After an offseason that brought about great uncertainty for the entire NFL, the Kansas City Chiefs enter 2011 in a situation that's been rather unfamiliar for the franchise in recent times.
It's a position the team will gladly take, however, after emerging as one of the surprise stories of the 2010 campaign.
Following three straight years of languishing among the league's bottom feeders, last season's Chiefs engineered a dramatic turnaround as the extensive rebuilding plan employed by general manager Scott Pioli began to pay big dividends. Kansas City won 10 games -- two more than its entire victory total from the dark 2007-09 era -- and ended San Diego's four-year reign as AFC West champions by edging out the Chargers in the final standings.
That major leap forward has in turn established a new set of goals for the upcoming season, with the Chiefs out to prove their 2010 success wasn't simply the combination of a favorable schedule and an off year by the division's perceived kingpin.
"Making the playoffs was a big step, but it's a new year, new team," said tight end Tony Moeaki. "So we need to get better, have a good training camp, and take it from there."
Kansas City should also remain hungry after its otherwise sweet season ended on a very sour note, with the club dealt a 21-point loss to Oakland in the Week 17 finale before being overwhelmed by the more established Baltimore Ravens in a 30-7 dismantling during the AFC Wild Card Playoffs.
The two lopsided defeats highlighted the shortcomings of an offense that was overly reliant on the run and had a shortage of playmakers opposite Pro Bowl receiver Dwayne Bowe in the passing game. The Chiefs took steps to address that glaring deficiency during the offseason, signing former 1,000-yard wideout Steve Breaston in free agency and using its first-round selection in the draft to land gifted pass-catcher Jonathan Baldwin.
Breaston, whose best years in Arizona coincided with current Kansas City head coach Todd Haley coordinating the Cardinals' offense, was targeted to add missing elements of speed and big-play potential to an aerial attack that often lacked a downfield threat a year ago.
"I wouldn't say it was a mandatory deal for us [to add speed], but I think when you have a competent player that can run and stretch the field when needed, it only helps everybody else," said Haley about Breaston.
Baldwin's contributions may not come for a while, however. The rookie has struggled to learn the offense and reportedly displayed an entitled attitude that hasn't endeared himself to his new teammates, as evidenced by a well- publicized locker-room fight he had with veteran running back Thomas Jones in camp that left Baldwin with an injured thumb.
It's just another new challenge for a Kansas City squad that will no longer be taking anyone by surprise after last year's achievements.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Kansas City Chiefs, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 10-6 (1st, AFC West)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010, lost to Baltimore in AFC Wild Card
COACH (RECORD): Todd Haley (14-18 in two seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bill Muir (third season with Chiefs, first as OC)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Romeo Crennel (third season with Chiefs)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Jamaal Charles, RB (1467 rushing yards, 45 receptions, 8 total TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Tamba Hali, OLB (51 tackles, 14.5 sacks)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 12th overall (1st rushing, 30th passing), tied 13th scoring (22.9 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 14th overall (14th rushing, 17th passing), 11th scoring (20.4 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: OT Jared Gaither (from Ravens), NT Kelly Gregg (from Ravens), QB Ricky Stanzi (5th Round, Iowa), FB Le'Ron McClain (from Ravens), WR Steve Breaston (from Cardinals), WR Jonathan Baldwin (1st Round, Pittsburgh), NT Amon Gordon (from Seahawks), OLB Justin Houston (3rd Round, Georgia), ILB Brandon Siler (from Chargers), S Sabby Piscitelli (from Browns)
KEY DEPARTURES: WR Chris Chambers (released), OG Brian Waters (released), DE Shaun Smith (to Titans), NT Ron Edwards (to Panthers), OLB Mike Vrabel (retired), QB Brodie Croyle (to Cardinals), FB Tim Castille (not tendered), TE Brad Cottam (released), C Rudy Niswanger (to Lions), ILB Corey Mays (not tendered), CB Maurice Leggett (released)
QB: Kansas City's 2010 ascent wouldn't have been possible without the efficient play it received under center from Matt Cassel (3116 passing yards in 2010). The former New England backup threw for a career-best 27 touchdown passes and was intercepted just seven times during the regular season, and his judicious play was a prime reason why the Chiefs committed the second-fewest turnovers (14) in the league. Like the rest of the offense, he slumped badly down the stretch, however, completing under 53 percent of his throws over the final four weeks and tossing three picks in the team's playoff loss. Kansas City opted not to retain injury-prone backup Brodie Croyle, leaving former practice-squad member Tyler Palko and rookie Ricky Stanzi to battle for the No. 2 job in camp. Stanzi, a fifth-round pick out of Iowa, has the greater upside, but Palko's performed better during the early stages of the preseason.
RB: A devastating rushing attack that generated an NFL-best 164.2 yards per game last season was also a critical element to the Chiefs' surprising playoff run, with Jones (896 rushing yards, 6 TD, 14 receptions) and All-Pro Jamaal Charles (1467 rushing yards, 45 receptions, 8 total TD) forming a one-two punch that routinely gave opponents fits. The lightning-fast Charles was particularly difficult to stop, averaging better than seven yards per touch and making his mark as both a runner and a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. There are options aplenty for Haley and first-year offensive coordinator Bill Muir when Charles needs a rest, as the 33-year-old Jones is still an effective between- the-tackles carrier despite his advanced age and new fullback Le'Ron McClain (85 rushing yards, 21 receptions with Ravens) rushed for over 900 yards with Baltimore in 2008, though the free-agent signee's main duties will be lead blocking. With the Chiefs moving versatile second-year pro Dexter McCluster (21 receptions, 1 TD), primarily used as slot receiver and return man last season, to running back, there's yet another weapon in the mix.
WR/TE: Bowe (72 receptions, 1162 yards) lifted himself out of Haley's doghouse and into stardom by putting together a banner 2010 campaign in which the former first-round choice led the NFL and set a franchise record with 15 touchdown catches. He was a non-factor in several other games, however, partly due to the team's dearth of viable alternatives at the wide receiver position. The Chiefs should feel better about this year's group, as Breaston (47 receptions, 1 TD with Cardinals) has a proven track record under Haley's watch and Jerheme Urban, another ex-Cardinal with a familiarity of the offense, is back after missing all of last season with a serious finger injury. There's also Baldwin, a terrific talent who's drawn comparisons to Plaxico Burress for both his size (6-foot-5, 230 lbs) and mercurial demeanor, though the 22-year-old will likely begin the season no better than the No. 4 receiver following his injury and poor start to camp. Tight end Moeaki (47 receptions, 3 TD) turned out to be a third-round steal, finishing second among Kansas City players in catches and receiving yards (556) as a rookie while blocking like a lineman for the running backs. He'll be backed up once again by 6-foot-8 veteran Leonard Pope (10 receptions, 2 TD) and third-year project Jake O'Connell.
OL: Though this five-man crew did a fine job opening up holes for Charles and Jones, the extensive overhaul the line is expected to undergo this season shows the organization wasn't completely satisfied with the overall results. The most shocking change took place at left guard, where longtime stalwart Brian Waters was released in July despite making the Pro Bowl for the fifth time in 11 seasons, while 2008 first-round disappointment Branden Albert seems to be ticketed for a move from left tackle to the right side due to continued problems in protection. That switch will take place provided massive ex-Raven Jared Gaither, signed as a free agent midway through camp, shows he's healthy enough to go after sitting out all of last year recovering from back surgery. Waters was cut loose because of the Chiefs' faith in youngster Jon Asamoah, who'll now take over at right guard with sturdy veteran Ryan Lilja shifting to the left. Center Casey Wiegmann, set to enter his 16th NFL season, is the lone member of the 2010 group projected to remain in the same spot, though the 38- year-old is merely a place-setter until promising rookie Rodney Hudson (2nd Round, Florida State) is deemed ready. Barry Richardson started all 16 games at right tackle last year but is slated to be a swing reserve under the new arrangement, though he will provide seasoned insurance against Gaither's injury history.
DL: Kansas City's defensive front will also be undergoing a bit of a makeover, with a pair of 2010 starters -- nose tackle Ron Edwards and left end Shaun Smith -- both departing as free agents in the offseason. The Chiefs countered Edwards' loss by signing accomplished stopper Kelly Gregg (38 tackles), a key component on a Baltimore stop unit that's consistently ranked among the NFL's best against the run in recent years. The 34-year-old will line up next to 2008 first-round selection Glenn Dorsey (69 tackles, 2 sacks), who seems to have found a niche as a 3-4 end after failing to make an impact as a tackle early on in his career, with fellow premium pick Tyson Jackson (31 tackles, 1 sack) earmarked for Smith's vacated position. Jackson will likely be replaced on passing downs by situational standout Wallace Gilberry (23 tackles), who racked up seven sacks and two forced fumbles as a nickel rusher last year, with 2011 third-round choice Allen Bailey a candidate to be used in a similar capacity. The Miami product is one of two rookies brought in for depth purposes, with beefy sixth-rounder Jerrell Powe (6th Round, Ole Miss) expected to rotate with Gregg on the nose.
LB: This four-man contingent is headlined by two former first-round picks who delivered breakout 2010 seasons, outside rusher Tamba Hali (52 tackles) and inside starter Derrick Johnson (121 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT). Hali was a one-man terror coming off the edge, registering an AFC-leading 14 1/2 sacks and forcing four fumbles en route to a well-deserved Pro Bowl nod and a rewarding new contract, while Johnson shed his previous bust label by topping the Chiefs in tackles and emerging as one of the league's premier coverage linebackers. Jovan Belcher (84 tackles, 1 sack) turned in a decent season opposite Johnson at the other inside post, but he's being pushed for his job by free-agent pickup Brandon Siler (44 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), a prior member of the rival Chargers who's a bigger and more physical option than his new teammate. Kansas City will miss the veteran leadership of Mike Vrabel, who retired after 14 seasons to take an assistant's job at Ohio State, though prospect Andy Studebaker (28 tackles, 2.5 sacks) has been groomed as the outside backer's heir apparent and flashed pass-rush ability in spot duty last year. There's talent but little experience at the outside backup positions, as second-year pro Cameron Sheffield sat out all of 2010 with a neck injury and rookie third-round choice Justin Houston (Georgia) is considered a raw work in progress.
DB: An extremely young Kansas City secondary grew up in a hurry last season, with the kiddie corps limiting opposing quarterbacks to the third-lowest completion rate (54.9 percent) in the league and placing a respectable eighth overall in pass efficiency defense. Leading the charge was rising star strong safety Eric Berry (92 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 INT), who warranted his fifth overall selection in the 2010 draft with a terrific rookie season capped by a Pro Bowl citation. Fellow sophomore Kendrick Lewis (30 tackles) held his own as well at the free safety spot, starting 10 times and intercepting three passes in his debut, and the duo should solidify the back end for years to come. Kansas City is in equally good shape at cornerback, where the tandem of Brandon Flowers (65 tackles, 2 INT, 14 PD) and Brandon Carr (57 tackles, 1 INT, 25 PD) are each just 25 years old and have already logged 91 starts between them. There's more quality youth present in second-year nickel back Javier Arenas (43 tackles, 3 sacks), a high-caliber return man to boot, and rookie corner Jalil Brown, a good-sized fourth-round pick out of Colorado who's impressed in camp.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Pioli placed an emphasis on injecting game-changing talent into the return game in last year's draft, and it was mission accomplished with the additions of Arenas and McCluster, two outstanding punt returners who combined to average nearly 10 yards per runback and score one touchdown. The duo wasn't as adept at taking back kicks, however, and Haley has given converted wide receiver Quentin Lawrence a long look in that area during the preseason. Kicker Ryan Succop followed up a tremendous rookie year with an inconsistent second season in which he made good on only 77 percent (20-of-26) of his field goal attempts. The final selection of the 2009 draft does have a big leg, however, and was a sensational 25-of-29 on three-point tries the previous year. Punter Dustin Colquitt (44.4 avg.) can also boom the ball, as the six-year pro has averaged a solid 44.1 yards per punt over his career and gets very good trajectory on his kicks.
PROGNOSIS: The Chiefs' truly came of age a year ago, but they'll be challenged to duplicate that success by a rigorous schedule that contains road trips to four 2010 playoff entrants (Indianapolis, New England, Chicago, New York Jets) in addition to home dates with both last season's Super Bowl participants. That alone could signal a slight step back for a team that was able to make it to the postseason primarily by maximizing its resources, as could the absence of esteemed veteran leaders like Vrabel and Waters that were stabilizing forces on an overall young roster. The offense, the team's weakest link during last season's stretch run, did get a needed upgrade at the skill positions, but this still isn't the 2008 Cardinals and Cassel isn't Kurt Warner. Though the Chiefs have built a good base of talent and are headed in the right direction for the long term, another double-digit win season seems like a stretch.