
7. OLB Justin Houston
Remember once upon a time, that Houston, J.J. Watt, and Von Miller were the only three pass rushers that you could even arguably debate were the best in the league at one point? Well now Houston has been taken off that list and replaced by the likes of fellow AFC West rivals Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack, and many others.
Since signing a six-year, $106 million contract, Houston has missed 17 of 48 regular season matchups with injuries plaguing him. In order for the Chiefs defense to be successful, he’ll need to show he’s still capable of earning his contract, staying healthy, and competing for a spot as a league leader in sacks as he did when he nearly broke the NFL single season record with 22. Without his success of creating mismatches along the trenches, whoever plays opposite of Houston will likely struggle just as much, and the former highest paid player could be sent packing two years early.
6. CB David Amerson
A newly acquired free agent alongside the likes of Sammy Watkins and Anthony Hitchens, Amerson was somewhat of an under-the-radar move this offseason by Brett Veach. The former Raider was considered to have a very poor season last year, yet was brought on this year by the Chiefs on a one year prove-it type deal. Once a second-round selection, Amerson’s most highly regarded year was in 2015. Veach and the Chiefs will hope that with a change of scenery along some better safety play than the Raiders have had, he’ll serve as a quality outside corner whether opposite of Kendall Fuller or Steven Nelson.
While he shouldn’t be given the task of becoming a Pro Bowler, Kansas City will hope to make him a serviceable starter in what is highly regarded as their weakest position at the moment defensively. The Chiefs have somewhat of an idea in what they have with fellow training camp competition Steven Nelson, whereas Amerson is more of a wild card. Hence, his production being up to standard will be more of a necessity.
5. The OLB Opposite of Justin Houston
While yes, it may be somewhat of a cop out option to not give a specific player, the trio of Dee Ford, Tanoh Kpassagnon and Breeland Speaks all have a genuine shot at being the Day 1 right outside linebacker.
Ford has the experience, but will be owed significantly more money next year, as well as having health concerns, and sheer moments of just not being an impact player. KPassagnon has the greatest measurables of the three and was one of the last picks in the John Dorsey regime as a project player, while Speaks was this year’s second-round pick by the Chiefs’ new general manager Brett Veach. Unlike cornerbacks Amerson and Nelson, not all three linebackers need to necessarily step up this year. So long as one of the players contributes alongside Houston — while also remaining healthy — the pass rush in Kansas City will be formidable.
4. TE Travis Kelce
His talent needs no introduction, but I’ll give him some praise anyways. Travis Kelce is the best tight end in the NFL when Rob Gronkowski is injured, which as of late seems to be just about all the time. There’s no question that the Chiefs are loaded at the playmaker positions with the aforementioned Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill, and Sammy Watkins all playing in addition to Kelce.
However, we saw firsthand in the playoff loss to the Titans what happens when the electric tight end is off the field: the offense stalls. Kelce is the security blanket in the middle of the field, and when that security blanket is taken away from Alex Smith and he struggles to keep the ball away from the defense, imagine what a loose cannon like Patrick Mahomes will do. Kelce is not one to be very injury-prone, but should his health become a concern this season, the Chiefs offense will constantly be relying on boom-or-bust production from their speedy wide receivers. Their tight end is the key to success.
3. CB Kendall Fuller
The real prize in the Alex Smith trade, this former Redskin is without question the most talented corner on a Chiefs roster that also shipped away a corner in Marcus Peters. With that being said, Fuller is at the moment a better slot corner than he is on the perimeter. With the question marks surrounding David Amerson and Steven Nelson however, the third-year defensive back may have to be a little more flexible than he’s use to and move to the outside more than he was asked to in D.C-
2. S Eric Berry
Returning back from injury, the ninth-year safety will have one of the most important pieces to play. The heart and soul of KC defense seemed to lack exactly that and Berry will bring back that intensity to the locker room. There’s no questioning that he’ll be able to perform at the elite level we’ve all become accustomed to seeing from him, but his role as a captain on what is now a suddenly very young defense is something you won’t see in the box score that will make a very real impact on how the Chiefs perform.
1. QB Patrick Mahomes
Who else could this spot have gone to? The Chiefs success will most heavily rely on the former Texas Tech product’s ability to produce in the NFL. There’s no question of the talent on the Chiefs roster, but Vegas is keeping their over/under on wins at 8.5 due to the question marks surrounding their signal caller. Should he perform even slightly above average, this is a team that could make a deep playoff run, but as of now, this young QB’s starting ability is questionable. He may not have to perform at as high of a level as some of his teammates, but his production will by far be the most important for the short and longterm success of Kansas City.
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