The Chiefs' wide receiver decisions have come back to haunt them

Nov 20, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling
Nov 20, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling / Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most polarizing storylines of the Kansas City Chiefs' 2023 offseason was the lack of investment in the wide receiver core. Some people were comfortable riding with a mostly similar group to 2022 and others warned the team didn't have enough at the position.

Thirteen games into the season, we know which side was correct. The 2023 Chiefs have a litany of issues, including turnovers, lack of accountability, and an inconsistent running game, but the subpar wide receivers may be the most glaring of them all.

Early into training camp, I wrote "The team is playing with fire, and while they may stay warm for the entire winter, they also run the risk of getting burned." As it turns out, they got burned and it may very well cost them a trip to the Super Bowl.

What was the main concern coming into the season with the group? First, there was not a single established player. We knew what Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Justin Watson were. Two veterans who are (or were) good for the occasional deep shot, but neither is a reliable high-end option. Richie James is a career journeyman. Then there are Skyy Moore, Kadarius Toney, Rashee Rice, and Justyn Ross. Young players with talent, but none were established pass-catchers in the NFL.

I just listed seven players, how many would one say surpassed their preseason expectations? Personally, I'd say just one, Rashee Rice. The rookie. How many are playing as well as one could realistically expect them to? I'd say two or three, Justin Watson, Richie James, and possibly Justyn Ross (though one could argue he hasn't met expectations for non-football reasons). How many of the seven have played worse than anticipated? Three for sure. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Kadarius Toney, and Skyy Moore. MVS is different than the other two in the sense that he was already a seasoned veteran, while Moore and Toney are still very young.

What were in the world were Andy Reid and Brett Veach thinking with this wide receiver group? Here's what: They firmly believed that Skyy Moore and Kadarius Toney would take the next step in their development, Rashee Rice would be playable as a rookie, and that MVS, Justin Watson, and Richie James would be solid complementary pieces around their young pass-catchers.

They never seriously considered the possibility that MVS would regress as much as he has or that Moore and Toney would be the exact same players they were a year ago. If the team would have known that those three would be dead weight, it's almost guaranteed that they would have done more at the position. But they never considered that scenario. What did the fans hear this offseason? We heard that Kadarius Toney was in line to be their #1, how much Skyy Moore improved in the offseason, and how impressed they were with Rashee Rice. To their credit, the latter turned out to be true.

I know there are a lot of people asking questions along the lines of "How come they're struggling so much since it's basically the same wide receiver group as last season?" On the surface, the group might be similar to 2022, but are they actually they same?

Let's start off with the most notable change. Out went JuJu Smith-Schuster and in came Rashee Rice. In 2022, JuJu averaged 58.3 yards per game in the regular season, while Rice is at exactly 51. Pretty similar numbers but there are two significant differences. First, Smith-Schuster had less of a drop problem than Rice has had this season. Second, JuJu was able to run a more nuanced route tree than Rice has so far, which made it easier for Andy Reid to open up the playbook. In the long run, swapping out JuJu Smith-Schuster for Rashee Rice was a great move, but just looking at 2022 to 2023, it's about a wash.

Next is Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Every Packer fan I knew and saw on social media all said similar things about MVS. He has good long speed, but struggled with drops and was prone to dumb mistakes. Both have been a huge issue in 2023. But looking at 2022 to 2023, the drop-off has been real with him. According to Pro Football Focus ($), MVS' yards per route run has plummeted from 1.26 in 2023 to just 0.82 this year, while his drop rate has been virtually the same (9.3% to 9.5%). He's not getting open as much as he was last year and he's a worse player.

What about Skyy Moore and Kadarius Toney? Both are pretty much the same players they were last year and that's the issue. If anything, both are worse than last season. Moore's yards per route run has dipped from 1.28 to 0.87, while his drops have also increased, per PFF ($). Toney's yards/route run has dropped from 2.60 to 1.25, per PFF ($). It's just a fact that both players are worse than one year ago. In addition, the failure to take the much-anticipated next step is a double-whammy for the Chiefs.

When it comes to Mecole Hardman, Justin Watson, and Richie James, although the former two are less efficient than they were a year ago, neither was expected to be a needle-mover this season, especially since Hardman was a trade deadline acquisition. Richie James was never supposed to be relied upon and was always meant to be a solid depth/gadget player, not a potential answer to Kansas City's problem.

When it comes to comparing 2023 to 2022, as similar as the players are, the group as a whole is simply worse this season. Not only have drops been a more prevalent issue, but the unit has struggled to generate separation, which in turn has caused Patrick Mahomes to hold the ball longer, which has led to unnecessary sacks and fumbles.

Another question that needs to be asked: Has Travis Kelce lost a step? Some believe that him not playing as well as last year has magnified the wide receiver problems. But is that really true? According to PFF ($), Kelce's yards per route run this season (2.23) is around the same number as last year (2.27), so I don't think blaming an aging Kelce is warranted. If anything, the poor play of the wide receivers has hurt Travis Kelce's production since defenses are now not afraid to double him and go man everywhere against the lowly wide receivers.

In the end, the Kansas City Chiefs likely aren't winning anything this year and they have nothing else to blame other than their own hubris. They decided that swapping out JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman (before he was re-acquired) for Rashee Rice and Richie James was all they needed to do to remain Super Bowl contenders. They were wrong. They believed they could develop Kadarius Toney and Skyy Moore into legitimate starting wide receivers. They could not. They anticipated MVS being the same caliber player as last season. They were mistaken.

In their defense, it was rumored that the Chiefs attempted to sign DeAndre Hopkins and Odell Beckham Jr., but both of those players were risky signings at the time due to their age and recent injury history. Other than those two, the best two free agent wide receivers on the market were JuJu Smith-Schuster and Jakobi Meyers. Both are good, but not great, players and JuJu hasn't had a good season in New England. Some have also speculated that Kansas City attempted to trade up in the first round of this past draft. Were they targeting one of the four wide receivers taken before the Chiefs pick at 32nd overall?

One silver lining of such a disappointing season is that Brett Veach has a history of going scorched Earth to fix a fatal flaw. After an abysmal defensive season in 2018, Veach went all out to rebuild the unit and it won them Super Bowl LIV. After getting embarrassed in Super Bowl LV, he replaced all five starts on the offensive line and it led to the Chiefs having one of the best pass-protection units in the NFL. After the defense got old in 2021, Veach rebuilt much of the unit (again) and it led to them winning Super Bowl LVII. Will he do it again this offseason?

There's no point in crying over spilled milk right now. The Chiefs have a bad wide receiver group and it's not getting solved in time to save their season. They gambled on their young and unproven players. Instead of winning big, they rolled snake eyes.