As Kansas City prepares to embark on the second half of its season, the Chiefs hold a comfortable lead in the AFC West thanks to an extremely productive offense.
The Chiefs rank among the top five in the NFL in passing yards, total yards and points per game, after failing to crack the top 10 in any of those categories in 2016.
While the offensive improvement is a collective team effort ranging from head coach down, no one has improved in 2017 to the level of quarterback Alex Smith.
The 33-year old has eight touchdown passes of 20 yards or more, two games of 300+ yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions and came just two scores shy of tying the NFL record for most touchdowns thrown to start a season without an interception.
Smith has consistently picked up a struggling defense pushing the ball down field and led the Chiefs to wins over some of the league’s best teams. Smith is playing with largely the exact same receiving core as in 2016, minus Jeremy Maclin, but has drastically improved production.
The only thing keeping Smith from a perfect A to start the season are the missed opportunities against Pittsburgh and Oakland. Smith is by no means to blame for either loss, but did have a chance to win each game in the fourth quarter.
Running backs: A-
When rookie running back Kareem Hunt was off to one of the greatest starts in NFL history, this grade was undeniably an A. But after four weeks of sub 100 yards rushing and a lack of consistent depth at the position, running back also has to fall just shy of a perfect A.
Spencer Ware was set to start at the beginning of the season, but Hunt, the third round pick, has done more than just fill Ware’s shoes since the preseason injury. Hunt is the first rookie in NFL history to top 100+ all-purpose yards in his first seven games and has helped Kansas City’s red zone offense with six touchdowns on the year.
Recent running game struggles are due more to a weaker offensive line and stout front sevens, but the Chiefs will need Hunt and a productive run game in order to reach their playoff potential. Even if weeks one through seven go down as Hunt’s peak, the third round pick has more than surpassed anyone’s expectations.
Wide receivers: B-
An argument could be made that the receiving core has made the most out of its opportunities, especially after the season ending injury to Chris Conley and the summer departure of Maclin. But those factors can’t go overlooked, and outside of Tyreek Hill, the group has not been the reason for Kansas City’s success.
Receivers account for less than half of Smith’s passing touchdowns on the year, and more of a presence in the red zone would have helped the overall grade. However, Hill included, the team does not possess big wide receiving threats in the end zone for Smith to target.
Andy Reid often opts for multiple tight end sets instead of going wide receiver heavy, and most of Hill’s touchdowns have come on big plays, rather than in goal to go situations. How much more of an impact the wide receivers have inside the red zone in the second half of the season is a key area to watch for.
Tight ends: B+
Travis Kelce alone probably earned a solid A, but as a unit, Ross Travis and Demetrius Harris have not contributed to the level that Kansas City needs. Travis only has four catches despite playing in all nine games, while Harris’ drop tendencies have resurfaced at key times. When teams key in on Kelce, Harris and Travis need to be more reliable options in the second half.
As for Kelce, the 28-year old has built upon his breakout 2017 and established himself as statistically the best tight end in the game. Gone are the days of drops and fumbles, and while there have been a couple unwise penalties, Kelce’s consistent route running and skill set after the catch have been vital to the team’s success.
Offensive line: C+
The Chiefs’ front five have battled the injury bug throughout 2017, and the patch work line week to week has been shaky, especially in the run game. The line’s constructed more to favor the passing game, with smaller but more athletic lineman. This is a strength on screen plays and against quick outside linebackers, but has also led to some rough games overall.
Kansas City has allowed 24 sacks this year, 10th most in the NFL. With Smith as a mobile quarterback, this number could be a lot higher based strictly on offensive line play. The team had four of its five starters back against Dallas for the first time since week two, and the bye week should do wonders for a banged up group. The line was a strength in 2016, and the second half of the season will answer whether or not the first nine games were just a fluke.
The Chiefs kick off from New York against the Giants on Sunday at noon on KCTV5.
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