Predicting Chiefs' Starting Lineup After the First Wave of Free-Agent Signings

Brett GeringCorrespondent IMarch 19, 2014

Predicting Chiefs' Starting Lineup After the First Wave of Free-Agent Signings

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press|Edited by Brett Gering

    If you nodded to Pharrell's "Happy" this week and finished the song, it probably wasn't near a Kansas City Chiefs fan—Siri would've endured a glass-shattering frisbee toss while you Liam Neeson-ed your way out of strangulation via earbud cord. 

    To said doomsday-prepping pessimists: The Chiefs' starting lineup still resembles a playoff contender. Pick your shoulders up, Eeyore. 

    While it's true that then-free agent Emmanuel Sanders stiff-armed John Dorsey and Co., the Chiefs have plucked two surefire starters, Vance Walker and Joe Mays, from the talent pool. Add in the additions of Joe McKnight and Jeff Linkenbach, as well as the much-needed re-signing of Husain Abdullah, and Kansas City's list of offseason additions could've been considerably worse. 

    Dorsey still has unfinished business with free agency, and the upcoming draft is sure to add another round of Day 1 playmakers, but remember this: The Chiefs' roster still includes six 2014 Pro Bowlers—a number that would've bested that of 29 teams last year.  

    Obviously, Pro Bowls are hardly the end-all, be-all, but the above hypothetical reminds one that the Chiefs' roster is still overflowing with talent.

    One glance at the projected starters will, if nothing else, offer a slice of the sought-after solace that Arrowhead addicts have been longing for.

     

    Statistics provided by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Contract information provided by Spotrac

Depth Chart

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    Stan Liu-USA TODAY Sports

    Quarterback: Alex Smith, Chase Daniel, Tyler Bray

    Halfback: Jamaal Charles, Knile Davis, Cyrus Gray, Joe McKnight

    Fullback: Anthony Sherman, Eric Kettani

    Wide Receiver: Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery, Junior Hemingway, A.J. Jenkins, Frankie Hammond, Weston Dressler, Rashad Ross, Jerrell Jackson, Fred Williams

    Tight End: Anthony Fasano, Travis Kelce, Sean McGrath, Richard Gordon, Demetrius Harris

    Tackle: Eric Fisher, Donald Stephenson, Colin Kelly, R.J. Dill

    Guard: Jeff Allen, Jeff Linkenbach, Rishaw Johnson, Rokevious Watkins, Ricky Henry, Chandler Burden

    Center: Rodney Hudson, Eric Kush

    Nose Tackle: Dontari Poe, Jaye Howard, Brandon Moore, Cory Grissom

    Defensive End: Vance Walker, Mike DeVito, Allen Bailey, Mike Catapano, Dominique Hamilton, Risean Broussard, Chas Alecxih

    Outside Linebacker: Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Frank Zombo, Dezman Moses, Josh Martin, Ridge Wilson, Alonzo Highsmith

    Inside Linebacker: Derrick Johnson, Joe Mays, Nico Johnson, James-Michael Johnson

    Cornerback: Brandon Flowers, Sean Smith, Marcus Cooper, Ron Parker, Vernon Kearney, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Kevin Rutland

    Strong Safety: Eric Berry

    Free Safety: Sanders Commings, Husain Abdullah, Malcom Bronson, Jerron McMillian

    Kicker: Ryan Succop 

    Punter: Dustin Colquitt

    Long Snapper: Thomas Gafford

Quarterback

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Projected Starter: Alex Smith

    Reserves: Chase Daniel, Tyler Bray

     

    If you still find yourself on the fence about Smith, let it go—"it" being stubborn pride and lack of humility.

    In a year that started with a coaching staff of unfamiliar names and a roster of foreign faces, Smith, with the help of local superhuman Jamaal Charles, revamped the Chiefs' offense and spearheaded the No. 6 scoring attack in the league. 

    In his Kansas City playoff premiere, he surgically incised the Colts' defense for 378 yards and four touchdowns on 30-of-46 passing—no interceptions. The Chiefs headed to the locker room with a seemingly insurmountable 31-7 cushion. As Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar notes:

    By doing so, they became the first playoff team to score on their first five drives since the 2004 Indianapolis Colts, and the second road playoff team to score that many points in the first half — the 1987 Minnesota Vikings did the same. And they did this with running back Jamaal Charles, their primary offensive weapon, out of the game after a first-quarter concussion.

    If you blame Smith for Kansas City's collapse, you should follow his lead and invest in a helmet—not for football, but for life in general.

    The roster does contain a potential quarterback quandary, though; only it's between backups Chase Daniel and Tyler Bray. 

    Punctuating the regular season, Daniel nearly trumped a desperate San Diego Chargers team that eventually clawed its way into the playoffs. However, Bray, who was a true junior at Tennessee one year prior, outplayed the veteran last preseason. 

Running Back

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    Peter Aiken/Getty Images

    Projected Starter: Jamaal Charles

    Reserves: Knile Davis, Cyrus Gray, Joe McKnight

     

    Week in and week out throughout 2013, Charles shoveled dirt atop defensive coordinators' self-confidence, culminating in Week 15's "What are you doing?" "Burying you." (NSFW) fantasy festival at Oakland

    The archenemy of ankles authored an MVP-like campaign last season, and 2014, assuming Charles eludes injury, should spring a case of deja vu. 

    Before opening day, John Dorsey's selection of Knile Davis sparked a minor uproar. A sliver of fans marched onto local hilltops, shouting that the team already had the aforementioned Charles. A few divot-dicing cuts, emasculating steamrolls and equally bruised ribs and egos later, said shouters were deleting tweets. 

    If Davis continues remedying his fumbling ailment, Kansas City's backfield could house the league's most lethal one-two combo.

    The Chiefs will likely use McKnight in a role similar to Dexter McCluster's—make no mistake, McCluster, McKnight is not—experimenting with him as a rusher, while also splitting him out. Ultimately, his return skills will determine whether he usurps Cyrus Gray, an oft-injured runner who periodically flashes potential.

Wide Receiver

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    Projected Starters: Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery

    Reserves: Junior Hemingway, A.J. Jenkins, Frankie Hammond, Weston Dressler, Rashad Ross, Jerrell Jackson, Fred Williams

     

    Yes, Emmanuel Sanders duped the Chiefs, and yes, Kansas City's receiving corps screams "second-rate" on a good day. 

    However, the front office is bound to bolster the position through the draft, and it wouldn't be surprising if the team signs another name leading up to it. 

    Every season, Dwayne Bowe finds himself square in the sights of ear-bleeding rants. After last offseason's bloated contract, that applies now more than ever. 

    A dose of the venom warranted; his 2013 numbers don't justify those on his paycheck. That being said, take a breath and understand what the Chiefs' options were.

    Revisiting last season's crop of free-agent wideouts, it can be argued that every noteworthy name had an off year in 2013 (excluding Wes Welker, who lines up in the slot). 

    Players like Victor Cruz and Greg Jennings (partially due to Minnesota's Little Giants-like quarterbacking) didn't measure up to expectations. 

    And if you're irked about Bowe's situation, then you would've popped blood vessels if the Chiefs had signed Mike Wallace, who's due to inflict the largest cap hit of any 2014 wideout. Miami's speedster is scheduled to make over $5 million more than No. 82 this season. 

    Salary aside, as a big-bodied possession receiver with sharp route-running and textbook blocking, Bowe is a snug fit for Andy Reid's scheme. 

    Donnie Avery may or may not hit the unemployment line prior to September. The free-agent market still hosts cheaper options who match Avery's skill set, while the draft could also render him non-essential personnel. 

    As for reserves, Junior Hemingway occasionally beamed with potential, toting an imposing frame and gloves that could be sponsored by Elmer's. 

    The impending season will also play the pendulum in A.J. Jenkins' career. With the ball in his hands, he's a decibel-raising playmaker. But before he sees his role expanded, he has to prove that he can regularly gain clean releases against press-man. 

    The same will hold true for incoming CFL star Weston Dressler. Optimists, for a variety of reasons, need to proceed with caution; he's not going to be the beneficiary of pre-snap, sprinting head starts anymore, and beating Chris Harris is a far cry from dusting Jacques Von Lafleur (may or may not be a fictional player—nobody watches the CFL).

Tight End

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    Jay Biggerstaff/Associated Press

    Projected Starter: Anthony Fasano

    Reserves: Travis Kelce, Sean McGrath

     

    Last year, injuries decimated the team's initial tight end trio. The fruitful, but fragile, Tony Moeaki was released after being placed on IR with a fractured shoulder. 

    Uncharacteristically, Fasano also missed nine games due to a bevy of injuries. Barring any major setbacks, fans will see an improved version of No. 80 throughout 2014. 

    Kelce was relegated to the IR list after undergoing microfracture surgery on his knee. His return not only upgrades the Chiefs' aerial attack, but it gives a shot in the arm to the ground game as well.

    Kelce is an athletic target capable of exploiting the seam and, after the catch, promoting humdrum plays to highlights. Furthermore, in terms of blocking, he redefines "nasty," craving contact and de-cleating doubters. 

    Within a year or two, McGrath can possibly develop into a serviceable No. 2, but he needs to continue shoring up his blocking, as he doesn't boast a threatening degree of speed nor athleticism. Someone would be hard-pressed to find a better third-string option, though. 

Offensive Line

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    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    Projected Starters: Eric Fisher (LT), Jeff Allen (LG), Rodney Hudson (C), Rishaw Johnson (RG), Donald Stephenson (RT)

    Reserves: Jeff Linkenbach, Colin Kelly, R.J. Dill, Rokevious Watkins, Ricky Henry, Chandler Burden, Eric Kush

     

    A season ago, for whatever reason(s), the younger giants on Andy Reid's offensive line began hitting their stride in Week 12 and, for the most part, never looked back. (The group faced a murderer's row of defenses prior to Week 12, so putting that in the rear view definitely helped the cause.) 

    Fisher regularly battled nagging injuries, but he seemingly found his feet throughout the latter half of the season. Now is, if nothing else, the perfect opportunity to revert him to the left side and reacquaint him with his roots. 

    Stephenson has doubled as a swing tackle since landing in Kansas City, but he's destined to find his niche as the starting right tackle. Having said that, he performed more reliably at the opposite end of the line last year, and he also saw snaps at guard during the 2013 offseason. 

    As the roster's currently constructed, the unit's success will heavily hinge on its guard play. 

    Allen has a habit of losing leverage at the point of attack (on running downs), occasionally standing too upright and allowing penetration. He did, however, show signs of improvement down the home stretch. 

    Johnson and Linkenbach will square off for the starting spot at right guard. In Week 17, the former showed unquestionable upside versus San Diego, a game that accounted for 72 of his 77 regular-season snaps. Linkenbach is similar to Geoff Schwartz in the fact that he can fill multiple positions across the line. Don't fool yourself, though, the newcomer isn't nearly as consistent. 

    Hudson isn't going to pave lanes for rushers, but he's one of the better pass- and screen-blocking centers in the NFL

    The unit is submerged in uncertainty, but fans can rest assured that John Dorsey will, through the draft and/or free agency, enlist more competition up front. 

Defensive Line

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    Projected Starters: Vance Walker (DE), Dontari Poe (NT), Mike DeVito (DE)

    Reserves: Allen Bailey, Mike Catapano, Jaye Howard, Brandon Moore, Dominique Hamilton, Risean Broussard, Chas Alecxih, Cory Grissom

     

    First and foremost, "Poe" is obviously short for polar bear. The man barrels over 300-pounders quicker than bodyguards plowing through Bieber groupies, all the while scampering like a bloated Sonic the Hedgehog wired off a Mario Bros. star. 

    Before injury, the football community witnessed Justin Houston wreak havoc on opposing offenses and crumple concepts before coordinators' eyes. Expect more of the same from the 340-pound immovable mammoth in the middle. 

    To no one's surprise, DeVito didn't supply much of a pass rush in 2013, but he finished as Pro Football Focus' (PFF) No. 4 run-stuffing 3-4 defensive end. He's deceptively quick for his stature, and his presence allows second-wave defenders to routinely shoot through gaps.

    Thus far, Walker represents the one definitive upgrade that Kansas City has signed this offseason. To give a hint of perspective, Tyson Jackson notched eight quarterback hurries and no hits throughout 2013. Walker recorded 32 hurries (No. 5 among defensive/nose tackles) and six hits. 

    The recent acquisition benefited from 4-3 scheme, whereas Jackson had a steeper uphill climb within Kansas City's 3-4, but that doesn't offset a differential of 24 hurries. 

    Walker holds his own versus the run, and compared to his predecessor, he's a superior pass-rusher who costs a fraction of the price. 

    Bailey is a defensive end who can spell one of the starters without Bob Sutton seeing a drastic dip in production, if any at all. 

    When Kansas City drafted Catapano, it recruited a situational edge-rusher. With another year or two of experience notched under the former Ivy Leaguer's belt, and given his merciless mentality and feverish work ethic, Catapano can become a regular contributor if converted to a "Jack" linebacker (Tamba Hali's position). 

    The Chiefs are set at defensive end, but Dorsey will likely enroll more depth at nose tackle. 

Linebacker

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    Projected Starters: Justin Houston (OLB), Joe Mays (ILB), Derrick Johnson (ILB), Tamba Hali (OLB)

    Reserves: Frank Zombo, James-Michael Johnson, Nico Johnson, Dezman Moses, Josh Martin, Ridge Wilson, Alonzo Highsmith

     

    With Hali and Houston stampeding off the corners, Kansas City may have the most fearsome edge-rushing tandem in the NFL. (Although, St. Louis and Carolina would like two minutes for rebuttal.)

    Prior to last season, film often revealed Hali to be a liability in run support, frequently overpursuing and opening cutback lanes as a result. The same demons haunted him throughout the 2013 preseason (particularly against San Francisco), but to his credit, he tied the loose ends throughout the regular season. 

    Predictably, Hali proved to be one of the league's premier quarterback stalkers, finishing the year with 58 hurries to his name—a total that only Minnesota's Brian Robison (61) managed to eclipse.

    For my money, a healthy Houston roams the field as the most well-rounded linebacker in the NFL. Despite being sidelined for five games due to a dislocated elbow, the freakishly talented rusher headlined PFF's 3-4 outside linebacker rankings, finishing within the top five in pass rush, run support, coverage and penalties. 

    Houston's pass rushing is well documented, to say the least. However, one look at film displays the underrated aspects of his game. He processes information and diagnoses intentions in the blink of an eye, resulting in him putting brute strength to use by shedding offensive tackles or pulling guards like he's swatting obese flies. 

    Kansas City's nightmarish predator will be a perennial Pro Bowler for the foreseeable future. 

    Speaking of, at age 31, Derrick Johnson showed no hints of slowing down in 2013. Every now and then, a ball-carrier will slip through the three-time Pro Bowler's grasp, and NaVorro Bowman probably lays claim as the best all-around inside linebacker, but one could easily argue that Johnson is the position's biggest playmaker. 

    Every Sunday, you can bank on the vet firing through the line, leaving ball-carriers, who know they're about to take the brunt of an incoming missile, with a caught-in-the-headlights reaction. Additionally, in terms of coverage, Kansas City's longtime fan favorite graded out as PFF's top inside linebacker, and none of his interior peers amassed more quarterback hits than Johnson's seven. 

    Mays is a two-down run-stopper. He replaces Akeem Jordan, whose career year eventually gave rise to him signing with Washington, per the team's official Twitter account. However, it's fair to question whether Jordan's leap in production was the byproduct of a scheme switch or the crowd of Pro Bowlers encircling him. 

    Zombo is an effective run-stuffer, but little more. 

    As far as the draft is concerned, a handful of weeks ago, I slotted Montana's Jordan Tripp, an immensely athletic but raw inside linebacker, as John Dorsey's fourth-round pick. Judging by Draft Breakdown's Aimal Arsalla's sighting of the Chiefs at Montana's pro day, there's a realistic chance that Kansas Citians will collectively welcome Tripp this summer.

    Regardless, the unit's depth is serviceable at best, particularly at the "Jack" and "Mike" positions. 

Cornerback

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starters: Brandon Flowers, Sean Smith

    Reserves: Marcus Cooper, Ron Parker, Vernon Kearney, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Kevin Rutland

     

    For reasons unknown to common sense, local whispers of trading Flowers have subtly crept their way onto Twitter, despite the fact that he was the only player in the league that, from 2009 to 2012, PFF annually graded as a top-seven cornerback. 

    Did his effectiveness decline last year? Definitely, but he transitioned from a predominately Cover 2-based scheme to a Cover 1, and the "one" in that equation might've been the worst starting deep safety in the NFL.

    If that doesn't sway you, consider this: That historical wild-card meltdown? Flowers harassed and limited T.Y. Hilton to 15 yards on two receptions. The only other instance in which Andrew Luck targeted the wideout while Flowers was defending, the Chiefs' lockdown artist picked the pass off.

    Meanwhile, both before and after Flowers' injury, Hilton went on to torch the rest of the secondary for 11 receptions, 212 yards and two touchdowns. 

    Good luck with that second-rounder, armchair architect. 

    Sean Smith is just as likely to rouse the Red Sea as he is to take the wind out of its sails. He didn't play as poorly as some of his critics might suggest—receivers hauled in just half of their targets within his vicinity (only seven of the league's starting corners were stingier)—but more times than not, his mistakes abruptly morphed into catastrophes. 

    If Smith latches both paws onto his opponent, wideouts are better served waving the white flag than struggling to separate. Once he secures a jam, receivers' routes inevitably derail, leading to the offensive timing, at least in Smith's neck of the woods, becoming disrupted. But if quicker opponents gain the upper hand when releasing off the line, the 26-year-old doesn't have the necessary straight-line speed to close the distance. 

    Assuming Cooper makes the expected Year 2 leap—polishing his technique and fundamentals along the way—he'll demand more playing time and possibly vie for starting consideration. Last year's erratic rookie isn't nearly as physical as Smith, but he's a step faster. 

    Parker largely flew under the 2013 radar, but he's another up-and-coming prospect to keep tabs on. He snatched two interceptions and netted a strip sack in a meager 89 snaps, while also allowing just three receptions on nine targets. Parker adds a layer of icing by doubling as a special teams ace as well. 

    If a name like Justin Gilbert falls into the team's lap at No. 23 (don't hold your breath), the front office will deliberate about taking him. But in all likelihood, no new cornerback talent will fly into Kansas City between now and the draft. 

Safety

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Projected Starters: Eric Berry (SS), Sanders Commings (FS)

    Reserves: Husain Abdullah, Malcom Bronson, Jerron McMillian

     

    There are still smatterings of naysayers who, based on the first half of Berry's 2012 season (roughly a year after suffering a torn ACL), claim that he's subpar in coverage. PFF, who graded the Pro Bowler No. 3 among all safeties in pass defense, begs to differ. Collectively, quarterbacks totaled a 64.8 passer rating when tempting him, and receivers averaged less than 10 (9.4) yards per catch. 

    He also topped his positional peers in both sacks (four) and hurries (10).

    With rehabilitation a thing of the past, Berry gradually evolved into the dynamic, bone-bruising playmaker that GMs drooled over in the 2010 draft.

    If Commings fends off the injury bug, he embodies an ideal skill set for free safety.

    Carrying 216 pounds, the former Georgia corner blazed a 4.41 40 time at the 2013 combine, raising no shortage of eyebrows along the way. Per Terez Paylor of The Kansas City Star, when asked about moving Commings to free safety, John Dorsey recently reiterated:

    I could envision that. One of the reasons we drafted Sanders Commings is we thought he fit that positional skill. I could see Husain and those guys competing and there’s some players within this draft that could help come in and contribute as well.

    The re-signing of Husain Abdullah should gain universal approval. Although underutilized, he touts an exceptionally sharp football IQ and can anchor an array of roles, from deep safety to slot corner. 

    As Dorsey alluded to, the upcoming draft provides a rich supply of safety talent, and Kansas City is clearly in the market. 

Specialists

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Starters: Ryan Succop (K), Dustin Colquitt (P), Thomas Gafford (LS)

     

    Ninety-nine percent of Kansas Citians couldn't discern Gafford from the typical YMCA-goer, but he's easily one of the most sure-handed long snappers in the NFL. 

    Kicking-wise, if there are no more than 49 yards lying between Succop and the uprights, the smart money sides with the veteran's leg, which connected on 21-of-24 (88 percent) such attempts last year. Fifty yards and over? Eh, different story. Succop misfired on three of his four 50-plus-yard opportunities. 

    The latter distances force him to trade accuracy for power, and the aftermath usually leaves 70,000-odd groans echoing throughout Arrowhead. If he's not tasked with reaching beyond said limits, though, Succop's leg is relatively reliable. 

    Colquitt still reigns as one of the game's most precise punters. He booted 87 attempts in 2013 and sniped 35 of them inside of the opponent's 20-yard line, tying for most in the NFL.

    While his craft is often disregarded, Colquitt, who is nothing if not model of consistency, remains a key chess piece in the all-important field-position battle.

     

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