The 2011 Kansas City Chiefs were full of surprises—some good, some bad.
Yet given all the disappointments—key injuries to Tony Moeaki, Eric Berry, Jamaal Charles and Matt Cassel, early season turnover woes and the firing of head coach Todd Haley—the Chiefs have much to look forward to in 2012.
While the Chiefs have a solid core in place, there are a few pressing needs that general manager Scott Pioli will have to address in April's draft.
Jamaal Charles is expected back in 2012, but the yin to his yang in the Chiefs backfield has yet to be determined.
Thomas Jones and Jackie Battle shared carries in Charles' absence last season, but both are free agents.
Jones will be 34 next season and is coming off the third straight year in which his carries, rushing yards and touchdowns declined.
Battle rushed for 597 tough yards last season, showing glimpses of the bruising back the Chiefs need him to be. Most importantly, he didn't fumbled once on 149 carries.
GM Scott Pioli might be tempted to draft Alabama running back Trent Richardson with the 11th pick (or 12th, pending coin flip with the Seattle Seahawks) in the first round. The Chiefs have bigger needs, however. Re-signing Battle is probably the best way to go.
Scott Pioli has done a good job of locking up the Chiefs' core group to long-term contracts, with only two exceptions: Dwayne Bowe and Brandon Carr. Perhaps this means Pioli doesn't view them as key pieces to the core group. Or maybe he's just unwilling to spend his mountain of available money on these two guys. Who knows?
Bowe is essential to the Chiefs' success on offense. Despite the Chiefs' 2011 quarterback carousel, Bowe caught 81 passes for 1,159 yards. The 27-year-old ranks as the third-best available receiver according to the Pro Football Focus 2012 NFL Free Agent Tracker.
Carr is part of one of the best cornerback tandems, if not the best, in the NFL. He and Brandon Flowers were responsible for the Chiefs ranking as the sixth-best pass defense in 2011. According to the Pro Football Focus 2012 NFL Free Agent Tracker, Carr is the ninth-ranked available player at his position.
Judging by Pioli's history in New England, I don't see him handing out a fat contract to a wide receiver. What's more likely, I think, is the Chiefs will re-sign the 25-year-old Carr long-term and slap the franchise tag on Bowe.
Scott Pioli will make a (perhaps) career-defining decision this offseason at quarterback. The good news is, he has options. The Chiefs can stick with Matt Cassel (career 28-26 as starter), re-sign Kyle Orton (35-34), give 2011 fifth-round pick Ricky Stanzi a chance or draft a young signal-caller.
All signs point to Cassel returning as the starter. He and Pioli have strong ties, and new head coach Romeo Crennel recently supported him at his introductory press conference:
"Matt Cassel has won here. We've been to a playoff with Matt Cassel. I don't think that Matt Cassel has fallen off the wagon overnight. I think he's a good talent. He's a good quarterback and he's taken us to a playoff. So I anticipate that he can do it again."
He's right. Cassel won 10 games in 2010, and four more in nine tries last season despite team-demoralizing injuries. The 2011 squad was better than the 2010 division-winning team; it just didn't show in the win-loss columns. Given a clean bill of health from the Chiefs' core players (including himself), Cassel can take this team to the playoffs once again.
Is he a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback? Probably not. But given the team's strengths—running the ball and playing defense—he doesn't have to be.
It's proven true every season, and this one is no different: Anything can happen in a one-game playoff. The Chiefs just have to get there. And Cassel has proven he can do just that.
The Chiefs ranked 26th in rush defense last season. Not good. The key to improving that mark? A run-stuffing nose tackle.
Romeo Crennel installed a 3-4 defense when he arrived in Kansas City prior to the 2010 season, but Pioli has yet to find a long-term solution at nose tackle to anchor the defensive line. The 35-year-old Kelly Gregg was good—but not great—at the position in 2011, but is a free agent and not expected back.
Brodrick Bunkley, Sione Pouha and Derek Landri are the top-ranked defensive tackles on the free-agent market. Given Pioli's "build through the draft" mentality, however, I wouldn't expect him to sign any of these guys.
Jerrell Powe (sixth-round pick in 2011) is an option as well, though he was only active for one game last season.
I expect the Chiefs to target a nose tackle early in the 2012 draft.
The Chiefs offensive line was pretty good in 2011. They allowed just 34 sacks, ranking in the middle of the pack. The rushing attack averaged 118 yards per game, good for 15th best.
The left side of the Chiefs line is set: Branden Albert and Ryan Lilja. Assuming the 38-year-old Casey Wiegmann retires, Rodney Hudson (second-round pick in 2011) is expected to start at center. First-year starter Jon Asamoah showed improvement in 2011, and is under contract through 2013. He's expected back at right guard.
And then there's Barry Richardson.
According to the Pro Football Focus 2012 NFL Free Agent Tracker, Richardson is the worst-ranked player—not tackle, but worst-ranked player—on the market. And it's not even close.
Translation: He won't be back in Kansas City.
Right tackle is the No. 1 need for the Chiefs this offseason, and I expect them to address it in the first round of the NFL draft. Iowa's Riley Reiff and Stanford's Jonathan Martin are both legitimate options if they fall to the Chiefs.