Everyone’s optimistic in July, and for good reason. Other than for photoshoots, players haven’t worn pads in six months. Each team has close to 100 players in the fold. Young hopefuls fresh off of successful collegiate careers are joining free agent acquisitions and returning veterans. It’s a time for even the fanbases of the worst franchises to believe their beloved teams can be competitive. We all know each NFL team has warts, but for the most part, we’re unwilling to talk about them over the summer. I am. I mean, if I don’t do it, Kenny Cember will!
There are a number of problem areas some members of Chiefs Kingdom have neglected to mention this offseason. Things that could keep this football team from returning to the postseason. We’ll explore several of them today. We still have about a week to go before training camp opens. The Chiefs will be a team in transition until the home opener with the Tennessee Titans. Now is as good a time as any to put this team under a microscope so let’s not waste anymore time.
The Offensive Line
This position group took the biggest hit in free agency. The Chiefs lost Branden Albert to the Dolphins, Geoff Schwartz to the Giants, and Jon Asamoah to the Falcons. I think it’s safe to say most football teams would be hard-pressed to bounce back from the loss of their three best offensive linemen. The Chiefs have two extremely talented tackles left in Eric Fisher and Donald Stephenson, but they’re still fairly inexperienced and will need time to adjust to new roles.
In Fisher’s case, he needed to get stronger this offseason, but after two surgeries to correct a problem with his shoulder and a sports hernia, I’m not sure he’s done that. His development will be aided by a return to his natural position, but he’s still growing as a football player. Stephenson logged starts at right tackle in 2013 so I suspect he’ll have a slight advantage in settling in on the right side.
The departure of Asamoah and Schwartz also means a brand new starter at right guard. Camp and the preseason will decide which new face will occupy that spot. Right now, it’s completely up for grabs. Draftee Zach Fulton and second-year man Rishaw Johnson appear to be the leading candidates. With two players in new roles and a new starter at right guard, I think the Chiefs offensive line situation could be a bit tenuous to start the season.
Some of Kansas City’s toughest games will come early in 2014. This bunch will have to get adjusted during a part of the regular season schedule where they’ll face Jurrell Casey, Chandler Jones, Olivier Vernon, Cameron Wake, DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller, Ahmad Brooks, and Aldon Smith. Stephenson, Fisher, and the new starter at right guard will have to grow up quickly to keep Alex Smith clean (and healthy). A hitch in the progress of one or more of the Chiefs’ young lions along the offensive line could mean dropping some very important games this season.
The Tight Ends
Last year, Alex Smith’s top two tight ends played a total of nine regular season games. That had to be disheartening for a quarterback who often finds comfort in throwing to his tight end. The lack of production from the receiving group didn’t help. If the Chiefs’ offense is to take a step forward in 2014, they’ll need a bigger contribution from this position group. Fan favorite Sean McGrath, while serviceable, is unlikely to be much of an offensive weapon. In ten starts last year, he had just 26 receptions, 302 receiving yards, and 2 touchdowns.
Anthony Fasano’s the veteran of the group, but he missed seven games in 2014 due to a trio of injuries (knee, ankle, concussion). He’s the only proven commodity the Chiefs have at tight end, but it’s unclear just how reliable he can be at this stage of his career. Fasano turned 30 in April and his best playing days are probably behind him. Travis Kelce, former third-round pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, is Kansas City’s second-best option at tight end, but hasn’t yet played a significant snap. He was also injured last year, spending most of the season on injured reserve (with a micro-fracture in his knee).
Fans are pinning their hopes on the athletic Kelce, but it remains to be seen how well he can rebound from the injury. If he and Fasano continue to be nagged by injuries, I’m not convinced there’s anyone there to pick up the slack. The third tight end spot is probably down to either Sean McGrath or Demetrius Harris. McGrath’s got limited upside and Harris is still learning to play football, let alone the tight end position. If the Chiefs can’t get more out of this group in 2014, the offense may find it tough to continue making progress. With stiffer competition ahead, that’ll be vital to returning to the postseason.