Sam Mellinger

How the 2018 Chiefs are largely about the 2019 Chiefs

The secret of the most anticipated Chiefs season in years is that this is not a Super Bowl contender, no matter what some in the national media are saying.

Might not even be a playoff team.

This is not written to inflame or mock. This is not written simply because Eric Berry’s health remains uncertain, or the defense looked awful in the preseason. This is a sober look at a team with a first-year starting quarterback, major questions on defense and perhaps most convincingly a line of personnel moves that are subtly but consistently pointing to a more serious push beginning in 2019.

This is not a hot take, in other words.

This is the plan.

Look at the biggest moves. Alex Smith was traded for a Kendall Fuller, a young and rising cornerback, and draft picks, the higher of which comes next year. This happened because the team wanted to build around young quarterback Patrick Mahomes, a tantalizing talent but one who so far has only torched Big 12 defenses at Texas Tech.

Cornerback Marcus Peters was also traded, essentially because the organization was tired of repairing and reinforcing and worrying in his wake. Peters is young and game-changing and still cheap. You think a team that believes it’s close to a Super Bowl gives up on that?

Of course not, but a team that believes it’s close to a Super Bowl will trade for that, which is why the Rams added him to one of the league’s most talented rosters.

The free-agent moves were done with the future in mind, too. Sammy Watkins is just 25, and his red zone effectiveness (seven of his eight touchdowns last year were 17 yards or less) is seen as a complement to the 24-year-old Tyreek Hill (10 of his 13 career touchdown catches are 30 yards or more) to aid the development of the 22-year-old Mahomes.

Anthony Hitchens is just 26, a three-down linebacker the Chiefs think pairs well with Reggie Ragland inside and, more importantly, can be a pillar aside Justin Houston and Eric Berry to strengthen what football people refer to as “the culture.” That’s not a quick fix.

You see the commonality here? Get younger, create stable support for a first-year starting quarterback and build a culture that will help rather than impede.

The truth is the Chiefs’ defense probably had too many holes to fix all in one offseason, but certain circumstances also played against them.

The Chiefs may have prioritized Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller in free agency, and if so it would have been on brand. He’s Kendall’s brother, another dependable teammate, and he would’ve strengthened a premium position.

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But after the Bears used their franchise tag on Fuller, the backup options were less enticing. Trumaine Johnson and Malcolm Butler each had varying so-called “character” questions, which would’ve been a difficult sell while talking about culture.

Aaron Colvin would’ve been an upgrade, but the price — $34 million including $18 million guaranteed — was high for a player now listed as a backup on the Texans’ depth chart.

So, the Chiefs spent bigger money on fewer players, with the caveat that the talent would still be in prime years in 2019 and 2020.

The roster is full of “development guys,” particularly in the secondary — corners Charvarius Ward and Tremon Smith, safety Jordan Lucas and to a slightly lesser extent Armani Watts. The Chiefs will have an extra second-round pick next year, and will likely draft at least one cornerback high.

If that’s the way it goes, the biggest concern going forward could be the pass rush. The Chiefs need as much as they can get from Houston as he enters his 30s, and more importantly they need some real production from a second rusher.

Dee Ford is the most likely to make an impact in 2018, but he’s inconsistent, with unreliable health, can be a liability against the run, and will be a free agent after the season.

Rookie Breeland Speaks may be better suited inside — he played there in college, and could make an effective tandem with Chris Jones rushing in sub packages. If that’s the way it goes, the Chiefs would need some combination of retaining Ford, getting regular production from Tanoh Kpassagnoh, drafting a pass rusher high, or picking through a free agent class that could include Jadeveon Clowney.

The other thing going on here is a tangible priority on the defensive front, perhaps influenced by the current Super Bowl champions.

The discussion around the Eagles’ run typically centers around (Reid protege) Doug Pederson’s creativity, and that’s obviously a critical element.

But the Eagles also won with a defense that ranked fourth in points, fourth in yards and second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA with a group of corners that nobody would envy. The strength of that group was up front, and with the safeties. The Chiefs could try to emulate.

Either way, the Chiefs are approaching this as more than a quick fix. That may mean fewer wins in 2018. If that’s the way this goes, it won’t be a failure.

It’ll be the plan.

Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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