The Chiefs turned the page yet again after another miserable season, this time parting ways with general manager Scott Pioli and coach Romeo Crennel after yet another unsuccessful regime in Kansas City.
Now for the good news: The Chiefs landed perhaps the hottest free agent entering 2013, former Eagles coach Andy Reid. John Dorsey, a former Packers executive, joined him as GM, and they’ll try to bring stability — to say nothing of the first playoff win since January 1994 — to a franchise that has lacked it for years.
They began the latest rebuild immediately, trading for quarterback Alex Smith and releasing Matt Cassel after four mostly forgettable seasons. They quickly signed star wide receiver Dwayne Bowe to a long-term contract, and then drafted offensive tackle Eric Fisher first overall.
Despite a 2–14 record in 2012, there is talent in Kansas City. The Chiefs did, after all, have six Pro Bowlers, including star running back Jamaal Charles. With a kind of luck that has been rare around these parts, a fast turnaround is possible.
Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 9th
Smith will be the key to Reid’s success timeline. The veteran quarterback is limited, as Cassel was, but he will bring an efficiency that hasn’t been present since Trent Green was starting. Reid will be judged on how quickly Smith adjusts and proves he can succeed without the eye of Jim Harbaugh, his coach in San Francisco.
The Chiefs spent much of the offseason building around their quarterback, and although that strategy is nothing new in Kansas City, it at least looks promising. Extending Bowe was a no-brainer and should’ve been done last year. Drafting Knile Davis to help ease the burden on running back Charles — and he was burdened often in 2012 by Crennel — was a smart move. Charles remains the Chiefs’ most explosive player. The question this season will be how his body will respond to having 285 carries last season, 55 more than his previous career high. At 26, he’s still young, but with an ACL surgery in 2011 and a continual pounding last season, one of the more interesting storylines will be how Charles holds up — and how Reid’s staff uses its best big-play threat, in the backfield and in the passing game.
This point was reinforced when Charles went down during training camp with what turned out to be a foot sprain. Although the injury isn't expected to impact his Week 1 availability, it's even more critical now for either Davis or Shaun Draughn or someone on the roster to emerge as a reliable second backfield option.
The Chiefs also made several moves in an effort to upgrade their offensive depth, including adding wide receiver Donnie Avery and veteran tight end Anthony Fasano during the offseason. The team also traded Jon Baldwin to San Francisco for A.J. Jenkins during training camp in an exchange of recent first-round wide receivers (Baldwin in 2011, Jenkins in ’12) that have yet to accomplish anything on the field.
But perhaps most important, the team also created a mess for itself at left tackle this offseason. Branden Albert, the starter since 2008 and the team’s franchise player, publicly said he wouldn’t move to another position. Regardless, the Chiefs drafted Fisher at No. 1 and now have two left tackles. Although the team will try to trade Albert, the best bet is that Fisher will start at right tackle as he adds weight — he’s listed at 6'8" and 305 pounds — and adjusts to the NFL grind. After that, the Chiefs can decide whether to part ways with Albert or sign the veteran and keep Fisher on the right side, though the top pick is a massive price for a right tackle.
The team’s interior line is solid, but with no projected starter with more than three years experience, a veteran presence is lacking. And that could make life difficult for Smith and Charles — and, by extension, Reid, who will be granted only limited patience by a Chiefs fan base scorned before by big names who won elsewhere but couldn’t bring success to Kansas City.
The defense will either be the heartbeat of a surprise team or the reason the Chiefs again struggle in the AFC West. The team’s linebackers are among the NFL’s best, but a defensive line whose best player is the underwhelming Tyson Jackson? That’s a situation no coach or coordinator wants to be in, but it’s one the Chiefs are faced with.
Outside linebacker Justin Houston showed last year that he could be one of the AFC’s better pass-rushers and a complement to Tamba Hali, a team leader and an elite rusher. Derrick Johnson has emerged as one of the league’s best all-around inside linebackers, and he’ll be asked this season to mentor rookie Nico Johnson, who played for Nick Saban at Alabama.
If this sounds promising, it should, but that line is still a question. The Chiefs were unable to upgrade the position during free agency or the draft, and it’ll depend on three questionable draft picks — including two first-rounders — from the previous regime to see them through this season. Jackson is only a serviceable player, and the departure of Glenn Dorsey should elevate Allen Bailey, who has been only a situational player, into the starting lineup. Last year’s top pick, nose tackle Dontari Poe, was a pleasant surprise despite a poor draft-night grade, and the Chiefs need him to continue making progress. Still, the line is the shallowest position on a team that has, for years, tried to make improvements along its defensive front. Yet again, this will likely be the team’s top priority during the 2014 offseason.
Confidence in the Chiefs’ secondary falls somewhere between the linebackers and linemen. There’s talent, but there was so much movement during the offseason that it’s difficult to know how well the defensive backs will jell. Strong safety Eric Berry is a promising defender entering his fourth season, and cornerback Brandon Flowers is one of the league’s most complete corners. But cornerbacks Dunta Robinson and Sean Smith, brought in as free agents, are imperfect. Reid has indicated that rookie Sanders Commings could start at free safety, pushing aside the talented but injury-prone Kendrick Lewis.
Dustin Colquitt has a new contract as the league’s highest-paid punter, and kicker Ryan Succop has the talent to become one of the best at his position.
The Chiefs will take their chances at kick returner with Draughn and Dexter McCluster, who has big-play capability but problems with fumbles. The team traded Javier Arenas, its punt returner the past three seasons, to Arizona and will either let McCluster and Draughn handle both jobs or try a new face in a return game that has improved little.
Final Analysis: 2nd in AFC West
Reid has made no promises of a playoff appearance, and that’s the smart play for a team with plenty of holes — but also plenty of potential. If the Chiefs are somehow in contention, it’ll mean Smith has adapted quickly to Reid’s offensive scheme, the defensive line has played better than the roster suggests it will, and the secondary and offensive line have quickly found chemistry and comfort. That’s a tall order.
More likely is another year of growing pains but with some noticeable progress. Eight wins may be the barometer, which, after 2012, seems just fine. Bowe, Hali, Johnson and Charles aren’t getting any younger, but if Reid and Dorsey continue the smart, methodical approach they’ve leaned on so far, brighter days are ahead for this suffering franchise and fan base.
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2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:
New England (8/30)
NY Giants (8/30)
St. Louis (8/23)
Green Bay (8/29)
New Orleans (8/26)
San Francisco (9/3)