Alex Smith’s Chiefs still favorites in AFC West

After a disappointing loss in the AFC’s wild card round last season, it’s easy to declare the Alex Smith era over in Kansas City. The veteran quarterback has won just a single playoff game with the Chiefs, and even that was against a hapless Houston team which started Brian Hoyer under center. The best thing anyone can say about Smith’s game is that he doesn’t throw interceptions, he’s 33 years old, and Kansas City drafted Patrick Mahomes as the heir apparent at quarterback. But this era isn’t over yet.

There’s one more year left for Smith as the starter. Mahomes was never expected to start the year under center and after the preseason, it’s fair to say he’ll probably spend 2017 on the bench, learning from Smith.

Parsing Smith’s game is almost pointless this far into his career, because everyone knows exactly what he is: the very definition of a game manager. In 2016, Smith threw for just 3,502 yards, most of them agonizingly close to the line of scrimmage. But he finished among the top-12 quarterbacks in both DYAR and DVOA. He also threw just eight interceptions, thanks mostly to his style of play. When it comes to Smith, the end result depends not so much on him as the rest of the offense. The Chiefs, luckily, have surrounded him with a solid unit.

Even after running back Spencer Ware went down for the year with a knee injury, Kansas City should be heavily reliant on its run game. The Chiefs spent a third round pick on Kareem Hunt, who is expected to start in lieu of Ware. A product of mid-major Toledo, Hunt displayed strong vision and tight cutting ability at school. He can make an impact as a receiver and had just one fumble in three years during college. His speed doesn’t leave your jaw hanging, but Hunt is capable of picking up yardage after contact, averaging 3.5 per attempt last season, per PFF. He should be more than capable as Ware’s replacement.

It won’t hurt that Hunt will be running behind a decent offensive line. No returning starter had a PFF grade below 70 last year. Right tackle Mitch Schwartz led the group with an 80.9 mark. Ironically, Schwartz was the worst player on the line when it came to blown blocks, allowing 8.0 sacks and whiffing 30 times, according to Football Outsiders’ Almanac. Opposite him, left tackle Eric Fisher didn’t have much to brag about either, blowing 15 pass blocks, per FOA. It’s worth noting, however, that the bulk of both their struggles came in pass blocking. On the interior, right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif blew just seven blocks total last season, per FOA, with center Mitch Morse clocking in at 11. The line should benefit from getting left guard Parker Ehinger back after he missed most of last year with injury. However, Zach Fulton proved worthy in his absence and the two could share playing time as a result.

The Chiefs’ receiving corps has been an issue in the past. After the team cut Jeremy Maclin, it looks like the weakest part of the offense again.

Tyreek Hill is the unquestioned No. 1 wideout despite most of his contributions coming on special teams last year. Expect Hill, a YAC machine, to be featured in an excessive number of screen passes.

Tight end Travis Kelce could easily lead the team in targets. Kelce was the team’s best pass-catcher last season, putting up 85 receptions for 1,125 yards last year. He also led all tight ends with 261 DYAR in 2016 — over 50 more than Seattle’s Jimmy Graham, who finished second. Given Kelce’s size, it’s surprising the Chiefs didn’t feature him more in the red zone. The tight end had just 16 red zone targets, three of them resulting in touchdowns last season.

It’s unclear who the No. 2 and 3 wideouts will end up being, but there aren’t many good options. Chris Conley had just 44 receptions and failed to make much of an impact last season. That was 13 more catches than Albert Wilson though, with De’Anthony Thomas bringing up the rear with just seven receptions last year (if you’re wondering, this wasn’t due to injury, as he played 12 games in 2016.) Fourth-round pick Jehu Chesson has a chance at playing time as well. The Michigan product is a versatile player with the physicality necessary to win in the red zone. However, his route running needs improvement and his catch radius is smaller than you’d like. Chesson also may be a poor fit in a Kansas City scheme which relies on a lot of short throws. He had just 113 yards after the catch at Michigan last season.

Kansas City’s strength will continue to be on defense. The Chiefs swapped out Dontari Poe for Bennie Logan at nose tackle and should be better for it. Logan had an 89 percent run stop rate and averaged just 0.6 yards per rushing tackle last season, according to FOA. Defensive end Chris Jones was recently taken off the PUP list, which should warrant a sigh of relief from fans. Jones had an 84.4 PFF grade last season and was Kansas City’s best pass rusher on the front three. Opposite him, we could see a rotation with Rakeem Nunez-Roches getting a narrow majority of snaps. Nunez-Roches struggled last season, with a 47.8 PFF grade and 60 percent run stop rate, per FOA. Second-round pick Tanoh Kpassagnon could surpass him on the depth chart if those struggles continue. Allen Bailey, Jarvis Jenkins and Roy Miller will see rotational snaps at the position as well, though it’s unclear if any of them will be an improvement. Bailey did have a 77.7 PFF grade in 2015, but he’s coming off an injury that saw him play just five games last season. If the Chiefs can find a productive player out of those five at defensive end, they should be happy.

A healthy Justin Houston at outside linebacker will be a godsend to Kansas City’s pass rush. In just five games last season, Houston had 4.0 sacks, serving as a reminder of what the 28-year old can do when healthy. For three straight years from 2013-2015, Houston had a PFF grade above 90. Now that he’s back, full-stop, the Chiefs could look more like the team that finished fifth in pressure rate two years ago than the one which ranked 27th last season, per FOA. Dee Ford moved into a lead role on the edge last season and should retain it with Tamba Hali hitting age 34 this year. Ford had an 82 percent run stop rate along with 10.0 sacks, seven hits and 29 hurries last season. The sack total could go down a bit, but expect Ford to be a key part of Kansas City’s defense. Hali and Frank Zombo will likely be a part of the team’s outside linebacker rotation, but Ford and Houston should see a healthy majority of snaps.

On the inside, Derrick Johnson is 35 years old and still going strong. Johnson finished tenth among linebackers with a 60 percent success rate in coverage last season, per FOA. After tearing his Achilles late in the season, the veteran should be good to go. Next to him, Ramik Wilson led all linebackers with just 3.4 adjusted yards per target, according to FOA. Wilson also bested his elder in success rate, with a 61 percent mark, per FOA. The newly acquired Reggie Ragland will get some time at the position as well, given Johnson’s age. However, this won’t be much of a rotation unless there’s an injury.

Those two were a key part of a pass defense which ranked seventh in DVOA last season. Because the Chiefs played dime 29 percent of the time, per FO, it’s also worth noting Daniel Sorenson’s role. Sorenson is listed as a safety, but he primarily plays as KC’s dime back. He had a 57 percent success rate last season, ranking sixth among safeties last season, per FOA.

At corner, Marcus Peters was named a First-Team All-Pro last season by the AP and deservedly so. In addition to six interceptions and 18 passes defensed, Peters had a 54 percent success rate while often facing the opposing team’s best receiver, per FOA. A healthy Terrance Mitchell will be of help to the secondary. The cornerback played just seven games last year, but excelled with a 57 percent success rate, per FOA. However, Steven Nelson will miss a chunk of the season with an abdomen injury. He had a pedestrian 49 percent success rate, per FOA, but at age 24, this could have a key year to his development. Phillip Gaines will likely start until Nelson returns, however, he struggled badly last season with an abysmal 43 percent success rate, per FOA.

Free safety Eric Berry was named to the All-Pro team beside Peters for the second straight year. Berry’s 89.2 PFF grade ranked sixth at the position. He also had a 53 percent success rate, per FOA, 20th among safeties. Next to him, Ron Parker gave up just 6.9 adjusted yards per target, according to FOA, and had an 82.0 PFF grade. Put simply, this safety duo is one of the best in football.

The Chiefs probably lost their best chance at a Super Bowl last season, but a division title is still within sight. If everything goes well, KC could easily duplicate their 12 wins from 2016 and get another shot at playoff glory.

If you would like to learn more about the advanced stats we used, check out FootballOutsiders.com, which is largely free, or ProFootballFocus.com which is not.