Will the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive line be their downfall?

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The 2015 NFL Draft is now in the books and Kansas City fans now have a pretty good idea of what the 2015 Chiefs roster will look like. There are open positions that will be settled in camp and the preseason, but for the most part we now know which players will be competing for those spots. As I shared last week in my Draft Grades post, I’m happy with the Chiefs draft. There were a few reaches (in my opinion) but I think they added good players and filled some needs. In fact, when I look at the offseason as a whole I feel confident that the Chiefs have improved their roster. This is a better team than they ended the season with last year and probably the best roster from top to bottom that they have had under Andy Reid and John Dorsey. That having been said, there is one area of the team that still worries me…..

The offensive line.

As many of you know, I’ve been preaching offensive line all offseason. I loved trading for Ben Grubbs. I hated losing Rodney Hudson. I wanted the Chiefs to use two high draft picks on offensive linemen that could compete for starting spots this season. Instead, they drafted just one, Mitch Morse, who will likely compete for a starting spot on the interior line (despite Dorsey’s claims that he will compete for the back up center spot). The Chiefs are relying on in-house development to fix what was a major issue last season. That could turn out great, or it could fall flat. We just don’t know.

Before we go further in-depth with the offensive line, let me put the rest of the team in context. I think the rest of the Chiefs roster is ready to compete with anyone in the AFC. I feel like the Chiefs defense could be one of the best in all the NFL. My two biggest concerns on defense were depth at ILB and CB and they addressed that in the draft. They may not be elite at stopping the run, but I think they will be better than last season and with their pass rush and depth at CB now I think they will be a terror against the pass.

On the offensive side of the ball they have multiple playmakers that should allow the offense to be successful. Jamaal Charles, Travis Kelce, and offseason acquisition Jeremy Maclin give the Chiefs as talented of trio on offense as any team in the NFL. Then you mix in role players like Albert Wilson, Chris Conley, DeAnthony Thomas, Jason Avant, DeMetrius Harris and Knile Davis and KC looks to be in good shape when it comes to options on offense. The Chiefs just need to be able to effectively distribute the ball to them.

That brings us to the much debated quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs, Alex Smith. Some believe that Alex Smith is the perfect quarterback to lead Reid’s West Coast Offense and efficiently distribute the ball to KC’s playmakers. Others believe that Smith is far too hesitant and “skittish” in the pocket to get the job done.

Guess what? You’re both right.

After the 2014 season came to a close I did a piece titled Alex Smith: How The Offensive Line Affects The Chiefs Quarterback. In researching it I went back over the past five years of Smith’s starts and compared how he did in games where his offensive line had positive Pro Football Focus grades compared to games where the line had negative PFF grades. I even broke them down by pass blocking grades and run blocking grades.

Side note: This post will feature a lot of data from Pro Football Focus. If you’ve never used PFF before they are a valuable resource in player evaluation. While nothing beats watching a player play for yourself, their grades provide a good snapshot into how a player has performed.

Here’s the bottom line that I want you to remember when looking ahead to next season. When Alex Smith gets good pass protection he’s an excellent NFL quarterback. When he gets poor protection he is a mediocre/replacement level quarterback. Here are the numbers to back that up.

In games where his offensive line had an overall positive PFF pass blocking grade Smith had a line of:

64.7 completion percentage, 7.5 YPA, 44 TDs, 9 INTs, 22-6 record

In games where his offensive line had a negative overall pass blocking grade Smith’s line drops to:

60.8% completion percentage, 6.7 YPA, 49 TDs, 24 INTs, 20-19 record

The first quarterback is going to take your team to the playoffs (and possibly farther). The second quarterback is going to have your team wasting away in mediocrity. Last season the Chiefs offensive line was bad. Smith’s pass protection was bad. Guess what? Smith was too jittery in the pocket and despite having a good running back and a good defense the Chiefs went 9-7 and missed the playoffs. If the Chiefs had consistently given Smith good pass protection and he felt safe in the pocket his track record says he would have played much better and the Chiefs would have made the playoffs.

So yes, the Chiefs roster as a whole is improved after the draft and free agency, but will the offensive line be improved enough to make the Chiefs a legit contender? Let’s take a look at each of the five starting spots on the offensive line and see how things look going into OTAs.

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