First off, an explanation of how I am approaching this: I don’t look at this list as the 10 most productive players necessarily, but rather how important they are to the team and how much their loss would be felt. This is not a list of the Chiefs best players. A way of looking at it is, “who could we least afford to lose to a season-ending injury.”
1.) OLB Tamba Hali
This one may be a shocker right out of the gates. I know many people would put RB Jamaal Charles as the most important player to the Chiefs if they want to make a playoff run, but I get to differ. The Chiefs still managed to come within a blocked field goal of the playoffs without JC (and a whole lot else) last season. The Chiefs still had the 15th best rushing attack last year behind Jackie Battle, Thomas Jones and Dexter McCluster – not an inspiring bunch.
However, the Chiefs also only had 29 sacks (3rd least in the league) – 12 of which were Tamba Hali. Hali also probably deserves an assist on most of the other sacks that Chiefs players racked up, as opposing teams shifted their pass blocking to eliminate the pressure from #91. OLB Justin Houston should continue to up his game this year, but it’s hard to know how many sacks he would have gotten in 2011 if teams weren’t so focused on Hali. One thing we know for sure – if Hali goes down, our pass rush will be less than half as effective as it is when he is on the field.
Furthermore, the AFC West quarterbacking got a heck of a lot better this year. We won’t be playing against FB Tim Tebow twice a year, Rivers will surely bounce back from his worst season on record, and we won’t be so lucky as to catch Carson Palmer straight off the couch. We’re going to be playing Peyton Manning, Rivers and Palmer in late-season games for the division title. We will need Hali for that, hands down.
2.) SS Eric Berry
To my great surprise, the Chiefs have not addressed the team’s dreadful safety depth with anything more than a 5th-round CB who projects to the position and a handful of low-level journeymen and UFA’s. Berry going down last year spelled doom for the Chiefs defensive backfield, despite the fact that we have very talented corners. McGraw is dependable as a smart, slow veteran, but with both he and Berry out of the line up, Kendrick Lewis cannot make up the difference. The idea that Donald Washington might see the field for anything other than special teams this season keeps me awake at night.
3.) LT Brandon Albert
Our tackle depth is a mystery right now. While the Chiefs have a bunch of young bodies behind their bookends with Albert and Winston, there are no proven commodities among them. While LT’s are generally looked at as the guys who keep their QB’s healthy, Albert has also been vital to the Chiefs’ run blocking. The team was massively better running to the left than the right last year. If Albert were to go down, they would likely move Winston to LT, a position he is not ideally suited for, and we would be leaving a question mark at RT that could very likely be worse than Barry Richardson – as hard as that is to imagine.
4.) CB Brandon Flowers
What? Three out of the top four are defensive players? But our defense was strong and our offense was weak! True. But, with the exception of the Chiefs, the AFC West is going to be a passing division in 2012. Rivers is poised for a bounce-back, Peyton Manning is in Denver, and Oakland is going to be forced to pass due to the fact that they now have bad running back depth and they will be in shootouts with opponents because their pass defense was decimated in the offseason.
I still think Berry is more important than Flowers overall to the Chiefs pass defense, but losing Flowers would also put KC in a pinch. I am high on Routt, but he did not fair well as the #1 CB in Oakland and Javier Arenas and Jalil Brown should really stay in the slot. Travis Daniels could fill in for a game of two as the #2 CB, but he’s not athletic and would be a liability long-term.
5.) WR Dwayne Bowe
Jon Baldwin has yet to prove he can take on the #1 role. The Cassel-to-Bowe connection remains the entire passing offense.
6.) RB Jamaal Charles
Finally, you’re thinking, he gets around to mentioning our franchise player. I put Charles 6th because we unfortunately don’t know what we’re getting out of him this year and because the Chiefs now have killer RB depth. Our offense is indisputably more dangerous with him on the field, but we will be able to soldier on without him. Still, out of the ‘backs in the Chiefs stables, he is the only one with true home-run ability and that is something that the offense lacks all around. If the Chiefs want to be a contender, we have to make some big plays.
7.) QB Matt Cassel
He may not be Canton-bound, but he can be very productive with the guys the Chiefs have on the roster. Quinn has been inconsistent in his career and Stanzi is a mystery box.
8.) LB Derrick Johnson
DJ is the rock to the Chiefs’ defense. He’s a tackling machine and is a mean run-stuffer. He also can be counted on to make 1-2 phenomenal head’s-up plays per game.
9.) RT Eric Winston
Winston is here for the same reasons as Albert — he would be extremely difficult to replace. But, we also need to him to cover the Chiefs right side because effective pass blocking there will allow Moeaki and Boss to release and be additional targets for Cassel or to block downfield for Charles and Hillis.
10.) NT Dontari Poe
While I don’t think expectations should be too high, I’m betting that Poe ends up contributing for us this season. If we don’t get production out of Poe we will be relying on Amon Gordon – a decent starter at DE, but a substandard NT. Poe has the chance to make the entire defense stronger, or weaker.