Ranking the 7 Biggest Upgrades the Kansas City Chiefs Made This Offseason

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistJuly 24, 2014

Ranking the 7 Biggest Upgrades the Kansas City Chiefs Made This Offseason

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    Upgrading a roster that went 11-5 in 2013 has been a series of trade-offs for the Kansas City Chiefs. Head coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey have settled for less and taken risks in some positions in order to be stronger at others.

    A fine example is along the offensive and defensive trenches. The Chiefs let three solid O-linemen walk in free agency.

    But those losses didn't prompt the recruitment of marquee replacements. Instead, the team has enlisted some veteran retreads, along with two unheralded rookies.

    By contrast, free-agency dollars were spent on the defensive line and not just on depth. The Chiefs made a move specifically designed to improve their starting options.

    It's a similar story at wide receiver. An obvious position of uncertainty went ignored in both the draft and free agency. Meanwhile, Reid and Dorsey did use their top pick to bolster an already formidable pass rush.

    Here is a more detailed ranking of Kansas City's seven best upgrades this offseason. Moves are ranked based on how they upgrade a specific position, as well as their impact on the whole team.

Depth Behind Dontari Poe

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    The Chiefs entered this offseason needing to upgrade the depth behind overworked nose tackle Dontari Poe. By letting Jerrell Powe walk, bringing back Kyle Love and signing Jermelle Cudjo, that's exactly what Reid and Dorsey have done.

    The need for more options at arguably the pivotal position on the front seven was obvious. As ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher has noted, Poe was on the field too much in 2013:

    Pro Bowl nose tackle Dontari Poe was so valuable to the Kansas City Chiefs last season he rarely came out of the lineup. Pass situation or run, first quarter or fourth, close game or blowout and Poe was on the field for the Chiefs.

    That’s not strange for a linebacker like Derrick Johnson or a defensive back such as Eric Berry. But Poe goes well over 300 pounds and it’s unusual for a player of his size to see so much playing time.

    The intense workload clearly took its toll on Poe's massive frame. That was obvious when considering the decline in his production.

    Poe registered 19 combined tackles and 4.5 sacks in his first five games, per game logs from NFL.com. But he failed to post another sack in his final 10 games.

    In his report, Teicher was dismissive about the options the Chiefs still have behind Poe. However, he needn't be.

    Love is a capable 0-technique who well-versed in two-gap principles from his days with the New England Patriots. But Cudjo is the more interesting option. The ex-St. Louis Rams rotational player has a thick frame and decent initial quickness.

    Those attributes, combined with his experience in 4-3 schemes, mean Cudjo can be a more attack-minded nose tackle. Rather than control gaps, he can split them.

    That's something Kansas City defensive coordinator Bob Sutton can utilize. He regularly let Poe alter his alignment to become more penetrative, rather than just being an immovable mass.

    Cudjo and Love can surprise as capable reserves this season. Neither has the size that Powe offered, but both are more disruptive players who are suited to Sutton's aggressive scheming.

    Keeping Poe fresh will ensure more consistent pressure from the interior and protect the integrity of the team's base 3-4 defense.

Secondary Depth

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    Last season's secondary depth began with Dunta Robinson. Signing him was a botched move that inevitably ended in his release. However, that left secondary depth a little thin heading into the offseason

    The problem was compounded when utility safety Quintin Demps signed with the New York Giants during free agency. But the Chiefs have done some solid work restocking their options in the defensive backfield.

    That work began with signing veteran cornerback Chris Owens. He is something of a journeyman, having played for three different teams in five seasons. But he has good blitz skills and should make a solid, sub-package cover man in Kansas City.

    He'll be joined by third-round pick Phillip Gaines. Drafting the ex-Rice standout earned Sutton a tall, quick and opportunistic cornerback. Just as important is Gaines' ability to flip to safety if required. This intriguing young talent offers the Chiefs depth at two important positions.

    The secondary is perhaps the most suspect unit on this season's roster. But the Chiefs have certainly gotten quicker, particularly at cornerback. Sutton also has a crowded field of options to shape into a deep final rotation.

    Considering how often this team may have to use extra defensive backs against AFC West passers like Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, numbers and speed will be major factors.

Signing Joe Mays to Replace Akeem Jordan

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    Losing starting inside linebacker Akeem Jordan to the Washington Redskins in free agency is a blow the Chiefs can withstand. In fact, the defense may be even stronger if new arrival Joe Mays takes Jordan's place in the middle.

    Mays is a quicker, more attack-minded 'backer than Jordan. He arrives with freshly minted 3-4 experience, having played in Wade Phillips' version of the scheme for the Houston Texans last season.

    That's an important schematic distinction in understanding why Mays can be an upgrade over Jordan. Phillips' 3-4 blitzes its inside linebackers more often than in traditional, two-gap schemes.

    Specifically, middle 'backers are given license to attack the backfield on "green dogs." That's the name given to the coverage-blitz responsibility exchange. It simply means that if the player an inside linebacker is assigned to cover, usually a running back, doesn't release on a pass pattern, the linebacker blitzes.

    Sutton brought a more aggressive version of the 3-4 to Kansas City in 2013. He'll likely welcome a more attack-minded linebacker like Mays.

    Mays' presence is another step toward firmly shedding the two-gap mantra of ex-head coach and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and moving closer to Sutton's more aggressive, multiple designs.

Replacing Kendrick Lewis with Husain Abdullah

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    One big reason why Kansas City's defense collapsed during the second half of last season was the play of free safety Kendrick Lewis. As the deep cover in Sutton's single-high schemes, Lewis was routinely isolated and exposed by opposition quarterbacks and receivers.

    That has prompted a necessary revamp at the position this offseason. Lewis is gone, joining Crennel with the rebuilding Houston Texans.

    His place is likely to be taken by the versatile Husain Abdullah. His versatility makes this move such a significant upgrade.

    Sutton has already been experimenting with ways to use his free safety in more attacking roles, per Randy Covitz of The Kansas City Star: "Though Abdullah, 28, is listed as a free safety, he can be found almost anywhere in the secondary, lining up in the box as a linebacker in the nickel defense, or in the slot as an extra cornerback, or playing deep in the base defense."

    That's important flexibility for this defensive system. First, it will allow Sutton to move strong safety Eric Berry around more often.

    Part of that movement could involve deploying Berry deeper, as Bob Gretz of BobGretz.com has pointed out: "It also means that defensive coordinator Bob Sutton plans to play him more often at free safety than in his usual role of playing in the box and essentially being a linebacker in the Chiefs nickel and dime defensive packages."

    Being able to rotate his safeties more often presents a dual-threat advantage for Sutton and his defense. First, it will allow him to disguise coverage more often given that many quarterbacks read safety alignments as their first precursor to a coverage structure.

    Second, if Abdullah can handle a lot of the box work that Berry does, Sutton will be able to call more safety blitzes. He could unleash either man at any time from anywhere on a formation.

    That's a huge advantage for a creative play-caller. It's also bound to cause havoc with protection schemes.

Extending Jamaal Charles

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    The decision to extend Jamaal Charles' contract by two seasons, per ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher, hardly upgrades the running back position. That was already in the safe hands of perhaps the best dual-threat weapon in the NFL.

    But awarding Charles fresh terms is about improving the mood around a team that has lost a lot of talent this offseason and still has major question marks over the futures of key players.

    Quarterback Alex Smith still needs a new deal, as does star outside linebacker Justin Houston. By paying out to bring Charles back, the Chiefs have let everyone know they'll do what it takes to retain their best assets.

    FYI, from all I’ve been told Charles' new deal shouldn’t have much of an impact on negotiations for Houston or Smith. Both can get done.

    — Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) July 24, 2014

    The move also ensures the happiness of this team's most important offensive weapon. Charles was the leading rusher and receiver in Kansas City last season. It's tough to see either of those things changing this campaign.

    Now the Chiefs have a placated team star available for camp. They have also sent a message to players, fans and pundits that their other stars won't be forgotten.

Replacing Tyson Jackson with Vance Walker

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    Speeding up the transition between the size-first, containment-based two-gap defense the Chiefs played under Crennel to Sutton's more multiple, daring schemes has been a theme this offseason.

    It's evident in the acquisition of Mays, the decision to let Powe walk and the choice to promote Abdullah. But nowhere is the acceleration of this schematic shift more obvious than at defensive end.

    Sutton's voice was clearly a loud one in the process that let Tyson Jackson depart to be replaced by Vance Walker. Jackson is a beefy two-gapper who offers little else other than absorbing blocks and stuffing the run.

    By contrast, Walker is a versatile and dynamic pass-rusher who is capable of playing multiple techniques and aligning at various spots across the front.

    Walker's agent, Tommy Simms, endorsed his client's flexibility, via Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star:

    He played up and down the line (in Oakland), and had he stayed at the three-technique (defensive tackle), he felt like he could have doubled his stats total. He’s got some ability to rush the passer, so I think in the end, they realized they’re getting a guy who’s a three-down player.

    Walker is at his best attacking the B-gaps between offensive guards and tackles. He has the quickness to slant and stunt, qualities which will increase the Chiefs' ability to generate pressure from their D-line.

    Walker's greater range will allow Sutton to incorporate more one-gap principles into his base defense. That means more pressure and big plays.

Adding Dee Ford

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    Drafting Dee Ford was without a doubt the best move the Chiefs made to upgrade their roster this offseason. Specifically, adding him strengthens an already formidable pass rush.

    Houston and Tamba Hali are terrors on the outside. However, this defense struggles mightily without them. That was evident when Houston missed five games last term, while Hali missed one game.

    Without their relentless pressure off the edges, Sutton's man coverage schemes were shredded. NFL.com writer Chris Wesseling has described how much Houston's absence negatively impacted this defense:

    The Chiefs' defense allowed a scant 16 points per game with Houston in the lineup last season versus 25 when he was sidelined with an elbow injury for five games. He has piled up 21 sacks in his last 27 games.

    That won't happen again with Ford around. He has drawn high praise from teammates and coaches this offseason.

    AL.com writer Mark Inabinett reported how one teammate in particular was left wowed by Ford during OTAs:

    Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Joe Mays called Dee Ford 'a freak,' and he meant it as a compliment.

    First, his new NFL teammates were comparing the first step of the former Auburn defensive end to that of Derrick Thomas, an ex-Alabama and Kansas City linebacker who's in the Pro and College Football Halls of Fame. Now, Mays, who joined the Chiefs from Denver, has compared Ford to Broncos linebacker Von Miller, who has recorded 30 sacks in his two full NFL seasons.

    The former Auburn ace not only gives Sutton an obvious marquee reserve but also expands what the coordinator can do with his sub-package schemes. Sutton will relish crafting pressure fronts featuring all three of his dynamic outside linebackers.

    Drafting Ford has allowed the Chiefs to protect two of their best assets. Houston's long-term future is still unresolved, while Hali's looks dubious, as Wesseling also noted: "This season might be Hali's swan song in Kansas City. He will carry a $12 million salary-cap figure in 2015, and the Chiefs will have impressive rookie Dee Ford primed for a bigger role."

    But drafting to a strength also made sense for the present. Reid and Dorsey clearly made a decision. Rather than retool the secondary with marquee newcomers, they opted for an even stronger pass rush to combat the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers.

    That's a gamble worth taking to stay relevant in the competitive and offense-led AFC West.

    The Chiefs are entering this season stronger in their best area, namely the defensive front seven. They also added much-needed speed to a plodding and predictable secondary that was burned by the deep ball too often last season.

    It will be the defense that carries this team—so it only makes sense that the best upgrades have come on that side of the ball.