The Kansas City Chiefs have a pass-catching problem. More specifically: It's a pass-dropping problem.
Chiefs receivers dropped target after target from Patrick Mahomes on Thursday, none more backbreaking than the one that slipped through Kadarius Toney's outstretched gloves early in the third quarter and led to a Brian Branch pix-six for the Detroit Lions. Though it wasn't the only reason the Chiefs lost to the Lions, 21-20, Toney's mistake epitomized an all-around horrific performance by Kansas City's receivers.
Thursday night’s loss was what a completely stripped-down Chiefs offense would look like with only Mahomes and a stable of unreliable playmakers.
And it was ugly.
In total, the Chiefs dropped five passes in the loss — tied for the third-most in any game in Mahomes’ career. Toney led the group with three, followed by one from fellow receiver Skyy Moore and another from running back Jerick McKinnon. Mahomes' 53.85% completion percentage was his lowest since Week 13 of the 2021 season and the sixth-lowest of his career (including playoffs).
Tight end Travis Kelce — who's led the Chiefs in targets in six of the past nine seasons — missed his first game due to injury since 2014 after he hyper-extended his knee in practice this week. The Chiefs also didn't keep veterans JuJu Smith-Schuster or Mecole Hardman this offseason and traded away Tyreek Hill the previous offseason.
Kansas City proved it could win without Hill in 2022, but an offense without Kelce and a youthful trio of Toney, Moore and second-round rookie Rashee Rice clearly isn't going to cut it. Veterans Marques Valdes-Scantling and Justin Watson actually led the Chiefs' pass-catchers with 48 yards and 41 yards, respectively, but saw only six targets combined.
There are effectively three options for the Chiefs over the course of the season to correct this glaring issue on offense: Do nothing, make a trade, or sign a veteran. None are clear-cut fixes, but at least one of them could solve the problem in time.
Trust things will normalize upon Kelce’s return
Kelce has been a constant in the Chiefs offense for the past decade, and his absence clearly mattered. Mahomes completed just half of his passes in the intermediate middle part of the field — and one of the misses was the pick-six off the Toney drop. This is where the Kelce thrives, and Mahomes couldn't reignite that connection with his other pass-catchers.
But this could all be corrected when Kelce comes back — either in Week 2 or Week 3. Again, the Chiefs showed they didn't need a stud secondary pass-catcher to win a Super Bowl last season. Their collection of middling wideouts was still enough to power the NFL's No. 1 offense. But part of that is because of the attention Kelce attracted in the middle of the field. Once he's back, the rest of the receivers could simply go back to their more comfortable roles. Maybe that will be enough.
Trade for a reliable veteran
While this would perhaps be an overreaction to Thursday night’s loss, the Chiefs would be wise to at least explore this option if they don't think the five-drop outing was just a one-time thing. And if Kelce's injury ends up being worse than a one-game absence, they might need to seriously look at the trade block for an experienced pass-catcher.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers — who beat the Chiefs in the Super Bowl three seasons ago — should be the first team general manager Brett Veach calls if he wants to upgrade his receiving group. The Buccaneers appear to be in a rebuilding phase in their post-Tom Brady era and might be willing to move on from their top-two receivers, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Evans appears disgruntled with his current contract situation and would be an appealing option given his imposing 6-foot-5, 231-pound frame. He's also surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in all nine of his seasons in the NFL with 683 receptions and 81 touchdowns. Godwin, meanwhile, is more of a sure-handed possession receiver and three years younger than Evans. He also has two more years left on his current contract, while Evans is in the final year of his deal.
Another team clearly in rebuild mode is the Arizona Cardinals. Speedy wideout Marquise Brown is in the final year of his contract and would be a nice deep threat option for Mahomes if the Cardinals want to continue to gut their roster.
The biggest issue with any trade, though, is if the Chiefs could absorb it. Kansas City has just $11.4 million in salary cap space, according to Over The Cap. While the Chiefs could take on Godwin's $8.6 million cap hit this season, it would take some salary cap finagling to get Evans, Brown or any other highly-paid wideout under the cap.
Sign a veteran off the street
The Chiefs would be scraping from the bottom of the barrel, but there is a lot of experience available in free agency. Julio Jones, Jarvis Landry and Sammy Watkins (a former Chiefs wideout himself) would be the most likely candidates. The key issue with most of these options, though, are age and durability concerns.
Jones has been very injury prone in the past three years — all on different teams — and turned 34 this winter. But he’s still a quality pass-catcher with solid hands. Landry will be 31 in November and missed time over the past two seasons with knee and ankle injuries. However, Landry has been one of the better possession receivers over the past nine seasons with a 65.8% career catch rate.
Watkins spent three seasons with the Chiefs from 2018 to 2020 but spent the 2022 season with the Green Bay Packers — where he missed four games with a hamstring injury — before a four-game stint with the Baltimore Ravens. He has chemistry with Mahomes and knows the offense, though he wouldn't provide much more firepower than the Chiefs already possess.
Mahomes has touted faith in his current roster — even after an embarrassing defeat. But that may not be enough for the Chiefs to repeat as Super Bowl and AFC West winners.