Offseason Report Card: Chiefs
With the flurry of NFL offseason action nearly in the books, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar take stock of every team’s offseason. Find all our Offseason Report Cards here.
Though it ended badly, the Kansas City Chiefs' 2013 season was, unquestionably, an unqualified success. From 2-14 in 2012, they became the first team in any major professional sport to finish with the worst record in the league one year and then win their first nine games the next. Though a great deal of credit was justifiably given to new head coach Andy Reid and new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, the 2012 Chiefs had enough talent to be far better than their record indicated. But an 11-5 record one season after such a fallout? It was one of the most intriguing reversals of fortune in NFL history.
The questions for the 2014 Chiefs: Can they do it again, and which team are they really? That 9-0 group, or the squad that struggled down the stretch, winning just two of its last eight games, including a heartbreaking wild-card playoff loss to the Colts. Kansas City had a 38-10 lead in the third quarter before everything fell apart and the Colts flew back to a 45-44 win. It would appear that the Chiefs are capable of tremendously impressive starts, but the finishes are a bit tougher.
Many say that it's easier to jump from failure to some success than it is to move from the middle to the top of any profession, and that's what the Chiefs face now. They have a lot of talent, but a lack of true breakout players at some key positions (quarterback, wide receiver), and it's the quarterback position that is the most interesting at this point. After one season in K.C., Alex Smith has decreed that he wants the kind of money expected by truly elite quarterbacks, but Smith has never proven to be so. Reid and general manager John Dorsey didn't do much to improve the receiver group in the offseason, though former Oregon waterbug De'Anthony Thomas could make a difference in certain packages. And first-round pick Dee Ford will hopefully help a pass rush that trended down when linebacker Justin Houston got hurt late in the season. Houston's injury lined up with Kansas City's losses, and that was no coincidence.
The Chiefs are now in the pack of potential playoff teams; few would have expected that at the start of the 2013 season. But now, more is expected.
Best acquisition: Vance Walker, DL.
The Chiefs gave up on former first-round pick Tyson Jackson, letting him walk in free agency and probably watching with some incredulity when the Falcons signed him to a five-year, $25 million deal. Jackson became a decent run-stopping end, but far from the player Kansas City had hoped. To replace him at left end in their base 3-4, the Chiefs signed Walker to a three-year, $13 million deal. Walker had played tackle in four-man fronts for the Falcons and Raiders, but he has the ability to deal with the run and rush the passer in Sutton's multiple fronts and frequent sub packages. The Chiefs didn't do a lot in free agency, but this was a quality, underrated move -- it's always good when you get a similar or better player for a far lower price.
Biggest loss: Branden Albert, OT.
Actually, you could call this a three-pronged hit, since the Chiefs lost guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah in free agency, and Schwartz was particularly good. They acquired Jeff Linkenbach, the former Colts interior lineman, to be in the mix there, but if it's Eric Fisher who will replace Albert at the left tackle position, Kansas City could be in a bit of trouble. The first overall pick in the 2013 draft, Fisher struggled mightily as he moved from his status as Central Michigan's most dominant player to a kid who looked completely overmatched at times against the NFL's best pass rushers. Fisher allowed seven sacks to Albert's four, and 35 quarterback hurries to Albert's 13 -- and now, he'd be facing primary edge rushers more often. And, recoveries from shoulder and sports hernia operations have kept Fisher from gaining a familiarity with his new environs. Albert wasn't the league's best left tackle, but he provided a level of security that's not in the picture now.
Underrated draft pick: De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR/KR, Oregon.
In Oregon's offense and special teams, "Black Mamba" became the most electrifying player in the NCAA, averaging 12 yards every time he touched the ball, in a number of different roles. He undoubtedly fell to the fourth round because NFL teams are concerned about his size (5-foot-9, 174), injury history and lack of a defined position. But as Chiefs running backs coach Eric Bieniemy recently inferred, any creative coach is going to find a way to get Thomas' talents on the field.
"I thought he did a great job," Bieniemy said of Thomas' exploits in the team's rookie minicamp. "I'll tell you one thing, he blew our socks off. He was in great shape, he did an outstanding job of catching the ball and he did an outstanding job of running the ball. It was fun watching him work. I've seen him since high school so I know what he can do. It was just exciting having the opportunity to see him up close and in person."
The Chiefs never really hit it big with Dexter McCluster, who was expected to be a table-setter for explosive plays. The franchise's new regime hopes that Thomas can be what McCluster never was. It's even hypothetically possible (though not probable) that Thomas, who played cornerback and safety at Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, could see some reps as a slot corner.
Looming question for training camp: Can Alex Smith become what he thinks he is?
The biggest question for Kansas City during training camp may actually be whether Fisher can make the jump to left tackle, but we've already covered that. In a larger sense, the truth (or not) of Smith's contention that he can elevate himself to a different stratosphere could be the difference between the Chiefs hitting a new level, or staying put in the standings and the playoffs. This will be Smith's second year in Reid's system, and it's a system that has pushed a lot of fairly average quarterbacks past their perceived limitations. Smith has the one year left on his current contract to prove that he won't be the player he's always been -- the one who's balky under pressure, fails to take productive shots on deep throws and generally can't raise the play of those around him. If Smith can make some special gains, he and the Chiefs could cash in. If not, you could see this team looking hard at a quarterback in the first round of the 2015 draft.[si_video id="video_70B24548-687D-8887-8120-878E4AB27972" height="470"]