NFL Free Agency: Breaking Down the Kansas City Chiefs' Line Prospects
When I first started this series looking at potential gaps in Kansas City’s lineup and how to fill them in free agency, I didn’t expect to have quite so much to write about in this second piece.
It’s amazing how a couple days can change the landscape. In the span of three days, the Chiefs have lost as many players on their offensive and defensive lines. First Ron Edwards left on a three-year contract to Carolina. Then today, Kansas City’s other nose tackle/defensive end, Shaun Smith, packed his bags for Memphis, tweeting that he’s signed with Tennessee.
Then on the other side of the ball, the Chiefs released All-Pro guard Brian Waters in a move called “mutually beneficial.”
How releasing a team icon in a position already on the thin side is beneficial for the Chiefs is beyond me, unless it involves freeing up cap space for more free agents—which is a little hard to believe considering Kansas City was already an estimated $30 million under the salary cap.
The defensive line is likewise thinning out, particularly at the nose tackle position.
As Kansas City prepares for next season, it’ll now have to pay considerably more attention to its personnel in the trenches.
Yeah, I wasn’t going to be able to write this without using that phrase at least once.
Fortunately, there are still players on the market who can fill Kansas City’s needs.
The team's often-maligned tackle position is looking like one of the more stable ones at this point for the Chiefs. Offensive tackles Branden Albert and Barry Richardson look to be on hand to resume their positions, but their lone current reserve, Ryan O’Callaghan, is still lingering in free agency.
The Chiefs have brought in a handful of undrafted rookie agents to compete for roster spots on the offensive line. The position is sorely in need of another veteran presence on the line.
At this point, New England’s Matt Light and Denver’s Ryan Harris are the top options at tackle. Light is certainly the more accomplished and has the Scott Pioli tie-in. However, he wouldn’t necessarily be looking to take a backseat to Albert, who doesn’t need a year relegated to a reserve role at this point.
Harris is a more likely target, which would add depth to the right side. Harris would compete with Richardson, who would back up the left side regardless.
Baltimore’s Jared Gaither would have been another option who could play either side of the line, but the Raiders are reported to have wrapped him up earlier today. It's just as well, since Gaither has a reputation for attitude problems.
A late possibility would by Indianapolis' Ryan Diem. The Colts reportedly demanded Diem take a pay cut or be released earlier today. If Diem was shown the door, he could find himself paired back with Ryan Lilja, who was a free agent from Indianapolis last year.
The Chiefs are quickly running out of options, either way.
Prediction: Ryan Harris
Alternate: Ryan Diem
Kansas City’s interior weakened considerably with the release of Brian Waters. However, this certainly opens the doors for last year’s third-round pick Jon Asamoah to step into the starting role. There’s still an outside chance Branden Albert could shift to left guard if the Chiefs make a move on Matt Light, though Albert had plenty of success last year clearing the way for Jamaal Charles.
The center position is Kansas City’s lone strength on the line right now. With veteran Casey Wiegmann back on board for 2011, the Chiefs have last year’s starter ready to anchor the middle of the line.
More importantly, second-round pick Rodney Hudson will spend the next year learning behind one of NFL’s true ironmen. Hudson is the heir apparent to Wiegmann and has the talent and mindset to lock down the center position for years to come.
At right guard, Ryan Lilja, last year’s free agent, is the uncontested starter. This wouldn’t be too large an issue except that the Chiefs don’t have anyone slated for a backup, either. Kansas City will have to bring in at least one more guard, preferably two, to start the season. There’s a chance Kansas City’s undrafted rookies could fill this role, but another veteran would be a safer bet.
Arizona's Deuce Lutui would have been a decent prospect: a perennial starter with a connection to Todd Haley. Unfortunately, Cincinnati got there first, signing him Friday evening before he failed his physical and was returned to the Cardinals.
Atlanta also has a pair of guards on the market, Harvey Dahl and Justin Blalock. Both are decently respected, but likely to collect larger paychecks than what Kansas City is willing to pay. Both players would also be looking to start, which would push Asamoah back to a reserve role and stunting his development.
Rather than spend the money to snag one of the Falcons’ guards, though, the Chiefs will probably simply re-sign Rudy Niswanger and move him to guard, though he was unimpressive enough to lose the starting position to Wiegmann at center.
The guard position isn’t quite as precarious as tackle; Kansas City has definite starters inside, so a pick like Niswanger will be acceptable for more depth and allow Asamoah a real shot at starting.
Prediction: Rudy Niswanger, Casey Wiegmann (Signed)
Alternate: Various undrafted rookie free agents
On the other side of the ball, Kansas City has a large amount of money tied up in their players, but are still looking for a solid return on their investment.
Glenn Dorsey is certainly the prize of the defensive line, though he still might be better suited as a 4-3 tackle rather than a 3-4 end. Dorsey has made the best of the situation, though, and has done well helping collapse the pocket against the pass. Dorsey is arguably one of the greatest contributors to Tamba Hali's AFC-leading 14½ sacks last season.
Backup end Wallace Gilberry certainly demonstrated his value to the team last season. In addition to starting two games, Gilberry came in just behind Hali in sacks, putting the quarterback to the ground seven times. Used primarily in passing situations, Gilberry has outperformed the other end, sharing the spot opposite Dorsey.
Which brings up Tyson Jackson. The No. 3 overall selection in 2009, Jackson has underwhelmed fans who were expecting a player of his draft position and paycheck to terrorize opponents. The Chiefs' front office still has a fair amount of confidence in Jackson, according to this article on Arrowhead Pride, though it sounds like they're counting on him more based on potential rather than past production.
Kansas City brought in a pair of ends through the draft, either hedging their bets and/or looking to add depth. Allen Bailey, drafted in the third round, is considered to be a solid run stopper and ideal for the 3-4 position. Fifth-round pick Gabe Miller is listed on the team website as an end but, with a 6'3", 257-pound frame, might be better suited at linebacker.
Options for Kansas City in free agency here are limited, but mostly due to cost rather than personnel. The Chiefs cannot look to add another player with a large price tag without jettisoning one of their current starters.
Should Kansas City decide to sign another player, recently released Ty Warren from New England would be the best bet. A prototypical 3-4 end, Warren has four Super Bowl appearances and one All-Pro selection. Warren has also had injury issues the last three seasons, spending all of 2010 on injured reserve.
That might scare some teams off looking for a new starter. For the Chiefs, though, it would only lower the asking price for a quality reserve.
Alternate: Ty Warren
Nose tackle is certainly Kansas City's weakest positions at present. Incumbents Shaun Smith, who played both DE and NT, and Ron Edwards surprisingly both walked in free agency—Edwards first to Carolina, then Smith earlier today to Tennessee.
The Chiefs are now sitting with little-known Anthony Toribio and Dion Gales as their starting tackle options. Sixth-round pick Jerrell Powe could develop into the role, but Kansas City is not likely to bank on him anchoring the center of their defensive line in Week 1.
The premier talent at this position in free agency is San Francisco's Aubrayo Franklin. The former 49er should cash in heavily as an unrestricted free agent, which isn't exactly what people have come to expect from Scott Pioli. With the Chiefs' current room under the salary cap, though (estimated to be in excess of $30 million), signing Franklin is certainly not beyond reason.
A more likely prospect would be Baltimore's Kelly Gregg. The 12-year veteran will turn 35 this year, but should still have some tread left on the tires. Gregg could still perform in spot work and bring an experienced tackle to the Chiefs' lineup.
However, Gregg would likely be more of a free-agency signing akin to the 2009 signing of Zach Thomas rather than Mike Vrabel. Vrabel was an effective and consistent player in Kansas City's lineup the last two years, while Thomas was ineffective and released by the end of preseason.
Chiefs fans are hopeful for Franklin, but might have to content themselves with a less expensive option. After all, Kansas City already has plenty of money tied up in their defensive line.
UPDATE: Kansas City signed Kelly Gregg Saturday afternoon.
Prediction: Kelly Gregg
Alternate: Aubrayo Franklin