The Chiefs Probably Aren’t Drafting a First Round Receiver, Here’s Why

Image via KC Kingdom

After trading away Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs are all but guaranteed to draft a receiver in the first round of the 2022 draft… right?

Not necessarily.

Historically, Andy Reid coached teams haven’t invested heavily in the receiver position. Reid believes that great schemes and exceptional quarterback play can manufacture receiver production, and his draft history in Kansas City supports this belief. Since Reid joined the team in 2013, the Chiefs haven’t drafted a single receiver in the first round.

With two first round picks in their pocket, this may be the year the streak gets snapped. If history’s any indication though, it’s not very likely.

Over the past five years, the NFL has seen five trades occur where a receiver was swapped for a first round pick:

  • In 2020, the Bills acquired Stefon Diggs and a 7th rounder from the Vikings in exchange for a 1st rounder (used on Justin Jefferson), plus 4th, 5th, and 6th round selections
  • In a 2019 package deal, the Browns acquired Odell Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon from the Giants in exchange for Jabrill Peppers, Kevin Zeitler, a 1st rounder, and a 3rd rounder (neither pick was used on a WR)
  • In 2018, the Cowboys acquired Amari Cooper from the Raiders in exchange for a 1st rounder (used on Johnathan Abram)
  • In 2018, the Rams acquired Brandin Cooks and a 4th round pick from the Patriots in exchange for a 1st rounder and a 6th rounder (neither pick was used on a WR)
  • In 2017, the Patriots acquired Brandin Cooks and a 4th rounder from the Saints in exchange for a 1st rounder and a 3rd rounder (neither pick was used on a WR)

Because the Diggs/Jefferson trade was the most recent example (and a resounding success for both teams), everyone’s pointing at this being the template for Kansas City. What people seem to be forgetting is this isn’t the norm.

More often than not, teams trade away an area of strength to improve a weaker spot on their roster. Even though 2021 was perceived to be a “down year” for the Chiefs’ offense, no one is arguing they’re weak on that side of the ball. Even if Hill’s departure leads to a decline in 2022, it’s hard to envision them being anything less than a top 10 unit. Compare this to a defense that ranked 27th in yards allowed last year, and it becomes obvious that receiver isn’t priority #1.

When the Chiefs signed Mahomes to his contract extension back in 2020, both parties knew it would come with more than just heaping sums of money — it came with expectations.

In 2022, Mahomes alone will account for over 17% of Kansas City’s cap space, and that number jumps above 21% in 2023. Dedicating this much money to Mahomes meant there was no way to honor Hill’s request of being the league’s highest paid receiver without financially crippling the rest of the roster. Letting go of Hill wasn’t an easy decision, but this is the type of sacrifice teams make when writing a fat check for a franchise QB.

If a quarterback needs expensive playmakers around him to find success, they probably aren’t really worth $40+ million a year. Getting rid of Hill is a sign that the Chiefs are ready to enter the second chapter of the Patrick Mahomes era.

But what exactly will this new era look like?

Tyreek Hill accounted for a quarter of Kansas City’s receiving yards last year, and finding a way to win without that production is not going to be easy.

However, winning without Hill doesn’t require a one-for-one replacement, and trying to find one would be a foolish way to approach team building. Looking at the problem this way is reminiscent of the scene in Moneyball where Billy Beane explains to his scouts that they’ll never be able to replace Giambi. A one-for-one replacement may make for an exciting headline or movie script, but it’s likely not the best way for Kansas City to improve their football team:

Data via Pro Football Reference

This isn’t downplaying the massive void that Hill’s absence will create. Replacing his big red slice of the pie won’t be easy, but there are ways to pull this off without making a costly investment in a single receiver (rookie or otherwise).

First off, Kelce will need to continue accounting for north of 20% of the receiving yards and remain an elite option in the passing game. His role shouldn’t change much, but the rest of the blue slices around him will need to look a little different.

Hill’s gone, so is Byron Pringle (signed with Chicago), and Darrell Williams remains a free agent who may not return to Kansas City. Mecole Hardman will be back, but he’s best suited to be a 3rd or 4th option. To help nibble away at the rest of the pie, Kansas City will rely heavily on guys wearing Chiefs uniforms for the first time in 2022.

Free-agent signings JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdez-Scantling are expected to man the starting receiver spots alongside Hardman and Kelce. Smith-Schuster is likely the team’s new #1 receiver, but he’ll be the #2 option overall behind Kelce. He’ll bring a tough, physical presence to the passing attack by gobbling up receptions over the middle and inflicting damage after the catch.

Then there’s Valdez-Scantling who isn’t nearly as talented as Tyreek Hill, but provides a similar downfield presence. In each of his four NFL seasons, Valdez-Scantling has averaged over 15 yards per catch, and his blazing speed should be a valuable commodity in Kansas City this year.

The problem is, the Chiefs are asking two guys to make up for the production of one.

Hill’s deep speed is his trademark trait, but he was much more than strictly a deep threat in Kansas City’s offense. He’s a well-rounded receiver who torched defenses from every area of the field in Andy Reid’s offense. The hope is the combination of Smith-Schuster and Valdez-Scantling can attack those same areas and help mask Hill’s absence.

Unfortunately, relying on multiple bodies to replace one man’s production limits an offense’s creative freedom. Neither Smith-Schuster nor Valdez-Scantling possess the versatility Hill did, and their limitations will put additional pressure on Mahomes and the rest of the offense.

This may mean the Chiefs’ passing attack takes a small step back in 2022, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be worse. If Kansas City uses some of the assets they acquired in the Hill trade to improve their defense, a more balanced roster could lead to better results. Sprinkle in the addition of running back Ronald Jones (who’s not a proficient pass catcher), and another route to improvement opens up as well.

The Chiefs ranked 16th in total rush yards last year, but they ranked 7th in yards per carry. An Andy Reid-coached offense will never be a run-first group, but capitalizing on that efficiency with just 2–3 more attempts per game would go a long way towards keep opposing defenses on their heels.

Replacing Hill doesn’t require one splashy move. It requires multiple minor changes (like an increase in rush attempts). Kansas City doesn’t need a replacement, they need a philosophical shift.

The AFC is LOADED with talent right now, and every AFC contender showcases their talent in a different way. If the Chiefs want to become the dynasty many think they can be, they’ll need to find creative ways to beat any style of football team. The passing game will remain their bread and butter, but the run game and defense will need to step up and ease some of the burden as well.

The upcoming draft is a great way to take a major step towards building out that well-balanced football team.

In all likelihood, at least one of the Chiefs’ 12 picks will be spent on a receiver. This doesn’t mean it’ll be one of their first rounders, and the last thing you want as a Chiefs fan is to have your front office drafting for need. Honing in on one specific position is exactly how teams wing up getting burned, and the Chiefs instead need to focus on acquiring talent wherever they can get it.

Unlike other contenders, the Chiefs aren’t operating with a 2–3 year championship window. This allows them to approach the draft with the long-term in mind, be patient throughout the process, and focus strictly on acquiring talent. The Chiefs may walk away from the draft without a receiver who can make an impact on day one, and still improve their football team.

Mahomes’ contract extension is paying him half a billion dollars. If he’s truly worth all that money, the absence of a superstar receiver won’t matter anyway.

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