The Chiefs sat atop the AFC West entering their Week 8 bye last season, alone in first place despite possessing one of the league's weakest offenses. With a week off to prepare for a home game against the upstart Packers, Kansas City looked poised to claim a third straight victory and strengthen its grip on the division. Nine consecutive losses later, the Chiefs limped to the finish line with a 4-12 record, their worst since 1978.
What went wrong? For starters, Kansas City was never as good as its 4-3 record indicated. Aside from an impressive Week 4 win at San Diego, the Chiefs topped three non-playoff teams by a combined 12 points. The offensive line was a complete mess, and a season-ending injury to star running back Larry Johnson left an already sputtering offense without its engine. By the time Brodie Croyle inherited the starting quarterback job in Week 11, the Chiefs were already ranked at or near the bottom in most major offensive categories.
The sting of such a dismal season still fresh in his mind, coach Herm Edwards (in tandem with president/general manager Carl Peterson) gutted the roster, severing ties with numerous veterans and underachieving players. Despite entering just his third season with the team, Edwards has dramatically restructured the Chiefs. Of the 70 players on the roster at press time, only nine were with Kansas City when Edwards took over in 2006.
Offensively, the Chiefs have some weapons to work with - Johnson, Tony Gonzalez, and last year's exceptional rookie Dwayne Bowe - but the skill positions are not without question marks. Bowe will be the team's unquestioned No. 1 receiver, but after jettisoning the aging Eddie Kennison and the perennially disappointing Samie Parker, Kansas City has no clear-cut second option. Perhaps the biggest mystery is whether Croyle can prove he is capable of being the franchise quarterback, a question that can only be answered if the retooled offensive line can keep him upright long enough for the coaches to make an accurate assessment.
The Chiefs stole the pre draft headlines in April by shipping Jared Allen, the league's reigning sack champion, to Minnesota for three draft picks. Allen wanted out of Kansas City and the Chiefs received fairly good value in return, but his contributions will not be easily replaced. To help mitigate the damage to the defensive line, the team grabbed massive defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey with its first pick in the draft, hoping his presence inside will help ease the pressure on the rest of the front seven.
Edwards' youth movement has the Chiefs moving in the right direction, but an impact on the win column is likely a few years away. Five or six wins seems to be the ceiling for such an inexperienced team.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (5) Glenn Dorsey, DT, LSU
Dominant presence should make immediate impact.
1. (15) Branden Albert, G, Virginia
Instant upgrade for a depleted line may move to tackle.
2. (35) Brandon Flowers, CB, Virginia Tech
Good fit in Chiefs' Cover 2 scheme.
3. (73) Jamaal Charles, RB, Texas
Change-of-pace speedster can make plays.
3. (76) Brad Cottam, TE, Tennessee
Massive tight end will learn from one of the best.
3. (82) DaJuan Morgan, S, N.C. State
Special teams ace with potential to be more.
4. (105) Will Franklin, WR, Missouri
Fast and explosive, can stretch the field from the slot.
5. (140) Brandon Carr, CB, Grand Valley State
Unrefined player will add secondary depth.
Ty Law, CB (FA)
At 34, didn't mesh with Herm Edwards' push towards youth.
Those who watched their fantasy seasons crumble when Larry Johnson went down with a season-ending foot injury in Week 9 know the value of owning his top backup. Kolby Smith - who had an adequate rookie campaign - remains the safest handcuff for Johnson, but third-round pick Jamaal Charles may be the man to watch. Charles can flat-out fly, and reaches his top gear tremendously quickly. He'll find a way to get on the field early, especially if the Chiefs utilize his abilities as a pass-catcher to get him into space, where his speed is most dangerous.
CALLING ALL RECEIVERS
Kansas City, now under the hard-nosed, pound-the-run philosophy of new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, will never be mistaken for a pass-happy team. When Brodie Croyle does go to the air, however, he needs weapons to work with, and right now the arsenal looks pretty weak. Tony Gonzalez is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and Dwayne Bowe looked even better than advertised in his rookie campaign, but the talent level drops dramatically after the top two targets. The leading candidates to line up opposite Bowe are Jeff Webb, who was second among the team's receivers last year with 28 catches but never displayed any consistency, and free agent signee Devard Darling, who managed all of 20 catches in four seasons with Baltimore.
NOW OR NEVER
If Croyle is ever going to put the doubts to rest and decisively stake his claim to the starting quarterback job, this is the year. He went 0-6 as a starter last season, plagued by the same problems that prevented him from winning the quarterback battle in training camp - troubles with his accuracy, a propensity to throw interceptions and poor decision-making. If his performance in those areas doesn't improve and Kansas City again finishes in the 4-5 win range, the Chiefs may be looking for a quarterback (perhaps Georgia's Matt Stafford) with their top-10 pick in next year's draft. Edwards is building a young, high-potential foundation around his starting quarterback, but his best laid plans will go awry if Croyle fails to capitalize on the situation.
None of the above will matter unless the offensive line - just a few seasons removed from being one of the league's most dominant units - can rebound from last season's disaster. The Chiefs allowed 55 sacks in 2007 - tied for the most in the NFL - and averaged just 78 yards rushing per game, also the league's worst mark. After dismantling the group in the offseason, Kansas City will piece together the 2008 edition with rookies (first-round pick Branden Albert may start at left tackle), free agent pickups (Wade Smith could be the starting center), and young leftovers from last year (Rudy Niswanger, Will Svitek, etc.). Veterans Brian Waters and Damion McIntosh will also return.
Rising: Although he'll garner a lot of defensive attention, Dwayne Bowe led all rookies with 995 yards receiving last season and could be even better with a year of experience under his belt.
Declining: After starting the first nine games last season, 34-year-old Damon Huard gave way to Brodie Croyle in Week 11. Sleeper: Jeff Webb is the most established player battling for the No. 2 receiver job. He's also entering his third year, the time when many wideouts enjoy breakthrough seasons.
Supersleeper: Croyle's strong arm could mean big things for Will Franklin, a blazing runner who gets downfield in a hurry.