Kansas City Chiefs: Projected 2014 Lineup and Position Grades
The Kansas City Chiefs' 2013 season was supposed to be an experiment.
Following a 2-14 finish the year prior, Kansas City cleaned house, dumping much-maligned general manager Scott Pioli, as well as head coach Romeo Crennel. It also brought a long-overdue end to the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (Matt Cassel) era.
With new coordinators on offense and defense to boot, it was generally expected that the Chiefs would endure an adjustment period while adapting to new schemes.
That was until a man sporting a robust mustache walked into town with something else in mind: the playoffs.
For anybody outside of the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot, it was a laughable concept. NFL teams simply don't transition from "earning" the No. 1 draft slot to becoming a playoff contender over a single offseason.
As you may know, Kansas City obliterated that sentiment, not only reaching the playoffs, but remaining the NFL's lone undefeated squad well into November.
Though the Chiefs failed to snap their 20-year postseason winless streak, it's hard to consider their 2013 season anything other than a total success.
But, the narrative is a bit different heading into 2014; much is expected from Kansas City—anything short of at least a playoff victory will likely be considered a failure. With one of the league's toughest schedules, it'll have its work cut out for it.
Let's take an early look at which players could see the field as starters on the Chiefs' difficult trek to January.
Starter: Alex Smith
No surprise here. Smith was far and away the best signal-caller that Kansas City had under center since Trent Green in 2005.
He doesn't own the most impressive tangibles, but he boasts the football IQ to realize his role in Andy Reid's offense: limit his mistakes through the air. Among quarterbacks that started the majority of their team's games, only Philadelphia's Nick Foles tossed less picks than Smith's seven.
From a pure talent perspective, he likely finds himself just outside the NFL's top 10, but he's a match made in heaven for Reid's offensive mindset.
The backup situation, however, is a bit cloudier. There's been a recent push to promote 2013 third-stringer Tyler Bray to backup in lieu of Chase Daniel. And why not?
In retrospect, Daniel's three-year, $10 million contract may have been a little generous. Kansas City would save a small amount of money by releasing or trading him, but it'll likely keep him at least through 2014.
Though, don't be shocked if Bray ultimately surpasses him anyway.
Position Grade: B
Starters: Jamaal Charles (RB), Anthony Sherman (FB)
Having Reid at the helm last year was generally expected to boost Charles' value.
After all, Reid's the same guy who made Brian Westbrook the league's most potent dual-threat back all those years ago. And boost his value he did.
Charles was arguably the NFL's most valuable non-quarterback; he led the Chiefs in both rushing and receiving, accounting for 37 percent of their total offensive yardage. He turned an otherwise unimpressive Kansas City offense into a major threat.
Though, in 2014, expect to see more from second-year man Knile Davis. Not only is the preservation of Charles now becoming a concern, but Davis displayed legitimate potential as a rookie. He provided an impact as a kick returner, while passing the eye test in the backfield as well.
He was on the field for just under 16 percent of the Chiefs' offensive snaps—that could increase to around 25 percent next season.
Additionally, Anthony Sherman—brought over last year in the deal for corner Javier Arenas—provided a significantly bigger impact than anticipated. He was tremendous in his role as lead blocker for Charles while acting as a viable pass-catcher as well.
Surely Kansas City's strongest area on offense, its backfield is poised to again be among the league's best.
Position Grade: A
Starters: Dwayne Bowe (WR1), A.J. Jenkins (WR2), 2014 draft pick (SWR)
Outside of Dwayne Bowe, there's not a single spot within the Chiefs receiving corps that's set in stone heading into 2014.
Running back-turned-slot receiver Dexter McCluster is now a Tennessee Titan, and Donnie Avery ideally will see his role minimized next season. Junior Hemingway—who's not necessarily a lock to make Kansas City's 53-man roster—was the third-most productive wideout, garnering a total of 13 receptions in 2013.
The unit will be undergoing the NFL equivalent of Extreme Makeover in the coming months.
For Bowe, things presumably can only get better next season.
In addition to his ill-timed arrest for possession of marijuana, he endured undoubtedly his worst season as a professional. He wasn't a central component of Reid's scheme, and was most useful when drawing additional coverage, which opened things up for teammates.
2015 is the first year that the Chiefs can preserve cap space by parting ways with (releasing) Bowe; he conceivably could be playing for his job.
But the burning question here is who will serve as Kansas City's oft-utilized slot receiver.
In 2013, as impressive as McCluster was in the return game, he was simply an average wideout. He wasn't particularly sure-handed and rarely posed a considerable threat after the catch. His biggest asset was his ability to find space off of the snap, which made him a frequent target on 3rd-and-longs.
If the Chiefs select a receiver with either their first- or third-round pick—and the general consensus is that they will—it will likely be with the idea that said receiver will serve as starter in the slot.
With the 23rd-overall pick, Kansas City's been thought to have its sights set on Brandin Cooks or Odell Beckham Jr. Both are projected to work primarily out of the slot; either would likely have the inside track for the job from the beginning of training camp.
If Dorsey and the Chiefs front office decide to hold off until the third, the situation won't be as cut and dry. Potential targets include Dri Archer and Paul Richardson—both of whom would have to earn a spot the old-fashioned way: impressing Reid in training camp.
Though, don't count out former CFL superstar Weston Dressler.
Like Hemmingway, he isn't guaranteed a spot on Kansas City's Week 1 depth chart. But there's reason to be optimistic about his chances. Why? Go ahead and try to name an NFL player, or any athlete for that matter, who has his own brand of potato chips to his name.
Nothing come to mind?
That's alright. Here's one: Weston Dressler.
That's right, his "All-Dressler" chips are apparently somewhat of a cult hit up north. It's safe to assume that doesn't happen by being average.
All kidding aside, the guy is an Arrowhead favorite in the making. It's often difficult to predict how well certain skills translate from Canadian football to the NFL, but there's no reason to say he can't fight for a job after glancing at his 2013 highlights.
As for Donnie Avery's role as deep-threat extraordinaire, his uninspired performance in 2013 will likely provide A.J. Jenkins a final shot at proving he's an NFL-caliber receiver.
Jenkins arrived in KC prior to last season, after Dorsey swapped first-round talents with San Francisco. Despite his eye-popping speed and high praise out of the 2012 draft, he's been a tremendous letdown, experiencing several issues with drops and shaking coverage.
But, players with measurables like Jenkins' generally get second chances. Third chances, however, aren't guaranteed. It's likely now or never for him.
Lastly, Hemingway will be used nearly exclusively in goal-line formations again. Don't expect him to earn much more than the 20 targets he saw in 2013, but he could end with a handful of scores.
Position grade: C+
Starter: Travis Kelce
In five of the six seasons that the duo were together, Davis ended the year as one of the 49ers' top two receivers, yardage-wise. He led the team in touchdowns in four of those years as well.
But Smith is no longer in the bay. He's in Kansas City. In 2013, he didn't have a Davis—he had a Sean McGrath and an Anthony Fasano.
Fasano was banged up much of the season and didn't stand out even when he was healthy. McGrath was a capable fill-in—becoming a favorite among the Arrowhead faithful due to his ridiculously manly beard—but probably isn't the long-term answer.
Enter Travis Kelce.
Kelce, the Chiefs' third-round pick last year, injured his knee in training camp, ultimately missing the entire season following surgery in October. The 6'5", 260-pound behemoth was drafted to eventually become a starter in KC. Clearly hurting at the position, "eventually" is now.
For a QB who enjoys checkdown passes as much as Smith does, there's a direct correlation between owning a capable tight end and finding success. Kelce is also a credible vertical threat, which should help create space for whoever winds up in the slot.
An afterthought last year, the tight end position could become a focal point for Kansas City in 2014.
Position grade: B-
Starters: Eric Fisher (LT), Jeff Allen (LG), Rodney Hudson (C), Rishaw Johnson (RG), Donald Stephenson (RT)
ESPN's Adam Teicher reports that the Chiefs are 31st out of all 32 NFL teams in regard to salary-cap spending on their offensive line. (Huh? Where'd the money go?) For a bunch that holds the most direct impact on Charles' success or failure, it's a curious figure.
And the lack of money allocated to improving the line is readily apparent; Kansas City more or less epitomizes mediocrity from tackle to tackle.
2013 first-overall pick Eric Fisher is clearly the wild card of the group; he'll look to bounce back at his natural left tackle position after a discouraging rookie campaign. He battled through injury and ineffectiveness—he allowed seven sacks and 35 hurries—while looking anything but comfortable on the right side.
Though, having played college ball in the Mid-American Conference, a steep learning curve wasn't unexpected. After battling adversity through his first year, the proverbial light bulb is liable to switch on at any moment.
On the opposite end, Donald Stephenson is set to step into duties at right tackle.
He saw snaps on both the right and left side in 2013—he performed considerably better on his innate left. He's still a work in progress, but his reported offseason work with former center LeCharles Bentley should help ease the transition.
NFL.com says that he's "very quick out of his stance, and this is his one shining quality." All considered, the duo comprises the Chiefs' strongest position within the unit.
At guard, it appears that Jeff Allen and, by default, Rishaw Johnson will get first dibs.
Following an underwhelming rookie season in 2012, Allen wasn't much better last season. Kansas City's second-round pick in 2012, he struggled mightily as both a run-blocker and pass-protector. The talent is there, it simply hasn't been translated to results on the field.
Even if he struggles initially at left guard, Allen's flexibility to serve at any line position will keep him involved in the rotation throughout the season.
At right guard, Reid has already announced that the position is Johnson's to lose.
Beyond his imposing stature—a, believe it or not, lean 6'5", 313 pounds—not much is known on how his game translates to the NFL. He spent 2012 on Seattle's practice squad and turned in an inconclusive performance in his lone start against San Diego last season.
Free-agent pickup Jeff Linkenbach could see work here as well, but barring a decidedly spectacular training camp and preseason, Johnson should begin 2014 as starter.
Rodney Hudson returns at center, providing much-needed stability in the unit's nucleus. Following a leg injury that sidelined him in 2012, Chiefs fans got their first full season's look at the former second-round selection last year.
He served as a guard in all four of his years at Florida State but has appeared to have had a relatively painless move over to center. With Eric Kush at his heels for playing time, look for Hudson to improve considerably next season.
Overall, the O-line is the youngest, most inexperienced area within Reid's offense. If Dorsey can manage to keep this clique together, it could eventually become dangerous, but don't expect that to be in 2014.
Position grade: C-
Starters: Vance Walker (LE), Dontari Poe (NT), Mike DeVito (RE)
While the Kansas City secondary only began to break down late last season, its defense line was never really there to begin with.
But, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton's 3-4 scheme was a new implementation in 2013, so does the D-line get a pass?
Not totally, but feel free to chalk up some of its role in the Chiefs' 24th-ranked run defense to growing pains. Now with a full year in the system under its belt, look for visible improvement from the unit in 2014.
Nose tackle Dontari Poe is clearly the strongest piece here.
A Pro Bowl selection last season, he gave up barbecue—no easy task in Kansas City—beginning the season in arguably the best shape of his life. He'll turn 24 years old in August; the idea that he's still yet to reach his ceiling is enough to keep AFC offensive coordinators up at night.
At defensive end, however, the Chiefs are considerably weaker.
Mike DeVito will return as the starter on the right after a respectable 2013 campaign. The seven-year vet followed Sutton over from New York last offseason and is probably the most familiar with the 3-4 of any Kansas City player.
He's one of the league's better ends against the run and has vowed to improve his pass rush as well.
But, the real question lies on the left end of the line with offseason acquisition Vance Walker.
Walker was one of the value-friendly additions made by a cash-strapped Chiefs front office in free agency. He's set to immediately step into the vacancy left by the departed Tyson Jackson but could be challenged for playing time by Allen Bailey.
Walker will get the first shot here, but Bailey will still see significant snaps. Don't be surprised if he surpasses Walker on the depth chart by season's end.
Position grade: C+
Starters: Justin Houston (LOLB), Joe Mays (LILB), Derrick Johnson (RILB), Tamba Hali (ROLB)
Boasting three Pro Bowlers at the position, there's little question of what Kansas City's linebacker situation will look like next year.
It's a group that, save recent addition Joe Mays, has had three full seasons to become familiar with each other's tendencies and preferences. Toss in elite individual talent, and many offenses appear to be playing unsuspecting office employee to Terry Tate's linebacker
You know the deal: Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are two of the league's premier pass-rushers on the outside. Inside, Derrick Johnson is arguably the NFL's best, excelling against the run while serving as an effective blitzer when called upon.
Expect more of the same in 2014.
Though, Houston will be playing for a bigger paycheck; look for a possible boost in production from the, albeit much-debated, contract-year phenomenon. (Admittedly, that'll be difficult given his stellar, but injury-plagued, 2013)
The only real unknown here is what Mays brings to the table.
He's seen significant snaps in only two of his six pro seasons. His best season came in 2011, under then-Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen's 4-3 scheme.
He saw notable playing time last year in Houston as well, logging 67 tackles in 13 games as part of former coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4. Now he's poised to take free-agent casualty Akeem Jordan's spot at left inside linebacker under Sutton.
He's primarily a run-stopper; his ineptness against the pass may jeopardize his status as a three-down player.
Long term, Sutton likely sees Nico Johnson as the answer, but KC wouldn't have wasted limited cap space to ink Mays if it was confident in Johnson's prospects for this season.
All told, Mays is probably an upgrade from the departed Jordan. Next to three of the league's preeminent players at the position, the task for Mays is simply "don't blow it."
Position grade: A
Starters: Sean Smith (CB), Brandon Flowers (CB), Sanders Commings (FS), Eric Berry (SS)
Bob Sutton's misguided assumption that now-departed free safety Kendrick Lewis was capable of serving as the lone deep man in his Cover 1 doomed the KC defense before a snap was ever played.
He was, of course, very not capable, forcing Sutton to abandon his bread and butter early in the year. Kansas City rid itself of the struggling defensive back earlier this offseason—a reasonable first step in repairing its broken secondary.
The anticipated battle between Sanders Commings and Husain Abdullah to fill Lewis' void could prove one of the most intriguing storylines of the Chiefs preseason.
Commings, a converted corner, appeared in only two games last year—his rookie season—due to multiple injuries. Unlike Lewis, he's athletic enough to cover the width of the field, in turn, making the Cover 1 a viable option once again.
His 4.41 40-yard dash at the 2012 NFL combine would've been top among all safeties had he not been listed at cornerback. Additionally, he boasts the hands of a wide receiver, which should dissuade opposing QBs from taking many haphazard shots downfield.
Though not as athletically inclined as Commings, Abdullah was fairly impressive as a role player in 2013. He steadily improved as the year wore on; his two-interception performance in the AFC Wild Card Game was undoubtedly his best in a Chiefs uniform.
But, he's started only one season in his five-year career—that with the Minnesota Vikings in 2011. It seems he's better suited as a role player, not an every-down safety.
Commings owns the edge here, but KC fans could see a healthy dose of both.
Eric Berry will return as the starter at free safety. Already a perennial Pro Bowl selection, he graded higher than both Jarius Byrd and Earl Thomas in 2013 according to Pro Football Focus (h/t Arrowheadaddict.com).
There's little to be said here; he's an elite option at the position and should be a candidate to reach his fourth Pro Bowl in five seasons.
At cornerback, Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith are set to again serve as every-down starters.
Flowers had a bit of a down year in 2013, appearing substantially more vulnerable than in past seasons. That was in part due to his transition to nickel corner, where he was routinely tasked with covering slot receivers.
Though he'll still get a healthy amount of snaps on the outside, his true value is at nickelback against three-receiver sets. Cooper will replace him on the outside when lined up against these formations.
Cooper, a converted wideout, was a strange mixture of awful and impressive throughout his rookie season.
At times, he appeared very capable, refusing to allow his assignment any separation. But before you could finish lauding his potential to your friends, he'd horribly blow coverage, leaving your foot firmly planted in your mouth.
But keep in mind that Cooper's development was rushed by Kansas City's immediate needs at corner. It was only his second season at the position—don't be shocked if he's among the Chiefs' most improved defensive players in 2014.
On the right side, Sean Smith should again be a staple, looking to build on last year's encouraging campaign. Though he missed some key tackles throughout the season, he may have been Kansas City's most consistent corner in regard to coverage.
He owns below average speed but makes up for it with his size—6'3", 218 pounds—and physicality. These tools enable him to press receivers at the line, disrupting timing routes. He'll only improve throughout his second year in KC.
Position Grade: C+
Starters: Joe McKnight (KR1), Knile Davis (KR2), Weston Dressler (PR)
Kansas City's special teams unit was as sound as any in the league last season.
Between the NFL's top kick return tandem—Quintin Demps and Knile Davis—and Pro Bowl selection McCluster handling duties as punt returner, Smith and the Chiefs offense routinely had their work cut out for them.
But Demps and McCluster are both gone, leaving Davis as the lone returning return man. (See what I did there?)
It shouldn't be a cause for concern. The acquisition of Joe McKnight, an All-Pro kick returner for the New York Jets in 2011, should help Kansas Citians get over the loss of Demps. He won't contribute to Reid's offense, which will allow him to concentrate exclusively on his special teams role.
McCluster's departure as punt returner stings a bit more.
Dressler may be the early favorite to fill the void here; he appears more than competent despite his sparse experience in the role.
But, no matter who gets the nod, there's just no replacing DMC. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub knows that and will do his best to cushion the blow. Though the Chiefs do downgrade here, it's not by much.
Bottom line: different cast, similar results in 2014.
Position grade: A-