For the Kansas City Chiefs and every other team in the National Football League, the initial casting of the wide net for players is done. Most free agents have been acquired, the Draft is behind us and college free agents have been selected. And like with every team, the next phase of the offseason is now upon us– where the Chiefs take their analysis of each player one step further to determine what their role will be on the 2013 roster.
I believe there are three roster questions that rise above all else this offseason. But first, let’s address the positional battles that I’m not as concerned about, because it’ll simply be a case of “may the best man win.” These battles– at corner, safety, the defensive line, inside linebacker and the offensive line– will be important, but it’s not any more complicated than having talented individuals compete to see who starts.
The likely starters at cornerback will be Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith, and the safety positions will likely be filled by Eric Berry and Dunta Robinson. In nickel packages and backup roles, we have a host of potential players, like rookie Sanders Commings; free agent Husain Abdullah; current backups DeQuan Menzie, Jalil Brown, Tysyn Hartman and Neiko Thorpe; and of course, former starter Kendrick Lewis. To start opposite Flowers and Berry at corner and safety respectively, as well as fill the nickel and backup roles, may the best man win.
Similarly, on our three-man defensive front, we’ve got Dontari Poe locking down the nose tackle and four options for defensive end in Tyson Jackson, free agent Mike DeVito, Allen Bailey and rookie Mike Catapano. I think Jackson and DeVito win out as starters, but again, may the best man win.
There’s another hot positional battle to play opposite Derrick Johnson at inside linebacker – free agent Akeem Jordan versus Alabama rookie Nico Johnson. May the best man win here as well.
My last “may the best man win” positional battle is our entire offensive line. For the first time since the glory days of Will Shields and Brian Waters at guard, John Tait and Willie Roaf at tackle and Casey Wiegmann at center, the Chiefs have the personnel to have a dominant offensive line and better-than-average backups. It looks like the Chiefs are going to lock up Branden Albert for the long-term. Joining Albert will be first pick Eric Fisher, free agent Geoff Schwartz and promising young talent in Jeff Allen, Jon Asamoah, Rodney Hudson and Donald Stephenson. With Albert and Fisher, this could be a unit for the ages.
The competition to start at corner, safety, the defensive line, inside linebacker and the offensive line will be a fight for the players and a great summer topic for us. But the arithmetic is pretty simple: if you outperform your competition, you will start.
These next three offseason questions are much bigger, because they have the potential to be multiplicative in nature, in that if they go bad, they create more than one problem. Not coincidentally, they all revolve around our receiving game. I’ll list them by draft pick:
1. Jon Baldwin, first pick, 2011 Draft
2. Dexter McCluster, second pick, 2010 Draft
3. Tony Moeaki, third pick, 2010 Draft
We’ll start with wide receiver Jon Baldwin, whose off-the-field and on-the-field challenges have been widely documented, including a great post by Nathan Bramwell yesterday. I’d like to focus on his production, relative to his draft position. The Chiefs selected Baldwin in the first round as the 26th overall pick in 2011. As Nathan noted, other receivers who went in the first round were Pro-Bowlers A.J. Green at fourth overall and Julio Jones at seventh overall. Offensive “skill” players drafted after Baldwin included quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick. The 2011 Draft class may be one of the weakest in recent history, but still yet, if Baldwin doesn’t play like a first-rounder this year, then not only are the Chiefs out a starting wide receiver, but the opportunity cost of losing a first-rounder puts the Chiefs at a competitive disadvantage, particularly in the AFC West. That year, the Denver Broncos got a gold mine in Von Miller with the second overall pick and the San Diego Chargers picked a two-year starter in defensive tackle Corey Liuget. Of course, the Oakland Raiders didn’t have a first round pick in 2011, because, well, they are the Oakland Raiders.
Next up: Dexter McCluster. The Chiefs selected McCluster with the fourth pick in the second round in 2010. By way of comparison, in 2010, offensive skill players chosen after McCluster included Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski and Seahawks’ receiver Golden Tate. McCluster has shown flashes of greatness but he’s also suffered injuries and the uncreativity of offensive coordinators on how to make best use of his explosive talents. We saw this year, when we didn’t have one, how valuable a second round pick is. If Chiefs Offensive Coordinator Doug Pederson can’t find a way to maximize McCluster’s talents, then once again, we will have failed to secure a starter and suffered the opportunity cost of losing a second round pick.
Finally, we come to tight end Tony Moeaki. Moeaki, who missed all of 2011 after tearing his ACL, was selected in the third round by the Chiefs in the 2010 Draft. Since he was drafted, Moeaki has 80 receptions for 1,009 yards and four touchdowns. In comparison to other third round tight ends from 2010, the Ravens’ Ed Dickson has 86 catches for 905 yards and six touchdowns, while the Saints’ Jimmy Graham has 215 receptions for 2,658 yards and 25 TD’s. Moeaki has underperformed, because of injury and outputs.
Each of these three players has stiff competition this year. For Baldwin, it comes from free agent acquisition Donnie Avery. For McCluster, it’s Devon Wylie. And Moeaki has free agent pickup and NFL starter Anthony Fasano and promising third rounder Travis Kelce to compete with for starter’s rights. I’m hoping Baldwin, McCluster and Moeaki each win out, because if they do, it shows that they do indeed have the talent to start and second, it’ll make the Chiefs’ initial investments whole.
I think it’s no accident that all three of the biggest potentially multiplicative problems are on the offensive side. In the six seasons since 2006, the Chiefs have had seven offensive coordinators: Mike Solari, Chan Gailey, Todd Haley (pulling double duty as Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator), Charlie Weiss, Bill Muir, Jim Zorn and Brian Daboll. This Chiefs’ offense has been in search of an identify since, arguably, the 2005 season when we went 10-6 under Head Coach Dick Vermeil and Offensive Coordinator Al Saunders (with a hat tip to Charlie Weis, who had the offense humming in 2010!). While the plights of Baldwin, McCluster and Moeaki are all individual position battles, each of them only make sense within a larger, cohesive system. If Pederson can pull that off, then he’ll help these these players find their way to a starting role.
Addicts, those are my top three offseason questions for the Chiefs to answer. What are yours??!!