How Can the Chiefs Replace Tyreek Hill?
NFL Offseason - Tyreek Hill may be gone, Kansas City Chiefs fans, but don't despair! The team pivoted immediately, signing Ronald Jones and Marquez Valdes-Scantling last week.
You remember Ronald Jones, right? He's like Diet Melvin Gordon. Jones was the featured back for the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a few hot minutes until he dropped so many short dumpoffs (five, per Pro Football Reference) that Leonard Fournette leap-frogged him on the depth chart and in Tom Brady's heart. Fournette ended up dropping seven passes, but Lenny is like a capybara, with a calming effect on potential predators.
Jones rushed for 428 yards last season, most of them coming when Fournette was injured late in the year or during the back ends of blowouts. Jones caught just 10 passes as Gio Bernard took over as the Buccaneers' third-down back. Jones finished 17th in DVOA, but the Buccaneers offense was a nearly ideal environment for much of the year. Fournette finished fifth, for heaven's sake.
Valdes-Scantling needs no introduction, of course. He's a charter member of the Aaron Rodgers Dissatisfaction Brigade, the closest thing the NFL has ever created to the Suicide Squad. Now he joins JuJu Smith-Schuster as a member of Patrick Mahomes' Howling Hyphenations. The Chiefs offense may not have as much speed as it did a few weeks ago, but it has gained many, many syllables.
But wait, there's more! The Chiefs also added Deon Bush, a former Chicago Bears special teams ace who plays a little safety, and Jermaine Carter, a former Carolina Panthers linebacker who finished tied for second in the NFL with 11 broken tackles in 2021.
The Chiefs also picked up extra first- and second-round picks in the 2022 draft in exchange for Hill, plus other stocking-stuffers. And they still have some extra Cheetah Bucks leftover to rummage around for other contenders' WR3s and RB3s. It will take three or four years to get a sense of how the Hill trade really worked out for the Chiefs.
That's right: the Hill trade instantaneously transformed the Chiefs from the team we most look forward to watching every week to a team we speak of in longitudinal Jets language.
That, in its own sense, makes the trade a complete loss.
Replacing the Irreplaceable Tyreek Hill
The Chiefs are likely to replace Tyreek Hill by committee. Valdes-Scantling will take over the deep chores, while Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman will handle the horizontal responsibilities: jet sweeps, shallow drags, etc. Justin Watson is also around, and while the Chiefs' top draft priority will be repairing the defense, another receiver will likely arrive by the end of Day 2. MVS, JuJu, and Watson must also replace the production lost by the departures of Demarcus Robinson and Byron Pringle, but whatever.
The Packers used Valdes-Scantling as a designated deep threat for most of his career. Let's take a look at his numbers on passes of 20-plus yards downfield. The short/deep receiving cutoff is usually 15 yards, but sliding it up to 20 yards gives a better sense of how a receiver might perform in a Tyreek-like role:
|Marquez Valdes-Scantling, 20-Plus-Yard Targets|
Valdes-Scantling and Davante Adams were each targeted on 20-plus-yard throws 22 times last year, even though MVS played just 11 games last season. MVS received more deep targets than Adams in 2020. He and Adams are the only Packers receivers to be targeted more than 20 times on 20-plus-yard passes since 2018. Valdes-Scantling also dropped three deep passes in 2020 yet somehow didn't fall through the trap door of Rodgers' doghouse into his piranha pool.
Are Valdes-Scantling's deep numbers "good?" They certainly aren't phenomenal, considering that he was catching passes from the MVP-winner in two of those seasons and was mostly only getting targeted when Adams drew coverage away from him.
Let's run Hill's numbers, while admitting up front that this is an apples-to-oranges comparison.
|Tyreek Hill, 20-Plus-Yard Targets|
Hill's 2021 deep receiving numbers point to both a problem with the 2021 Chiefs offense—less bang and more fizzle for the big-play buck—and one of the justifications for not offering Hill a market-resetting contract. Tyreek is probably not quite on the downside of his career just yet, but declining deep production could be a sign that he's trending in that direction.
That said, you probably didn't need situational breakdowns to illustrate that Valdes-Scantling on his best days can barely match Hill at his worst. But we're in the situational breakdowns business here at Football Outsiders, so you're welcome.
Hill's decrease in deep production came with an increase in short production. Hill was targeted a career-high 64 times within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage in 2021, up from 48 times in 2020 and 34 times in 2019 (when he was injured for much of the season). You probably watched enough Chiefs games to know what was going on: teams were playing so much two-deep zone and off coverage that the Chiefs downshifted their offense somewhat, with Mahomes (eventually) tossing more underneath routes.
Let's compare Hill's extra-short receiving production in 2021 to that of his teammate Hardman, Smith-Schuster, and (why not?) Valdes-Scantling. We will use JuJu's 2020 numbers because he did not play much last year.
|Passes of 5 or fewer Air Yards|
Hardman has never really developed into the Tyreek 2.0 the Chiefs may have hoped for, but he's a darn fine YAC machine underneath. When healthy, Smith-Schuster gobbled up lots of very short receptions in the Steelers' All-Failed Completion Offense, sometimes doing a little something with them besides scampering out of bounds.
Hill, meanwhile, was not a very efficient "ball in space" threat in 2021: he may be able to score from anywhere on the field, but that doesn't mean it's wise to feed him the ball close to the line of scrimmage four times per game. JuJu and Hardman should be able to pick up Hill's underneath slack…
… except for the obvious fact that there may not be as much space to work underneath without Hill forcing the defense to account for the threat of a bomb on every single snap. Opponents were comfortable ceding lots of short curls to Hill because the alternative wasn't a palatable option. No one on the current Chiefs roster or in the draft pool—no one but a few of the NFL's All Pro-caliber receivers—will be treated with the same trepidation.
There's no way to stack wide receivers in the Chiefs passing game until they equal Hill unless, say, Chris Olave falls to the Chiefs with the 29th pick in the draft. But what if we stack all the assets the Chiefs acquire, both in direct return from the Hill trade in the draft and with their leftover cap space? If the Chiefs ultimately "traded" Hill for Valdes-Scantling; Jones; the money to bring back any veteran defender except perhaps Tyrann Mathieu; a rookie edge rusher and cornerback who make the Pro Bowl in two or three years; and some 2023 role players, that's a haul of players worth much more than one superstar wide receiver, right?
And that still doesn't make the trade an optimal move for the Chiefs.
The Mighty Morphin' Kansas City Chiefs
Ah, but perhaps Andy Reid and the Chiefs are consciously evolving their tactics.
That's becoming a popular theory in some circles. Last year's reinforcements along the offensive line, most notably Orlando Brown and Creed Humphrey, were straight-ahead drive-blockers, not traditional pass-protectors. Smith-Schuster, acquired before the Tyreek Hill trade, is a well-built underneath target with a decent reputation as a blocker. Jones joins Clyde Edwards-Helaire in a backfield which soaks up significant resources. Reid isn't going to transform the Chiefs into the 1977 Steelers, but maybe he plans to create a more balanced offense, like the ones the Packers and Buccaneers use to great effect to support their Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
Andy Reid Runs More has been a popular fanfic genre since about 2006, when Philadelphia Eagles fans thought they were getting an offense built around Brian Westbrook but instead got one built around Reggie Brown and Kevin Curtis. Reid may want to run the ball more often, just as I want to go to the gym more often. He may build his roster with more balance in mind, just as I may purchase new sweatshirts and earbuds. But anyone who watched the 2021 AFC Championship Game knows it's never going to happen: the opponent can spot him a 21-3 lead and line its safeties up in the parking lot, and Reid's still gonna order Mahomes to let 'er rip.
Also, as connect-the-dots fan/media theories proliferate over the next few months, it's important to remember that the Chiefs planned to sign Hill to a cap-friendly extension right up until the moment the Packers traded Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders. Even insiders were shocked by the sudden reversal. Reid, Brett Veach, and the Chiefs organization certainly hustled together a sensible Plan B when it became obvious that Hill wasn't going to play ball with their cap issues. But it was not Plan A.
The Chiefs now have no choice but to morph into something more conventional. That could be a good thing. Football Outsiders spent a lot of energy and word count tracking the Chiefs' rise from a historically bad defense into something acceptable throughout the 2021 season. Lots of us furrowed our brows over their early-season turnover jags, their difficulty adjusting to simple two-deep defensive tactics, and their weird obsession with improv-theater short-yardage concepts. Trading brilliance for stability might make sense for a franchise with plenty of one but not enough of another.
The question comes down to whether the Chiefs traded a little brilliance for a lot of stability, or a lot of brilliance for a little too little.
Remembering Corey Coleman
We omitted one newcomer in our rundown of new Chiefs playmakers. Corey Coleman was selected 15th overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2016. He caught 56 passes in two seasons for the Browns, drank a cup of coffee with the New York Giants in 2018, suffered an ACL tear in 2019, spent 2020 on the Giants practice squad, and served a six-game substance suspension as an unsigned free agent in 2021.
Coleman is extremely unlikely to make the Chiefs final roster. But his arrival allows us to dredge up the Browns-Eagles Carson Wentz trade, perhaps for the last time.
The Browns traded the second overall pick in the 2016 draft to the Eagles in exchange for the eighth, 77th, and 100th picks in that draft, plus the Eagles' first-round pick in 2017 and second-rounder in 2018. That trade set off a chain reaction which still ripples through the NFL in complicated ways. The Eagles selected Wentz, the Browns traded down again before selecting Coleman. The Eagles rose to the Super Bowl, fell, and rose again, while the Browns ricochet between Moneyball experiments and soap operas.
Re-litigating the Wentz trade was a hobbyhorse for Browns bloggers and some of my analytics-minded colleagues for years. It should finally be a dead issue now, so I won't climb on my soapbox yet again. But the Wentz trade illustrated and magnified a philosophical divide which was later reinforced by the Raiders/Bears Khalil Mack trade and still echoes when we talk about the Tyreek Hill trade:
The Traditionalist View: Football is a game of magical players, and a franchise must do everything it can to acquire a handful of them.
The Contrarian View: Football is a game of resource management, and a franchise must do everything it can to stockpile and allocate resources.
The "contrarian" view is often framed as the "analytics" view, in part because More Picks = Good has become a bumper sticker slogan for our team, and the Browns were, sadly, our thought leaders/mascots. Oversimplifications and tribalism aside, debates on blockbuster Wentz-Mack-Tyreek-Russell Wilson trades boil down to the fact that some folks prefer the bird in the hand, some the two in the bush.
But just how plump and juicy is this bird in the hand? How many birds are really in the bush? Are they chicks or are they ready to roast? How many of them can we really catch? And what's our objective: poultry dinner for a hungry family tonight or establishing a more sustainable food source?
The Chiefs traded a few percentage points of probability that they will win Super Bowl LVII for an increased percentage chance that they can win LVIII and LIX when they traded Hill. How many points of each is debatable. What's not debatable is that every percentage point is precious for a team that won a Super Bowl in 2019 and has been slipping a few inches at a time ever since, much more precious than theoretical opportunities two/three/four years down the line.
Tyreek Hill and Tyrann Matthieu
The Chiefs found themselves in a precarious spot this offseason. Like the Buccaneers, Packers, and Rams, they are short-window contenders. Unlike those other teams, Patrick Mahomes is only 26 years old (egads) and under contract until the era of flying cars. Also unlike those other contenders, their roster was showing evidence of severe dry rot from within in 2021, particularly on defense. Finally, those other three contenders must only worry about one another, while the Chiefs got locked into the AFC arms race.
Once contract talks stalled, the Tyreek Hill trade became a necessary evil. The Davante Adams trade by the Packers was a similar move. As I wrote in my immediate reaction to the Hill trade, it was certainly practical and defensible. But it was not optimal, because the Chiefs really needed to keep their birds in hand if they wanted to win a Super Bowl.
That's why the lynchpin of the Hill trade may be Tyrann Matthieu. He's facing a lukewarm free-agent market. He appears willing to return to the Chiefs. If they plan to rebuild their defense out of rookies and Bears/Panthers castoffs, they'll need a veteran tone-setter with a pre-designed role in the defense. Bring the Honey Badger back in his jack-of-all-trades role, with Justin Reid and Juan Thornhill as the traditional safeties and Bush chasing punt returners. Then maybe we can talk about the Hill trade as some sort of "win."
Until then, the Hill trade is just a compromise solution. That's not the sort of thing that's worth cheering for.
Irish Wake for The Cap is Fake
Pour a wee bit out for the old sod, everyone's favorite drinking companion this time of year: Cappus Fake, whose hard living finally caught up to him in the hours after the Tyreek Hill trade.
Cappus Fake was a hail fellow well met, the life of a party he thought would never end, and he ran with a crowd that never fretted about tomorrow. Mardi Gras-through-St. Paddy's Day was their favorite time of the year. Every time an NFL team signed a free agent to a record-setting deal, added two void years to the back of a contract, or performed some other deft feat of accounting trickery, they all raised their pints and chanted the name of their ringleader, "Cappus Fake!"
The good times rolled for the Cappus Fake crowd for over a decade. Oh, how they laughed at the teetotalers and bean-counters who warned them of future consequences. NFL teams can do whatever they want, Cappus Fake's lads intoned, and the crowd at the pub cackled at those who believed otherwise. Cappus Fake became a rallying cry and a nugget of folk wisdom which only gained credence as the Buccaneers and Rams assembled Super Bowl dream teams which appeared to defy the laws of accounting, frugality, or common sense.
Alas, no one noticed how narrow the path Cappus Fake walked had become. The pandemic brought cap constrictions, yet he still partied through the wee hours. For teams like the Saints, the financial machinations slowly ceased to be fun and started to look desperate. But surely ol' Mickey Loomis had an ace named Deshaun Watson up his sleeve, right? Only a fool counts pennies when Super Bowls are won by the brazen. And the devil had yet to catch up with any true Super Bowl contender.
Then the Packers were forced to trade Devante Adams. And the Chiefs were forced to trade Tyreek Hill. And neither the Saints nor Falcons could find room in their creaking budgets for Watson. Which led to the Falcons giving up the ghost of the Matt Ryan era, and on being competitive in 2022 and probably 2023 and 2024.
Suddenly the landscape shifted. Careful Super Bowl plans amounted to naught. The bill collectors came calling. The party was over.
Bah, claim the Cappus Fake crowd. Adams wanted to play in Las Vegas. The Chiefs planned to transition away from Hill. The Saints are better off with Jameis Winston and an aging roster full of players they won't be able to cut until 2024! There's always a rationalization for those who would rather cling to slogans and easy explanations than learn to calculate prorations or explain how last year's budgeting mistake led to this year's Pro Bowl departure.
But they all looked down into their pints as Cappus Fake himself staggered into the night, fell to the muddy earth, and breathed his last on a drizzly early spring evening, survived only by the lazy, misinformed opinions he inspired.
So let's raise a toast to the silly notion that the mathematics that inevitably drags contenders down from their hilltops is meaningless simply because it's complicated. But it won't be our last toast. Heaven forbid! Legends like Cappus Fake don't really die. His name will echo again whenever times are good and pockets are full, whenever an NFL team converts a 32-year-old linebacker's base salary into a bonus, whenever a local radio personality doesn't want to bore listeners by explaining what that minus-$40 million figure on OverTheCap.com really means.
Though we're lowering him into the ground today, we will never hear the last of that charming, shortsighted, misguided, lovable scoundrel Cappus Fake.