2017 NFL Preview: Chiefs invited a potentially messy QB controversy

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

Once the Kansas City Chiefs made the decision to trade up and draft quarterback Patrick Mahomes, they complicated this season.

This wasn’t the Green Bay Packers having Aaron Rodgers fall in their laps on draft day. The Chiefs made a bold move to trade up, sending the 25th pick and a first-round pick next year to move to No. 10 and take Mahomes. It was a clear message the Chiefs weren’t pleased with their quarterback situation. And at that moment, the clock started ticking on Alex Smith.

This is a good time to tell the story about the 2006 Denver Broncos, because the parallels are clear.

In 2005 the Broncos went 13-3 and won the AFC West behind quarterback Jake Plummer. They handed Tom Brady his first playoff loss. Then in the AFC championship game, Plummer struggled (like the rest of the team struggled) and the Broncos lost at home to the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a crushing defeat – the loss was “never forgiven by our head coach,” then-Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist wrote in Bleacher Report, referencing Mike Shanahan and Plummer – and the Broncos started looking at ways to upgrade at quarterback. Plummer wasn’t old; he was just 31. Denver, and Shanahan specifically, didn’t believe in him anymore though. The Broncos did their homework on the top quarterbacks and took Jay Cutler with the 11th pick.

The moment Cutler was drafted, the Broncos were 32-11 in games Plummer started for them. But the possibility of molding a big, athletic, rocket-armed quarterback was too enticing. After the loss to the Steelers it was clear the team didn’t view Plummer as a Super Bowl quarterback. Over the 2006 season, the presence of Cutler was impossible to ignore. The Broncos were 7-3 when someone leaked to then-NFL Network reporter Adam Schefter that Plummer would need to be lights out at Kansas City on Thanksgiving to keep his job. That report broke the night before the game. Plummer struggled (what a surprise, considering the team undermined him with that report), the Broncos lost and Cutler took the job. Denver missed the playoffs despite a 7-2 start. The Broncos missed the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 too. Shanahan was fired. Plummer, who helped lead Denver to a 39-15 record in his starts, retired after the 2006 season.

There are plenty of similarities to the 2017 Chiefs.

Maybe Kansas City’s season plays out differently. You’d like to think Chiefs coach Andy Reid wouldn’t set up Smith to fail, and nobody there would leak before a big midseason game that the quarterback was going to lose his job if he didn’t play well. But Smith will be looking over his shoulder all season. That will always happen when you draft a quarterback in the top 10. The Chiefs have gone 40-21 in Smith’s starts. But a crushing home playoff loss to the Steelers seemingly drove home the point to the Chiefs that they need a new quarterback to get over the hump. Kansas City went 12-4 and won and AFC West title, and then practically gave up on Smith – it might not happen this season, but it’s likely to happen in 2018 at the latest. Smith isn’t old; he’s just 33. But Kansas City made the decision to go in a different direction at quarterback.

The 2017 Chiefs don’t appear set up to collapse and miss the playoffs. They’re coming off a fantastic season. The 2006 Broncos were too though. The plan seems to be for Mahomes to sit and watch all season, but that rarely happens anymore. From 2007-16, 25 of 27 quarterbacks picked in the first round started at least one game as a rookie. The shiny new sports car is sitting in the garage. It’ll be tough for the Chiefs to resist taking it for a spin.

Smith has been through this before. He suffered a concussion in 2012 and watched as Colin Kaepernick took over the starting job and led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl. Smith can keep Mahomes on the bench all season by playing great football, but that’s not easy with a time bomb strapped to your back.

The Chiefs have a lot going for them. A strong defense with All-Pro players. A productive running game. A slick offensive weapon in Tyreek Hill. The most underrated coach of this era. But for this season, they’ve invited a potential problem. Taking a big swing on a franchise quarterback was probably necessary for the future, but it won’t be easy to manage in the present. Suddenly dumping general manager John Dorsey doesn’t exactly scream stability either.

And if it plays out in the worst way possible for these Chiefs, maybe Smith can take a relatively short drive to Boulder, Colo. and commiserate with Plummer. The similarities are striking.

Alex Smith (11) will start, but will Patrick Mahomes (15) get a shot this season? (AP)

Another layer to drafting Patrick Mahomes 10th overall is it used up valuable draft capital that could have brought immediate help to a team coming off an AFC West title. The Chiefs need second- and third-round picks defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon and running back Kareem Hunt to play above their draft status, and they might. Kansas City used most of its cap space to get safety Eric Berry’s extension done. They spent more than $1 million on just one free agent: Defensive tackle Bennie Logan got one year and $8 million. He replaces Dontari Poe, who left to the Atlanta Falcons. The surprise June cut of Jeremy Maclin leaves Kansas City relying heavily on Tyreek Hill being a true No. 1 receiver. Maybe Mahomes will be a star and that alone makes the Chiefs’ offseason a big success, but in terms of the Kansas City’s moves and how they affect this year’s team? Not too good. Grade: D-minus

The emergence of Tyreek Hill last season gave Kansas City a playmaker it hasn’t had at receiver in a long time. Hill is perhaps the fastest player in the league, and he scored 12 total touchdowns including special teams. In college Hill pleaded guilty to domestic violence against his pregnant girlfriend. That caused him to slip in the draft, and the Chiefs took him in the fifth round. Despite Hill’s past, he’s an excellent football player who should be even better in his second season. Pair him with dominant tight end Travis Kelce, and the Chiefs have two outstanding playmakers.

You have to wonder if Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are enough for the offense. The Chiefs always seem to manufacture a running game, but Spencer Ware wore down a bit (month-by-month yards per carry last season: 4.9, 5.1, 4.1, 3.3) and I’m not ready to buy in on Kareem Hunt as a future star. The release of Jeremy Maclin for salary-cap reasons doesn’t help. Maclin was hurt most of last season but he’s still better than anyone Kansas City has behind Hill. If Hill struggles with a larger role or gets injured, Chris Conley doesn’t look like a viable No. 1 receiver in his place. And we all know Smith’s limitations by now. A couple things go wrong, and the Chiefs’ offense could go from steady and average to a liability.

Alex Smith has a $20.6 million cap hit next season, and they’d save $17 million on the cap by cutting him, according to OverTheCap.com. We all know where this is headed, unless Smith has a career year. Even if Smith does have a big year, Patrick Mahomes is an exciting prospect and it would be hard for the Chiefs to turn down a $17 million cap savings and keep Mahomes on the bench. I didn’t love Mahomes as much as some folks did heading into the draft – NFL Films’ Greg Cosell broke down the strengths and weaknesses of his game, and while he has tremendous physical skills he also has a lot to work on – but the landing spot was perfect. Andy Reid is a tremendous coach and that staff is great for Mahomes’ development. While drafting Mahomes could make life uncomfortable for this season’s team, it’s easy to understand the move. Mahomes has the tools to be special.

Outside linebacker Justin Houston is one of the NFL’s best players, but he played just five games last season as he worked back from a surgery to fix his ACL. The good news is that in those five games, he had four sacks. After Houston finished last season pretty well, you’d assume he’ll look like his usual self in 2017. In 2014, Houston’s last fully healthy season, that meant 22 sacks. If he’s anywhere near that form, a good defense gets a lot better.

From Yahoo’s Dalton Del Don: “Tyreek Hill was electric as a rookie, when he finished with 12 total touchdowns, but they came in ways that are highly unsustainable, so he enters his sophomore campaign as a bit of a wild card. Three of those dozen scores last year came on special teams (he easily led the league in punt return yardage) and another three came via the rush. In fact, eight of his touchdowns came from 30-plus yards, which isn’t exactly an easy recipe to repeat. Few players have ever scored 12 times with just 860 yards from scrimmage who aren’t goal-line backs. However, Hill should see a big increase in volume this season (and should improve as a receiver with more experience) now that Jeremy Maclin is gone. Hill saw 25.2 percent of KC’s targets during the four games Maclin was out last season, so he won’t necessarily have to score every 9.4 touches like he did last year to be valuable. Hill finished last year No. 2 in fantasy points per target and No. 1 in fantasy points per snap. He’s going to be a fun player to own in 2017.” [Check out Yahoo’s Pressing Questions for the fantasy outlook on the Chiefs.]

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The Chiefs tied for the NFL lead with a turnover margin of plus-16 last season. The Oakland Raiders also posted a plus-16, and nobody else was better than plus-12. The Chiefs have typically been very good at suppressing turnovers and any defense with safety Eric Berry and cornerback Marcus Peters in the secondary will produce some takeaways. Kansas City was plus-14 (second in the NFL) in 2015, so maybe last season’s mark is not too fluky. Still, even if that turnover margin is cut in half it could have a serious impact on Kansas City’s record. No single stat is more important to Kansas City’s success.

CAN KANSAS CITY SURVIVE THE EARLY-SEASON SCHEDULE?

Playing in the AFC West is not easy, especially this season when its NFC partner is the deep NFC East. According to analyst Warren Sharp, who uses Vegas over/under win total projections to determine strength of schedule, the Chiefs have the second-toughest schedule in the NFL (Denver is first). Sharp also says from Weeks 1-11 the Chiefs have the toughest schedule in the NFL. Remember all that stuff about Alex Smith looking over his shoulder and a season-long quarterback controversy? A brutal early-season schedule doesn’t help that.

Kansas City was the No. 2 seed in the AFC last season. While its playoff loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers wasn’t pretty, the Chiefs appeared to tie the game late on a two-point conversion but a questionable holding call on Eric Fisher wiped it out. Had the Chiefs pulled out that game, we’d view them in a better light going into this season. The Chiefs were really good by the end of last season and they can pick up right where they left off. The defense could be even better with a healthy Justin Houston and if the offense finds some playmakers other than Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, the Chiefs can win the AFC West again. Whether the Chiefs are capable of making a long playoff run is debatable, but they’re still a very good team.

Not every quarterback controversy turns into a debacle. Alex Smith wouldn’t be the first player to have a big season with his starting job in jeopardy. But it’s also obvious that it can turn toxic in a hurry. Every time the Chiefs lose, or Smith doesn’t play well, the questions will start. Anyone would be affected in that situation, even a longtime veteran like Smith. The Chiefs could get off to a bad start with a brutal schedule and it could unravel fast. Patrick Mahomes could be starting by December, and that’s probably wouldn’t a good sign for the Chiefs.

I placed the Chiefs this high because I respect what they did last season, I like their coaching staff and defense and they’re typically reliable (at least in the regular season). I do worry about that quarterback question, however. I covered the 2006 Broncos as a beat writer and rarely a day passed without it being the main topic of discussion. That wears on everyone. I don’t think the Chiefs will be as impatient to make a change as those Broncos were, but it’s not a comfortable situation. I’ll give the Chiefs the benefit of the doubt but I have a lot of concern about how the season will play out.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Washington Redskins
17. Philadelphia Eagles
16. Miami Dolphins
15. Cincinnati Bengals
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13. Arizona Cardinals
12. Denver Broncos
11. Tennessee Titans
10. Carolina Panthers
9. Oakland Raiders

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!