Red Zone

A look at the Chiefs’ five biggest needs heading into the 2016 season

Chiefs tackle Eric Fisher (center) could be a free agent after the 2016 season.
Chiefs tackle Eric Fisher (center) could be a free agent after the 2016 season. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Here’s an early look at the five primary positions the Chiefs might look to bolster this offseason, either through free agency or the NFL Draft.

1. Offensive tackle

This really is not a reflection on Jah Reid, a former third-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens who received a three-year extension in December after joining the Chiefs as a free agent. Reid proved to be capable at right tackle, but he was very solid at right guard during his short stint there in the playoffs and might have earned a longer look there going forward. The Chiefs’ depth at guard is OK with Ben Grubbs, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Zach Fulton.

But because they might lose starter Jeff Allen to free-agency, a move inside could still make some sense for Reid, who also provides protection in case the Chiefs lose versatile swing tackle Donald Stephenson to free-agency. One more case for drafting or signing a tackle is the looming contract decision on left tackle Eric Fisher, who made some strides this year in his demeanor, strength and technique but will be a free agent after 2016 if the Chiefs don’t pick up his hefty, eight-figure, fifth-year option.

The Chiefs also have some intriguing developmental players, including Jarrod Pughsley and practice-squaders Reid Fragel and Laurence Gibson.

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2. Nose tackle/defensive end

The Chiefs have two outstanding interior options under contract for 2016 in Allen Bailey and Dontari Poe, while stout second-year pro Nick Williams showed some promise in a limited role in 2015. He could be ready for more work next year. Stout veteran defensive end Mike DeVito is a run stopper who set a career high in sacks with three, but he’s a free agent — even though he’d like to return.

Meanwhile, sixth-round pick Rakeem Nunez-Roches is a gap shooter who will try to prove his worth after what was essentially a redshirt year in 2015. The potential loss of emerging nose tackle/defensive Jaye Howard looms large for a unit whose depth and talent were among the best in the league. Adding some young talent to this unit would also protect the Chiefs if they fail to reach an extension with Poe before he hits the market in March 2017.

3. Outside/slot cornerback

Marcus Peters emerged as the favorite for defensive rookie of the year fafter a monster 2015 season in which he snagged eight interceptions — tying a league high — and recorded a league-best 26 passes defensed. Peters was targeted often and yielded some big plays, but he could reasonably be asked to assume the role of No. 1 cornerback next year if Sean Smith — who is due a huge payday after two underrated seasons — does not return.

The Chiefs also have some intriguing young options on the opposite side of the field in second-year pro Phillip Gaines and rookie Steven Nelson, both of whom were third-round picks. Gaines is coming off an ACL injury while Nelson made a limited impact while he mastered the mental side of the game, so each has plenty to prove. The Chiefs also return safety Ron Parker, who emerged as an excellent option this season as a nickel corner, which is a position Nelson is learning how to play.

But in today’s pass-happy NFL, you can never have enough corners, and if a good one drops to them in the first three rounds, they’d be wise to take him. Corner is a position that, for the most part, you have to take early in the draft because everybody needs them and there simply aren’t enough good ones.

4. “X”/slot receiver

Jeremy Maclin proved to be one of the best free-agent signings in recent Chiefs history, as he proved to be a legitimate No. 1 receiver by catching 87 passes for 1,088 yards and eight touchdowns. Maclin, 27, had more than twice as many targets as No. 2 receiver Albert Wilson, an undrafted free agent in 2014 who continues to make positive strides. Wilson caught a career-high 35 passes for 451 yards and two touchdowns as the Chiefs’ primary “X” receiver, but he will again face competition from 2015 third-round pick Chris Conley, a gifted athlete who has needed time to learn coach Andy Reid’s vast playbook. Conley’s ceiling remains high, however.

nd don’t forget about preseason star Fred Williams, who will have an opportunity to earn a larger role in 2016 after spending another year on the practice squad.

But because steady veteran Jason Avant is set to become a free agent — and the status of 2014 fourth-pick De’Anthony Thomas remains unclear — the Chiefs could still use an infusion of young talent at the “X” position, especially because the 5-foot-9, 200-pound Wilson could always shift to the slot position. Or, they could simply re-sign Avant or sign or draft a slot receiver.

5. Kick/punt returner

Chiefs general manager John Dorsey recently said he expects dynamic kick/punt returner De’Anthony Thomas to return for organized team activities, but the Chiefs would still be wise to hedge their bets. Frankie Hammond improved while serving as Thomas’ primary replacement fielding punts, but the Chiefs could seek more dynamism there, or at least another option.

Meanwhile, Knile Davis is very able as a kick returner — as his 106-yard touchdown in the Chiefs’ AFC Wild Card Playoff victory proved — but as the fourth running back on the depth chart, Davis could be caught in a numbers crunch at the position. No matter how you slice it, the Chiefs need to give special-teams master Dave Toub a few more options back there so he can better work his magic.

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