QB Patrick Mahomes isn't only player key to Chiefs' season

Dee Ford had a nine-game stretch during the 2016 season in which he recorded 10 sacks. John Sleezer/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

For the Kansas City Chiefs to contend for the playoffs this season, here are the five players who can help make that happen:

Dee Ford, OLB: The Chiefs drafted a pass-rusher, Breeland Speaks, in the second round but otherwise are pinning their hopes on significant and much-needed improvement in this area on the healthy return of Ford. He missed much of last season because of a back injury. Ford had a big nine-game stretch in 2016 when he had 10 sacks but otherwise has produced little since the Chiefs drafted him in the first round of 2014. Ford should be motivated. He's in the final season of his rookie contract.

Kendall Fuller, CB: Marcus Peters was not only the Chiefs' best cornerback, but their top defensive playmaker. When they intercepted a pass or forced a fumble, he was involved as often as not. At least some of that heavy burden falls on Fuller, the most important Chiefs component of the trade that sent quarterback Alex Smith to Washington. He needs to play like a No. 1 cornerback, though he has never been asked to fill that role before. He's the most logical candidate to replace Peters as Kansas City's top corner.

Anthony Hitchens, ILB: It speaks to the need for an inside linebacker that the Chiefs made Hitchens their big defensive signing in free agency despite significant needs elsewhere on that side of the ball. The Chiefs need him to be more than a run-stopper, though that was a problem area for them last year. They also need him to play well in pass coverage. If Hitchens holds up in both areas, the Chiefs have a chance at significant defensive improvement. If he is adequate in neither, it should again be a tough season for the defense.

Patrick Mahomes, QB: The quarterback is always vital to his team's success, but that's particularly true for the Chiefs, who traded a proven commodity in Alex Smith to clear the way for Mahomes. The Chiefs could almost count on winning 10 games and a playoff berth with Smith at QB. They did both in four of five seasons with Smith. Anything less this year in a division without what appears to be a powerhouse team is an unnecessary step backward for a team that could have retained Smith for one more season.

Sammy Watkins, WR: In signing Watkins, the Chiefs are gambling they can have an offense that scores a lot of points and masks their considerable defensive deficiencies. But they didn't spend $16 million per season on Watkins thinking he would be the No. 2 wide receiver or otherwise a complementary piece. Their offense will work best if he gives the Chiefs a large number of big plays and finishes the season with stats equal or close to those of their top two pass-catchers from last season, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill.