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Kansas City Chiefs roster analysis: Secondary has played well, what's the future?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

[Editor's note: We continue on with our Chiefs offseason roster analysis from Dirk Scholl, Aaron Hansberry, and Joe Edwards of Football Futures. Many thanks to them for allowing us to post their analysis here. Check out the introduction here.]

The defensive backs

CB - Sean Smith, Jamell Fleming, Phillip Gaines, Marcus Cooper, Shaq Richardson

Other players: Deji Olatoye, Aaron Hester 
Free agents: Chris Owens 

FS - Husain Abdullah, Sanders Commings 
SS - Daniel Sorensen 

Other players: Berry 
Free agents: Ron Parker, Kurt Coleman, Kelcie McCray

A general look at the unit

This past season, the defensive backfield was marked by a number of surprise contributors and a lot of depth chart reshuffling. A group that seemed set in stone early in the offseason, with Abdullah and Berry at  safety, and Cooper, Smith, and Flowers starting in some capacity at cornerback, became very fluid as the season progressed. By Week 6 Flowers was a Charger, Cooper saw his playing time drop to exactly zero snaps, and Ron Parker was starting to hold his own as an injury replacement in virtually every part of our secondary. 

Between cuts and injuries, the unit looked a good bit worse on paper than what the team fielded in 2013, but the product was noticeably and substantially better. The group was top five in virtually every major defensive passing statistic, and top two in overall pass defense. Most importantly, it was no longer a group purely dependent on the ability of Houston, Hali, and Poe to get pressure. This was not the 2013 group that was second worst in long pass plays against, getting burned by every speedster with decent pass protection. They held their own, even when they were on their own. 

There was one thing this unit did do incredibly poorly, unfortunately. Catching the football. A late three game stretch of losses against Oakland, Denver, and Arizona saw a fairly large number of dropped picks that may have been the difference in at least one of those games. Something small, but something that unquestionably needs to be worked on.

The guys under contract

Sean Smith was the unit's rock this season. Consistent, reliable, and a newfound leader in a group now without Flowers, he had a stellar season. Early on, there were actually concerns about his status with the team, as he saw substantial time with the second team defense in the offseason. We're not sure if Bob Sutton was trying to teach him a lesson or just get the younger guys some first team snaps, but whatever he was doing, it worked. Remarkable extra stat: he did not draw a single penalty throughout the season.

Marcus Cooper was presumed to be locked in at LCB at the start of the season. After a few weeks of getting picked on again at that spot, he saw zero defensive snaps in eight of the last eleven games. He'll see competition in camp, and if he makes the 53, he'll have to fight hard to regain enough trust to see any further snaps.

Remarkable stat: Sean Smith did not draw a single penalty throughout the season.

Jamell Fleming was maybe the roster's biggest surprise this year. A steal from the Ravens' practice squad, he started at LCB whenever he was healthy enough to do so. His injury, however, gave Phillip Gaines time to shine in his absence. A highly touted player coming out a few years ago, he will certainly be in the mix, provided he can now stay healthy. 
Phillip Gaines, like Fleming, seized his chance when it came to him. He performed quite well in the slot and at LCB, particularly for a rookie. We expect his playing time to increase quickly next year, with the only question being if he starts at LCB, or merely takes over the slot in nickel packages.

Richardson, Olatoye and Hester are your standard practice squad guys, and as we have seen nothing of them yet, there is little to say about them, except that they will likely be back for at least part of the offseason. 

Husain Abdullah was to the safety position what Sean Smith was to the CB position. The reliable veteran presence, he is not the flashiest player, but he is always where he needs to be, seldom makes mistakes, and rarely lets the offense get behind him. His game against the Patriots may have been the best of his career.

Sanders Commings saw another disappointing year of IR. A versatile and talented player, there is no doubt he'll hang around through the offseason, but a poor recovery or another injury and his career may well soon be over.

An undrafted free agent, Sorensen only saw playing time on defense in two games, with most of his impact this year coming on special teams. A solid player on special teams, his ability to stay on the roster will likely hinge on that side of the ball. 

A generally cheap group, we don't anticipate any cuts here. If the team becomes truly desperate, and believes thoroughly in Gaines and Fleming, losing Sean Smith would save a decent amount of money. However, his value as a player is likely greater at this time than the $5.5M he would save the team. That said, he is in a contract year, so an extension, possibly dropping his cap hit for 2015, may at least be considered. 

There is, however, one special case...

Eric Berry

Eric Berry is a unique situation, or at least, he likely will be, so he gets his own section at the moment. It seems highly unlikely Berry will be able to play in 2015. We anticipate him to remain on the non-football injury list, meaning the Chiefs can effectively pay him whatever they want. At a cap hit of $8.357M, that's a big deal. It puts the team in a difficult situation of balancing business with good faith. We hope the team will come to reasonable terms with Berry himself, on something that is fair to him while simultaneously helping the team. But it is something difficult to project and we know little about the status of his current health. It will be something to watch very attentively going forward, but for now, we don't factor Berry into the teams' considerations for 2015.

The free agents

Chris Owens had something of a bumpy year. After a good start that had many of us optimistic, particularly after his first game against Denver, he quickly became a liability down the stretch, particularly the last two weeks of the season. While we would not mind seeing him back as a fourth CB on a very cheap contract, he may be the odd man out if he wants anything more than what he got last season.

Ron Parker may have been the Chiefs most valuable defensive back in 2014. Starting and playing at multiple positions throughout the secondary, and virtually willing the team to a win against Buffalo, he developed into a solid safety, and a respectable, albeit inconsistent, cornerback. A relatively unheralded player, we expect Parker back in a similar role (with, hopefully, a bit less time at cornerback), particularly with Berry's status up in the air. It will be interesting to see what kind of contract he will get. The Chiefs may see some competition for his services, especially if his performance against Buffalo turns some heads.

Ron Parker may have been the Chiefs most valuable defensive back in 2014.

Kurt Coleman isn't exactly the league's most popular player, but he played fairly well in the third safety role as the season progressed, making some key plays in a few different games. Much like Parker, we expect him back in a similar capacity on a low-end contract, especially given his familiarity with Reid. Coleman still hopes to look for a starting job someplace.

Kelcie McCray is in a similar situation to Daniel Sorensen. A young player, whose primary value is on special teams. In the little time McCray did see on defense, he certainly did not impress. Unless Dave Toub is completely in love with him there - which is possible - we don't expect a return, or at least, a long-lived one.

Cap considerations

Cap considerations are an afterthought for the players under contract. The only player on a significant contract is Sean Smith, but he's worth every penny the Chiefs pay him. Ron Parker and his new contract may have some impact but we don't think he'll break the bank. Looking at the mid-term it may be worth exploring options to extend Smith and Abdullah now to keep the core of the defensive back unit intact over the next three or four years.

Overall assessment

Against all odds, this is a unit that appears to be trending upward. Despite the loss of two Pro Bowlers in a short period of time, they were one of the better groups in the league, and include a few rising youngsters, particularly at cornerback. Both safety and cornerback are always deeper positions, so there will likely be the usual additions of UDFAs, low round picks, and possibly a cheap veteran or two, but provided that Parker resigns, we do not see any substantial changes in the secondary aside from some general depth chart reshuffling as players progress or fall out of favor. That is unless the brass considers a longer term contract for Sean Smith too expensive or they view a mix of Fleming and Gaines to be insufficient to cover the second and third cornerback requirements. In that case they may look after a value pick early on to groom a rookie for a year and throw him to the wolves in 2016.

Coaching

The duo of Emmitt Thomas and Al Harris have done stellar things with this secondary. It is largely due to them that the secondary survived so much turnover and so many inexperienced contributors. As long as they remain, the future should be bright for the team's developing DBs.

2015 defensive back projection

RCB - Smith, low-round pick / cheap free agent 
NB - Gaines 
LCB - Fleming, Cooper / someone else 

FS - Abdullah, Coleman, Commings 
SS - Parker, Sorensen / mid-low round pick 

Other Players: Berry 

Note: Roster projection assumes that Berry does not play in 2015. Additionally, putting Gaines at nickel does not necessarily mean he is the third cornerback. He may start at left cornerback then move to nickel in nickel packages, with Fleming coming in at left cornerback, as that suits their skillsets best.