Chiefs' Options to Replace Mathieu

Former Kansas City Chiefs DB Tyrann Mathieu
Former Kansas City Chiefs DB Tyrann Mathieu
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Offseason - For this May round of Four Downs, we will be looking at each team's biggest remaining need as well as notable undrafted free agents who will be going to camp with each franchise.

Denver Broncos

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Backup Quarterback

The Broncos are enjoying their best offseason since they won the Peyton Manning lottery in 2012. Their starting lineup is stacked on both sides of the ball. But what happens if Russell Wilson gets hurt, even for a few weeks? Brett Rypien has somehow squeezed four interceptions into just 42 career pass attempts, while 35-year-old Josh Johnson's quest to play on every major, minor, indoor, and flag football team on earth should have wound down by now.

Backup quarterback may be the most pressing need, but the Broncos could easily have grabbed North Carolina's Sam Howell on Day 3. Howell could have learned under Wilson, scrambled his way to a win if called upon for an emergency start, and perhaps gotten polished up and traded once the Broncos are certain they don't need a quarterback of the future. Instead, the Broncos risk falling off the AFC chase if Wilson misses a single game.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

The Broncos signed Dylan Parham as an UDFA? What a coup! How did such a well-regarded prospect slip through the cracks of the draft? Did he T-bone a minivan full of nuns or something?

Oh wait, the Broncos did not sign the Dylan Parham who played guard and center for Memphis; the Raiders drafted that Parham. Instead, the Broncos signed the Dylan Parham who caught 12 passes in five seasons for North Carolina State. Never mind.

Christopher Allen recorded six sacks and 13 tackles for a loss for Alabama in 2020, but he missed nearly all of last year with a foot injury and all of 2018 with a knee injury. The health concerns are obvious, but Allen can both rush the passer and play in space, and he opened the 2021 season as a starter for the Crimson Tide. Getting a linebacker from the Alabama pipeline for merely a phone call and a $30,000 signing bonus is never a bad thing.

Kansas City Chiefs

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Honey Badger Replacement

The Chiefs used the windfall from the Tyreek Hill trade, plus their own top draft picks, to spackle over major holes at cornerback (Trent McDuffie) and edge rusher (George Karlaftis) while adding a nominal replacement for Hill himself (Skyy Moore). Tyrann Mathieu's post-draft signing with the Saints, however, leaves the Chiefs without an all-purpose safety/slot corner/defensive tone-setter.

Free-agent acquisition Justin Reid will take Mathieu's place in the lineup, but rarely rushes the passer and isn't suited to a slot coverage role. Juan Thornhill has the tools to slide down into the box more often but is no Honey Badger, particularly in man coverage. Second-round pick Bryan Cook is toolsy and tough but inexperienced and just mistake-prone enough to break the Chiefs' heart by biting on a double move in a playoff shootout. Lanky cornerback-turned-safety-turned-cornerback-turned-whatever Lonnie Johnson, acquired in a trade with the Texans, is also in the mix. Johnson can cover big slot receivers but that's his only Badger-like quality.

It's likely that Mathieu's unique role will be retired in favor of a more conventional approach in the secondary. Like the Hill trade, it's a practical move, but it will make the Chiefs a little less entertaining.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

When the Chiefs signed Justyn Ross on May 2, overstimulated #DraftTwitter reacted as if they had just traded for Cooper Kupp or something.

Ross went 46-1,000-9 for Clemson's national championship team in 2018, caught 66 passes in 2019, lost 2020 to spinal surgery, and went just 46-514-3 as the Tigers passing game flatlined last year. Ross entered draft season on many preliminary top prospect lists, but his 2021 film didn't pass muster under close scrutiny—he's a very deliberate route-runner who is slow out of the gate—and the spinal injury scared off speculators.

Ross looked much better with Trevor Lawrence throwing him the ball and Tee Higgins, Hunter Renfrow, Travis Etienne, and Amari Rodgers occupying the defense than he did as the focal point of an offense with a substandard quarterback: understandable, but also a sign that he was merely a program product in 2018.

For all of the yellow flags, it was surprising that Ross went undrafted instead of just slipping into the fifth round. There's a slim chance that the Chiefs found an effective king-sized slot target hiding in plain sight.

Las Vegas Raiders

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Cornerback

Nate Hobbs has developed into one of the NFL's best slot corners. Rock Ya-Sin, acquired from the Colts in the Yannick Ngakoue trade, is a capable starter at one outside position. But the other cornerback spot will be manned by either perma-prospect Treyvon Mullen or ex-Ravens free-agent acquisition Anthony Averett, who only earned a starting job in his fourth season in 2021 because of injuries.

With no first- or second-round picks after the Davante Adams trade, the Raiders were in no position to draft a shutdown corner. But instead of dipping into a deep talent pool on Day 3, they chose a pair of running backs, including Zamir White (Georgia's second-best rushing prospect, behind James Cook) in the fourth round when high-upside small-school cornerbacks such as Joshua Williams (Fayetteville State), Dacobie Durant (South Carolina State), and Tariq Wooten (UTSA) were still on the board.

An ultra-athletic cornerback off the bench could help the Raiders survive a shootout against the Chiefs or Chargers. A backup running back probably will not. The Raiders may dip into a deep high-risk veteran free-agent market for someone like Xavier Rhodes or Jimmy Smith, but that will take some significant salary-cap wriggling.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Safety Qwinterrio Cole was a standout at Alcorn State who transferred to Louisville in 2021 after COVID wiped out the 2020 FCS season. Cole has a reputation as a big hitter in the box with a nose for the football and the demeanor of a special teams ace. He's the best of a Raiders UDFA safety trio which also includes long, lean Isaiah Pola-Mao of USC and tiny Bryce Cosby, who recorded 392 tackles and 10 interceptions in his Ball State career.

Sincere McCormick is a powerfully built 5-foot-9 portable battering ram with a Jaret Patterson-meets-Tarik Cohen rushing style. McCormick rushed for over 1,400 yards in back-to-back seasons for UTSA and caught his share of swing passes from southpaw quarterback Frank Harris. There's no truth to the rumor that McCormick has three brothers named Reliable, Forthright, and Emotionally Available. He did have a UTSA teammate named Rashad Wisdom, however.

Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa is the cousin of Dolphins quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Kidding! He's indeed Tua's cousin. Tagovailoa-Amosa is a 270-plus defender who played all over the Notre Dame line over the last five seasons. The Raiders, like many other teams, loaded up on older prospects as undrafted rookies instead of doing silly things like drafting them 29th overall. Tagovailoa-Amosa is currently listed as an outside linebacker, which tracks with Patrick Graham's plan to use huge defensive end types (Maxx Crosby, Chandler Jones) at the position.

Los Angeles Chargers

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Right Tackle

Storm Norton, who finished third in the NFL with 42 blown blocks last season (per Sports Info Solutions), is still penciled in as the Chargers' stater at right tackle. First-round pick Zion Johnson is likely to start at right guard, leaving sixth-round pick Jamaree Salyer as Johnson's primary competition for a starting job. Salyer played left tackle at Georgia but has the size, skill set, and athletic profile of an interior lineman. Neither Norton nor Salyer appears to be an ideal fit for a team with Super Bowl aspirations, so don't be surprised if the Chargers add a veteran such as Riley Reiff as an insurance policy.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

The Chargers had one eye on their special teams and another on their short-yardage game after the draft. Tiny Trevon Bradford spent six (6) seasons as a receiver/returner at Oregon State and could be worth a practice-squad stash in case anything happens to return man DeAndre Carter, whom the Chargers added as a free agent from Washington. Kicker James McCourt of Illinois went 4-of-8 on 50-plus-yard field goals in 2021. He's no threat to Dustin Hopkins, but he'll get a long audition for a chance to be the first kicker off the waiver wire in an emergency.

Leddie Brown (West Virginia) is as quick 'n' nifty as his name would suggest. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and has a bruising running style that could prove valuable on fourth-and-1. The same goes for Kevin Marks, who scored 33 career touchdowns for Buffalo. Erik Krommenhoek (USC) is das blockenfurst tight end who could crack the roster as a TE3 for the goal line. Seventh-round fullback Zander Horvath (Purdue) is almost a UDFA; he adds a potential thumper who can block, run, and catch, another useful piece for a team that doesn't want its season to hinge on failed fourth-down conversions.

Portions of this article previously appeared on ESPN+.


26 comments, Last at 04 Jun 2022, 10:49pm

1 Re: Justyn Ross There are…

Re: Justyn Ross

There are two schools of thought on Ross.

  1. That he was a system guy who exploited the soft coverage thrown his way.
  2. That even playing on a broken foot, he was the only functional part of the 2021 Clemson offense.

If you buy into the foot injury as the reason for the route and launch issues, then he's a steal. And even if he's not, he was basically free. But he might be Tee Higgins.

2 Chargers RT:

Salyer did play 163 snaps at RT across 2019 and 2020. I would give him a shot over UDFA (aka how high is his ceiling really?) Norton who was graded 69th/83 T last year. I kinda liked him too. Maybe like a Yodny?

Or maybe just Matt Feiler?

Justyn Ross is a great pick up. Didnt think he'd ever play again after the injury...but he did so I'm not sure why it took so long to sign him (he wasn't a day 1 or 2 priority UDFA). I really don't think teams would be blamed for anything injury wise. Did the Jags ask Trevor and Travis for their opinion?

6 I like Salyer a lot and…

In reply to by ImNewAroundThe…

I like Salyer a lot and think he will be a tackle in the pros (seems like the Chargers braintrust agrees with me), but I can still understand some trepidation about it.  Will Anderson didn't treat Salyer like a turnstyle so there's that.

12 Yeah, I really liked him and…

Yeah, I really liked him and Zach Tom, and was hoping the Jets would draft one of the two.  The guy they did draft seems decent (Max Mitchell) but both Tom and Salyer held their own against first round picks.  Still surprised Salyer did not go higher.

3 I don't think there is a…

I don't think there is a single team in the league so talented such that their biggest need is backup QB. I still think their D line and linebacker cores are full of questions as is the tight end position. 

5 The Broncos do have…

The Broncos do have questions LB, but considering that nickel is now most teams' base, not having 3 starting quality cornerbacks is more likely to hurt them than not having 2 starting quality inside linebackers. They may be planning to run a big nickel package as their base, which would mitigate the lack of depth both at lb and cb.

Either way, it does seem hard to take Tanier's backup qb analysis seriously when the Chiefs are rolling out Chad Henne, the Raiders Jarrett Stidham, and the Chargers Chase Daniel. I'd say he's right about what would happen to the Broncos should they lose Wilson for any meaningful stretch of games, but couldn't the same be said about the fortunes of the rest of the AFC west in the event that any of the other teams lose their starting qb? And is there any reason to think the Wilson is more likely to lose time than, say, Mahomes?

7 Josh Johnson seemed ok when…

Josh Johnson seemed ok when he played for the Jets on a Thursday night after Mike White got hurt.  Not sure why he's a problem at backup quarterback, or why Sam Howell would be a better idea.  Johnson had a passer rating of 98.3 with the Ravens and 99.1 with the Jets last year.

8 The issue is the Broncos are…

The issue is the Broncos are probably a game or two back of the Chargers and Chiefs as it is, all things being equal. They really need to pray Wilson is good for 17 games AND that Herbert and Mahomes both miss some time.

13 The Broncos are a really…

The Broncos are a really hard team to handicap for me next year.

I remember the 2011 Broncos looking like a typical bad team that made the playoffs by the slightest of margins behind a terrible division. But then everything on the roster looked so much better once. Peyton Manning got there. Wilson could certainly have the same effect though not in the same magnitude. 

Meanwhile, the Chiefs are coming in with some real questions at the skill position. Hill is gone and Kelsey could easily be in a soft decline. And of course, The Chiefs defense feels like an eternal mystery, much like the Chargers propensity to waste talent. 


14 The Broncos finished 2 games…

The Broncos finished 2 games behind the Chargers and 3 games behind the Raiders with Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock.  One would think substituting Russell Wilson for the two of them would put the Broncos on a level with those other teams, if not the Chiefs.

18 Not Necessarily

The Broncos will be better this year, but so will the Chargers and the Raiders.

A team can be better in the current year than the previous year, yet wind up with a worse record because the teams they play in the current year are not the same teams they played the previous one.  For example, the AFCW is playing the NFCW this year, not the NFCE.

11 but couldn't the same be…

but couldn't the same be said about the fortunes of the rest of the AFC west in the event that any of the other teams lose their starting qb?

I mean, the Chiefs are kindof an exception -  with Reid he's been able to get really solid QB play out of backups at the few-game level at least. Henne's been there for a number of years, and if Reid's happy with him that's a solid endorsement.

15 I'm assuming there's more…

I'm assuming there's more than a little recency bias here - Wilson had a very public set of injury issues last year with the finger, probably rushing back too soon, etc, which contributes to the idea of needing a backup. This is course ignores the fact that he'd never missed a game up until that point. He's the oldest of the quartet but I don't think that means nearly as much at quarterback as most other positions.

17 This is course ignores the…

This is course ignores the fact that he'd never missed a game up until that point.

He's been injured before, he just... kept going back in. I do agree, though, that with Wilson a backup QB is actually probably less important. Not because Wilson's magically injury resistant, but because you ain't keeping Russ out.

4 Typo?

"First-round pick Zion Johnson is likely to start at right guard, leaving sixth-round pick Jamaree Salyer as Johnson's primary competition ..."


Should be "Norton's" ?

20 Chiefs' Biggest Need is Edge not Safety

Humbly disagree with your Chiefs analysis regarding their biggest need.  They have enough numbers and youth for safety to shake out fine. 

With Melvin Ingram jilting the Chiefs (again) their biggest need is edge.  Hoping for a reasonable Robert Quinn or Josh Allen (Jags) trade.

21 True about Anthony Averett; but

... or ex-Ravens free-agent acquisition Anthony Averett, who only earned a starting job in his fourth season in 2021 because of injuries.

This is one of those things that is accurate, but maybe not informative.  In 2019 & '20 Averett was behind Marlon Humphrey & Marcus Peters, who combined for 3 Pro Bowls.  Failing to beat out those two guys does not make him a scrub.

I think Averett is a decent starter.  He's not big, doesn't have slot value, and he turns 28 in November.  So he's not going to be the centerpiece of anyone's secondary.  But the comment makes it sound like he's a liability as the #2 corner, and I'm not sure that's fair either.

Don't be mean to the ex-Ravens.  🙂

22 One of the interesting…

One of the interesting thinks that occurred to me, are Ravens free agents similar to Patriots free agents? By that I mean, once they've left their confines, are they dramatically worse?

In some ways, this is a particularly difficult problem full of bias. If they are awesome, Baltimore never lets them go. If they are replacable cogs, almost by definition they are going to stink. 

Doing some very quick past reflections, Adalius Thomas and Pernell McPhee turned out to have buyers remorse, but Darian Stewart and Zadarius Smith were pretty successful. We'll have to see about Mathew Judon.

I guess the Ravens rarely let true defensive stalwarts walk and when they do, they are usually pretty close to the end as was the case with Lardarius Webb and Chris McCalister. 

23 Matthew Judon set a career…

Matthew Judon set a career high last year with 12.5 sacks with the Patriots.  Pretty sure he wasn't done.  Also, it's possible all that you wrote was true while Ozzie Newsome ran everything.  I'm not sold that DeCosta is anywhere near the same level as a GM.

24 Regarding Chargers' RT situation

You're missing a player that will probably be the starter - 4th year man, former 3rd rounder in Pipkins.


The plan is for Norton and Pipkins to battle for the RT spot.


Not that it changes the weak spot on the Chargers, but Salyer will probably be a bench warmer or spot starter this year.

25 Teams are so weird

Broncos need a backup just to keep them competitive? If you need a win and Wilson’s down, do you pick Rypien, Johnson…or goddamned Tim Tebow. Teebs’ celebrity doesn’t outweigh Russ’, & Nick Foles coming back to the Eagles worked pretty well.

And the 49ers trading 3 first round picks for a talented maybe when they had a talented maybe already (Josh Rosen) for free, & an absolute definite in Jimmy G. Again, I get it, but NFL teams are simply the champions of the Overthinking Olympics. No wonder Mike likes writing about it ;-)