Here’s a look at each position group heading into 2016, and the group’s overall grade in 2015, using the following scale: An “A” means the group performed at an elite level, a “B” means the group was above average, a “C” means the group was average, a “D” means the group was below average and an “F” means the group was one of the worst in the league. Please keep in mind that pluses and minuses have been eliminated this year.
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Quarterbacks: B (C+)
Alex Smith’s 2015 statistical line as a passer — 65.3 completion percentage, 3,486 yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions — looks remarkably similar to last year’s (65.3 completion percentage, 3,265 yards, 18 touchdowns, six interceptions). However, he rushed for 498 yards on 84 attempts — which was 244 more yards on 35 more attempts than he had last season — which reflects the better job he did escaping trouble and making teams pay with his legs. Teams never really adjusted to his ability to scramble and make something out of nothing. It’s a trait that helped him counter the blitzes and stunts that gave them trouble during their 1-5 start. Smith, 31, is not an elite quarterback, but he’s certainly in the top half of the league, and might have pushed himself into the top 12 or so. With No. 2 quarterback Chase Daniel slated to hit free agency, Aaron Murray and Tyler Bray should get an opportunity to earn the top backup job in 2016.
Running backs: B (A-)
Jamaal Charles was on pace for another strong season when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. He was averaging 5.1 yards per carry at the time, just a tad off his career average of 5.5 yards. Charles loves football and is super competitive so it would be a mild surprise if he didn’t come back with a vengeance in 2016, even at age 29. His replacements — youngsters Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware — were not as versatile or dynamic as Charles, but together they formed a very solid duo that outperformed any reasonable expectations once they passed 2013 third-round pick Knile Davis on the depth chart. The Chiefs’ rushing yards per game actually increased when Charles got hurt, and while some of that had to do with a tweaked offensive scheme that catered to the strengths of the line, some of that obviously had to do with the play of Ware and West, who were brought along quickly by running backs coach Eric Bieniemy. The Chiefs own Ware and West’s rights for 2016, and could form an excellent trio with Charles that should also keep the star back fresh and, perhaps, allow him to play more receiver and add to the passing game.
Receivers: C (D)
The competency of this group increased tenfold with the simple addition of Jeremy Maclin. Maclin, 27, was well worth the $55 million it took to bring him in as a free agent from Philadelphia, as he lifted the play of the Chiefs’ offense with his speed, route running and production (87 catches, 1,088 yards, eight touchdowns). He also lifted his teammates with his competitiveness and instilled a sense of swagger that had been lacking — there’s a reason Maclin was selected one of the Chiefs’ six captains for the postseason. In short, Maclin is one of the league’s most underrated receivers and a legitimate candidate for Team MVP. The rest of the receivers made strides but must continue to improve if the Chiefs’ offense hopes to reach its ceiling in 2016. No. 2 receiver Albert Wilson finished third on the team with 35 catches for 451 yards and two touchdowns, while 2015 third-round pick Chris Conley caught 17 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown. Both are young players with upside, while Jason Avant (15 catches, 119 yards) was as a steady veteran.
Tight ends: C (B)
Third-year pro Travis Kelce, 26, responded to the challenge of being the undisputed No. 1 tight end for the first time in his career by posting career highs in catches (72), targets (100), yards (875) and repeating his touchdown output from last year (five). The most promising thing about Kelce is that he’s played all 32 regular-season games since a knee injury wiped out his rookie season. He also fumbled two fewer times this year than he did last year (four). Kelce will only improve as his command of the offense and blocking grows. The Chiefs saw enough growth from No. 2 tight end Demetrius Harris this season to reward him with a three-year extension earlier this month. The second-year pro is big (6 feet 7, 230) and athletic but raw as a player, as he didn’t play football in college. The Chiefs also like fifth-round rookie James O’Shaughnessy’s potential as a receiver and Brian Parker’s potential as a blocker, but overall, the unit’s run blocking needs to improve, and the Kelce-Anthony Fasano duo from last year was better than what the Chiefs ran out there this season.
Offensive line: C (D)
In mid-October, this group was easily headed toward an “F.” They didn’t have an identity, they didn’t play with any sort of nastiness and they struggled mightily in pass protection, both in one-on-one battles and when it came to picking up blitzes. But things improved greatly once they simplified the protection schemes and reinserted Jeff Allen into the starting lineup. Once Allen, who was battling a knee injury in August and September, returned to the lineup against Pittsburgh on Oct. 25, the Chiefs won 11 straight games. They also started playing with more of an edge, and Allen led the charge here. He’s the unit’s MVP. Left tackle Eric Fisher took some big steps forward this year, particularly with his nastiness, and while he still needs to smooth out some technique issues, there is still hope for him to become a good NFL left tackle. Rookie center Mitch Morse was the team’s second-best rookie, while second-year pro Zach Fulton shined at center in his absence. It might be his best position. Second-year pro Laurent Duvernay-Tardif got some valuable starting experience, and while he still needs to work on his technique and awareness, he tries hard and has some upside. Jah Reid did a serviceable job at right tackle and earned an extension in December, though he’ll still have to earn the job in 2016. Donald Stephenson got some starts at tackle in a contract year but might seek a fresh start elsewhere. All in all, the group passed the course, but improvement is still needed.
Defensive line: A (B-)
This was easily one of the strongest groups of the team, as the Chiefs used a five-man rotation for the three interior spots that was among the league’s best. Between Allen Bailey, Jaye Howard, Dontari Poe, Mike DeVito and Nick Williams, teams had a very difficult time running the ball against the Chiefs, who boasted the league’s eighth-best run defense. The defensive line also played a role in the Chiefs’ 47 sacks — the fourth-most in the league — as they combined for 14 sacks. Bailey made good on the four-year, $24 million contract he signed the 2014 season, as he proved to be solid versus the run and the pass, but the best of the bunch was probably Howard, who turned in a career season before hitting free agency. Poe also recovered nicely from offseason back surgery and got stronger as the year when on, while DeVito was his usual stout self vs. the run. Williams got a taste of playing time this year and could be asked to take on a bigger role in 2016, especially with Howard and DeVito set to hit free agency. Rookie sixth-rounder Rakeem Nunez-Roches earned a handful of snaps in a reserve role but will try to carve out a more meaningful role next season.
Outside linebackers: B (A)
The Chiefs’ best player is probably Justin Houston, who followed up the $100 million contract he signed in the offseason with a 7 1/2 -sack campaign in only 11 games because of a hyperextended knee injury. When Houston is healthy, he is one of the league’s elite defensive players; disruptive against the pass, stout versus the run. He was missed, even though the Chiefs won the five games he didn’t play at the end of the season. Both Houston and Tamba Hali are going to the Pro Bowl, but Hali — who rarely practiced this season due to knee issues — wasn’t happy with his 6 1/2 -sack campaign. After a quiet first month of the season, he was good, though, and was a rock for the Chiefs, playing in 14 games. The injuries to Houston and Hali gave 2014 first-round pick Dee Ford a real opportunity to play, and Ford responded with a four-sack season. He still needs to do a better job of chaining his pass-rush moves together, but he took a big step forward this season. Veteran Frank Zombo (three sacks) also made some meaningful plays this year in a reserve role. The unit, overall, was good, but there was no way they could match their production from last year, when Houston and Hali combined for 28 sacks — production that fell by half this year.
Inside linebackers: B (D)
What a difference a year makes. The same group that earned a “D” last year due to spotty run defense got Derrick Johnson back from a season-ending Achilles injury and jumped two full grades. Johnson, 33, might be the team’s defensive MVP. He was outstanding this season in a contract year, recording a team-high 116 tackles with eight pass deflections, four sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. He was also a major reason the Chiefs’ run defense jumped from 28th in 2014 to eighth in 2015. His return also allowed the Chiefs to slide Josh Mauga back to a role as a “Mike” linebacker primarily in the base defense. The Chiefs have some promising young players here, including fourth-round pick Ramik Wilson, fifth-round pick D.J. Alexander and preseason star Justin March, but they definitely need Johnson in 2016 to make a Super Bowl run and need to react accordingly come negotiation time.
Cornerbacks: B (B)
Start with the likely NFL defensive rookie of the year, Marcus Peters. The Chiefs’ 2015 first-round pick was a smashing success this season, leading the NFL in interceptions (eight) and passes defensed (34). Teams threw at Peters a lot, so he also allowed some big plays, but when you consider the Chiefs only had six interceptions all of last season, it’s easy to see Peters’ impact. His playmaking ability helped the Chiefs finish second in the league in interceptions. He was flanked by veteran Sean Smith, who quietly had a very strong season in a contract year. He could be hard to retain as a free agent, but the Chiefs have some young options to replace him in 2014 third-round pick Phillip Gaines and 2015 third-round pick Steven Nelson. Gaines is recovering from a torn ACL while Nelson made a limited impact while learning how to play nickel for the first time. The Chiefs will also have 2013 team rookie of the year Marcus Cooper under contract. The unit’s grade takes a slight hit because safety Ron Parker had to move to nickel to solidify the position following Gaines’ injury, but their top two corners were among the best duos in the league.
Safeties: A (B-)
The Chiefs boasted one of the deeper safety units in the league. From a four-time Pro Bowler (Eric Berry), to a steady, heady veteran (Husain Abdullah), to a veteran who got his groove back following two injury-plagued seasons (Tyvon Branch), to a do-it-all safety who saved the Chiefs’ butts at nickel corner (Parker) to a second-year undrafted rookie who was elected a special teams captain for the playoffs and earned some defensive snaps to boot (Daniel Sorensen), there aren’t many teams that can say they legitimately go five-deep at safety. Here’s how deep this group is; the Chiefs had to trade Kelcie McCray, who found regular playing time in Seattle’s Legion of Boom, because he wasn’t going to make the team.
Special teams: B (B-)
Kicker Cairo Santos took a step forward in 2015, making five more field goals than he did in 2014 and becoming more consistent on kicking touchbacks. Meanwhile, punter Dustin Colquitt was his usual solid self. The coverage units didn’t allow a touchdown, but their return units didn’t get their first score until the playoffs — an unusual occurrence for one of the league’s best special teams coaches, Dave Toub. Knile Davis was solid on kickoff returns — he had the Chiefs’ one return score — but he might be elsewhere next year if the Chiefs don’t want to keep four running backs on their 53-man roster. De’Anthony Thomas’ play in the return game was missed as he dealt with concussion and personal issues, and since the Chiefs have provided little information about his current situation, his return in 2016 has to be considered a question mark. He was replaced by Frankie Hammond, who had some shaky moments before steadying himself in the postseason. The Chiefs had a few unusual screwups, in general — the blocked field goal against the Bears, a few blown extra points, some penalties on big returns, etc. — but most came during the franchise-record 11-game winning streak, so no harm, no foul.
Coaching: A (B+)
Before you complain about this grade, remember the Chiefs went 11-5 and won a playoff game for the first time in 22 years. Give Andy Reid credit — the man held a sinking ship together long enough to patch the holes at 1-5 and get it pointed in the right direction. The Chiefs never turned on each other and never started pointing fingers, and Reid deserves some credit for that. He and former offensive coordinator Doug Pederson, who was recently hired as the Philadelphia Eagles’ head coach, also deserve credit for finding and cultivating an offensive identity after Jamaal Charles got hurt in Week 5. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton did a nice job righting the ship during the second half of the season as well, though he’s been criticized for a cautious game plan in their AFC Divisional Round loss to New England. Still, the Chiefs went 11-5 and were a fluke loss against Denver (or Chicago) away from claiming the AFC West crown. Reid and his men did a good job, on the whole, though the bar will be even higher next year, and the expectation will be to win the division for the first time since 2010 and advance to the AFC Championship Game.