Kansas City Chiefs' 7 Weakest Links Among Projected Starters
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Bold words about a team whose last playoff victory was so long ago that Will Smith was still the Fresh Prince? Perhaps, but few could refute Kansas City’s successful efforts to fill the gaps on their roster.
The Chiefs augmented their running game with Peyton Hillis and bought some insurance at tight end with Kevin Boss. Stanford Routt replaces Kansas City’s biggest free-agent loss and Eric Winston plugs an offensive line hole that would sink an aircraft carrier.
Kansas City did much the same in the NFL Draft. They solved their offensive line depth with Donald Stephenson and Jeff Allen. And while some people (myself included) question the wisdom in valuing potential over production, Dontari Poe is a physical freak of nature who completes a defensive line of immense (though underperforming) talent.
But no team enters the season truly set at every position, and the Chiefs are no exception.
For every certain standout on the roster, Kansas City will field a player with question marks on whether they will be another reliable cog in the machine or a weakness to be exploited.
Chiefs fans can take heart this season, though. Each of these seven starting “weakest links” has a mitigating factor, a reason their shortcomings shouldn’t hold Kansas City back from returning to the playoffs and perennial prominence.
Inside Linebacker Jovan Belcher
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Jovan Belcher took a lot of flak as the odd man out at linebacker prior to this year’s NFL Draft.
With Pro Bowlers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali filling two starting positions and rookie standout Justin Houston occupying the third, former undrafted free-agent Jovan Belcher looks like the poor relation.
That assessment isn’t entirely inaccurate. Johnson and Hali both had their best seasons last year, and if Houston continues to develop the Chiefs could realistically send three linebackers to the Pro Bowl in 2012.
It’s for that reason alone that Belcher appears on this list.
Belcher plays as a gap-rushing, run-stopping linebacker and is pretty good at what he does. He can disappear at times on the field (much like he did at the start of last season), but when he’s on, he excels as role player in Romeo Crennel’s defense.
Certainly a player like Luke Kuechly, who many pundits mocked going to the Chiefs, would bring a serious upgrade to Kansas City’s defense. But anyone playing opposite Derrick Johnson would see action only in the Chiefs’ base defense; that athleticism would be wasted on the bench when Crennel fields his sub packages.
That makes Belcher that much more valuable, as strange as it may sound. Kansas City keeps a player who knows his job and does it well without breaking the bank for more than what they need.
Left Guard Ryan Lilja
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Jovan Belcher isn’t the only player dealing with unfair expectations on the Chiefs’ roster.
Brian Waters dominated opponents for more than a decade on Kansas City’s interior line. A six-time All-Pro and two-time All-Pro, Waters helped clear the way for Priest Holmes and Jamaal Charles as they chased rushing titles and NFL records. After he retires, Waters will get serious consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
If that wasn’t a big enough of a shadow already, the league also named Waters their 2009 NFL Man of the Year for his excellence on and off the field.
That’s quite a lot to measure up to; just ask Ryan Lilja.
Lilja also entered the league as an undrafted free agent. Initially intended for Kansas City’s practice squad, the Indianapolis Colts picked up Lilja off waivers and started him for six years including their 2006 championship season.
But neither a Super Bowl ring nor his status as a local boy could compensate for Waters’ production. The Chiefs led the league in rushing two years ago. Most of Kansas City’s long runs came of the left side, which contributed to Jamaal Charles coming literally one bad run shy of breaking Jim Brown’s record for most yards per carry in a season.
The same can’t be said of the Chiefs last year. Granted, the Chiefs lost Charles for the year in Week 2 and Thomas Jones lost a step as he ventured further into his 30s. But that left side didn't appear nearly as stout with Lilja in 2011 as it did with Waters in 2010.
Lilja's nearing the end of his contract with Kansas City and is one of the players who could be on their way out the door next season. The Chiefs drafted Jeff Allen in the second round; he'll provide serious competition to start at left guard.
Ideally, Lilja will stay on and push Allen for playing time. Add in Jon Asamoah and you have three potential starters for two guard positions. This would allow a healthy rotation to keep players fresh.
Whether or not Lilja would be content with a diminished role is an entirely different question.
Cornerback Stanford Routt
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Maybe it's not fair to peg someone recently signed by the team as a "weak link" already.
But comparing Stanford Routt's career to Brandon Carr's, at least in terms of production, the Chiefs pulled the short straw when they replaced Carr with the former Oakland Raider.
Both players posted near-identical numbers in 2011: 15 passes defensed, four interceptions and 40-plus tackles. However, Carr holds the advantage in two very important categories.
First, he's three years younger. Carr should just be coming into his own at 26. Routt, meanwhile, will turn 29 this season and might not have much more room to improve.
Second, Routt comes with a reputation for penalties. He led the league last year with 17 accepted penalties and drew 12 flags the year before.
Routt came under increased pressure after Nnamdi Asomugha left Oakland for the Philadelphia Eagles, which likely contributed to last year's jump in infractions. However, the problem with drawing penalties is that the more flags you get, the more likely referees are going to throw one again.
Routt's number of penalties should go down playing opposite Flowers, but it doesn't change the fact that his past will likely put him on the officiating crew's radar. That doesn't exactly work in Kansas City's favor.
But neither did Carr's price tag, as he signed for $50 million with the Dallas Cowboys. Routt brings plenty of skill and experience to the Chiefs secondary at a fraction of the cost.
Nose Tackle Dontari Poe
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Dontari Poe could become one of the greatest Chiefs defenders ever.
Or he could be another in a long line of Kansas City draft picks who never reached their potential.
Scott Pioli felt comfortable enough with the Chiefs' current roster to gamble on Poe's immense physical ability in the first round. Poe's combine numbers and overall combination of size and speed could anchor Kansas City's defensive line for the next decade.
But this isn't the first time the Chiefs pinned their hopes on a top defensive lineman. Tyson Jackson was supposed to fit as a perfectly-shaped puzzle piece in the Chiefs' new 3-4 defense. Glenn Dorsey didn't have a ceiling on his potential. Ryan Sims was possibly more talented than his University of North Carolina teammate Julius Peppers. Junior Siavii had all the physical tools needed to excel in the NFL.
Some of these players panned out better than others, but none of them quite measured up to their draft hype. Poe could go much the same way. The strength and agility he displayed at the NFL Combine never manifested on the field at Memphis, a school which didn't exactly face much top-flight opposition.
If Poe can find the focus needed to put his skills to use in Kansas City, he can truly break the cycle of disappointing defensive line draft picks.
Or he could just be the latest one to fall short of expectations.
Center Rodney Hudson
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Last year, the Chiefs drafted Rodney Hudson in the second round as an heir apparent to Casey Wiegmann at center.
Kansas City rectified their mistake of letting Wiegmann leave for the Denver Broncos in 2008. Herm Edwards wanted to move towards a power running game, and an undersized pulling center just didn’t fit as part of the equation.
The Chiefs brought him back for the 2011 season, but at 38 years old knew he couldn’t be Kansas City’s long-term solution. So they spent a second-round pick on Hudson, a standout interior lineman from Florida State.
Hudson played in all 16 games for the Chiefs last year, but at times looked lost, particularly in pass protection. Granted, Hudson lacked the benefit of a full offseason to adjust to the pro game due to last year’s lockout.
With Wiegmann no longer under contract and likely retiring, Hudson looks like the starting center whether he’s ready for the role or not.
Hudson possesses plenty of talent and a superior work ethic that should translate into a long, successful career. However, he’ll need to play at a much higher level now if Kansas City hopes to field a top-tier offensive line in 2012.
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Already an unglamorous position, the fullback has all but disappeared in the wake of pass-catching tight ends and slot receivers.
That doesn’t mean the fullback is completely irrelevant, though. Running backs still benefit from having a lead blocker, particularly when fighting for those goal line yards.
At present, last year’s seventh-round pick Shane Bannon holds the starting role for Kansas City. A solid lead blocker at Yale, Bannon possesses a solid frame and great speed (4.69 in the 40-yard dash) for a guy pushing 270 pounds.
But Bannon is unproven at the pro level. He spent last year on Kansas City’s practice squad, and the Chiefs need a resurgence in their run game if they hope to return to the playoffs.
Peyton Hillis could spend some time at fullback if Bannon struggles, but Kansas City needs him more as a power-running counterpoint to Jamaal Charles’ speed. Kansas City needs Bannon to perform if they hope to keep Hillis fresh.
Quarterback Matt Cassel
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Part of that was because the Chiefs don’t need stellar performances to make the playoffs. True, Cassel posted 27 touchdowns and over 3,000 yards in 2010 when Kansas City won the AFC West.
But the Chiefs ranked 30th in total passing that year while leading the league in rushing. With that in mind, which aspect of their offense contributed more to their first winning season since 2006?
It’s not that Cassel is a bad quarterback; he’s just not a great one. Cassel needs solid receivers and a stout run offense to be successful; the Patriots ranked sixth in rushing when Cassel stepped in for Tom Brady in 2008.
In recent history though, good quarterbacks don’t make it to the Super Bowl. The last quarterback to play in the Super Bowl who won’t get Hall of Fame consideration was Rex Grossman in 2007. The last one to win was Brad Johnson in 2003.
I hope I’m wrong on this one. Cassel plays with a lot of heart and determination, two qualities I value in the man who leads a team. And with upgrades across the board on offense, Cassel should have the best season of his career.
But until he proves otherwise, Kansas City fans can’t pin their hopes on Cassel coming through for them when the chips are down.