As the salary cap forces teams to do, the Kansas City Chiefs have shifted resources away from certain positions and prioritized others.
Their lack of interest in adding a veteran cornerback or spending a high draft pick on one was somewhat surprising, and Kansas City’s guard depth chart shows the biggest corner-cutting exercise at a non-specialty position.
However, last weekend the Chiefs displayed their usual apathy for a position that’s seen about as few resources poured into it as any in the NFL for most of the past decade. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing now that Andy Reid’s running the show.
The Chiefs, though, have structured their position groups at corner and receiver almost identically: with one highly regarded performer and a collection of dart throws.
In fact, the Chiefs have invested more to help their cornerbacks than address the spot national analysts constantly place near the top of the team’s needs hierarchy.
Granted, Kansas City is paying more for its receivers than its corners, with Jeremy Maclin’s 2016 salary cap number ($12.4 million) more reflective of the lucrative contract he’s signed to than last year’s was. But after selecting KeiVarae Russell in the third round in April, the Chiefs boast three third-round picks alongside Marcus Peters. In also selecting two more corners on Day 3 of this past draft, the Chiefs are using the quantity approach to replace Sean Smith.
At receiver beyond Maclin, the payments are lower, as are most of the profiles.
But as the Chiefs have shown over the past three years, they can cobble together a sufficient offense without a No. 2 wide receiver. Kansas City upgraded from Dwayne Bowe to Maclin, and Alex Smith’s yards-per-game figure went up by 0.2 yards per game.
Unlike corner, where the team desperately needs production from its cadre of middling buys, the Chiefs aren’t in a hurry to do as the experts say and use a high draft pick or spend key free agency capital here.
While greater-than-anticipated production would obviously be ideal, Kansas City’s offseason plan reflects where this position ranks in terms of importance on the team. It’s quite low.
Instead of using a first- or second-round pick here as some teams may have been tempted to, the Chiefs again look to be ready to complement Maclin with a committee. The group’s early usage against the Seahawks showed this.
Third-year committee member Albert Wilson, second-year group cog Chris Conley, and recent hire Rod Streater look to comprise a ragtag coalition tasked with beating one-on-one coverage in an offense funneled around Maclin and Travis Kelce. However, the Chiefs now have immense competition at this spot, but none come with credentials worthy of bumping the above auxiliary candidates.
Tyreek Hill and DeMarcus Robinson joined the fray as Day 3 picks, with De’Anthony Thomas even receiving early work last Saturday. He of two 900-plus-yard seasons, a threshold a Chiefs’ No. 2 receiver hasn’t crossed since 1985. Mike Williams is even in the house for a trial run, with return man Frankie Hammond Jr. still vying for a role. Three of these players won’t make the team, but the choice could be a hair-splitting endeavor without high-end charges after Maclin.
Streater received a veteran-minimum contract with a likely-to-be-earned $4 million incentive, so he and Conley reside as reasonable investments. This separates them only slightly from this strange assortment that could be a bit more important this season as Jamaal Charles’ usage rate remains uncertain.
Charles functioned as Kansas City’s de facto No. 2 receiver in his two last healthy seasons in 2013-14, catching 110 passes in those campaigns, but he’s coming off a second ACL tear in four years. A new third option may need to emerge.
Streater made a nice back-shoulder adjustment on a second-quarter Tyler Bray toss, and Hill displayed the quickness that drew rave reviews in training camp. Wilson’s acted as Kansas City’s other primary starter at receiver the past two years, and Conley should receive another opportunity.
But this contingent remains muddled and disparate from how the Chiefs’ rivals have structured their passing games.
The Broncos, Raiders and Chargers prioritized a No. 2 receiver. Emmanuel Sanders, Michael Crabtree and Travis Benjamin are each almost certainly going to out-produce the Chiefs’ non-Maclin receiver starter. However, only the Bolts have a veteran tight end salary anchoring their payroll as the Chiefs do. Denver and Oakland simply use Sanders and Crabtree as their No. 2 options instead of a tight end.
This approach has worked for the Chiefs, and it’s unclear if Smith could make good use of a quality No. 2 wideout. This is a methodical offense that doesn’t take many chances, so this position’s opportunities are scarce compared to most teams’ arrangements. However, this strategy only gave the Chiefs the 30th-ranked air attack in 2015, and with Justin Houston expected to be inactive or limited for a while, K.C.’s aerial personnel may need to shoulder more of the load.
So, the organization treating this job like a company that uses part-time staffers to perform low-priority tasks may be a bit more of a risk than in years past.
Although, Reid is one of the best game-planners in the NFL and has found ways to make Smith a viable passer. What the Chiefs have done at this position shows confidence not only in their low-level batch of interns but in Reid’s ability to out-scheme defenses.
Phillip Gaines, Steven Nelson and Russell — and possibly D.J. White — are going to be needed more than the players they’ve primarily guarded in camp this season. Because almost all the teams the Chiefs face will have better receiving groups than they do, it makes capable cover men essential.
The rest of the preseason should help sort out the order of this rotation, but unless an overachiever makes a case to become the Chiefs’ first steady WR2 since Steve Breaston five years ago, another expert-confounding group effort is coming.
How the latest minimalist effort here affects the Chiefs this season will dictate if, at long last, a high-caliber talent needs to be drafted come 2017.