The Kansas City Chiefs are coming off a franchise low two-win season. They have a first-year head coach in Todd Haley, they recently shipped off arguably the best player in franchise history in Tony Gonzalez, they're transitioning to a new defensive scheme, and yet, they might not be that far from a playoff berth.
Skimming through the Chiefs current roster it seems as though the only position where they didn't get better, or create more competition this off season is tight end.
Gonzalez isn't just arguably the best player in Chiefs franchise history, but he may be the best tight end in NFL history, and there's no doubt second-year TE Brad Cottam will struggle to account for Gonzalez's lost production. However, Haley's offense in Arizona didn't exactly feature a tight end last season, as Ben Patrick and Leonard Pope ranked ninth and 10th, respectively, in receptions.
The most obvious improvement the Chiefs have made over the last several months came with the acquisition of quarterback Matt Cassel. Tyler Thigpen did an admirable job guiding KC's makeshift spread offense last season, but two wins simply won't cut it.
On the flip side, Cassel put up nearly 3,700 passing yards with a quarterback rating of 89.4 while leading the Pats to an 11-5 record, making them the first team with such a record to miss the playoffs since the '85 Broncos.
Kansas City also improved in the trenches, adding veteran offensive linemen Eric Ghiaciuc and Mike Goff. Goff started every game the last six seasons at guard for San Diego, and Ghiaciuc has consistently started at center for the Bengals the last three years. If the Chiefs keep disgruntled Pro Bowler Brian Waters, their line will be much improved, and rookie right tackle Colin Brown should challenge for playing time immediately.
Running back Larry Johnson might be the person rooting hardest for Waters to mend fences with Haley and new GM Scott Pioli. With more competition at center and the addition of Goff, KC's interior line could be its most formidable since the retirement of perennial Pro-Bowl guard Will Shields.
Johnson's production has plummeted since his back-to-back 1,700-plus yard seasons in '05 and '06, but he hasn't exactly had the necessary road graders up front paving the way. Johnson's also struggled with off-the-field issues, some of which caused him to miss four games last year, and at one time, Johnson asked for a trade out of Kansas City.
Since the end of the season, he's changed his management team and his tune. Johnson now says he wants to remain a Chief, and Haley said he's been impressed with the embattled running back in early off season workouts and practices. If KC can keep their line the way it is now, look for Johnson to return to the upper-echelon of ball carriers in 2009.
The Chiefs also added veteran receiver Bobby Engram, whose receptions slipped last year in Seattle, due in large part to missing three games because of injury. Engram only caught 47 passes last season, but he's just one year removed from a 94-reception campaign in '07. Engram's sure hands should help the team cope with the loss of Gonzalez.
Third-year man Dwayne Bowe will also need to step his game up in '09. Bowe eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time last year, but he needs to become a more consistent pass catcher.
Bowe has a knack for making the big play, but a tendency to drop passes on first and second downs. However, he's currently the closest thing to Anquan Boldin or Larry Fitzgerald in Kansas City, so he'll be counted on heavily if Haley's offense is going to come close to mimicking it's success in Arizona last season.
As for defense, there's nowhere to go but up. Kansas City ranked an abysmal 31st in total defense last season, and recorded an all-time low 10 team sacks. Kansas City was terrible in every aspect of defense in 2009.
However, Pioli has acquired some serious veteran help in linebackers Mike Vrabel and Zach Thomas through free agency. Both have played in the 3-4 defense that the Chiefs are transitioning to, and both have done so at a very high level.
While Thomas and Vrabel are 35 and 33, respectively, they are both still upgrades for KC. Thomas recorded 94 tackles for Dallas last season, which would have made him the second-leading tackler for the Chiefs. Vrabel recorded 63 tackles and four sacks, which would have made him KC's sack leader in '08.
Kansas City also added some young talent in the draft, picking up 3-4 defensive ends Tyson Jackson and Alex Magee in the first and third rounds, respectively. Jackson is already penciled in as a starter in the minds of most observers, and Magee is expected to challenge last year's fifth-overall pick, Glenn Dorsey, for the other starting end position.
The defensive secondary was one of the Chiefs' few bright spots in '08. Due in part to injuries, rookie cornerbacks Brandon Flowers, Brandon Carr, and Maurice Leggett all received significant playing time, and all exceeded expectations. Carr and Flowers will likely keep their starting jobs, while rookie Donald Washington will push Leggett for the top nickel back position.
Safeties Jarrad Page and Bernard Pollard also remain probable starters this season.
Kansas City has done a good job adding valuable pieces in crucial positions so far this off-season. That, coupled with a seemingly weak AFC West, gives them a real chance to compete for a division title in '09.
The Chargers once again look like they should run away with the division, but that's been the case the last two seasons, in which they've come stumbling and bumbling out of the blocks.
Denver traded away a Pro Bowl quarterback in his prime, getting a serviceable starter, at best, in Kyle Orton and a heap of draft picks as compensation.
Oakland is still Oakland.
If the Chiefs can protect Cassel, pry a few more holes open for Johnson, and get Bowe to catch the ball on a consistent basis, their offense might start to look pretty good. The biggest key to that equation is getting Johnson back on track.
At one time he was one of the most feared backs in the league, a guy defensive coordinators had to scheme for. If he can return to anywhere near that it will take loads of pressure off Cassel, who is commandeering his own team for the first time since high school.
Is Kansas City the dark horse who's going to charge out of the shadows and into the playoffs? If everything goes right and they quickly adjust to new offensive and defensive schemes, they just might be.
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