Recently many Kansas City Chiefs fans were dreaming of Jairus Byrd or Aqib Talib as free agency opened. Instead they got some players they hadn't heard of. Now some feel the ground between Denver and Kansas City has widened even more.
I have broken the Chiefs roster issues into four parts to illustrate what the Chiefs are facing and where they are headed.
When Andy Reid and John Dorsey came to town, some perceived this team as talented but in need of better coaching. A couple additions here, a tweak there, a 9-0 start and everything was fixed.
What Reid and Dorsey actually inherited was a flawed roster, which lacked quality starters across the board and little depth based on poor drafting. In addition, it was a locker room in need of a culture change and a roster that hasn't experienced a playoff win. A standard needed to be set on how to prepare and work to become a consistently elite team.
So last offseason the Chiefs staff attacked the roster, free agency and the draft as outsiders. They dealt with a lot of projections based on tape, which is a great tool in evaluating on-field performances.
The problems that arise are the variables. What if the player was coached incorrectly on that technique? Will he respond to our system better? And the key, what kind of work ethic / character is inside this player? Those are questions you can't answer for some until they are out on the field in your system. It's just like a friendship or dating. You only see the superficial in the beginning. You don't find out the core of that person until you have been through those experiences together.
What the staff inherited was a roster that has lacked playoff success. Three were on the 2006 playoff loss (Dustin Colquitt, Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson), 14 were on the 2010 blowout loss to the Ravens (Branden Albert, Jon Asamoah, Eric Berry, Dwayne Bowe, Jamaal Charles, Dustin Colquitt, Brandon Flowers, Tamba Hali, Tyson Jackson, Derrick Johnson, Kendrick Lewis, Dexter McCluster, Tony Moeaki and Ryan Succop).
So those players who had spent their entire careers in the organization didn't know that consistent success and expectations. They only know failure and regime changes.
I believe the second half of the season and the Chiefs-Colts Wild Card game shed a lot of light on the Chiefs roster. Start strong, lose focus, let up and lack playmaking ability in crucial situations. It answered many questions you can't get from watching tape in an off-season. It provided clarity of how far this roster has to go.
Most teams who are successful year in and year out have a core group of players who represent how a football team should prepare and know what is expected of them and to push others to the next level. They are leaders you build around for the future.
A core guy knows how to be a playmaker. They consistently put the team in a position to win. They continually raise their game to the next level when called upon in crucial situations. Those players will their team to win football games because they are battle-tested.
The current Chiefs core in my book: Jamaal Charles, Alex Smith, Derrick Johnson and Dustin Colquitt.
I know many will disagree but in a majority of games this past season, I can count on those four to rise to the challenge. Charles gives everything he has on the field and is a game-changer. Johnson throws his body around without hesitation to win games. Smith showed me play-making abilities I haven't seen in a Chiefs QB since Rich Gannon and Joe Montana. Colquitt puts his team and defense in a position to win with each booming punt.
The upcoming core: Justin Houston and Dontari Poe.
The frustrating part is this team needs 12-15 core guys. Players that the Chiefs can rally around to guide them in tough situations. Enough guys that when they are up 35-10 in a playoff game, they close out the game. They don't coast or let up. They finish that game with a dagger not disappearing.
The Chiefs need Eric Berry, Dwayne Bowe, Tamba Hali, Brandon Flowers, Donald Stephenson, Marcus Cooper and Eric Fisher among others to take that next step.
Part of the problem is that former Chiefs GM Scott Pioli rode the core that Herm and Carl built. 2005 (Colquitt and Johnson), 2007 (Bowe) and 2008 (Albert, Glenn Dorsey, Flowers, Charles and Brandon Carr).
The Chiefs needed to take that core that was given and add to it so when contracts came up, they weren't forced to overpay a player. You always need enough pieces to build around.
In each draft, if you can find 3-4 starters / playmakers or core players, you are going to sustain long term success (f that regime gets four years to build). So the 2009 and 2010 drafts were crucial in building upon the 2008 core. If you can hit on four in each draft. That gives you 13 players you could build around long-term. Of those 13 draft picks in 2009 and 2010, only Ryan Succop and Eric Berry remain on this roster.
In the 2011 draft, the first round pick Jon Baldwin is gone. Rodney Hudson (second), Justin Houston (third), and Allen Bailey (fourth) remain. In 2012, Dontari Poe (first), Jeff Allen (second), Donald Stephenson (third), Cyrus Gray (sixth) and Junior Hemingway (seventh) remain. Of the 32 picks in four years, only 10 remain.
Big Contracts Vs. Playmakers
Another part that stems from the above mentioned areas is the lack of playmakers. The core are supposed to be your consistent playmakers. The four biggest cap hits for the Chiefs in 2014: Bowe ($12 million), Berry ($11.6 million), Hali ($11.4 million), and Flowers ($10.5 million). None of those players are in my core. That is a problem. Your highest paid players must be some of the top players at their position across the NFL, especially if they are making more than $9 million.
Three of those contracts look to be designed by Pioli to make a decision this season. He either planned to renegotiate or trade or release them depending on their performances. The struggle for Reid and Dorsey is making the tough decisions now. Potentially take a step back in their ability to compete in 2014 or attempt to remain competitive and delay those decisions until 2015. How they draft will shed light on that.
Pioli left the Chiefs in a good cap wise situation for 2013. They used that space to bring in their foundation to set the tempo of their program.
Either way, this organization is four seasons behind in drafting playmakers, starters and depth the roster needs. They must consistently hit in draft so they can build the next core. These guys need to be on the field, making plays and having positive impacts on the game. Otherwise, the second half of the 2013 season and the playoff game won't be the last letdown.
Looking ahead to 2015 may reveal the 2014 plans.
In 2015, if the Chiefs part with Bowe by designating him a June 1st cut, they could see a return of $9.5 million. Hali could give the team are return of $9 million and moving on from Flowers could return $7.5 million in cap space. Those three alone could create $26 million in cap space. If the team restructured with them this season, they are only dropping the cap space they could gain next season.
In 2014, you lose $10 million in cap space by cutting Bowe. With Hali, you only gain $5.5 million and with Flowers you only create $3.5 million. So you could essentially have the need to fill three holes and only created around $1 million in cap space. And to top it off, the replacements may not be ready to compete at the same level. You have to draft or sign their replacements now and groom them for the following season.
Now on the Eric Berry front. You have two years left on his contract. He signed a 6-year, $60 million deal with $34 million guaranteed. He will likely want an extension at some point. The Chiefs need to decide if he fits and if he's worth the money. Or can they go find a cheaper replacement, which you hope to have similar or better production at a cheaper rate, and then move that money to pay the upcoming contracts of Houston, Poe, and Smith next season. Berry has some of the better trade value on this team. If they don't trade him this season but want to go in a different direction next year, you risk injury and a decrease in trade value. The Chiefs would also deal with potentially getting nothing in return if he hits the market. What if the Chiefs could get two starters for him now?
These are all angles a GM needs to look at in rebuilding a roster. The decisions may not be popular but a GM must always be looking forward.