Commentary

Quiet Chiefs need statement in draft

Limited in free agency for cap reasons, pressure's on KC to land impact rookies

Originally Published: April 7, 2014
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Now that we're entering the third month of the offseason, it's worth making some early assumptions about what has transpired.

The Denver Broncos, for one, look far more dangerous with DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward joining their defense. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be one of the league's most intriguing teams after a flurry of moves that included the release of cornerback Darrelle Revis and the addition of defensive end Michael Johnson.

Then there are the Kansas City Chiefs. Given how quiet they've been thus far, no team in the league faces more pressure to hit it big when the draft arrives next month.

There is one obvious explanation for the Chiefs' lack of major moves since the period for signing unrestricted free agents began on March 11: They don't have much money to burn. Currently, they have about $4.5 million in salary-cap space, which ranks among the least favorable situations in the league.

Kansas City sorely needs a few more difference-makers on its roster for this coming fall. If the Chiefs don't find enough, we will be looking at a team that takes a major step backward after making significant strides last season.

[+] EnlargeAndy Reid
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesFor many reasons, Andy Reid and the Chiefs can't afford to stumble in May's draft.

The Chiefs were the most improved squad in the NFL in 2013. They traded for a quarterback who went on to play in the Pro Bowl (Alex Smith), signed solid role players (including cornerback Sean Smith and guard Geoff Schwartz) and went from a two-win season in 2012 to an 11-5 regular-season record a year later.

Now all those good vibes leave questions about what kind of encore coach Andy Reid can produce with this bunch. Given how this offseason has started, it's difficult to see the Chiefs being decidedly better.

Free agency already has stripped Kansas City of three offensive linemen: Schwartz, Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert and guard Jon Asamoah. There are still no new options at wide receiver that inspire confidence in an offense that struggled in the passing game for most of 2013. The secondary also remains a huge question mark once you get past Smith and Pro Bowlers Brandon Flowers and Eric Berry. The only good news back there is that safeties Kendrick Lewis and Quintin Demps both have moved on after struggling last fall.

Those are a lot of questions for a team that won only two of its last eight games (including a playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts). The Chiefs have made a handful of cap-friendly acquisitions -- the most notable being inside linebacker Joe Mays -- but those signings are addressing the need for depth more than anything else. The draft, on the other hand, is where Kansas City could seemingly find an impact player or two. If the Chiefs are going to find more help, this is likely where it will have to happen.

Some of this is by design, by the way. Kansas City general manager John Dorsey made his name during two decades with the Green Bay Packers, a team that normally has shied away from costly free-agent signings while under the direction of general manager Ted Thompson. Dorsey has brought that same mindset to Kansas City. Like every perennial contender in this league, the Chiefs want their home-grown talent to lead them as far as this team possibly can go.

That would be a philosophy that sounds even more encouraging if the first draft of the Dorsey-Reid era hadn't been so disappointing. Right tackle Eric Fisher, who moves to the left side this season, should be grateful the Chiefs started so fast, because few people were talking about his first-year struggles.

Two other players didn't contribute because of injuries (tight end Travis Kelce and safety Sanders Commings), while three others couldn't find much opportunity to get snaps (linebacker Nico Johnson, center Eric Kush and defensive end Mike Catapano).

The two most encouraging signs for Kansas City's 2013 rookie class? Running back Knile Davis came on late after struggling with fumbling issues and cornerback Marcus Cooper, who was signed after the 49ers released him, proved that he could be a contributor with more seasoning.

To be fair, the Chiefs aren't the only team that didn't reap instant rewards from their rookie class last season. There are plenty of franchises that go through similar growing pains with young players each year. However, Kansas City is one team that can ill afford to go into a second season with such little production from its less-experienced talent. The more last year played out, the more apparent it became that Kansas City was winning largely off coaching and good timing. (No team in the league faced more subpar quarterbacks in the first two months of the season than the Chiefs.)

As much as Kansas City needs that class to grow up in a hurry -- Fisher, for one, has to make huge strides as Albert's replacement at left tackle -- it's clear the Chiefs will have to hit a home run in the first round this year.

The smart money says that selection will be a receiver, since that was the Chiefs' biggest offensive issue in 2013. There will be ample choices at that spot when Kansas City's 23rd overall pick arrives, including some prospects with the requisite speed to open up the Chiefs' offense. It also wouldn't be shocking to see them add another pass-catching tight end, a cornerback and a safety in the later rounds.

What the Chiefs can't afford to do is believe they can return to the playoffs based solely on what they have returning this year, a foundation that includes eight Pro Bowlers. Even with the AFC being light on dominant teams, Kansas City has the misfortune of playing in the deepest division in the conference.

The Broncos will be a strong favorite to return to the Super Bowl, while the San Diego Chargers are coming off a strong late-season finish and wild-card berth. A stumble or two against a much stronger schedule -- the Chiefs will play four games against NFC West opponents -- and Kansas City could find itself on the outside looking in when next season's playoffs begin.

The good news is that it's still early in the process, and that this draft is deep. Like most teams, the Chiefs have to believe they can land quality talent, even without the benefit of the second-round pick they surrendered to San Francisco as part of the Alex Smith trade. So it is quite possible that this conversation could be totally different six months from now. If it isn't, Reid's job may be more difficult than it ever was in 2013.

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.