Super Bowl 58: Ranking the Kansas City Chiefs and San Fransisco 49ers' positional units

2WC4BW7 Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) runs in front of Miami Dolphins defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah (91) during the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

Patrick Mahomes reigns supreme: While Brock Purdy‘s legs and playmaking ability add an extra dimension to the San Francisco 49ers offense, Mahomes' play in the playoffs would give the Kansas City Chiefs the advantage over any other team in the NFL.

• Elite tight ends: The Chiefs and the 49ers have the two best tight ends of this era, who are almost impossible to rank. Both Travis Kelce and George Kittle have a case to be considered the best tight end in the NFL leading up to the Super Bowl.

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Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

We are kicking off Super Bowl week by diving deep into the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers‘ positional units to see who has the edge. Seeing how these units stacked up to the rest of the NFL is also a good reminder of why these two teams have made it to the Super Bowl 58 in the first place.


Advantage: Kansas City Chiefs 

Patrick Mahomes has been the Kansas City Chiefs‘ starting quarterback since the start of the 2018 NFL season. Since then he has earned a 96.1 overall PFF grade, which is the highest among all quarterbacks over that period. Furthermore, the gap between him and the second-highest-graded quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) is bigger than the gap between Rodgers and the sixth-highest-graded quarterback (Drew Brees). In addition, he is also the highest-graded quarterback in playoff games over that time span with a 93.4 overall grade. While many focus on his highlight-reel plays, he has been just as good at taking care of the ball during the playoffs. Over his last six playoff games (dating back to the start of the 2022 playoffs), Mahomes has had just one turnover-worthy pass, which is good for a 0.4% turnover-worthy pass rate. As a comparison, the lowest rate during the 2023 NFL regular season was Tyrod Taylor‘s 1.2 percent. 

On the other hand, Brock Purdy had an excellent regular season. In fact, he recorded more big-time throws and fewer turnover-worthy passes than Mahomes during the regular season while accumulating a higher PFF grade. However, while he had the same amount of big-time throws – in one fewer game – as Mahomes, so far in the playoffs, he has also had three turnover-worthy passes already whereas the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback has yet to have one.

Running back 

Advantage: San Francisco 49ers

Christian McCaffrey has been among the best running backs in the NFL throughout his career; however, since he was traded to San Francisco during the 2022 season, he has established himself as arguably the best running back in football. Over the last two seasons, he has earned a 92.5 overall grade, which leads all running backs. Similarly, his 92.8 receiving grade is also the highest at the position while his rushing grade is the fourth-highest among running backs with at least 500 snaps over the last two seasons. In addition, he also kept those who questioned his durability quiet, as he was on the field for nearly 200 snaps more over the last two seasons than the next most used running back. While he had the most rushes in his career this year, he set career highs in a variety of categories. His 3.4 yards after contact was the highest in his career while his 0.23 broken tackle per carry was second to only his 2020 season, when he had just 62 carries compared to 2023’s 320 rushes. 

For the Kansas City Chiefs, second-year running back Isiah Pacheco has been good at finding the end zone lately, as he scored eight touchdowns in his last seven games. In addition, his 4.7 yards per carry was in the top 10 among running backs with at least 100 carries in the regular season. However, he appears to have limitations in the passing game, as he picked up 14 first downs via receptions this season compared to McCaffrey’s 33.

Tight ends 

Advantage: Tie 

The Super Bowl will inarguably feature the two best tight ends of the last five years. And while almost everyone can agree on them being the top 2 in the NFL, it is much harder to rank Travis Kelce and George Kittle for various reasons. One can come to a different ranking just based on what facet of the game they value more, how they weigh recent performance against past performance, and how much they value consistency. Over the last five seasons – starting with 2019 when they met in the Super Bowl – Kittle boasts the highest PFF grade among tight ends at 93.6; however, the gap between the two players is as small as it can be: Kelce ranks second with a 93.5 overall PFF grade since 2019. They are also the two tight ends with the most snaps played over that period; however, Kittle was on the field for nearly 900 more snaps – equivalent of almost an entire regular season – over that period.

The advantage goes to Kittle when looking at the 2023 regular season, as he was the highest-graded tight end this season with an 88.4 PFF overall grade, which was comfortably ahead of anyone else while Kelce ranked fourth with a 79.4 PFF grade – his lowest regular season grade since 2015. Nevertheless, Kelce is still a different player in January. The Kansas City tight end recorded at least 200 receiving yards in five consecutive playoffs while no other tight end had more than 180 receiving yards in any of the last five playoffs. Even though 2023 was considered to be a down year for Kelce, he needs 99 receiving yards in the Super Bowl to break his career-high of 360 receiving yards in the playoffs. Kelce’s 90.2 PFF grade over the last two games – against the Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens – would have been the highest grade for a tight end over the 2023 regular season.

Wide receivers

Advantage: San Francisco 49ers 

The 49ers wide receiver corps are not just the better of the two Super Bowl teams, but they have a claim to be the best in the entire NFL, too. They are one of just two teams – the Miami Dolphins are the other – to have two separate players among the 13 highest-graded wide receivers this season, including the playoffs. Brandon Aiyuk’s 91.9 overall grade ranks second at the position while Deebo Samuel ranks 13th with an 86.2 PFF overall grade this season. Furthermore, 49ers wide receivers averaged 15.7 yards per reception, which was the highest during the regular season. Furthermore, the gap between them and the second-best team is as big as the gap between the second and the ninth-placed teams. In addition, probably not surprisingly, San Francisco wide receivers led the NFL with 6.2 yards after the catch during the regular season. Also, 49ers quarterbacks had a 115.2 passer rating when targeting wide receivers, which led the NFL. Finally, San Francisco wide receivers dropped just 4.5 percent of passes going their way, which was the third-best rate in the NFL this season.

On the other hand, the Chiefs wide receiver corps was one of the most criticized units in the entire NFL. Justifiably so, as they dropped 8.7 percent of the passes going their way, which was the worst rate in the entire NFL during the 2023 regular season. Furthermore, they averaged just 3.33 yards per route run, which ranked only 25th in the league this season. However, rookie Rashee Rice‘s emergence can give hope to the Chiefs, as Rice’s 87.0 overall grade (including the playoffs) ranks 11th among wide receivers this season.

Offensive line

Advantage: Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs had high hopes for their offensive line this season, as the acquisitions of left tackle Donovan Smith and right tackle Jawaan Taylor were expected to strengthen the unit. However, both tackles underperformed this season: Smith’s 57.7 PFF grad ranks just 61st among offensive tackles while Taylor – who was the most penalized player in the league this season – ranks just 73rd with a 48.6 overall grade. Regardless, the interior of the offensive line still gives the Chiefs the advantage. Left guard Joe Thuney – who is expected to be back in the lineup after missing the AFC Championship Game – has been among the best pass-blocking guards for years, as he earned the highest pass-blocking grade in 2023. Third-year Creed Humphrey still earned the fourth-highest grade at his position in a season that could be considered a down year for him. Finally, the most underrated player of the trio, Trey Smith, earned a career-high 75.3 PFF grade as he ranked among the top 10 players at his position.

The 49ers might have arguably the best offensive lineman in the NFL in left tackle Trent Williams, who was once again the highest-graded left tackle in the league this season. In addition, Jon Feliciano has been a pleasant surprise. However, the rest of the line can be considered to be a liability, especially in pass protection, making it a key for the 49ers to not fall behind in a game. The San Francisco offensive line ranks just 23rd in the NFL this season in PFF’s pass-blocking efficiency rating.

Defensive line

Advantage: San Francisco 49ers 

San Francisco’s defensive line features arguably the best defender in football — the NFL's 2022 Defensive Player of the Year winner Nick Bosa. Even though Bosa won the award last year, he actually had an even better season this year, as his 92.5 PFF overall grade is a career-high for the former Ohio State Buckeye. However, the strengths of the 49ers defensive line do not stop with Bosa. In 2023, interior defender Arik Armstead was back to his old form and once again became one of the best pass-rushing interior defenders, as he recorded his highest PFF overall grade since 2019 – the last time the 49ers reached the Super Bowl. In addition, Javon Hargrave – who came over from Philadelphia during the offseason – also ranked among the top 5 interior defenders in pass-rush grade this season. Finally, even though he has been fairly inconsistent since joining the 49ers during the season, Chase Young is also able to make splash plays as he is trying to put himself in the best position possible prior to becoming a free agent.

The Chiefs also feature one of the best defenders in the NFL, as Chris Jones has consistently been among the best interior defenders in the league. However, the rest of the defensive line does not compare favorably to San Francisco, especially in the absence of former 49er Charles Omenihu. While Mike Danna and George Karlaftis can make plays occasionally, they have been too inconsistent and rank just 60th and 65th in PFF grade at their position, respectively.


Advantage: San Francisco 49ers 

Inarguably, the 49ers have had the best linebacker duo in the NFL over the last couple of seasons. In fact, over the last three seasons, both rank among the top 10 at their position in PFF grade, as Fred Warner leads all linebackers with a 91.0 grade while Dre Greenlaw is ninth with an 80.1 grade. Furthermore, while Warner once again leads the position with a 91.0 coverage grade, Greenlaw ranks fourth in this facet of the game with an 87.4 PFF grade. While short passes to the middle of the field – the area that linebackers are responsible for – leads to a high completion percentage for quarterbacks, the 49ers linebackers kept opposing quarterbacks to the fifth-lowest completion percentage (74.8 percent) when they targeted them. Finally, Warner had one of the best seasons by a linebacker in recent years: his 90.3 overall grade during the 2023 regular season was the second-highest grade by a linebacker in any season over the last five seasons.

The Chiefs have upgraded their linebackers since the last time they played the 49ers in the Super Bowl, as none of the four commonly featured linebackers were on the team back in 2019. While they might lack an elite player, they have four starting-level linebackers in Nick Bolton, Willie Gay, Drue Tranquill and Leo Chenal, who have all played at least 500 snaps this season. Their versatility is their biggest strength as all four have rushed the passer at least 45 times during the 2023 season.


Advantage: Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs might have the best cornerback duo in the NFL in L’Jarius Sneed and Trent McDuffie; however, Joshua Williams – who is coming on in nickel personnel – has also been playing at a high level. The Chiefs are one of four teams (New York Jets, Houston Texans and Buffalo Bills being the others) to feature three cornerbacks among the 30 highest-graded players at the position this season. Kansas City’s cornerbacks have allowed just 68 catches that went for a first down or a touchdown during the regular season, which was the second-lowest in the entire NFL. In addition, the Chiefs were one of three teams whose cornerbacks allowed fewer than 10 yards per reception this season. They are also among the most versatile groups in the league, as they are asked to rush the passer more often than other teams’ cornerbacks. Kansas City cornerbacks led the NFL with 25 pressures and 4.5 sacks in the regular season – including 16 pressures and 2.5 sacks coming from McDuffie.

The 49ers cornerback group is led by former Kansas City Chief Charvarius Ward, who has had a career year as his 85.3 coverage grade ranked fourth among cornerbacks. While Deommodore Lenoir held up well opposite Ward, Ambry Thomas has been a liability in the 49ers secondary when San Francisco is forced to have three cornerbacks on the field. During the playoffs, Thomas has earned a 29.9 PFF coverage grade while allowing a 97.9 passer rating in coverage.


Advantage: San Francisco 49ers

While the 49ers lost All-Pro safety Talanoa Hufanga for the season, others have stepped up and the 49ers secondary has not lost a beat during the final stretch of the season. Rookie third-round pick Ji’Ayir Brown had to play a bigger role, and he did not disappoint. He has been bringing starter-level play to the table ever since he replaced Hufanga in the secondary, as he ranks 34th in the NFL with a 68.9 overall PFF grade. He has been playing alongside veteran safety Tashaun Gipson Sr., who has been excellent against the run since joining the 49ers. Over the last two seasons, Gipson has earned a 915 run-defense grade, which ranks fourth among safeties over that period. His work against the run was highlighted by his game-changing play of making a stop at the line of scrimmage and ripping the ball out of running back Jahmyr Gibbs’s hands against the Detroit Lions.

Similarly to the 49ers, the Chiefs also lost a starting safety in the second half of the season, as Bryan Cook was injured in Week 13 and has been out since. The Chiefs also play with big nickel personnel quite often because they like to have Justin Reid, Mike Edwards and Chamarri Conner all on the field at the same time. While neither had an outstanding season, would not classify them as liabilities either, especially knowing how well the cornerbacks around them can play.


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