Kansas City Chiefs 2014 preview: As long as Jamaal Charles is around, anything is possible
JUL 16, 2014 8:38p ET
With football season around the corner, FOXSports.com is providing a thorough analysis of all 32 teams heading into training camp. The offseason may have lacked some hard-hitting action, but franchise-altering moves have been made. Parity is excessive as ever. Every team looks great on paper in July. But it's the development and seasoning of a team that will matter in January and, yes ... even February. Goodbye, offseason!
The series continues with the Kansas City Chiefs.
2013: 11-5, second place in AFC West, lost in AFC wild-card round, 45-44, at Indianapolis
Head coach: Andy Reid, second season with Chiefs (11-5 in Kansas City; 141-98-1 overall)
Key departures: OT Branden Albert, G Jon Asamoah, KR/DB Quintin Demps, DE Tyson Jackson, FS Kendrick Lewis, WR/KR Dexter McCluster, DT Jerrell Powe, OL Geoff Schwartz
Key arrivals: WR Weston Dressler, rookie OLB Dee Ford, OL Jeff Linkenbach, ILB Joe Mays, CB Chris Owens, rookie RB De'Anthony Thomas, DL Vance Walker.
1. How can a team cut a Pro Bowl cornerback, its most veteran nickel back and a starting free safety, play in a division that includes two games annually with Peyton Manning and two games with Philip Rivers, and contend with a straight face?
The short answer is that the defensive backs noted above -- the Pro Bowler (Brandon Flowers), the veteran (Dunta Robinson), the free safety (Kendrick Lewis) -- were either not good (Lewis), not a good fit (in Flowers' case), or both (Robinson) last fall. Flowers got moved inside as a nickel corner and Robinson wound up buried on the depth chart awfully quickly.
In hindsight, whacking Flowers was as much a salary dump (he was slated to make $5.25 million this fall) as it was a scheme fit, given his lack of size (5-foot-9) and burst that defensive coordinator Bob Sutton likes his corners to have in the Chiefs' aggressive, blitz-happy, bump-and-run scheme.
Sean Smith (6-3), Marcus Cooper (6-2), Ron Parker (6 feet) and rookie Phillip Gaines (6 feet) are tall enough to battle in the air with perimeter targets and quick enough to run, stride for stride, with most of the wideouts on the dance card. Newbie Chris Owens (5-9) doesn't fit the size profile, but he ticks the "quick" and "physical" boxes.
In the spring, the Chiefs alternated safety Eric Berry between a familiar spot close to the line of scrimmage and more of a center-field role at the back of the secondary. As to who he will actually open the season with partnering across the middle, veteran Husain Abdullah seems the most likely candidate. In his first season with the Chiefs after taking a year off (2012) from football, the former Minnesota Vikings and Washington State standout was credited with 44 tackles, four pass break-ups and a pick-six, and intercepted Andrew Luck twice during Kansas City's ill-fated wild-card collapse at Indianapolis in January. Second-year defensive back Sanders Commings was shelved early in the 2013 preseason with a broken collarbone but flashed a nice set of wheels during OTAs and minicamp. If healthy, he's in the mix, too.
Still, the 10 cornerbacks left on the Chiefs' roster have on their collective resumes 105 NFL starts. And take out veteran Smith -- who opens training camp in Andy Reid's doghouse for his role in a June drunk-driving incident -- and the average is 3.78 career NFL starts per corner.
That's officially a gamble. Or a metric ton of faith.
2. Who gets the long-term contract extension they've been looking for? OLB Justin Houston or QB Alex Smith?
In a perfect world, both. If it's only one of the two, it's probably Houston -- he's younger (25), and in what should be the prime of his career as a pass rusher for at least the next three seasons or so, barring anything crazy.
He's cheaper, too, potentially -- the franchise tag number for linebackers in 2014 is $11.455 million; $13.116 million for defensive ends; and $16.912 million for quarterbacks. Based on Pro-Football-Reference.com's approximate value statistic (AV) -- which attempts to do for pro football what wins above replacement (WAR) does for baseball, judging players by one number across all position groups -- Houston has been worth 19 AV points over his last 27 games. Smith? Twenty 20 AV points over his last 25 contests.
The Chiefs aren't exactly in salary cap hell, but they can smell the bacon burning. According to OverTheCap.com, as of Wednesday afternoon, Kansas City was an estimated $10.096 million under the cap. With a number of $1.598 million, there's no question that Houston has been grossly underpaid, given his production.
With Smith (2014 cap number: $8 million), well, that debate gets a little trickier.
Other than the aforementioned Manning, the most hated opposition signal-caller in Kansas City right now isn't in the AFC West at all, or even the AFC -- it's Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler, and that whopping $126 million, seven-year extension the Bears handed him in January.
Cutler's average AV over his last two healthy seasons ('10 and '12): 11.5. Smith's AV for '11 and '13: 12.5. Cutler's record as a starter since 2011: 22-14. Smith's record over that same window: 30-9-1. As has been pointed out by pundits -- Cincinnati is wrestling with the same issue with Andy Dalton at the moment -- there seems to be no market, no comfortable salary slot for a so-called "second-tier" or "pretty good" quarterback. And it's hard to imagine Smith or his camp backing down enough to make themselves the first ones in the club.
3. Is there a second wideout -- a viable second wideout -- in the house?
The cynical answer would be yes -- it's Dwayne Bowe.
Among the 94 receivers tracked by ProFootballFocus.com who received at least 25 percent of their team's targets, Bowe ranked 77th in terms of "lowest drop rate" of catchable balls (12.31 percent); teammate Donnie Avery was tied for 67th at 11.11 percent. Oy vey.
Perhaps sensing that his career has hit a crossroads, Bowe -- who turns 30 on Sept. 21 -- said he came to spring OTAs in the best shape of his young life, and hired a nutritionist, the works, in an effort to become more explosive. After a season that saw his catches slip to 57 and his receiving yards slip to 673, the Chiefs would settle for something simply more reliable.
Avery was a crossing-route king last fall, but failed to make much impact in the vertical game, either because of Smith, a lack of separation, or some combination of the two. Reid and Dorsey have professed faith in former first-round pick A.J. Jenkins, who was acquired from San Francisco for Jonathan Baldwin last summer in a swap of disappointing young receivers, but the name to keep an eye on might be Junior Hemingway, who in the last 18 months has climbed from the bottom of the depth chart to a potential starter in the third receiver/slot position vacated by Dexter McCluster.
Rookie De'Anthony Thomas missed most of the spring practice sessions because of NFL rules and Oregon's quarter system, but Reid's no fool -- he wants to get the explosive former Pac-12 burner in space and in favorable one-on-one situations to take advantage of his straight-line speed.
OLB Dee Ford
When you've been compared, unsolicited, to Von Miller, you've got something interesting going on.
When you've been compared to Derrick Thomas, that something has a chance to be awfully special.
Those were the names tossed around by players and observers once they got an up-close look at Ford, the Chiefs' first-round pick out of Auburn. While undersized (6-2, 243), the former Tiger has a cat-quick first step and a nose for pass-rushing angles.
Whether playing with his hand up or down, the Alabama native has the potential to make an impact right away coming off the edge. As he converts from a 4-3 SEC end to a 3-4 outside linebacker, the Chiefs also had Ford work at dropping back, and he responded by picking off a ball during one of the first practices of his first rookie minicamp.
"If anybody reminds you of Derrick Thomas, that kid should pretty much remind you of Derrick Thomas' first step," Tamba Hali told reporters earlier this spring. "He gets off the ball so fast, it's scary ... it's almost like as soon as the ball snaps, he's with it. I don't know if he times it, but his first step is incredible."
In the pass-happy AFC West, speed kills. And Ford has it in about six gears to work with. At least.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Jamaal Charles is the best tailback in the AFC, if not the game, right now. And Reid knows it.
Everybody on the other sideline knows it, too. And they still can't stop him. And they tried. For all of the defense's regression after Halloween, No. 25 only got better as the season went along, running for 4.13 yards per carry in September and bumping that number up to 6.02 in November.
If you get coach and quarterback right in the NFL, you can paper over a lot of other holes on the roster -- although, as the New York Giants proved last fall, if those holes are on the offensive line, all bets are off. Reid played it close to the vest for most of the first half of the season as the Chiefs let their defense and special teams do the heavy lifting during a 9-0 start.
But there's reasonable cause to believe, health permitting, that an offense that put up 34.6 points and 387 yards of offense per contest over the last seven tilts of last season -- with most of the same skill pieces back and Thomas threatening to set up as a faster version of the departed McCluster -- will pick up largely where it left off in January. And assuming Houston, who held out during the spring, returns to the fold, the Chiefs again have all the ingredients for a top-10 pass rush.
REASON FOR PANIC
Pick one. The schedule, the league's seventh-toughest, which features a joyride through the NFC West, plus Tom Brady and a visit to Pittsburgh in December; the new-look offensive line, which is a wing; the secondary, which, Berry aside, is something of a prayer.
And one factor that doesn't get talked about nearly enough was how dang healthy the Chiefs were last season compared to the previous two -- whether that was by luck or design, the injury bug is often one of those freaky things that can be hard to sustain, year to year.
Most of the big moves general manager John Dorsey has made since coming on board have targeted long-term, sustained competitiveness -- after all, Manning won't be doing his magic act in Denver forever. But with all the free-agent departures and the contract uncertainty of Houston and Alex Smith, that's left 2014 as something of a "limbo" year.
Since 1960, any NFL or AFL club that's made a nine-win jump or better from one year to the next has fallen off, on average, by approximately three wins the season after that. Last year's Colts were an exception to that trend, of course, and the foundation of the Chiefs' roster is probably better than it was under the Scott Pioli rebuilding attempts of four years earlier.
Having whiffed on "The Patriots Way," the Chiefs are melding Reid's program/philosophies from the Eagles -- regardless of how that chapter ended, you don't last 14 seasons in Philly unless you're doing more things right than wrong -- with what Dorsey gleaned from his decade-plus with the Green Bay Packers. The coaching staff is large and diverse, with warhorses such as Brad Childress and collegiate innovators such as former Nevada coach Chris Ault included as part of Reid's braintrust.
The long-term future seems bright, but it won't come without some growing pains first. Unless some of Dorsey and Reid's young options develop early and effectively, across the board, this fall may not set up as a "rebuilding" year -- but it might just wind up turning into a "transitional" one.
ALEX MARVEZ'S 2014 PREDICTION
The Chiefs were the NFL's biggest overachievers in 2013, posting a nine-win improvement from the previous year to reach the playoffs with an 11-5 record. Signs point toward Kansas City falling back to earth this season. The Chiefs suffered more losses than gains in free agency and didn't address the need to add more play-making targets to complement AFC rushing leader Jamaal Charles. The recent release of cornerback Brandon Flowers also weakens a secondary that surrendered 726 yards and six touchdown passes to Peyton Manning in two 2013 losses to Denver. Prediction: 7-9.