Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, bottom, is tackled by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford (55) during the second half of an NFL football game in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)
Ed Zurga
December 18, 2014

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) John Dorsey likes to say that it takes several years before a verdict can be returned on a draft pick. There is a learning curve for rookies, often a steep one. The pro game is faster, players are stronger and the plays more complex.

If that's the case, the first two draft classes of the Chiefs' general manager - panned so often by fans and pundits - may actually be right on track.

First-round pick Dee Ford played nearly half of the snaps in Sunday's win over Oakland, a vast improvement over early in the season, when the linebacker barely got on the field.

Third-round pick Phillip Gaines is now starting at cornerback. Fourth-round pick De'Anthony Thomas returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown against the Raiders. Sixth-round pick Zach Fulton has been starting at guard. Kicker Cairo Santos and wide receiver Albert Wilson, a pair of undrafted rookies, have become key components of the Chiefs' playoff run.

''That's a tribute to John,'' coach Andy Reid said. ''We're sitting here later in the year and all of a sudden you are seeing these guys, the Albert Wilsons of the team, produce. Fulton has continued to mature. Dee Ford, you saw him out there, the last two weeks he's had a lot of snaps.''

Important snaps, too. The Chiefs (8-6) have been teetering on the edge of postseason elimination, and remain on shaky ground heading to Pittsburgh - another playoff contender - for Sunday's game.

Dorsey brought his draft philosophy with him from Green Bay, where he learned on the knee of longtime GMs Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson. The basic principal is to draft the best player on the board regardless of position or need, which is easy to say but difficult to do.

It worked most clearly when the Packers chose Aaron Rodgers in the first round despite having Brett Favre at quarterback. Fast forward a few years and, while other teams scramble to address their quarterback situation, the transition from Favre to Rodgers was almost seamless.

In Kansas City, the idea may be working out in similar fashion.

The Chiefs were seemingly set at outside linebacker with Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, but chose Ford this year anyway, despite pressing needs elsewhere. Now, if Ford is able to push for more playing time, it might make Hali and his albatross of a contract expendable. And that would give the franchise the flexibility to address other holes, such as signing Houston to a long-term deal.

All of that lies in the future, though. Right now, the Chiefs are focused solely on the present, and that means trying to squeak into the playoffs. And the production of the last two draft classes will promise to be just as important in that endeavor.

Left tackle Eric Fisher, the Chiefs' first-round pick a year ago, will need to be able to pry open holes for running backs Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis while protecting quarterback Alex Smith.

Davis, a third-round pick, has had to carry more of the burden in recent weeks with Charles banged up. He ran for a touchdown and caught a touchdown pass in last week's win over the Raiders.

Then there's tight end Travis Kelce, another third-round pick. On a team that does not have a wide receiver that has caught a touchdown pass this season, Kelce has filled the void. He has a team-leading 56 catches for 747 yards and five touchdowns - and a penchant for early celebrations.

''You've just got to go out there and make sure you are playing within the fundamentals,'' he said, ''and the techniques of the game and not getting too high or too low.''

Thomas, who has played more on offense lately, said after springing his punt return for a touchdown last week that the game is slowing down. Everything is coming into focus. And that could go for all the first- and second-year players who are being asked to perform.

''I've been learning. I've been learning the whole season. It's to the point where I'm starting to get a feel of it,'' he said. ''I want to go out there, make plays and get our team going.''

NOTES: WR Dwayne Bowe and DT Jaye Howard missed practice Thursday with an illness. Hali was out with a bothersome knee that limited him in practice the previous day.

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