The instinct is to treat the Chiefs’ awful 2012 season as an aberration, and that’s probably the right call.
Even just a cursory glance at the club’s depth chart suggests that last season’s 2-14 mark won’t be repeated this year. After all, Kansas City had six Pro Bowlers in 2012, and the roster was strengthened this spring via free agency and the draft.
For new Chiefs coach Andy Reid, Kansas City represents a fresh start after two sour seasons to finish a Philadelphia tenure filled with more good moments than bad. The Chiefs’ new starting quarterback, Alex Smith, also gets to the turn the page after being forced out by Colin Kaepernick’s emergence in San Francisco.
There’s little doubt Reid and Smith will help lead a turnaround of some sort relative to 2012. If nothing else, the Chiefs are likely to move out of the AFC West basement. But are the Chiefs capable of quintupling their win total from a season ago? That’s probably what it will take to contend for a playoff spot.
The Chiefs’ defense does not lack for talent. Outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston combined for 19 sacks in 2012 and joined inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and strong safety Eric Berry as Pro Bowlers. Cornerbacks Sean Smith, Brandon Flowers and Dunta Robinson are skilled and experienced.
The offense has some top-end players, too, with running back Jamaal Charles (1,509 rushing yards in 2012) a premier game-breaking threat and wideout Dwayne Bowe a legit go-to target. At quarterback, Smith should be an upgrade over Matt Cassel, and the addition of No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher at left tackle strengthens the offensive line. The Fisher-Brandon Albert tackle tandem should be a real asset for the Chiefs.
With the additions of Reid and Smith, the NFL’s worst passing offense from a season ago has new life. That, in turn, should help a running game that thrived even without defenses having to worry much about the Chiefs’ passing attack.
Finally, Reid’s presence should be a major asset both on the sidelines and in the organization. The Eagles won 10 playoff games and registered nine winning seasons in his 14-season tenure. In that same span, the Chiefs didn’t register a single playoff win and had nine losing seasons.
While the Chiefs have some very skilled performers on defense, opponents nonetheless had success attacking Kansas City with the run and pass in 2012. To wit: the Chiefs finished 30th in yards per pass and 25th in yards per rush surrendered a season ago. The secondary should be better with Smith and Robinson joining the cornerback corps, but the run defense — especially right up the heart of the front seven — needs to be monitored. Per NFL statistics, opponents gained 4.78 yards per rush up the middle vs. the Chiefs in 2012.
On offense, the concern is the next wave of players beyond the starters. Kansas City is a little thin at the skill positions, especially at running back, where there is no clear-cut backup to count upon if Charles were to exit the lineup. Swift rookie Knile Davis has the talent to be a key contributor in the backfield, but he struggled with injuries and fumbles at Arkansas.
The depth at wide receiver is somewhat shaky until proven otherwise, too. Beyond Bowe, the top options are Donnie Avery, Jon Baldwin and Dexter McCluster. Avery is fast but comes durability concerns. Baldwin, the Chiefs’ 2011 first-round pick, hasn’t delivered on his potential. McCluster is quick but undersized.
On defense, the primary depth concerns are at outside linebacker, safety and along the defensive line.
Reid, renowned his work with quarterbacks and a proponent of the West Coast offense, is charged with reshaping the offense. Smith, who’s still not even 30 years old, could benefit form Reid’s tutelage and not having to worry about job security. There is no real threat to replace him on the roster.
In addition to Fisher, new faces on offense include Avery, tight end Anthony Fasano and quarterback Chase Daniel. Avery and Fasano project as regulars, while Daniel, formerly Drew Brees‘ understudy, will be the top backup to Alex Smith.
Rangy Sean Smith, signed from Miami, will start opposite of Flowers at cornerback, with Robinson expected to be the third corner. Robinson should be effective in this role; his experience and physicality ought to serve him well in the latter stages of his career.
The Chiefs will continue to use the 3-4 as their base defense, but Bob Sutton has taken over at coordinator, and some new wrinkles are to be expected.
For a 2-14 club with a new head coach, the Chiefs don’t figure to have much camp-competition drama. Most starting spots are ably filled.
The offensive line could be the most unsettled position on the team. At center, third-year pro Rodney Hudson would seem to have the edge at center; he began 2012 as the starter before suffering a broken leg that ended his season. However, second-year left guard Jeff Allen got some work in the middle in the offseason, per the Kansas City Star. Allen started 13 games a season ago but graded out as the second-worst run-blocker among qualifying guards in Pro Football Focus’ rankings. Geoff Schwartz and Donald Stephenson are other potential options at guard.
Finally, Davis will get a look at kickoff returner, a position where the club could use more playmaking ability. However, he needs to hold onto the ball.
If Kansas City is playoff-caliber, it will show early. The Chiefs face one 2012 playoff team (Houston) in their first nine games. Five of their first six AFC games before their Week 10 bye are against the Jaguars, Titans, Raiders, Browns and Bills — teams Kansas City should be able to beat.
The Chiefs are going to need to take care of business in the first two months. Their post-bye schedule includes two games against Denver in three weeks. Kansas City also draws Washington and Indianapolis down the stretch. The season finale at San Diego won’t be easy, either.
Overall, though, it’s a manageable schedule for the Chiefs. And it’s probably safe to assume the bottom doesn’t fall out again this year – though we wouldn’t blame Kansas City fans for knocking on wood, given how last season went.
Really, though, the Chiefs’ 2012 form was so bad it cannot be taken at face value. Clearly, they are capable of more.
How much more is the question.