Sports on Earth's NFL writers Mike Tanier, Dan Pompei, Russ Lande and Robert Weintraub will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most pressing problems facing each one and proposing the best solutions. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
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The Chiefs stunned the NFL by going from 2-14 in 2012 to 11-5 last year. Then, they appeared to go right back to 2-14 in the second half of their playoff loss to the Colts. The sudden collapse made the Chiefs look more like a sand castle than a budding empire, but one awful half of football did not undo the gains the franchise made under Andy Reid. The Chiefs have a very good defense, some building blocks on offense, and most critically, a sense of direction after a lost half-decade as Patriots wannabes.
They also have real issues to contend with, including a free agent left tackle with an eye on South Beach and a receiving corps that can be timed in the 40-yard dash with a Mayan calendar. The Chiefs could fix these problems quickly, but Reid is not a quick-fix kind of guy, and a more methodical approach can ensure that the 2014 (and 2015 and beyond) Chiefs look more like the team that we saw in the first half of the Colts playoff game than the one we saw in the second half.
Problem: We're so sorry, Brandon Albert, but we haven't done a bloody thing all offseason.
Solution: Wings across America.
If the Chiefs were serious about retaining left tackle Albert, they would probably have already struck a deal with him. General Manager John Dorsey said at the Combine that he has been talking with Albert's agents, and surely they have discussed some dollar amounts. But let's face it: There is a team in Florida whose offensive line went nuclear last year and has a bazillion cap bucks to spend, the Ravens have about $30 million in space and one super-duper need at left tackle, and other teams have also likely contacted Team Albert, just to talk. The potential for a bidding war is there, the Chiefs want no part of it, and Albert's bank account wants all parts of it.
So it's time to move Erik Fisher to left tackle, then insert Donald Stephenson at right tackle and begin investing in depth. Fisher is not 100 percent ready, but he is more ready than he would have been last season. Stephenson has 14 starts in two seasons and should handle the promotion well.
Reid regimes are generally good at finding and developing replacement linemen, sometimes by ignoring need positions in the first round to do so, so he could stun observers with a Morgan Moses (Virginia) selection late in the first. But for 2014, Fisher and Stephenson will take a few lumps as Reid prepares his tackle tandem for the long haul and the post-Peyton future of the AFC West.
Problem: A receiver corps with no deep speed.
Solution: Straighten it out with Beckham.
Fans could safely visit the restroom whenever the Chiefs attempted to throw deep. Not only was the pass likely to fall incomplete, but the Chiefs might still be running the play by the time they returned. The Chiefs completed just seven passes longer than 40 yards, three of them screen-and-go specials.
The Chiefs need a receiver who can serve as a deep threat in 2014, then slide into a role as Dwayne Bowe's replacement as the go-to receiver. LSU's Odell Beckham tore up the Combine with a 4.43 40-yard dash, but we did not need a stopwatch to discover Beckham was fast. His playmaking ability leaps off the game tape. He can use his speed to get deep separation or play screen-and-go right away; with more polish, he can become a do-it-all receiver. Best of all, he will be there when the Chiefs draft, thanks to a deep receiver class.
Let's double down by giving the Chiefs increased big-play ability -- make that any big play ability -- at tight end. It's Crockett Gillmore time! Colorado State's Gillmore is a draftnik's delight who tore up the Shrine Game practices, earned a late invitation to the Senior Bowl and caught everything thrown up the seam to him there. He's 6-foot-6, he can run, he can catch, and his name is fun to say and easy to remember. Crockett Gillmore!
Problem: Alex Smith's contract expires this year.
Solution: Extend him...but not beyond 2016.
It's easy to throw up your hands at Smith's pedestrian, game-manager skillset and shout "Replace Him!" It's far harder to actually replace him. Smith had a 30-9-1 record over the last three seasons. Great defenses and systems obviously played a huge role in that won-loss record, but he also has a 9-0 touchdown-interception rate in three postseason performances since 2011, with a win and two losses in three of the most memorable postseason games of the last decade. There are several quarterbacks on earth who could get the Chiefs further, but several thousand who could not get any team nearly as far.
The Chiefs have been talking to Smith's camp about an extension. They should do it: He is the best quarterback they will have in 2014, the best they will have in 2015, and they can even create a little more cap space by converting his $8 million salary this year into a bonus. At the same time, it makes no sense to lock Smith in for the next 20 years. Smith will soon start to decline, and the Chiefs need to start assembling their replacement plan. By 2017, Smith will be 33 and either having the most Plunkett-like late career of the last three decades or be ready for the broadcast booth. In the first case, he will be the one angling for a new deal. In the second and much more likely case, the Chiefs won't want to take any massive dead money hits to say farewell.
It's a tricky situation. If Smith's people want a contract that extends beyond two or three "real" years, the Chiefs must be prepared to play hardball, let the season unspool, say nice things about Tyler Bray and so on. It's probable that Smith's representatives are realistic about his overall market potential and are looking to max his cash in the next few years, not push him into Aaron Rodgers territory. Lock Smith in for the short term, and it will be easier to fish for prospects for the next two years.
Problem: The inevitability of a letdown season.
Solution: Slow and steady are Reid's only speeds.
Let's be realistic about the Chiefs 2013 season for a moment. A bunch of third-string opposing quarterbacks made their defense look like the Seahawks defense for about a month. A rash of injuries in the playoff game exposed just how thin the roster was. As encouraging as their sudden turnaround was, the Chiefs are a team with serious work to do, playing in a division where the Broncos can be expected to dictate the standings for exactly one more season.
The Chiefs, in other words, cannot sacrifice long-range growth for a 2014 splash, because they will have a hard time making a 2014 splash. Transition on the line is going to take some steam out of a not-so-steamy offense. Actual NFL starting quarterbacks will pose a greater threat to their defense. And the overall roster is not particularly young or deep.
The Chiefs cap situation is too tight for them to attempt anything sexy. Even if they could enter, say, an Eric Decker bidding war, they must be reluctant to try it. This offseason should be about further stocking the cupboards and sticking to a broad-based improvement plan.
Here's a simple thing the Chiefs can do with any excess cap money: extend Justin Houston. He's a 25-year-old with 21 sacks in the last two seasons. Locking a young core player like Houston in place will pay greater dividends than lurching after a sudden 2014 improvement that still won't vault the Chiefs past the conference powerhouses.
In two seasons Peyton Manning will be gone, Philip Rivers will be even ricketier, Tom Brady will be near the end of his final contract and the whole balance of AFC power will look different. The Chiefs can have a great team in place by then if they do not go overboard trying to create a great team tomorrow. Reid is a glacier franchise builder anyway: let him slowly grind away at the Chiefs' problems, and he has a great chance to create something that will stand the test of time.