Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Kansas City Chiefs check in at No. 24.
The chaos calmed finally, and when it did, the Chiefs were eager to return to football — with one of the NFL’s more talent-rich rosters. The 2011 season was stained by injuries to key players, disagreements between former coach Todd Haley and general manager Scott Pioli, and ultimately the replacement of Haley with defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel late in the season. The Chiefs hope 2012 will be a calmer time, a period that finally sees permanent results from four years of rebuilding.
Quarterback Matt Cassel is seen in Kansas City as one of the few unproven pieces, and the grousing was highlighted when the Broncos signed former Colts star Peyton Manning — and likely shot to the top of preseason AFC West predictions.
In the meantime, the Chiefs spent their offseason building around Cassel. They fortified a weak offensive line, brought in veteran running back Peyton Hillis, and gave Cassel one more vote of confidence that, if all goes right, he can be the quarterback to lead the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl in more than four decades. Even with better days seemingly on the horizon, this could be Cassel’s last chance.
After missing on Manning, the team signed veteran Brady Quinn, an assertion that Cassel was still the Chiefs’ man. Cassel is an average NFL quarterback under most circumstances, but the Chiefs seemed to realize that his best chance at being something more — like he was in 2010, when he led the team to a division title and earned a Pro Bowl nod — was by surrounding him with solid pieces. The free agent acquisitions of right tackle Eric Winston, tight end Kevin Boss and running back Hillis give Cassel more talent to work with.
Still, there remains uncertainty even beyond quarterback. Running back Jamaal Charles, one of the NFL’s most electric rushers, and tight end Tony Moeaki suffered torn knee ligaments early last season, and it’s unclear if they’ll return with the same explosion and quickness. Charles is still seen as one of the league’s most talented rushers, but there will be no relief in Kansas City until he breaks his first long run, like those reminiscent of the 2009 and ’10 seasons. Charles estimated in April that he was “80 percent” healthy, admitting that the assessment was partly a motivational ploy. Hillis will be used in power running situations, making occasional appearances at fullback. Dexter McCluster and rookie Cyrus Gray also could get carries.
Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe also could be a mystery entering his sixth season. The Chiefs made him their franchise player, but he refused to sign his tender, skipped offseason practices and didn't report at the start of training camp. The Chiefs are in a pickle: Do they hand Bowe, an occasionally immature but supremely talented wideout, a huge contract and hope he handles it well, or simply hope that he signs his franchise tender, risking the absence of a player who had more than 1,100 receiving yards in each of the last two years?
The Chiefs spent two of their eight draft picks on receivers Devon Wylie and Junior Hemingway, possibly as a backup plan if things don’t work out with Bowe. Steve Breaston is a solid second receiver, and second-year wideout Jon Baldwin will need to show growth from a rookie season plagued with injuries and poor decision-making.
Cassel will work behind a line with two new faces: Winston and second-year center Rodney Hudson, who’s expected to take over for Casey Wiegmann.
If Cassel plays close to his 2010 form, the Chiefs should be able to return fire against a division that’s suddenly full of star power. It won’t hurt if Charles and Moeaki are healthy.
Crennel was giddy after the first round of the draft, when his team gambled and took nose tackle Dontari Poe with the No. 11 overall pick. Poe has a high ceiling but a low floor, and some fans booed the pick at a team-hosted draft party, simply because Poe was seen as a college underachiever who excelled at the NFL combine. Crennel is confident that Poe, a 346-pounder with uncanny quickness, will be a perfect fit in the center of his three-man front.
If Crennel’s vision comes true, the Chiefs will have a solid line that opens playmaking opportunities for a terrific group of linebackers. Outside backer Tamba Hali has emerged as one of the league’s best pass-rushers, and inside backer Derrick Johnson, strong against the run and the pass, made his first Pro Bowl last season. The team has high hopes for second-year pro Justin Houston. The former third-round pick was a liability against the run last year, and he’ll have to improve in that area in order to realize his potential.
The strong play from the linebacking corps helped mask the troubles at safety last season. Eric Berry, one of the game’s top young defensive backs, tore his ACL in Week 1. Berry is terrific against the run but will need to improve in coverage to become an elite safety. Brandon Flowers, a terrific cover corner, is back for his fifth year as a starter. He will joined by Stanford Routt, signed to a three-year contract in the offseason after spending seven years with the Raiders. Third-year free safety Kendrick Lewis rounds out what should be a strong secondary.
That leaves the defensive line, and Poe won’t be the only question. His neighbors, ends Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson, were both high draft picks who have yet to live up expectations. Jackson, the No. 3 overall pick in 2009, has shown a slow reaction time and an inability to absorb blockers. Dorsey has improved each year, if slightly, but at 6'1" and 297 pounds, he’s still an uncomfortable fit as a 3-4 end.
Crennel will continue coordinating the defense.
Kicker Ryan Succop will return in his role a season after making 24-of-30 field goals, including three from 50-plus yards. He’s strong, cool and reliable enough to someday join Jan Stenerud and Nick Lowery as the most accomplished kickers in team history. Dustin Colquitt will remain the Chiefs’ punter.
The Chiefs have plenty of options for kick returners, but none has scored a touchdown since McCluster reached the end zone in the 2010 regular-season opener. Javier Arenas is the team’s primary punt returner, and Breaston, Wylie and rookie safety DeQuan Menzie also could get chances in the return game. McCluster remains a big threat, but the team is hesitant to use him on special teams when he is needed to contribute on offense.
Final Analysis: 4th in the AFC West
The Chiefs have a favorable schedule and improved depth at key positions. The barometer for the 2012 season should be a winning record; anything better will be a bonus and anything less will be a disappointment. But with Kansas City’s top playmakers on both sides of the ball coming off season-ending injuries, the dark cloud of doubt hangs over this year’s club.
Related: 2012 Kansas City Chiefs Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
Berry Suspects Bounty
Safety Eric Berry, one of the team’s more talented and intense players, tweeted in March that he suspected the Buffalo Bills might have a bounty on him on the day Berry suffered a season-ending ACL tear on a low block from the Bills’ Stevie Johnson. After the Saints bounty scandal broke, Berry took to Twitter: “Sometimes I sit n wonder if they had a bounty out on me ... oh well ... who cares. Either way u can’t hold me down.” Berry later backed off his assertion, saying it was “pretty much a joke,” before encouraging others to watch video of the play and develop their own opinions.
Dexter McCluster, the Chiefs’ multipurpose player, spent his offseason making music and opening a sports bar in his native Florida. But his most important offseason goal was to improve his focus and cut down on fumbles, a continual problem in 2011. He said he re-evaluated how he finished the “last three inches” of each play, protecting the ball on his way to the turf.
Rookie offensive lineman Jeff Allen is expected to move to guard after playing tackle throughout his high school and college career. It’s the opposite move made by Chiefs left tackle Branden Albert, who played guard before arriving in Kansas City. Allen said he would lean on his former teammate at Illinois, Jon Asamoah, for advice through the transition. Asamoah is the Chiefs’ starting right guard.
Brian Daboll became the Chiefs’ sixth offensive coordinator in as many years when he joined the team during the offseason. Daboll replaces Bill Muir, whose unit ranked 27th in the NFL in total offense with 310.8 yards per game. The constant changes have been most difficult on Cassel, who hasn’t had the same coordinator in two consecutive seasons since becoming a starter in 2008, at the time for the Patriots. The good thing for Cassel, though, is that Daboll was a Patriots assistant in the quarterback’s first two seasons.
Not A Spy
Running back Peyton Hillis, who signed a free agent deal with the Chiefs, has said a report that he considered retirement to pursue a job with the CIA was false — and meant to devalue his market price. Hillis, who rushed for 1,177 yards in 2010, is eager to bounce back after a tumultuous final season with the Browns. He rushed for only 587 yards in 10 games last season.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Wed., Aug. 1
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Related: 2012 Kansas City Chiefs Schedule Analysis