|Injuries to Matt Cassel and Jamaal Charles derailed the Chiefs' AFC West title defense. (US Presswire)|
The Kansas City Chiefs are coming off their fourth losing season in five years, and that's not good. But this is: They finished only one game out of first in the AFC West, and they did it without their star running back and star safety for most of the season, without their starting quarterback for most of the second half and with twice as many turnovers (28) as the year before.
No, the Chiefs aren't that far away. In fact, they won the AFC West only two years ago and were in the middle of a division race last season until quarterback Matt Cassel bowed out.
There is talent on this roster, and the needs aren't widespread. But Cassel must stay in the lineup and return to his error-free play of 2010, while the Chiefs must do a better job defending the run and taking care of the ball.
Or we're looking at another losing season.
QB: Cassel is back from a season-ending hand injury, and he returns as the unquestioned starter. Still, there are people who wonder how deeply the Chiefs are committed to him. They were open about their willingness to take a look at Peyton Manning if and when he became a free agent -- an indication, some believe, that the Chiefs aren't sold on Cassel. C'mon, get real, people: It's Peyton Manning. A team like Kansas City would be foolish not to inquire. The Chiefs are 18-21 with Cassel at quarterback and won a division title the last time he was healthy. The key here will be how he meshes with new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who was on the New England staff when Cassel sat behind Tom Brady. "Matt's the guy," guard Ryan Lilja told the Kansas City Star. "He's going to take us places." Brady Quinn, who played for Romeo Crennel in Cleveland, is the backup, which means there's always the chance the Chiefs reach for a quarterback -- although the chances of it happening early in the draft are slim.
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RB: Jamaal Charles is another casualty who returns after a torn ACL ended his 2011 season. Charles is an exciting, dynamic back who was the star of the league's top-ranked rushing offense in 2010. Without him, the Chiefs dropped to 15th one year later. Thomas Jones turns 34 this summer and is just about out of gas, with his average of 3.1 yards per carry the evidence, while Dexter McCluster has been little more than a third-down back, receiver and return specialist. The Chiefs need to make more and better use of him. Acquiring Peyton Hillis was smart. He runs hard, is tough between the tackles and can be productive. Look what he did in Cleveland in 2010 as the Browns' No. 1 offensive option. Daboll was his offensive coordinator then, and, guaranteed, he knows the right plays to dial for him. Shaun Draughn, who came off the practice squad at the end of last season, is the fourth option.
WR: Dwayne Bowe is the team's franchise player, which tells you how much Kansas City values him. Bowe is and has been the No. 1 option outside, catching a team-high 81 passes last season and 153 over the past two. But he couldn't find the end zone in 2011 as he did the year before, with his TD catches dropping from 15 to five. That must change. Steve Breaston is solid as the second option, and the club is hopeful Jonathan Baldwin improves on a disappointing rookie season. Nevertheless, the Chiefs need more depth at this position. McCluster could be a dynamic playmaker if he touched the ball more often.
TE: The loss of Leonard Pope to Pittsburgh leaves Kansas City with Tony Moeaki and Kevin Boss as their top two tight ends, and that's not bad ... provided, of course, Moeaki recovers from the torn ACL that sidelined him last season. Moeaki said he plans on participating in OTAs, but that's not the problem. This is: The guy has a history of injuries going back to the University of Iowa.
OL: With the addition of Eric Winston on the right side, the Chiefs are set at both tackle positions. Branden Albert is coming off a decent year at left tackle, and that's good considering that he's charged with protecting his quarterback's blind side. Now, look what happened when Kansas City ran the ball: Its greatest success was around the left side set by Albert. He is a valuable member of this unit, and his contract expires after this season. Rodney Hudson settles in at center, taking over for Casey Wiegmann, and he showed signs a year ago that he's ready for the move. The club is covered at the guard positions, particularly on the right side where Jon Asamoah played well, but it should start grooming someone behind Lilja, who wore down as last season wore on. Backup tackle David Mims is raw, while Steve Maneri's background as a tight end makes him an ideal fit in tackle-over formations.
DL: There's a glaring need at this position, staring with the nose. For the moment, Jerrell Powe is the starter, but stay tuned. I can't imagine the Chiefs not looking for someone in this year's draft, especially after their run defense finished 26th and was shredded for 244 yards on 55 attempts by Tim Tebow and Denver. A plugger is needed in the middle to replace Kelly Gregg, and that guy might be in the draft. First-round picks Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson haven't fulfilled their promise as defensive ends, with the two combining for one sack last year. With the Chiefs producing 29 -- 12 by linebacker Tamba Hali -- it's no secret they must improve at squeezing the pocket. And with Dorsey entering the last year of his contract it's time to start finding a replacement. Amon Gordon can play inside or out, while defensive end Allen Bailey showed signs of improvement. Bottom line: Help is needed here, inside or out.
LB: Hali and Derrick Johnson were chosen to the Pro Bowl, and they deserved it. Both had outstanding seasons, with Hali producing a team-high 12 sacks and four forced fumbles and Johnson finally playing up to expectations. Both are extraordinarily talented, and both are players opponents must take into account when playing Kansas City. Justin Houston came on as a rookie, especially in rushing the passer where he finished with 5½ sacks, and he should only improve with experience. Brandon Siler and Jovan Belcher are adequate in the middle, but the Chiefs could use an upgrade opposite Johnson to complete this group.
DB: The importance of this position is accentuated by the arrival of Manning in the division. With Manning, Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer on the schedule six times, the Chiefs figure to be in more sub-packages than they were in 2011 when they had five or more defensive backs on the field nearly 50 percent of the time. The club figured to lose cornerback Brandon Carr to free agency, so it launched a pre-emptive strike by landing Stanford Routt. Routt and Brandon Flowers are solid at the corners, while Javier Arenas is not only capable as the nickel back but is one of the team's top blitzers, too. Having Eric Berry back at safety is a plus, and having him paired with Kendrick Lewis completes what should be a decent secondary. Once you get beyond Arenas, there are questions, though rookie Jalil Brown showed promise. Scott Pioli has chosen a defensive back in every draft as Kansas City's GM, and it wouldn't be a surprise if that trend were to continue this year.