Scott Pioli, Kansas City Chiefs Face Important Offseason
The Kansas City Chiefs 2011 season was one that certainly did not meet expectations, exposing holes in the roster and a lack of depth. Exit Todd Haley, enter Romeo Crennel, and replay the worried look on Scott Pioli’s face because his job is now on the line. Scott Pioli knows that this offseason is the most important of his career; one he must ace if he wants to continue heading football operations at 1 Arrowhead Drive. Pioli will have to work the draft and free agency hard this season to turn around a team that was seemingly going in the right direction only a year ago.
So what are the needs facing the Chiefs this offseason? As far as immediate needs are concerned, the consensus seems to be at quarterback, right tackle, and nose tackle. Looking further, guard, center, inside linebacker, defensive end, tight end, and free safety could be upgraded. After that begins the needs for depth at running back, center, and strong safety.
Let us begin with perhaps the most important position on the field, the quarterback. Matt Cassel’s play this year was certainly subpar. Cassel missed important reads on wide-open receivers and turned the ball over in critical situations. Cassel’s showing has fans in KC worked up over whether or not he should be the future at the position. I’d have to say I side with those that say he’s not. Can Scott Pioli do anything to remedy the situation this year?
Some wish to have Kyle Orton re-signed to at least provide a veteran competitor. Others wish to give up a truck load of picks to snag a quarterback in round one. A few are considering the free agent market or mid-round quarterbacks in the draft. Superficially, it appears Kyle Orton is saying goodbye and believes this is “Matt Cassel’s team.” Orton will want a shot to be a starter in the NFL, but can Scott Pioli convince him the competition is open here in KC?
Looking at free agency, the class is a bit lackluster. Perhaps Green Bay’s Matt Flynn would be an upgrade, but his body of work is very small and there would be risk involved. Operating in Green Bay’s offense could be masking some deficiencies; much like operating New England’s offense did for Matt Cassel.
Focusing on the NFL draft, it doesn’t appear Kansas City will have the ammunition required to move up for a quarterback in round one. It appears the Colts will draft Andrew Luck at number one overall. The consolation prize becomes Heisman winner Robert Griffin III. With St. Louis at the second pick and Minnesota at the third pick, both having young quarterbacks of the future, there is room to move up before Cleveland in the fourth spot. The cost would be great to move up to number two; at least two first round and two second round picks. That would be a baseline. Cleveland has the ability, with two first round picks in this year’s draft, to really control their own destiny. It doesn’t appear that Pioli is the type of general manager that will pull the trigger on a deal of that proportion. So Chiefs fans, we are probably looking at a mid-round quarterback being drafted again this season and no new blood under center in 2012. If anything else, drafting a quarterback in the mid rounds will improve the depth chart. Tyler Palko needs to be released; I think we’ve all seen enough. It doesn’t appear Ricky Stanzi is an option yet either, so the Chiefs have to do something.
Mid round quarterbacks seldom blossom into starting caliber players, but there are a few to watch in the upcoming draft. My favorite is Ryan Lindley out of San Diego State. Lindley has a rocket arm and shows decent touch on short and intermediate throws. In watching Lindley, he reminds me of a young Brett Favre coming out of Southern Miss. Lindley also goes through progressions and is familiar with a traditional offense and taking snaps under center. Lindley needs to work on his reads and get coaching on his footwork, but he could be the diamond in the rough at the position this year. Lindley has prototypical size at 6’4” and 230 pounds, and can move around some. Lindley looks to be a third round pick, but could see his stock rise if he has good workouts.
The next glaring hole is at nose tackle. Kelly Gregg signed only a one year deal with the Chiefs and he is 35 years old. I wouldn’t expect the Chiefs to re-sign him given his age and drop-off in production as the season wore on. There are a couple of options this year though.
The first option is in free agency where Aubrayo Franklin should be available. Franklin was solid in San Francisco as a nose tackle in the 3-4, but decided to bolt for New Orleans and a one-year deal. Franklin didn’t fit as well in the 4-3 front and didn’t see much playing time as a result. There is likely no way Franklin will re-sign with the Saints and he would be a welcome addition in KC. Franklin is young enough to man the position for another five seasons or so.
Another free agent option could be Paul Soliai out of Miami. With a coaching change and probably a house cleaning to come, Soliai could get lost in the shuffle. Like Franklin, Soliai is probably a bit underappreciated and could come cheap.
Looking to the draft, there are several decent but not so glamorous options. Some consider Dontari Poe of Memphis as a nose tackle candidate, although I disagree. At 6’5” and 340 pounds, Poe looks more like a defensive end in the mold of Haloti Ngata than he does a nose tackle, especially given his style of play.
Moving on to the next option is Washington’s Alameda Ta’amu. Ta’amu certainly looks the part at 6’3” and 340 pounds with thick, tree-trunk legs and a massive midsection. Ta’amu had a fairly solid junior season but his senior year didn’t seem as productive. He didn’t look quite as much like the immovable object either which sent his draft stock plummeting from possible first rounder to a third or fourth round pick.
Next up may be a Pioli type of guy and a guy I would take a chance on, Brigham Young’s Hebron Fangupo. Fangupo has prototypical size at 6’1” and 330 pounds and holds his ground well. Fangupo played defensive end in BYU’s 3-4, but he looks like he’d be better served on the nose. Fangupo may be the best bang for your buck in this year’s class.
Next up is Kansas City’s glaring need at right tackle. Barry Richardson is a free agent and given he was more of a revolving door that also had little push in the run game, his days as a Chief could be over. The Chiefs do not currently have a legitimate replacement on the roster from the looks of it. The Chiefs may be banking on the development of undrafted free agent David Mims. Mims is a mountain of a man that needed quite a bit of work on technique and serious time in the weight room. I’m under the impression that Mims will not yet be ready and I wouldn’t count on him to be the replacement. The Chiefs also have Steve Maneri and Ryan O’Callahan on the roster, with O’Callahan spending his season on injured reserve. To put it lightly, the future at the position looks bleak.
Looking to free agency, this year’s potential crop looks to be extremely thin. In fact, of all the potential options, Buffalo’s left tackle Demetrius Bell looks to be the cream of the crop. Buffalo would be well served trying to retain Bell even if he does look to be a better option on the right side, and I’m sure they’ll try. If Bell hits the market, I think Kansas City should look long and hard.
Where the Chiefs will likely find their new right tackle is in the draft but there is much speculation on what players are the best fit and where that player should be drafted. In general, teams do not draft a right tackle at the 11th or 12th selection. This likely eliminates a player like Iowa’s Riley Reiff from consideration. Jonathan Martin of Stanford doesn’t look to be the physical type needed to man the position either. In all likelihood, the Chiefs options will come later. Looking to round two, there are several very intriguing prospects, including Mike Adams (Ohio State), Zebrie Sanders (Florida State), and Bobby Massie (Mississippi). Adams and Massie are slightly thicker prospects than Sanders, but Adams and Sanders look like they could also play left tackle. Ability to be a swing tackle may be something to consider given the lack of depth if Albert were to go down. Round three looks to have Brandon Mosley (Auburn) and Andrew Datko (Florida State) as options. The true value in the draft may come around round four, where BYU’s Matt Reynold’s and Iowa’s Markus Zusevics are currently slated. Reynold’s has a load of experience at left tackle and is fundamentally sound. Reynold’s looks to be a guard or right tackle in the NFL and his ex-offensive line coach happened to be Logan Mankins college offensive line coach. That connection could be something Pioli looks at given Makins’ success in New England. Zusevics is also connected through coaching (Kirk Ferentz) to Pioli and is equally a fundamentally sound player. Neither player offers tremendous growth potential, but both look to be plug-and-play lineman that will give you solid production.
Following the obvious holes, are lesser holes that could either use better depth or competition for the starting spots. The one that seemed to stick out the most this year was the depth at running back after Jamaal Charles suffered a season-ending ACL injury. Thomas Jones looked slower and older all year and really wasn’t all that effective in any part of the game. The Chiefs’ third string back, Jackie Battle, is a free agent heading into the offseason. While Battle wasn’t electrifying, he was relatively solid for a third stringer that has spent most of his career contributing on special teams. I’m somewhat hopeful Battle is retained in a similar role. Dexter McCluster became a rushing option for Kansas City more out of necessity than anything. McCluster is one of those guys you want to try to get the ball to, but finding ways to do so without the defense keying on it has been a problem. McCluster hasn’t carved out a niche as a slot receiver and he proved to be too small to tote the rock often. McCluster is one of those spot players you can run some gimmicky plays with, but doesn’t seem to be a guy the Chiefs can count on to contribute in big ways in any part of the game. It has become obvious that the Chiefs really need to add another running back in the offseason.
There should be a plethora of running backs available this year in free agency that the Chiefs could look at. The one that stands out the most at this point is Atlanta’s Jason Snelling. Snelling is a big back, at around 240 pounds, that can get some tough yards. Snelling has proven he can carry a workload and he happens to be an excellent receiver out of the backfield. I see Snelling as a perfect thunder to Charles’ lightning with the added benefit of being a quality third down back the Chiefs desperately need. If San Diego’s Mike Tolbert hits the market, he would be a similar player and would fit equally well. Other backs to consider could be BenJarvus Green-Ellis (New England), Marshawn Lynch (Seattle), Michael Bush (Oakland), or Tim Hightower (Washington, coming off ACL injury). It will remain to be seen whether any of those backs become available.
Looking at this year’s draft, the position is fairly loaded but mostly at the top. There is some value in the mid rounds though. If the Chiefs are not confident in Charles’ ability to return in top form, Alabama’s Trent Richardson could be a very real possibility in the first round. I’m not a fan of taking a running back in round one, but I do like Richardson quite a bit and he has low mileage. The second and third rounds host a bunch of small, shifty, backs that are similar to Charles. While the Chiefs may be interested, I’m guessing they’ll look more favorably on slightly thicker backs that can take on a moderate workload and get tough yards on key downs. In the second, I really like Washington’s Chris Polk. He’s well put together and is solid in every facet of the game. Polk is a patient runner somewhat similar to former Chiefs’ back Priest Holmes. In the same round, Doug Martin of Boise State looks like a solid option. Moving into the third and fourth round range is Dan Herron (Ohio State), Vick Ballard (Mississippi State), and Tauren Poole (Tennessee). These few are more of the one cut, downhill runners that could be tremendous value for KC. All are solid receivers as well. Late in the draft, Lennon Creer (Louisiana Tech), Brandon Bolden (Mississippi), and Darrell Scott (South Florida) may be guys to keep an eye on through the process. Of those, Bolden is the most promising but is coming off of injury.
Another position that really stuck out was the lack of depth at safety, especially after Eric Berry went down. Jon McGraw was knicked up all season long and wasn’t as much of a contributor as in years past, plus he is starting look like he is slowing down. At free safety, Lewis is a keeper although he looks more like a reserve. After those three players, the position really loses quality. Sabby Piscitelli was awful. Rashard Langford and Donald Washington were suspect and showed their youth. In the end, it really looks like Kansas City could stand to improve the quality of depth at the position and even relegate Lewis to a reserve role by upgrading at free safety.
Peering into the free agent market doesn’t yield many options that would generate competition, more or less offer an upgrade. The only two players that would make an impact will probably be retained by their teams. The first one is Washington’s LaRon Landry. Landry is purely a strong safety, which would mean sliding the more athletic Berry over to free safety. Whether or not the Chiefs would want to make such a move is uncertain. The next player, and the one I see as most beneficial, is San Francisco’s Dashon Goldson. Goldson is a playmaker in that secondary that would really add another dimension to an already talented group in KC. I’m guessing the 49ers will do everything they can to retain Goldson, but he would probably top my free agent wish list if he became available. Brodney Pool (New York Jets) and Sean Jones (Tampa Bay) are guys that could interest Romeo Crennel given he coached them in Cleveland.
The draft looks equally weak on talent, but there are a few players that could fit. At free safety, Markelle Martin (Oklahoma State) and Aaron Henry (Wisconsin) look to have the rangy athleticism Crennel seems to like but they are currently marked as second and third round picks respectively. I would be surprised if Kansas City uses a high pick on the position. Strong safety doesn’t look at all impressive outside of Alabama’s Mark Barron who is looking like a first round pick. The one player I particularly like is a guy currently being considered as a cornerback and that is Arizona’s Robert Golden. He was moved from safety to corner and look good as a press guy, but I see his true value in the back end at free safety. In any event, it may be difficult for KC to get a solid safety in the draft so it may be wise to pick at the vet scrap heap again and sign one.
Moving back to the offensive side of the ball, there was a noticeable lack of quality at the guard and center positions this season. Ryan Lilja was okay, but got pushed backwards quite a bit. Casey Wiegmann flat-out looked like he should retire and that appears very likely. Jon Asamoah struggled in his first year as a starter. Rodney Hudson never saw the field at center, but had limited action at guard and looked good. This leaves big questions for the Chiefs this year across the interior. I’m a firm believer that quality play from guard-to-guard is one of the most important assets to the quarterback. This keeps pressure out of the quarterbacks face and allows him to maneuver better in the pocket. Quarterbacks can escape outside pressure if they can move around and step up. That task becomes increasingly difficult, as does reading the field, with pressure in the quarterback’s face. The Chiefs appear poised to go into 2012 with Lilja at left guard, Hudson at center, and Asamoah at right guard. Currently the Chiefs have one player under contract as a backup at any of those positions and that is Darryl Harris who we haven’t seen anything from. Clearly the Chiefs could improve and they certainly need depth.
Searching free agency for fixes to the interior offensive line could be difficult given that there may be some really expensive options and a whole bunch of less than stellar options. It remains to be seen what their teams will do, but the two big fish in the pond this year are Baltimore’s Ben Grubbs and New Orleans’ Carl Nicks, both at guard. The more likely one to hit free agency will be Carl Nicks and Kansas City would be well served to pay whatever it takes to get him. After that the position thins out, but Tennessee’s Jake Scott could be an option. At center, it looks as though most of the guys will be re-signed, but Jeff Saturday (Indianapolis) could be a short-term answer. The one player I expect Pioli to go after if he hits the market is New England’s Dan Connolly. Connolly has starting experience at both guard and center in New England because of injuries, but likely will fall back down the depth chart with Mankins and Koppen good to go. Connolly would certainly challenge for a starting spot and improve the overall depth chart.
It looks likely that the Chiefs will once again have to explore the interior offensive line in the draft. It would be difficult to outline every prospect here because there are many that would fit the Chiefs, but I’ll offer a few. David DeCastro (Stanford) could be the Chiefs first round pick if he’s the best player available. DeCastro is the best looking interior line prospect I have seen in forever and will certainly be a plug-and-play stud from day one. Looking into round two, Cordy Glenn (Georgia), Brandon Washington (Miami), Kelechi Osemele (Iowa State), and Kevin Zeitler (Wisconsin) all look like potential fits. Zeitler is a really good looking prospect that would give the Chiefs some push in the run game. A bit later, Senio Kelemete (Washinton) looks intriguing. At center there is also some talent. While the Chiefs likely won’t be taking a center in round one, Peter Konz of Wisconsin is rock solid. My personal favorite is Michael Brewster (Ohio State) who could be available as late as round three if current projections hold true. I’m guessing that will change to round two after the evaluation process. Brewster is a guy you can start right away having four years of starting experience in the Big 10. David Molk of Michigan looks like a good prospect in the mid rounds.
Inside linebacker is the position I could see one of the biggest impacts at for Kansas City. I really like Jovan Belcher, don’t get me wrong, but he is far more of a pile maker than he is a play maker. Belcher and Derrick Johnson offer little on the blitz from the interior and neither is your stack and shed type of player. A true impact linebacker that can blitz, hold up at the point of attack, and make plays in the backfield would be a huge asset to go with an already good looking pair of outside linebackers. I really do not see this type of player in free agency, so I will only touch on one player that the Chiefs could look at if he is available. D’Qwell Jackson (Cleveland) would likely get a strong look from Romeo Crennel if he hits the open market. Jackson has been very productive since returning from his injury a couple seasons ago and if Romeo is content with lighter interior linebackers he would be an immediate upgrade over Belcher.
There are two linebackers in the draft that could make some sense for Kansas City in that interior thumper role. The first is Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower. Hightower would likely have to be a guy that the Chiefs have to take in round 1. If they took him at 11 or 12, I see value there. If the Chiefs could either trade down from there or move up from round two to get him, it would be an even better value in my mind. I’m having a hard time judging Hightower’s stock at this point because some have him as a top 10 type and some have him around the 20s. Another prospect may be Vontaze Burfict, a junior that looks like he will drop to around round three. Burfict has the physical ability to be a first round pick but makes mental errors that look more like an undrafted free agent at times. If a team can harness his aggression and keep him in a position to play under control, the sky could be the limit. Another linebacker to keep an eye on even though he isn’t a thumper is Texas’ Keenan Robinson. Robinson can fly around the field and is actually a pretty darn good blitzer.
Continuing with the needs on offense, the Chiefs passing game was near inept. A big part of that was the lack of a receiving threat at tight end that could pressure the seams and the middle of the field. The Chiefs lost Tony Moeaki for the season to a knee injury and left a huge void. Injury seems to be a recurring theme for Moeaki, spanning both his college and professional years. After Moeaki the position is devoid of talent. Leonard Pope is purely a blocking tight end and makes a good third string guy. Jake O’Connell should be cut. Anthony Becht served as stop-gap, but is about due to retire (and probably should).
The free agent could host some impact players at the position, but it looks more likely that the top players won’t be available if (and probably when) the Packers re-sign Jermichael Finley and the Redskins re-sign Fred Davis. A short-term option may be Carolina’s Jeremy Shockey. Also on the radar may be Jacob Tamme (Indianapolis) who would probably make for a relatively inexpensive signing and is an up and comer. Another low-key player is Martellus Bennett (Dallas). Bennett isn’t really featured in the Dallas’ offense, but is young (24) with four years experience and some significant playing time despite Jason Witten being the man. Bennett is the guy I would probably target. A very solid veteran presence would be Minnesota’s Visanthe Shiancoe, a well-rounded TE that could help in all phases of the game and teach KC’s younger ends.
The draft appears to have some solid players at the very top but takes a sharp turn for the worse soon after. There will be debate over the top tight end here between Coby Fleener (Stanford), Orson Charles (Georgia), and D’wayne Allen (Clemson). Charles and Allen are more of the pass receiving type with speed while Fleener is more of a complete player. Fleener actually reminds me a bit of a Todd Heap or Jason Witten that can get it done in more than one way. Fleener, however, may be a first round pick. Of the pass receiving types, Charles seems like the best. It appears Allen and Charles will both be second rounders. Missouri’s Michael Egnew also looks like a pass catching option in round three. After these, the talent level drops significantly. I might look at Michigan’s Kevin Koger or USC’s Rhett Ellison, but I cannot same I’m enamored bye either.
Finally, defensive end is a position with some question marks. Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson are far from the players Kansas City expected to get with top five picks. Dorsey is entering the final year of his rookie contract and would probably be better in a 4-3 as a nose tackle. Dorsey plays the run game solid, but he does not force double-teams and doesn’t generate any pressure on the quarterback. If I were Kansas City I would try to trade him for a mid round pick and move on to other options. Tyson Jackson finally started to flash a little bit towards the end of this season. If Jackson can develop more in the offseason he could become more of the player Scott Pioli envisioned. As a backup the Chiefs featured Allen Bailey who looked like he was progressing nicely and was a legitimate threat on passing downs. If Bailey continues to improve against the run and gain weight, he could easily push for a starting spot. Another backup, Wallace Gilberry, looked good a year ago but was quite atrocious this year. Either way, Gilberry is a pass rush specialist only. Amon Gordon played some solid football in rotation but will be on the wrong side of 30 going into 2012. We saw nothing of Luke Patterson, a rookie from Texas A&M. The Chiefs might have some decisions on their hands and I would venture to say they’ll try to add at least one more body in camp, if not a couple more.
In free agency, the Redskin’s Adam Carriker could make some sense. Carriker seemed to lift his game a notch this season and would be a solid signing if that play continued. If Arizona lets Calais Campbell test the free agent waters, he would make for a solid signing as well. After these two the free agent list drops off to very old players or ones that wouldn’t offer the Chiefs any improvements.
The draft is littered with options for 3-4 defensive ends from top to bottom, but where the Chiefs might try to address it is an unknown. I don’t find it likely that Pioli will spend another first round pick on the defensive line, but Quinton Coples (North Carolina), Devon Still (Penn State), Michael Brockers (LSU), and Fletcher Cox (Mississippi State) could all make sense. Still is particularly intriguing given that a former Still was an absolute stud for the Chiefs decades prior. In the round two to three range Dontari Poe (Memphis), Kendall Reyes (Connecticut), and Marcus Forston (Miami) appear to be solid options. Poe is interesting because of his size and athleticism and could become a Haloti Ngata (Baltimore) type of player. Late in the draft Cincinnati’s Derek Wolfe, Texas A&M’s Tony Jerod-Eddie, and Missouri’s Dominique Hamilton show some upside. The Chiefs might be best served searching for a defensive end in the mid to late rounds as a developmental/reserve player for now.
The positions not really mentioned here that are notable are wide receiver and cornerback, which feature two of Kansas City’s premier free agents. At wide receiver, Dwayne Bowe is an integral part of the passing offense and a guy the Chiefs can’t afford to lose unless they play the free agent market where some very good young receivers like New Orleans’ Robert Meachem, Buffalo’s Steve Johnson, Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson, and the New York Giants’ Mario Manningham could all be available. Other notables may include Pierre Garcon (Indianapolis) and Lavelle Hawkins (Tennessee). If the Chiefs do anything other than sign Bowe to a contract, they should look at the franchise tag.
As for cornerback, the Chiefs would be best served re-signing Brandon Carr and keeping a strong, young secondary together. If the Chiefs decide otherwise, there are some good looking free agents, such as Carlos Rogers (San Francisco), Cortland Finnegan (Tennesee), and Terrell Thomas (New York Giants).
If the Chiefs decide to look in the draft for these players, both positions are the deepest in the draft and would offer a plethora of options from top to bottom.
Looking through the roster, it is obvious that Scott Pioli was correct in saying that he “needs to do his job better.” The team severely lacks depth. I’m not going to blame Pioli though; he had to spend much of his time just trying to find starters at several positions. However, it’s now on Pioli to fill the roster out with some depth and garner a few more impact players in the draft. The Chiefs have money to spend in free agency and a nice draft position. Pioli has to make each count for something.