PHOENIX — Marquez Valdes-Scantling sensed the potential from the first moments he spent around Patrick Mahomes last spring, alongside all of the other key receivers who would be surrounding the Kansas City Chiefs’ superstar quarterback in the 2022 campaign. They trained together for countless hours near the offseason home Mahomes keeps in Dallas, all with the vision of creating the kind of chemistry that’d be essential to winning championships. Those players darted upfield on routes, discussed how they would synchronize with Mahomes when he improvised and pondered all of the possibilities that could come from such efforts. As Valdes-Scantling assessed the teammates around him in those early days, he saw a diversified unit: Targets who ranged from big-bodied to shifty to those blessed with electric speed.
The players who gathered for those workouts — a group that included free-agent signees like Valdes-Scantling, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Justin Watson — understood the scrutiny that awaited them this season. The Chiefs had traded All-Pro receiver Tyreek Hill earlier in the offseason, which meant these new faces had to deliver.
“We were able to see that every single guy possessed something different,” said Valdes-Scantling. “That’s what was going to make our offense so special. There’s not a bunch of the same guys running around. We have a unique group and everybody can do something unique. That’s why we’re the No. 1 offense in the NFL.”
Valdes-Scantling recalled those workout sessions as he stood in the midst of Super Bowl LVII Opening Night festivities inside the Footprint Center on Monday. His teammates were busy answering questions for the hordes of reporters filling the arena, and the satisfaction of the moment wasn’t lost on Valdes-Scantling. Many people suspected the Chiefs would be less productive with Hill moving to the Miami Dolphins. Instead, they proved there is still plenty to worry about with the weapons in this offense.
Kansas City led the league in scoring (29.2 points per game), total offense (413.6 yards per game) and passing offense (297.8). All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce unsurprisingly operated as Mahomes’ favorite target — with 110 receptions for 1,338 yards and 12 touchdowns — but it was what Mahomes did with the other pass catchers that ultimately made this unit so dynamic. Seven different Chiefs produced at least 20 receptions for this team, while 11 players caught a touchdown pass. To put that into perspective, Hill and Kelce accounted for 46.6 percent of Mahomes’ completions in the 2021 regular season.
This year’s group includes a 6-foot-4 speedster in Valdes-Scantling, as well as a stockier, more physical target in the 6-1, 215-pound Smith-Schuster, a player who prefers bullying defenders in the middle of the field. Both signed during free agency, when the Chiefs also found Watson, a 6-2, 215-pound receiver who can fly. For quickness, the Chiefs selected Skyy Moore in the second round of the 2022 draft and then traded for Kadarius Toney, a first-round pick of the New York Giants in 2021, at midseason. And in case Mahomes didn’t have enough variety, Kansas City also re-signed a pass-catching runner in Jerick McKinnon and designed more personnel groups to include Kelce and fellow tight ends Noah Gray, Jody Fortson and Blake Bell.
“We did a good job of understanding that we’re not going to find another Tyreek.” — Chiefs GM Brett Veach
In short, the Chiefs are more dangerous because they are more diverse than they’ve ever been before.
“You have so many different types of receivers that Pat is dealing with,” said Smith-Schuster prior to Kansas City’s Divisional Round win over Jacksonville. “You have small guys, guys who move around, fast, slow, whatever you want to call it, he has it and he’s going to adjust and that’s the thing that he’s really, really good at. But not only that — you think about the running backs that we’re using. We’re using three to four different running backs in a game. We’re using five different receivers, using three different tight ends. So for a guy like Patrick Mahomes to go in a game and know everyone’s tendency of what they have, the chemistry is there and he’s building it day in and day out.”
When asked earlier this season how his new targets have acclimated so smoothly in their first season, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid added, “I think you go back to (general manager) Brett (Veach) and the people that he brings in. He knows the offense. He grew up in the profession, in the NFL, with this offense, so he has a pretty good feel of what needs to be fitted in there and how guys, even though they might not have been in the scheme, but have certain qualities there that would work for us.”
Veach recognized the challenge that came with trading Hill to Miami. The Chiefs surrounded Mahomes with fleet-footed receivers early in his career — along with Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman — and they became the league’s most explosive offense as a result. Then last season arrived, and Kansas City faced more opponents committed to eliminating the big play. This included a Cincinnati Bengals team that upset the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game by continually dropping seven and eight defenders into coverage, with Cincy overcoming a 21-3 deficit to punch a Super Bowl ticket. The more teams played schemes designed to take away the deep shots, the more Kansas City had to learn how to live in a world where 10- and 12-play drives were the norm.
That shift in philosophy forced the Chiefs to look for bigger players who could out-muscle defenders and more agile targets who could do everything from running jet sweeps to generating yards after the catch on quick passes.
“We did a good job of understanding that we’re not going to find another Tyreek,” Veach said during Opening Night. “His skill set is rare. But instead of replacing that 4.2 speed, we decided to focus more time on what was realistic, what made the most sense for us. The cool thing is that Patrick is so versatile. He can play the long game or the short game and he can find the mismatches. We decided to just find good football players who are versatile in their own way and let Pat and the coaches adjust to how they want to do things.”
Veach was comfortable enough to keep Mahomes apprised of potential upgrades to the roster. When Veach first began pursuing Smith-Schuster — a player who had battled injury issues but also posted 111 receptions for 1,426 yards during his second season in the league — the star quarterback immediately texted the former Pittsburgh Steelers wideout on a regular basis to help sell the move.
“I knew him previously, so I knew what type of guy he was and how hard he worked,” Mahomes said. “I definitely liked the ability he has.”
Veach also saw tremendous upside in Valdes-Scantling, a player who had been a deep threat for Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. Valdes-Scantling signed a three-year, $30 million deal, while Watson was simply hoping to make the team when he started impressing Mahomes at those workouts in Texas. As soon as Mahomes watched Watson running routes for a couple days, he called Veach to see where the general manager found such a hidden gem. Watson had spent the previous four years in Tampa Bay, where he played special teams and amassed just 23 receptions.
Those training sessions turned out to be the first major step in this group forming into a reliable contingent.
“The thing about Pat that I appreciate is that he built that bridge by reaching out and having those guys come train with him in the offseason,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. “That was the start. Once we got into OTAs, that laid the foundation. Then those guys got to work with the coaches and we got to know their personalities. I feel like we all did a great job of putting the right people in the right positions so they could go out and do their best.”
“Once we got the pieces in, we had to figure out what their strengths were and how they fit, but the most important part was Pat’s timing with those guys,” added Chiefs senior assistant/quarterbacks coach Matt Nagy. “JuJu is a different kind of route runner than MVS. Then you have somebody like Skyy Moore, who knows nothing about the offense or the NFL game. Before you knew it, Pat was throwing to guys he’d never thrown to before. We knew it was going to take some time, but there was also a time early in the season where we could see it was clicking. That’s when we knew Coach (Reid) could just start dialing up plays for them.”
Mahomes started the season saying that defenses wouldn’t know where the ball was going, and he backed up that claim by trusting those new faces. Watson caught a critical link-placeholder-0] in a Week 2 win over the Chargers. Smith-Schuster became a dominant target around midseason, when he produced 22 receptions for 335 yards during a three-game stretch against Buffalo, San Francisco and Tennessee. McKinnon — who also became a valuable contributor late last season — erupted for nine touchdowns over the final six regular-season games, while Valdes-Scantling was arguably the most valuable offensive player in Kansas City’s [AFC championship win over Cincinnati. In a game when Smith-Schuster, Toney and Hardman all went down with injuries, Valdes-Scantling tied a season-high with six receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown.
That diversity will be even more vital in Super Bowl LVII, as the Chiefs face a Philadelphia Eagles defense known for its fierce pass rush and talented secondary. That unit will test the Kansas City offense, but the Chiefs also are built more for patience these days. A few years ago, in a contest like this, the thought process for K.C. would’ve been how best to unleash Hill and Kelce. Now there are numerous options on the table, with each one being a viable weapon for a masterful tactician like Reid.
That had to be a source of pride for Veach as the Opening Night festivities began winding toward their conclusion. He could look across the crowded room and see Valdes-Scantling and Toney chatting with reporters. Veach also could glance at the massive video board and chuckle at Smith-Schuster and McKinnon holding court. It wasn’t that long ago that the Chiefs were hoping to find some reliable targets out of this group. They wound up finding something better — the kind of diversity that could result in a championship.
“We’ve gotten better at playing the small game and having to sustain longer drives,” Veach said. “It’s the evolution of the game and how teams play us. We put a lot of work and detail into this, especially knowing how that season ended a year ago, with us not being able to close the deal (in the AFC title game loss to Cincinnati). That left a sour taste in our mouth. We want to be able to counter punch now. When teams want to take away the big plays, we’ll sit there and be patient and be methodical. With what was available and the moves we made, we’ve given our offense the ability to do that.”
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