AFC West: 2012 Free Agency

The Kansas City Chiefs are giving Peyton Hillis one season to prove he is more like the 2010 version, who excelled under Brian Daboll, and not the 2011 version who struggled with several issues.

In an attempt to bolster their potentially dangerous offense, Kansas City brought the powerful running back -- who spent his first two NFL seasons with the Denver Broncos -- back to his AFC West roots. Hillis, who was traded from Denver to the Cleveland Browns in a deal for quarterback Brady Quinn two years ago, signed a one-year deal worth $3 million with Kansas City.

Under new offensive coordinator Dabol in 2010 Hillis ran for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns. Hillis will be a complementary back to Jamaal Charles, who is expected to be back after tearing an ACL in Week 2, and provides insurance if Charles is not 100 percent by the start of the season. The Chiefs are also still visiting with San Diego Chargers free agent Mike Tolbert and there is a chance Tolbert could be added to the backfield as well.

The Chiefs are a ground-based team and Hillis is a good fit. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. loves the addition in Kansas City.

“Hillis runs with extreme aggression and also catches the ball much better than many realize since he is a big power," Williamson said. "I worry about his durability, but with Charles, he should be the complementary piece.”

Last season without Daboll, Hillis struggled in several areas. He had just 587 yards and averaged 3.6 yards a carry during a year where he graced the cover of the Madden video game.

It was a strange season for Hillis. He was questioned for missing a game when he was ill, there was a reported player’s intervention for him because of his unhappiness over his contract, he went through several agents, and he has denied a report that he thought about quitting football last season to join the CIA.

Because the Chiefs are not committing to Hills for the long term, the team is protected if Hillis does not revert to his 2010 days. I expect Hillis to play very hard as he tries to prove to the Chiefs and to the rest of the league he deserves the long-term deal he has long desired.

Hillis is another interesting component to Kansas City’s offense. An offense featuring Charles, Hills, receivers Dwayne Bowe, Steve Breaston, Jon Baldwin and tight end Tony Moeaki is powerful. It has the potential to both wear down opponents and to score quickly. The Chiefs are trying to make it even better. They are trying to sign Tolbert and former Houston standout right tackle Eric Winston. Plus, the team is bringing in former Oakland tight end Kevin Boss to pair with Moeaki.

Instead of trying to replace quarterback Matt Cassel, it seems that the Chiefs are bent on giving him as much help as possible. Potential Cassel competitors Jason Campbell, Kyle Orton and Chad Henne have all signed elsewhere.

With a defensive-minded head coach in Romeo Crennel, it is clear the Chiefs believe pumping up the offense is the team’s biggest priority and securing Hillis to a team-friendly deal is a solid start.
Of course, Peyton Manning is going to be the quarterback who everyone will be keeping their eyes on this offseason. However, there is an AFC West quarterback who is also coming off an injury who may be one of the top under-the-radar prospects.

Keep an eye on Jason Campbell. Capping a stunning turn of events that started five months ago when he broke his collarbone, Campbell will very likely leave Oakland. Had Campbell not been injured, he would have likely signed an extension with the Raiders by now.

Acquired in a draft weekend trade with Washington in 2010, Campbell made steady improvements and was becoming the undisputed leader of the Raiders at the time of his injury. However, then-Oakland coach Hue Jackson traded two premium picks to Cincinnati for Carson Palmer, two days after Campbell was injured. The Raiders are now married to Palmer.

Because he will get other opportunities in free agency, Campbell very likely will not return to Oakland. At the very least, Campbell will likely get a chance somewhere to compete for a starting job in training camp. That would not be the case in Oakland.

Among the potential candidates to sign Campbell may include the Jets, Jacksonville, Miami and Seattle. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said he thinks Campbell will be one of the best quarterback bargains available in free agency and I think he could find a new job within the first couple of days of free agency.
The San Diego Chargers may say goodbye to another running back.

Mike Tolbert is a free agent and there is a solid chance he could leave San Diego. The Chargers may make a play to keep him because he is so versatile. However, San Diego has other needs, and it could have trouble keeping Tolbert because several other teams may show interest and make it difficult for San Diego to keep the role player.

Denver and Kansas City could be among the several teams to make a play for Tolbert. I know Ryan Mathews is the Chargers’ starter and he has showed great signs of coming on, but I don’t think the Chargers can let Tolbert walk.

He is a threat as a runner, blocker, receiver and on special teams. He is one of the team’s toughest players and he is adored in the locker room.

It may not be prudent to lose a player like Tolbert a year after Darren Sproles left in free agency to New Orleans. The Chargers regretted letting Sproles go to New Orleans. He was sorely missed. Tolbert would be, too.

While Sproles was a threat to score every time he touched the ball as a runner and as a receiver, Tolbert brings a different element as Mathews’ backup. He’s a punishing runner and he’s solid in short-yardage situations. He averaged 4.0 yards per carry last season and had eight rushing touchdowns, while adding 54 catches.

The Chargers would have to go out and find a replacement for Tolbert if he walks. After seeing Michael Turner leave after the 2007 season and Sproles go last season, I think it’s time for the Chargers to do what it takes to keep a running back from running away in free agency.