In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June and July, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
Are you a 2014 Chiefs believer? A Chiefs skeptic? Did you see the first half of their playoff loss to the Colts as half full or the second half as half empty? Was the 2013 team a Jeff Tuel-fueled mirage? Did the team move forward in the offseason or list sideways? If a tree falls on Jamaal Charles in the woods, would the Chiefs ever make a sound again?
All excellent questions. The 2013 Chiefs were a tricky team to categorize due to their hot start, soft schedule of opposing backup quarterbacks, and wacky playoff loss. The 2014 team is tricky to project because it is hard to make sense of the 2013 team. Andy Reid is a slow, deliberate builder, and neither he nor John Dorsey appear to be in much of a rush after last season's sudden success. It makes for a boring roundup of offseason moves -- the Chiefs have not done much -- but an intriguing experiment in roster redesign, one with results that won't be clear until this new version of the old Chiefs takes the field.
Biggest Move: Not making any big moves
The Chiefs roster looks awfully familiar. Sixteen of the team's 22 regular starters from last year return, plus the punter and kicker. Four of the newly-listed starters were regular contributors last year. The only new faces are guard Jeff Linkenbach and cornerback Chris Owens; Owens only climbed the depth chart after the release of Brandon Flowers last week, and will have to compete with Marcus Cooper and rookie Philip Gaines for his job.
Continuity is not a bad thing for an 11-5 team, but the Chiefs entered the offseason with a punchlist of obvious upgrades -- namely wide receiver productivity -- that they flatly ignored. The departures of Flowers, Dexter McCluster, Tyson Jackson and others were not addressed in free agency and were only waved at in a draft that found the Chiefs without a second round pick. On paper, the Chiefs are weaker now than they were at halftime of the playoff game against the Colts. That puts them a rung below the top teams in the AFC, who are themselves a rung below the top teams in the NFC.
The Chiefs are not settling for less so much as consolidating gains. Andy Reid and John Dorsey are thinking long term, which is the best term Reid thinks in. Reid likes to build along the offensive and defensive lines and in the secondary. On the offensive line, he is counting on Eric Fisher's development and big third-year leaps by tackle Donald Stephenson and guard Jeff Allen. First-round pick Dee Ford makes a scary pass rush scarier, while Gaines and Cooper represent a refresh at cornerback. Factor in other young contributors like middle linebacker Nico Johnson, and the Chiefs look suspiciously like a rebuilding team that just happens to have veterans at running back, quarterback, and other key positions.
So are the Chiefs waiting for Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to retire before making their move? Not really. They are taking their time assembling the exact roster they want while getting the salary cap where they want it, even if it means taking a "gather-step" to restructure the depth chart and balance sheet. Unfortunately, a gather-step can look like a step backward in the standings.
Biggest Gamble: Leaving Charles in charge
No non-quarterback in the NFL, not even Adrian Peterson, means as much to his team as Jamaal Charles. Charles rushed 259 times and was targeted for 104 passes, catching 70. That means over 35% of the Chiefs' offensive plays, or 22.6 per game, flowed through Charles. It's an extreme workload, and even if Charles stays healthy, he cannot be expected to average 5.0 yards per carry as the Chiefs' leading rusher AND 9.9 yards per catch as their leading receiver year after year.
There aren't many contenders to step up and take touches from Charles. Knile Davis' impressive performances in the season finale (27 carries, 81 yards, two touchdowns) and playoff loss (18-67-1, plus seven catches and a touchdown reception) suggest that he is ready for a larger role. If you speak Andy Reid language, he could be the Correll Buckhalter to Charles' Brian Westbrook. But there are no obvious candidates to alleviate the receiving load. Starters Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery are what they are: Avery a Peter Principled slot receiver, Bowe a graduate of the Santonio Holmes school of getting paid far more than he is worth. De'Anthony Thomas will replace Dexter McCluster, but his touches were tightly managed in college. The tight ends are journeymen. The receiving depth is dominated by 49ers castoffs (A.J. Jenkins, Kyle Williams) and slooowwww developers (Junior Hemingway).
Maybe the sun will finally rise for one of the bench receivers. Perhaps Davis will take such a load off Charles that he can contribute another 70 catches while Davis grinds out the heavy-duty yardage. Perhaps Bowe's production will reach the same time zone as his cap number. The fourth alternative --Charles leading the Chiefs in everything, until he collapses in a heap at an inopportune moment -- is not a recipe for success.
Biggest Question: To pay or not to pay Alex Smith?
Alex Smith becomes a free agent after the season, and the question of how much to pay a late-blooming 30-year old journeyman is like the Riddle of the Sphinx. Smith walked on four legs like a baby for his first five seasons and walked on two legs like a man for the last three. How long before evening comes and he needs crutches? It is certainly likely to happen before the end of the standard long-term franchise quarterback's contract ends nowadays.
The current boilerplate contracts for quarterbacks roughly in Smith's peer group belong to Jay Cutler ($54-million over three years, then the silly money) and Colin Kaepernick (reportedly seven years and $127-million, with more secrets and trapdoors than a Pharaoh's tomb, to keep the Egyptian imagery flowing). Smith is more similar to Cutler in age and background, and a deal with front-loaded guarantees that carry the quarterback through his mid-30s, with a long cap proration contrail, might make the most sense for both parties. That said, Cutler has a much better arm and overall athleticism than Smith, giving him greater long-term potential. The buyouts and provisions of Kaepernick's deal may be gleaming in Dorsey's eyes, and Smith may be amenable to year-to-year reappraisals if the years come with eight-figure price tags. But you probably know that everyone is studying the Kaepernick deal the way action heroes defuse a supervillain's bomb. Neither Dorsey nor Smith's agent may be eager to snip the red wire.
The big problem when guessing Smith and Dorsey's next move is that we face a shortage of boilerplate contracts. There are no good comps for 30-something quarterbacks who clearly reside on a middle tier among NFL starters: Carson Palmer's two-year, $16-million deal with the Cardinals last year is the closest thing we have. Smith is a late-bloomer in the category of Jeff Garcia, Rich Gannon, Brad Johnson or Jeff Hostetler, and it has been too long since a quarterback like that has brokered a deal. If Smith signs a deal south of Cutler and Kaepernick but north of Palmer or the year-at-a-time deals older journeymen are typically stuck with, he may set the market for the NFL quarterbacking middle class, which could come to include everyone from Andy Dalton to second-tier 2012'ers to the next journeyman who finds himself late in life. But again, precedent setting is scary.
If the Smith negotiations linger into early August, it may be a sign that Dorsey and Reid want to give Tyler Bray and Aaron Murray a long look before deciding how much hardball they play. The Chiefs may be committed to Smith, but only the Smith who provides stability and reliability at the right price.
The Chiefs are the Panthers of the AFC, only they are not as rudderless. They will tail off in 2014. But they will also position themselves to bounce back.