Looking Into Chiefs’ 2023 WR Plan

Disbanding a historically potent Travis KelceTyreek Hill duo in March 2022, the Chiefs got by rather well last season. With JuJu Smith-Schuster approaching 1,000 yards and drawing the 2022 season’s defining holding penalty, Kansas City — with aid from a dominant Kelce season — withstood the Hill loss en route to its third Super Bowl title. The team’s second post-Hill receiving corps has been less useful, and the group’s output thus far has held this era’s most explosive offense back.

With Kelce in his age-34 season, the Chiefs entrusted an assortment of unproven options alongside the future first-ballot Hall of Famer. Kansas City’s offense still ranks fourth in DVOA, though it is 11th in scoring (after finishing no worse than sixth in any season during the Patrick Mahomes QB1 period). The Chiefs have also failed to score 20 points on five occasions this season; during Mahomes’ previous five seasons at the controls, the team had combined for just six such outings (h/t NFL.com).

The team attempted to address this issue in free agency, on the trade market and in the draft, but its efforts proved insufficient. The Chiefs have shifted to a roster-building blueprint around Mahomes’ mega-extension, one the club updated in September after this year’s run of QB deals further dropped the two-time MVP’s number within the QB salary hierarchy. But Kansas City did begin negotiations with Hill on a third contract in 2022, only to see Las Vegas’ Davante Adams trade/extension change the complexion of those talks. With Hill in Miami, the Chiefs’ margin for error shrunk.

In free agency, the Chiefs displayed interest in re-signing Smith-Schuster. But Andy Reid confirmed the team’s offer was not close to the Patriots’ three-year, $25.5MM ($16MM fully guaranteed) proposal. Although Smith-Schuster totaled 933 yards last season — by far the most among Chiefs wideouts — he has struggled to fill the Jakobi Meyers void in New England. Part of the reason for the Chiefs’ limited interest in Smith-Schuster: a belief Kadarius Toney could grow into a No. 1-caliber wide receiver with the benefit of a full offseason program. The 2022 trade acquisition has managed to put together his healthiest stretch in the NFL, missing just one game despite summer knee surgery, but the former Giants first-rounder has just 22 receptions for 139 yards while logging a 23% snap rate.

Letting Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman walk in free agency, the Chiefs inquired on Odell Beckham Jr. in March, after pursuing the talented but injury-riddled wideout in 2021 and ’22. But the Ravens’ $15MM guarantee abruptly closed that market. That deal also impacted the Chiefs’ trade talks with the Cardinals on DeAndre Hopkins.

The Chiefs and Bills had discussed terms with the Cards, but the OBJ guarantee nixed Hopkins’ interest in reworking his contract to facilitate a trade. The Chiefs later offered Hopkins an incentive-laden deal in free agency, joining the Patriots in doing so, while the Titans topped these proposals by giving the former All-Pro a $10.98MM guarantee on a two-year pact.

During Hopkins’ summer free agency stay, Kansas City had offered a $4MM base salary while including incentives that would have taken the contract to $10MM. By the time Hopkins became a free agent, the Chiefs had already used a chunk of their cap space to bring in left tackle Donovan Smith after the draft. No cap relief came from a Chris Jones extension — an offseason component Hopkins is believed to have factored into his free agency plan — with the All-Pro defensive tackle still headed toward free agency in 2024. Hopkins (774 yards, five touchdowns) has stayed healthy this season and is on pace for a seventh 1,000-yard year.

Kansas City did re-sign Justin Watson in April (two years, $3.4MM) and reacquired Hardman from the Jets in October. A former Buccaneers backup, Watson sits third in Chiefs receiving yards (332). Former second-round pick Skyy Moore, who had been expected to take a second-year leap, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling — in Year 2 of a three-year, $30MM accord — have joined Toney in offering inconsistency. Neither Moore nor Valdes-Scantling has topped 275 yards entering Week 14. This season represents a step back for MVS, who totaled 687 yards last year and topped 100 in the AFC championship game. Thanks largely to the Valdes-Scantling contract that features an $11MM 2023 cap number, the Chiefs rank 17th in wide receiver cap allocation this season.

The draft both brought failures and the team’s saving grace at receiver. After meeting with each of this class’ top receivers, the Chiefs attempted to trade up in Round 1. They had effectively done this in 2022, leapfrogging the Bills to draft Trent McDuffie. This year, the Chiefs were connected to Zay Flowers and Jordan Addison. Knowing of the Chiefs’ interest, the Ravens chose Flowers 22nd overall. Both Kansas City and New Orleans attempted to trade into Minnesota’s No. 23 slot, with Addison being the target amid the draft’s mid-first-round run on receivers. The Vikings stood pat and drafted Addison, who has shown immediate promise.

While the Chiefs ultimately settled for Rashee Rice at No. 50 overall, the SMU product’s development has been the clear silver lining. Rice’s 591 yards trail only Kelce for the defending champions, and after inconsistent usage during the season’s first half, the 6-foot-2 target has played at least 60% of the team’s offensive snaps in four of the past five games. Rice’s 8.4 yards after catch per reception trails only Deebo Samuel among wideouts this season, per Next Gen Stats.

Beyond Hardman, the Chiefs passed on bolstering their offense at the deadline. Results have remained choppy since, though Rice’s increased involvement has been a notable plot point. The team is expecting improvement from its young targets, per NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport. While questions regarding wideout viability will persist into the 2024 offseason, the Chiefs have at least one long-term box checked via Rice. With Kelce on the back nine of his remarkable career, the Chiefs’ 2024 receiver plan will become more important than what transpired this offseason.

After a number of what-ifs defined the Chiefs’ offseason at the position, it appears a certainty the perennial AFC West champions will make a more concerted effort to add aerial weaponry in 2024. But how this Chiefs contingent fares down the stretch this season will be a key AFC storyline.

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