Scott Pioli had options. In each of the last four offseasons, NFL teams searching for front office guidance targeted the man who helped mold the Patriots into a modern dynasty. Yet when Pioli finally jumped ship in January, he landed with a team that hasn't won a playoff game since 1993 and has fewer wins than the hapless Lions over the past two seasons.
Pioli seemed to be searching for a real fixer-upper to work his magic on, and the 2-14 Chiefs certainly fit the bill. The new general manager began reshaping the team immediately, jettisoning coach Herm Edwards (15-33 in three seasons) and hiring former Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Pioli then struck a deal with his former cohorts in New England, sending a second-round draft pick to the Patriots for quarterback Matt Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel.
Although he was an instant success in New England, helping to transform a 5-11 team into Super Bowl champions in his first year as director of player personnel, Pioli cannot be expected to revitalize the Chiefs in the same timeframe. For a team that started three different quarterbacks last season, the addition of Cassel marks a significant improvement, but glaring deficiencies remain on both sides of the ball. On offense, running back Larry Johnson could be released before training camp, future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez is wearing black and red in Atlanta, and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe is still waiting for a reliable sidekick to line up on the other side of him. Defensively, Pioli seems ready to rely on aging veterans like Vrabel and Zach Thomas to resurrect a pass rush that set a league record for futility last year by recording just 10 sacks.
Fantasy-wise, the pickings are slim, especially with perennial fantasy stud Gonzalez no longer an option. Bowe is probably the only skill position player who will be a starter in leagues across the board, but Johnson (if he sticks around as the primary back) and Cassel (if he can find a productive receiver outside of Bowe) could become low-end starters if things break their way. On defense, Haley's switch to a predominantly 3-4 scheme could lead to growing pains for some players who will be forced to switch positions.
With Haley and Cassel in tow, the Chiefs will likely improve in 2009, but expect the progression to be in baby steps, not a Patriot-sized revolution. Six or seven wins seems to be the ceiling for a team that right now cannot stack up talent-wise with the AFC's elite. Time will tell whether Pioli can make a difference.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (3) Tyson Jackson, DE, LSU
Not a great rusher, but fits 3-4 mold and should be a long-term solution at DE.
3. (67) Alex Magee, DT, Purdue
Adds another piece to the 3-4 puzzle; will likely switch to DE.
4. (102) Donald Washington, CB, Ohio State
Fast, athletic corner joins promising young secondary.
5. (139) Colin Brown, OT, Missouri
Terrific size (6-7, 340) but lacks athleticism.
6. (175) Quinten Lawrence, WR, McNeese State
Explosive, run-after-catch type receiver who needs polish.
7. (212) Javarris Williams, RB, Tennessee State
Lacks prototypical speed and must overcome small school concerns.
7. (237) Jake O'Connell, TE, Miami (OH)
Has the size and speed to get open but needs to improve blocking.
Pat Thomas, LB (Bills)
Started first nine games at MLB but was never a serious IDP option.
KING OF THE CASSEL
Kansas City churned through quarterbacks last season faster than the Arrowhead Stadium faithful plow through helpings of their famous pregame barbeque. Brodie Croyle, Damon Huard and Tyler Thigpen each started at least two games, and even receiver Marques Hagans was under center for a few plays in Week 2 against Oakland. The arrival of Matt Cassel from New England should finally put the quarterback carousel to rest. We felt a lot better about Cassel's fantasy prospects before the Chiefs shipped Tony Gonzalez to Atlanta, but even without a productive tight end, Cassel should still find success targeting the up-and-coming Dwayne Bowe, a reliable veteran in Bobby Engram and last year's pleasant surprise, Mark Bradley. The "flash-in-the-pan" risk is present, but even if he doesn't approach last year's 3,693 passing yards, Cassel should be a good No. 2 fantasy quarterback, with the potential to be a low-end No. 1.
Since signing a $43.2 million contract two summers ago, Larry Johnson seems to be going back to his diaper days, averaging just 72 rushing yards per game. In the two seasons prior to his big payday, Johnson was tearing up the turf at an average of 111 yards per contest. Oversimplification yes, but Johnson clearly has not been the same runner since getting his money. Couple that with his recent legal problems and trade requests, and it's no wonder why there is rampant speculation that Johnson will be released this offseason. However, we call it speculation for a reason, because the Chiefs have not made any public statement that they are actively seeking to move Johnson through a trade or a release. If Johnson sticks around, he will run behind an improving offensive line that should find it easier to open holes as long as Cassel is forcing defenses to respect the passing attack. Consider LJ one of the biggest fantasy enigmas entering the summer, as he could get cut before camp or he could finish the year as a highly productive fantasy running back.
FORMER TIGHT END IS T-GONE
Regardless of how inconsistent the Chiefs were offensively, fantasy players could always pencil in 75-100 receptions, 900-plus yards and five-plus touchdowns for All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez. With Gonzalez now chomping on Georgia peaches with Matt Ryan in Atlanta, that is no longer the case. At press time, Kansas City's top option to replace Gonzalez is Brad Cottam, a tall second-year player who never caught more than 14 passes in a season during his college career at Tennessee. New coach Todd Haley's offenses in Arizona never placed much emphasis on the tight end (Ben Patrick led the way with 11 catches last season), and we expect much of the same in Kansas City.
Rising: Jamaal Charles will get plenty of touches even if Larry Johnson sticks around and should become Cassel's favorite pass-catching option out of the backfield.
Declining: Even though the Chiefs have declined to officially name a starter at quarterback, Tyler Thigpen stands no real chance at winning the job.
Sleeper: Mark Bradley snagged 30 passes for 380 yards last year and could improve with a new quarterback...if he can stay healthy.
Supersleeper: Brad Cottam can't hold a candle to Tony Gonzalez, but his 6-7 frame could make him a touchdown threat in the red zone.