Back in 1988, the Kansas City Chiefs used the second overall pick of that year's draft on a promising young defensive end named Neil Smith from the University of Nebraska.
In the season that followed, the Chiefs ended up with the league's worst rush defense, hemorrhaging a horrific 162 yards per game. That season, the Frank Gansz-led Chiefs floundered their way to a 4-11-1 record.
In 1989, the team spent its first round pick on a future Hall of Famer, selecting pass-rushing menace Derrick Thomas with the fourth overall selection in that year's draft.
Thomas racked up 10 sacks in his rookie campaign and earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. The team finished 8-7-1, and improved its rush defense from dead last the previous year to a respectable 12th, allowing just 110 yards on the ground per game.
On the surface, it would seem that Thomas was the key to the Chiefs dramatic improvement in their rush defense that season. However, Thomas was more of a benefactor than source of the team's stiffer rush defense, which bottled up opposing running backs on first and second down, and allowed Thomas to tee off on unwitting quarterbacks on 3rd-and-long.
Who was the real key to the Chiefs turnaround stopping the run that season? It was a little known free agent named Dan Saleaumua.
At 6'0" and 315 pounds, the imposing Saleaumua became expendable in Detroit because of a guy named Jerry Ball, probably the best nose tackle in the game at the time. Saleaumua, a fiery overachieving former seventh-round draft pick, was a perfect fit for a Chiefs defense in desperate need of a run-stuffing nose tackle for the middle of its defensive line.
In Saleaumua's eight seasons anchoring the middle of Chiefs' defensive line, Kansas City allowed just 104 yards rushing per game, ranking 12th in the league during that span.
Fast forward to 2010.
Coming off a 4-12 season where the Chiefs spent the third overall selection on a promising young defensive end named Tyson Jackson, this year's team was also horrible against the run. Ranking 31st of 32 teams, the Chiefs' defense allowed over 156 rushing yards per game.
So where should the Chiefs concentrate their efforts to upgrade their personnel this offseason?
Here's a list of positions in desperate need of an upgrade if coach Todd Haley has aspirations to make a move from the cellar to the penthouse of the AFC West in 2010.
Priority No. 1: Nose Tackle
While it would be a dream come true for new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel if somehow Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh fell to the Chiefs in this year's draft, the chances of that happening are about as remote as Dwayne Bowe never dropping another pass.
By far, the most important position in the 3-4 defense, a solid nose tackle is absolutely necessary in stopping the running game.
This past season, the Chiefs tried to fit a square peg into a round hole, putting veteran Ron Edwards at nose tackle. Edwards, who works best as part of a rotation in a 4-3 alignment, simply never commanded the double-teams you come to expect from even an average nose tackle.
If the Chiefs expect to win anymore games in 2010 than they did in 2009, they must improve at the nose tackle position.
Priority No. 2: Cornerback
After the defensive line in a 3-4 defense, the next most important position on the field is the cornerback position.
Cornerbacks, with the ability to matchup one-on-one against the league's best receivers, are essential to allowing blitzing linebackers and stunting defensive ends to get to the quarterback.
The Chiefs, after solid seasons from Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr in 2008, thought they had the right combination going into 2009.
They were wrong.
Carr took a major step backwards in 2009, struggling when asked to play man coverage and allowing receivers like Miles Austin and Jabar Gaffney to rack up career days against him.
Just as those great Chiefs defenses in the '90s had a solid run-stopper in the middle of their defensive line with Saleaumua, they also had great cornerback tandems like Albert Lewis and Kevin Ross, and Dale Carter and James Hasty.
Even if the Chiefs find a force to fill up the middle to shore up the defensive line against the run, they need an upgrade at cornerback if the 22nd ranked pass defense is going to improve.
Priority No. 3: Wide Receiver
Stated simply, when the Chiefs had both Bowe and Chambers in the lineup, the whole offense played better.
The line played better, Jamaal Charles played better, Matt Cassel played better...they all played better.
After Bowe and Chambers, the drop off to the team's next best receiver is comparable to falling off the edge of a cliff in the Grand Canyon.
Bobby Wade, Lance Long, and Terrance Copper may work hard and be decent special teams players, but they are a far cry from what offensive coordinator Charlie Weis needs for his No. 2 or 3 receiver in this offense.
Even if the Chiefs re-sign Chambers, who is a free agent, they need to find a slot receiver to give Cassel a full compliment of weapons.
With a draft class loaded with receivers who can step right in and provide an upgrade over Wade, Long, and Copper; it seems virtually certain that the Chiefs will grab someone in the draft.
Priority No. 4: Offensive Line
Many Chiefs fans will point to the number of sacks allowed by the Chiefs last year and deduce that the offensive line, particularly the tackle position, is the biggest need for this team in 2010.
While I agree that the team needs to upgrade it's personnel on the offensive line, it's for an entirely different reason.
The Chiefs line did fine last season when quarterback Matt Cassel had both Bowe and Chambers at his disposal. Truth be told, the pass protection for Cassel was average at worst when he had the full arsenal of Bowe, Chambers, and running back Jamaal Charles at his disposal.
So why is offensive line a priority if it's not to improve the pass protection in front of Cassel?
Short answer—Brian Waters isn't going to play forever.
Sure, Waters is planning on playing in 2010, but heading into his 11th NFL season, the time to find an eventual replacement is now.
The Chiefs could also use an upgrade at the center position, as Rudy Niswanger simply gets over matched against the league's top nose tackles. With more and more team's moving to the 3-4 defense, Niswanger is fast becoming a liability in the Chiefs running game.
Priority No. 5: Running back
Thank goodness for Twitter.
Just think, if Larry Johnson didn't have his inevitable meltdown and slam his coach on his Twitter page, we may never have seen how good Jamaal Charles can be in this offense.
Over the course of the last nine weeks of the season, Charles emerged as the league's best rusher not named Chris Johnson, averaging a league-best 5.9 yards per carry. He clearly goes into the 2010 season as Kansas City's No. 1 running back.
So why is running back a priority this offseason?
Because if Charles goes down, the Chiefs have no one worthy of replacing him on the roster. The next most effective back the Chiefs had, when Charles wasn't in the game, was late season pickup Tim Castille.
If the Chiefs want to insure that they don't become a one-dimensional passing offense, should Charles go down with an injury, they will need to acquire a complimentary back to assume the No. 2 running back position.
Whether the Chiefs acquire a player who is a bigger back that can run between the tackles, or someone with a burst who can get to the edge, he most certainly will need to be able to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Priority No. 6: Safety
If there's one person that thinks the Chiefs don't need an upgrade at safety, it's San Diego tight end Antonio Gates. In his two games against the Chiefs this past season, he caught 12 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns.
After starting free safety Jarrad Page went down in week five against Dallas, journeyman Jon McGraw joined fellow Big 12 alum Mike Brown in the Chiefs defensive backfield.
McGraw, a career special-teams player, played admirably in 2009 despite being overmatched on an almost weekly basis in the passing game. Brown, showed that at age 31 he has clearly lost a step (or two) and can no longer play man coverage against even the most average of receiving tight ends, let alone the caliber of guys like Gates.
If the Chiefs can't acquire another solid cornerback to compliment Flowers and move Carr to nickel, an upgrade at safety is an absolute must. However, if the Chiefs can address the cornerback position, then Crennel's defense still could flourish without a big-time upgrade at either safety position.
While safety will almost certainly be addressed this offseason, upgrading the aforementioned cornerback position would make even a unit of McGraw and Brown better in 2010.
After all, when you look back at all those great Chiefs defenses of the 90s, everyone remembers Lewis, Ross, Carter, and Hasty. Not many will remember that the safeties who started behind those guys were named Charles Mincy, William White, David Whitmore, and Brian Washington.
Priority No. 7: Linebacker
More specifically, the Chiefs need to find a player who can eventually replace Mike Vrabel.
Tamba Hali did a great job this season of converting from a defensive end in a 4-3 to a blitzing outside linebacker in the 3-4. But with Vrabel showing his age, the Chiefs need to find a replacement for him with more speed that can get after the quarterback, and also cover a running back out of the backfield or fall back into zone coverage.
If the Chiefs cut ties with Derrick Johnson in the offseason, this position jumps up to No. 2 or 3 on the list.
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