Aug 9, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid talks to Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) after a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 Kansas City Chiefs: Why Free Agency And The Draft Aren't The Answer

ArmchairAddict1

Unfortunately, Kansas City Chiefs fans still have MONTHS to go before their beloved team plays meaningful football again. When you love a team as much as most of us love the Chiefs, it’s hard to wait out the spring and summer months waiting for our favorite sport to return. However, just because there are no games to be played anytime soon doesn’t mean that diehard fans aren’t glued to their computers, anxiously awaiting any tidbit of news about the team to hit the internet. That’s what makes blogs like this flourish, the undying passion of fans like you.

There is a downside to the 24/7/365 fanaticism that fuels our collective football passion. We tend to over analyze every single move (or non move) that the team makes in the here and now.

“Is Vance Walker an upgrade over Tyson Jackson?”

“Is Joe Mays just a run stopper like Akeem Jordan or will he be able to drop into coverage?”

“Are the Chiefs planning to start Jeff Linkenbach at guard or was he just a depth signing?”

“Someone should take Emmanuel Sanders’ agent out behind the woodshed and…….”

“Why aren’t the Chiefs signing (insert every big name free agent available)? They must not care about getting better!”

It’s natural. I’ve done it myself a thousand times. We follow this team religiously and want them to win SOOOOOOO badly that we NEED to see the team take some kind of action to reassure us that they want to win just as much as we want them to. So with nothing else to talk about, we obsess over free agency. We obsess over the NFL Draft. We compare what the Chiefs have done with what other teams have done to see which team has improved their roster more. After the draft we’ll hunt down every draft grade handed out by so called “draft experts,” searching for the ones that praise what KC did and mocking those that don’t.

While these discussions and debates are interesting (sometimes) and help to pass the time, the truth is that when it comes to the success of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2014 neither free agency nor the draft will have the biggest impact on the Chiefs winning more or less games than last season. While it may not trend on Twitter, grab newspaper headlines, or set the blogosphere abuzz, the truth is that the development of the players that are already on the roster will have the greatest impact on the success of the 2014 Kansas City Chiefs.

We’ve already heard and discussed that both GM John Dorsey and head coach Andy Reid like to draft and develop their own players and that free agency will be more to supplement the roster than to build it. The thing is that we tend to focus on the “draft” part of the “draft and develop” plan and ignore the “developing.” Part of that is because the NFL draft is the football fan’s equivalent to taking a five-year-old to Toys R Us. There are all these cool new toys that you want. The fact is, in a month they’ll be back to playing with the same favorite toys that they played with before the shopping trip, and the new toys will be mixed into the toy box with all the others. The trip to Toys R Us is fun and exciting, but rarely does it cause a long-term shift in the child’s toy hierarchy.

If you wanted to extend this metaphor to include free agency, it would be like an over-priced garage sale. You can get some good stuff there, but it’s either something someone else didn’t want anymore or were looking to sell because they needed the money more than the item (or in this case, player).

The bottom line is this:

We can obsess over the Chiefs’ first-round draft pick all we want, but regardless of who they take and if they’re the rookie of the year or a total bust, they still probably won’t impact the 2014 Chiefs team as much as the continued development of Alex Smith will. If Smith regresses, the Chiefs will too. If Smith’s final numbers are about the exact same as last season, then the best case scenario is probably another wild-card berth and early playoff exit. If Smith takes a step forward in his second year in Reid’s West Coast offense, then it will go a long ways toward helping the Chiefs take a step forward as a team too.

Is there reason to believe that could happen? I think so.

Smith finished the season with what were essentially career numbers for him, but they still paled in comparison to the NFL’s elite.

He finished with 3,313 yards passing, 220.9 yards/game, 60.6 percent completion percentage, 6.5 YPA, 23 TDs, 7 INTs

Those numbers are respectable, but they aren’t the kind of numbers that can carry a team. To win with numbers like that, a team would need both an elite run game and an elite defense. Jamaal Charles is certainly an elite running back and the Chiefs defense started the season looking elite but struggled mightily down the stretch. If KC wants to be a Super Bowl contender without drastically overhauling the rest of the team, they need Alex Smith to up his game in 2014. An argument can be made (and I’m about to) that Smith actually began upping his game in the second half of the 2013 season. If you look at the seven games he played after the bye week (six regular season games and the playoff game) Smith had the following numbers:

1,772 yards, 253.1 YPG, 62.8 percent completion percentage, 7.4 YPA, 18 TDs, 3 INTs

If you averaged those numbers out over a 16-game season you would get a line that looks like:

4,050 yards, 253.1 YPG, 62,8 percent completion percentage, 7.4 YPA, 41 TDs, 7 INTs

Those are numbers that I think most fans would be ecstatic about. Those are numbers that would make the Chiefs a force to be reckoned with next year. It’s not like we’re talking about a tiny sample size either. Seven games is almost half of a NFL season. If Smith can simply play like he did in the second half of his first season under Andy Reid, he’ll be well on his way to putting up numbers that would make him a top 10 NFL QB. The fact that Smith will be more comfortable and more experienced in Reid’s system should help the entire offense. Instead of learning the system himself, he’ll be able to act more as a coach on the field like other great QBs do. With another entire offseason under his belt, a step forward is not only reasonable, but probable. That progression is infinitely more valuable to the Chiefs’ success than signing Emmanuel Sanders or if they draft a WR or a safety in the first round. Would an improved WR core and stabilized offensive line help this happen? Of course, but it’s all moot without the continued development of Alex Smith in Reid’s offense.

Speaking of the offensive line……

While most of the Chiefs Kingdom is worried about who will start at RG next season, the development of the other four linemen is actually far more important. KC is set to start four young linemen in 2014. Donald Stephenson is 25 years old with 14 career starts. Jeff Allen is 24 years old with 27 career starts. Rodney Hudson is 24 years old with 19 career starts. Eric Fisher is 23 years old with 13 career starts. That means that those four starting linemen have less than five seasons of starting experience combined. If those four players all continue to develop and improve, KC’s line will be solid even if they don’t have a great player at RG. If the four young offensive linemen all fail to improve then even with an All Pro at RG the offensive line will be a problem.

While the youthful inexperience of the offensive line is a concern, it’s also a legit reason to believe that they will get better. Offensive linemen often need a few seasons to build the necessary strength and technique to take on veteran defensive linemen. While Eric Fisher in particular was a disappointment last season, he doesn’t strike me as the kind to pack it in. I have no proof that Fisher will be greatly improved, but I can say that I 100-percent believe that Fisher will work as hard as possible to get stronger and work on his technique to try and make it happen. Stephenson has flashed some potential in his limited playing time as well and Rodney Hudson is a promising center with only just a little over one season of actual playing time.

The only way to develop your own players is to eventually let them play. I’m not saying that the Chiefs should just hand over starting spots to players like Sanders Commings or Rishaw Johnson just because you want to develop them, but you at least give those players a chance to come in and try to compete for those spots. Let’s say that based on what they’ve seen in practice and in the week 17 game against San Diego that KC thinks Johnson can be their starting RG this season, then it wouldn’t make sense to sign a high-dollar free agent at that same position. You bring in a couple veteran options to compete (like Jeff Linkenbach) and give the young player a chance to earn it. Same for the starting safety spot. Maybe KC drafts a safety in the mid rounds and then lets that player compete with Commings and Husain Abdullah for the starting spot, with the best man winning.

Commings and fellow second-year player, tight end Travis Kelce are two wild cards that could become starters, or at least key contributors, that KC didn’t have last season without spending a dime if they can both successfully return from injuries.

We could have another discussion about the development of players like Marcus Cooper and Ron Parker that showed flashes last season. We could discuss the continued development of Dontari Poe who was flat-out dominant at the start of the season but slowly disappeared as the year went on.

The point is, if Kansas City is a “draft and develop” franchise, we as fans have to be able to have the faith and patience to let that process play out. It’s not a process that includes throwing huge contracts at free agents. It’s not a process that relies on a rookie class coming in and having five impact starters right out of the gate. It’s a process that puts the emphasis on the coaches teaching and developing the players that are here. The Chiefs Kingdom was impressed with the job this coaching staff did when they turned around a 2-14 Chiefs team that was a complete disaster and made them into an 11-5 playoff team in their first season here. If they were able to do that in one offseason, shouldn’t we at least give them a chance to show that they can continue to develop the players that are here before we begin to question their approach?

After all, last season wasn’t as much about developing players as it was teaching them all the system and the expectations. Now that those are in place, the development can begin. Can anyone promise you that all these players will develop like we’d like them to? Of course not, but after what this administration did in year one, I’m at least optimistic that it’s possible.

So I’ll continue to watch for any other free agent signings. I’ll be excited to see who KC is able to add in the draft next month. I’ll even search out those draft and offseason “grade cards” to see what the mainstream media think of what the Chiefs did, but I’ll also keep in mind that the real question is if the current Chiefs roster will continue to develop and improve.

It may not be flashy.

It may not grab headlines.

It may not generate a whole lot of web hits.

But I absolutely believe that it’s the number one key to the success of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2014.

As always, thanks for reading and GO CHIEFS!!!!!!!!!!!

Follow me on Twitter: @LyleGraversen

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