The Kansas City Chiefs head east to take on the defending Super Bowl Champions the New England Patriots, in the curtain raiser for the 2017 NFL season.
In the weeks preceding the main event at Gillette Stadium both teams have seen their best laid plans rerouted as the injury gods selected victims at will. The Patriots find themselves minus Julian Edelman (torn ACL). Brady targeted Edelman an astonishing 153 times during 2016, connecting 98 times for 1106 yards and 3 touchdowns. As for the Chiefs they’ll be without their most productive back, Spencer Ware (torn MCL & PCL). Over the last two seasons Ware has amassed 1776 yards and 11 touchdowns.
How Much Time Does Smith Have?
Despite posting 41 victories over the course of the last four seasons Alex Smith remains a polarizing figure under centre. The 33-year old signal caller threw for 3502 yards and 15 touchdowns whilst posting a completion percentage of 67.1% (second highest of his career). With 2-years left on his current contract Smith is clearly the guy at the controls for the 2017 season. However the naysayers among Chiefs nation are already salivating at the prospect of rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs moved up 17 spots in the draft to select Mahomes,10th overall) who impressed throughout the pre-season.
Room For Improvement On Defense
Despite sweeping the division and locking up the AFC West crown, the Chiefs defense has plenty of room for improvement. As a unit they were ranked 24th overall. Looking to ease the loss of Dontari Poe (free agency), the Chiefs will not only be looking to lean on free agent pick up Benny Logan’s run stuffing capabilities (ranked 26th overall against the run) but also the quick feet and pass rushing prowess of Chris Jones, who flashed during his rookie season.
Outside of the household names at linebacker Ramik Wilson’s story and play is something to keep an eye this season. Cut by the Chiefs last September, the 25-year old found himself on the practice squad before establishing himself as a starter (11 starts during 2016). Even more unique was the fact that Wilson finished third in overall tackles (74), had 2 fumble recoveries 1 forced fumble along with an interception. The Chiefs also aquired Reggie Ragland via a trade from the Buffalo Bills. Both Wilson and Ragland will push veteran Derrick Johnson for a starting gig. Johnson is coming back from a torn Achilles.
Boasting the likes of 5-time Pro-Bowler safety Eric Berry and 2-time Pro-Bowler cornerback Marcus Peters it’s somewhat startling that as a group they were ranked 18th overall, especially when you factor in that the unit were tied first overall in interceptions (18). Even back-up safety Daniel Sorensen made some some huge plays in the teams nickel defense (3 interceptions, 54 tackles, 3 fumble recoveries and a sack). The starting right corner back position was exposed throughout the season and all eyes will once again be on the likes of Terrance Mitchell, Steven Nelson and Phillip Gaines to step up solidify a talented core.
Life After Maclin & Charles
Following the release of Jeremy Maclin Tyreek Hill converts from special teams gadget man to number one wide receiver. After setting pulses racing in 2016 with a team high of 12 touchdowns, hype continued to swirl around Hill throughout training camp. Head Coach Andy Ried loves to feature his number one wideout, and the matchup against either Malcolm Butler or Stephon Gillmore will be enthralling.
Opposite Hill third year wideout Chris Conley will be looking to showcase his talent. Utilized mainly as a possession receiver in the past, will the Chiefs finally let go of the reigns and give Conley the opportunity to expose defenses with his 4.35 speed, whilst providing another big bodied (6ft 2″ 205lbs) redzone threat outside of tight end Travis Kelce.
Rookie running back Kareem Hunt has been showered with praise from numerous coaches and beat writers throughout OTA’S and training camp. The 6ft 225lbs Hunt enters the NFL off the back of an impressive final year at Toledo. Hunt rushed for 1475 yards recording 10 touchdowns along with 41 receptions for 407 yards and a touchdown.
Just three short years ago the group think mentality of social media was throwing handfuls of dirt of Tom Bradys NFL career as the Chief’s decimated the Patriots 41–14 as the nation looked on. During that timespan Tom Brady added two more Super Bowl rings to his collection bringing the group think back full circle. As according to numerous pundits and .com websites we should present the Vince Lombardi trophy to the Patriots, spend some time with our families and loved ones before we reconvene in September 2018.
Cook books and magical night wear aside the only question I have a question for Brady to answer is this; If as many suggest, he propels the Patriots once again to the promise land. Along the way can he eclipse the best ever season by a 40 year old quarterback? (Brett Farve, 33 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, completion percentage of 68.4%, quarterback rating 107.2 as the Vikings went 12–4).
With the departure of Legarrette Blount (free agent) the Patriots added a slew of running backs during the offseason in the form of Mike Gillislee (5th round draft pick 2013) and Rex Burkhead (6th round draft pick 2013). Lets not forget the under appreciated Super Bowl story of James White. The 25-year old had 14 receptions for 110 yards and a touchdown, along with 29 yards and 2 touchdowns off 6 carries. A performance worthy of the Super Bowl MVP honours. Whats his role now? Does the system allow the Patriots to just plug n plug according to matchups they like? Is this once again the genius of Bill Bellichick? Is he zag ziging whilst everyone else is zig zaging?
Not since Randy Moss have the Patriots had a legitimate deep threat. That mantra now belongs to Brandin Cooks. The former first round pick (20th overall) of the 2014 draft was acquired for a first and third round draft selection. Cooks has been nothing short of sensational during his time in New Orleans, with back to back 1000 yard seasons with 8 touchdowns or more.
With Edelman out for the year, Danny Amedola looks set to get another opportunity to prove his worth. Chris Hogan has experience in the slot and that 6ft 1″ 220lb frame could be utilized for mismatches that present themselves. That aside a mixture of running backs and tight end Dwayne Allen seems the more logical approach in replacing the 150 plus targets for Edelman.
Rob Gronkowski returns to the fold after missing the majority of the 2016 campaign. Whilst Gronkowski’s ability and impact on games remains evident, his ability to stay healthy has to concern the Patriots. Then there’s the small matter of the latest addition to an ever growing arsenal of weapons, Phillip Dorsett. The former first round pick struggled during limited action in Indianapolis. Until Dorsett gets up to speed, expect to see him featured extensively on Special teams.
The retirement of linebacker Rob Ninkovich after 11 Seasons (8 with the Patriots) hurts an already depleted group. David Harris a free agent acquisition brings a wealth of experience along with a proven track record of exceptional play to the heart of a defense, and will start along side Donta Hightower. With free agent cornerback Logan Ryan penning a 3-year $30m contract with the Titans, the Patriots moved to secure the services of standout cornerback Stephon Gillmore on a 5-year $65m contarct. The underrated duo of defensive tackles Alan Branch and Malcolm Brown remain the cornerstones of a defensive line, along with defensive end Trey Flowers who caught the eye for all the right reasons in 2016. The Chiefs will need to pay extra attention to Flowers to keep Alex Smith upright.