32 to 1: Chiefs need Alex Smith to be that steady hand again

The Chiefs went from a 2-14 catastrophe in 2012 to an 11-5 Super Bowl contender in 2013. Kansas City reached the playoffs and led 38-10 in the second half of its wild-card game in Indianapolis but somehow lost the franchise’s eighth straight playoff contest in heartbreaking fashion, 45-44.

Kansas City won’t be sneaking up on anybody in 2014, and all eyes will be focused on quarterback Alex Smith. Entering a contract year, Smith is coming off his best season as a pro. The perfect fit for Andy Reid’s West Coast offense, Smith in 2013 completed the most passes, threw for the most yards and tossed the most touchdown passes of his 10-year NFL career.

GM John Dorsey pressed all the right buttons last offseason, but several key veterans departed via free agency this year. Tyson Jackson, Branden Albert, Jon Asamoah, Geoff Schwartz and Akeem Jordan will be playing elsewhere in 2014. Releasing Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers was a salary cap maneuver that hopefully won’t come back to burn the Chiefs when he suits up for the rival Chargers. Albert’s departure opens the door for 2013 No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher to move to Smith’s blind side and play left tackle. Fisher started 13 games at right tackle last season but struggled immensely at times before missing the playoff game with an assortment of injuries. 

End Tamba Hali and linebackers Derrick Johnson and Justin Houston are three of the NFL’s best defensive players. Dontari Poe, the team’s third-year defensive tackle, is primed for a breakout season. Rookie linebacker Dee Ford had a big senior year at Auburn and could be a player right from the get-go. Eric Berry continues to be one of the more disruptive safeties in the game. 

On offense, running back Jamaal Charles is the explosive player opponents lose sleep over, and Dwayne Bowe is the big No. 1 wideout. But there are questions as to who else will keep defenses on their toes in 2014. Is Donnie Avery that guy? Can A.J. Jenkins finally realize his potential? After Charles and Bowe, there aren’t many go-to options on the offense, which makes Smith’s role all the more important. 

If the defense can play similarly to the way it did in 2013 and Smith can even come close to being the player he was a season ago, the Chiefs will again be competitive in a strong AFC West. If things go south for the quarterback, it could cost him more than just a return trip to the playoffs. It could cost him big money, too.