It's almost go time, which means that I need to get on the ball with these "State of the Chiefs" evaluations.
Today, let's talk a little bit about the offensive line:
The Chiefs Offensive Line Grade: D
Chiefs' Offseason Grade: C-
This time, I won't be so generous. I could probably sum this all up in one sentence: "If the Chiefs lose any of their starters, the team is screwed." But still, more after the jump.
Look, I'm definitely not an irrational guy. I know that for three years, the Chiefs have had to gradually piece their team together. They didn't want to overspend on free agents and last year's CBA restrictions really limited the pool they could have drawn from. Regardless, there's one thing that's painfully clear: the Chiefs have one of the shallowest, if not the shallowest, offensive lines in the NFL. That's really bad, especially in a season where you might see more injuries than usual.
It's a really bad sign when the head coach is banking on players to play multiple positions to fill each void. Rodney Hudson, for example, should be solely focused on one day being Casey Wiegmann's replacement. This preseason, he should have taken quality in-game reps at Center. Instead, the Chiefs' lack of depth forced him to play Guard because he has to be ready to play at a minute's notice because he's all the depth they really have at the position. Jared Gaither should have helped the Chiefs at Right Tackle, whether that meant starting him there or moving Branden Albert there. Instead, they have two talented players playing the same Left Tackle position while Barry Richardson continues to struggle at Right Tackle.
Let's also keep in mind that this offensive line isn't nearly the same calibre as the unit in 2003. The Chiefs had a bit of a revolving door at Right Tackle during that time and, while they had questionable Left Tackle depth, they were able to make it somewhat work even with Jordan Black as the starter. When your unit has some questionable starters, you have to have players on the bench that can compete to take over because the starters aren't good enough yet to make up for a weakness somewhere else on the line. Casey Wiegmann is getting older and looked gassed toward the end of last season, Lilja hasn't always been the healthiest of players, Asamoah is a good prospect but still has to show his worth on the field, and Barry Richardson has looked like a complete liability in pass protection.
As for Branden Albert, he has proven to be a good not great Left Tackle so far. I actually still like his potential. He's looked a little bit sharper in the preseason in pass protection and I really like him as a run blocker. He just has to learn to play more consistent, but that's to be expected given that his learning curve out of college was a lot higher than most Left Tackles. It's pretty easy to blame the Left Tackle when you have protection issues, but so far, Barry Richardson looks to be the biggest culprit by a mile. Richardson may be a good run blocker, which is good because the Chiefs are a running team, but he is getting manhandled in pass protection. I think Ryan Lilja is very underrated and I really like Asamoah's potential--I think they're both going to be solid in the interior. I think Wiegmann is adequate, but I have a bad feeling he's going to really struggle toward the end of the season. If that's the case, then you have to ask Rodney Hudson to become a quality starter in mid-stream--not an enviable situation, but what can you do? To sum it all up, the Chiefs' starters as of today are adequate with the potential to probably be passable, but that's about their ceiling. In order for the Chiefs to be above passable, three things have to happen: Branden Albert has to prove he can be consistent, Jon Asamoah has to play at a consistently high level week after week, and Barry Richardson has to step up big time as a pass protector. I hate to say it, but I think the chances of all three things happening at the same time are pretty slim.
And, to be fair, Matt Cassel has to also be more consistent about doing this offensive line more favors. He got better toward the end of the season of getting rid of the ball faster, but that has to happen more consistently.
The Chiefs made two terrific moves this offseason in bringing in Rodney Hudson and Jared Gaither, both at a tremendous value, but it wasn't enough. While it would have been nice to bring in a replacement for Barry Richardson, I know that the Chiefs are really limited by what they can actually bring in. What I would have liked to have seen is more effort put into finding viable bench depth (and undrafted rookies is not the way to build toward that). While I understand the rationale for cutting Brian Waters, it still leaves the team with a tremendous gap at the position. The Chiefs had opportunities to bring in players like Sean Locklear, Leonard Davis, Chris Chester, Nick Kaczur, etc.... None of those guys have to be starters, just quality guys you can bring off the bench for depth in a pinch. They would cost nothing and would be an enormous upgrade over the Chiefs' current backup options.
Scott Pioli still has time to fix this and I would hope that as the season approaches, he's going to make that a top priority. The Chiefs absolutely cannot afford to walk into the 2011 season with this kind of bench depth. The good news is that the Chiefs have some nice young options that have a bright future. But for the short term, the Chiefs walk into the 2011 season with some serious question marks at Offensive Line.