The Kansas City Chiefs excelled the last few years in building a strong base of talent. With solid draft classes in previous years and shrewd free-agent signings, the 2012 Chiefs should field a host of talent capable of putting them back on top of the AFC West.
Those results come from Scott Pioli's efforts to build a strong roster, focusing on bringing in his "right 53" players. After all, football is a team sport, and each player on the roster is there to contribute in part to the team's success.
Note the omission of phrases like "fair share" and "equal."
The truth of the matter is that certain players are required to deliver greater results than others, at least if that team expects to win. While a host of solid backups and role players factor into the team's overall success, it's those few top performers that carry the day.
There's a reason people talk about "playmakers." They're the guys who make the big hits or deliver the key first downs. When the game is on the line, fans, coaches and teammates alike look to these go-to "clutch" players to come through and make something happen.
Fortunately for Kansas City, its roster boasts more than a couple of such individuals. On both sides of the ball, the Chiefs can count on these standouts to keep their team in the fight and ensure Kansas City comes out on top of those close matchups.
Those 46 guys on the sidelines all play an important role in the game, but these seven are the difference-makers to put the Chiefs back into the playoffs.
In 2010, no player on the Chiefs' defense made a larger impact than Eric Berry.
Berry led the team in interceptions and placed second in tackles. He also tacked on a pair of sacks as he played every defensive snap that year. The Chiefs moved from 30th to 14th overall in defense from 2009 to 2010.
Small wonder, then, that Kansas City played so poorly earlier in the 2011 season after Berry went down with a torn ACL on opening day last year. The Chiefs went on to surrender over 40 points in their first two games.
Berry reports that he's back to 100 percent (props to my fellow Featured Columnist Farzin for landing an outstanding interview, by the way), and Chiefs fans should be dancing in the streets with the news.
This season should definitively push Berry into the top elite at the safety position. So long as his knee holds up as well as expected, people will start comparing top prospects to him in the coming years.
Eric Berry wasn't the only Chiefs player conspicuously absent from last year's lineup.
Tony Moeaki came to Kansas City with a huge pair of shoes to fill. He not only had to replace future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, but he also had to do it while sharing his first name.
Unlike Dan Marino's long line of successors, Moeaki didn't wilt under the pressure. In fact, he excelled; Moeaki made more catches for more yards and more touchdowns in 2010 than Gonzalez did his rookie year. Moeaki ignored the looming shadow of Gonzalez's success and started casting one of his own.
That's why losing Moeaki before the start of the season last year hurt so much. Without him in the lineup, Kansas City lost most of its threat on the short and intermediate routes. The run game suffered as well. The Chiefs missed Moeaki's consistent run-blocking last year, as Leonard Pope and Jake O'Connell racked up holding and false-start penalties in 2011.
No one will appreciate Moeaki's return more than Matt Cassel, though. With his large frame and sure hands, Moeaki is a big target and excellent go-to receiver. He'll provide a perfect outlet for dump passes when Cassel faces an aggressive pass rush.
Just when Chiefs fans thought it couldn't get any worse, Jamaal Charles went and joined Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki on the All-Star ACL Team.
Three players and three torn ACLs in three weeks; Murphy must have bet against the Chiefs for 2011, and he sealed the deal by dropping Charles early in Week 2 against the Detroit Lions.
Kansas City might have plenty of weapons on offense, but Charles is the lynchpin. He brings the complete package to the running back position. He uses his agility to get into space, and then finds the next gear to speed past defenders. Despite his size, Charles displays uncommon toughness. He regularly bounces off crushing hits that would level most players.
Without Charles in the lineup last season, Kansas City’s run offense went from stellar to barely passable. The Chiefs ranked 15th in overall yards, but it took them a lot longer to get there. Kansas City tied for 26th in yards per carry. They also couldn't find the end zone, ending the season tied for 30th with a paltry five rushing touchdowns.
The Chiefs upgraded Charles’ counterpart in the backfield this offseason, signing Peyton Hillis to work between the tackles while Charles scorches teams on the edge.
Hillis should likewise rebound from a 2011 season plagued with illness and injury, but it’s Charles who makes Kansas City’s offense work. Working off-tackle, Charles will force teams to spread their defense horizontally and create running lanes for Hillis. Then, when teams commit seven and eight men to stop the run, the Chiefs should find opportunities to stretch the field in the passing game.
Last year, the Chiefs paved an expressway to the quarterback on their right side. Right tackle Barry Richardson was so ineffective in pass protection that Kansas City would place a tight end and a receiver or running back to handle the pass rush on the right side.
That won’t be a problem this year.
The Chiefs knew they needed to fix the problem, and the Houston Texans provided just the solution. Once the cap-poor Texans released Eric Winston, Kansas City did everything it could to lock up one of the league’s top right tackles. Winston never even made it to his next scheduled free-agent visit, a mere three-hour drive down I-70 to St. Louis.
Winston will create more opportunities for runs to the right side, allowing Charles and Hillis to avoid opponents’ top linebackers coming around the edge. And his ability to seal the pocket on his own will free up Tony Moeaki and Kevin Boss to move downfield, opening up more options for Matt Cassel in the passing game.
Assuming Rodney Hudson and Jon Asamoah develop as well as expected, Kansas City could now have its best offensive line in almost a decade.
The last twelve months brought quite a change to how teams play defense in the AFC West.
What used to be a predominately run-based division now boasts some of the best passers in the league. It was bad enough facing off against Philip Rivers twice a season; now the Chiefs have Carson Palmer and Peyton Manning to deal with.
The AFC West will demand plenty from Kansas City’s secondary this year. Fortunately, the Chiefs have just the solution to that problem.
Last summer, Pat Kirwan listed Brandon Flowers as the 13th-best cornerback in the league. After the 2012 season, he should crack the top five.
Flowers ranked fifth in passes defended last season with 24 and pulled down four interceptions. Despite missing Eric Berry all season, the Chiefs still ranked 6th against the pass and 11th overall.
The Chiefs downgraded at their other cornerback slot, picking up Stanford Routt in anticipation of Brandon Carr’s mega-deal free-agent contract with the Dallas Cowboys.
But the Chiefs knew who their key player was at cornerback, locking up Flowers to a long-term extension early last season.
This year will likely bring Flowers’ biggest challenge yet. But as he enters his fifth year in the league, it’ll also be his most successful.
Five years ago, Kansas City parted ways with one of the top pass-rushers in the league, trading Jared Allen to the Minnesota Vikings in anticipation of Tamba Hali elevating his play in getting to the quarterback.
Hali has done just that, at least over the last two years.
Hali made a pair of adjustments during this time; he moved to the right side in 2008 to replace Allen, then converted to outside linebacker in 2009.
After all the changes, Hali's production exploded. He sacked the quarterback 27 times over the last two years. He also forced four fumbles each of the last three years.
The Chiefs finally drafted a solid pass-rusher to complement Hali in Justin Houston. Together, they should pull Kansas City out of the basement when it comes to getting at the quarterback.
And Hali will lead the charge.
It's nice when someone finally understands you. Just ask Derrick Johnson.
The Chiefs drafted Derrick Johnson and promptly installed him at outside linebacker. He spent the next four years working the edge rushing the quarterback.
The only problem is Johnson isn't a pass-rusher. Kansas City drafted Johnson based on his play as a sideline-to-sideline coverage linebacker at the University of Texas. But rather than leave Johnson to play to his strengths, the Chiefs kept him on the outside until shifting to the 3-4 defense in 2009.
Johnson took some time adjusting to the new defense (and to Todd Haley), but gave Chiefs fans a glimpse of what was to come in the season finale against the Denver Broncos that year when he returned two interceptions for touchdowns.
Over the last two years, Johnson compiled over 250 tackles, 25 passes defended and three interceptions. He also landed his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection last year.
Now that Johnson's fully come into his own and is comfortable in Kansas City's defense, the sky's the limit. With a stellar supporting cast in the Chiefs' linebacker corps, Johnson should give Patrick Willis a run for his money as the top inside linebacker in the NFL.