With most of the offseason transactions completed, here are my thoughts on what the Chiefs have done both via the draft and free agency.
- In losses to the Raiders and Ravens, teams learned how to beat the Chiefs: double Bowe and commit everyone else to stopping Jamaal Charles on defense, and pounding the ball up the middle and getting the ball to the running backs and tight ends in open space. After Bowe, the Chiefs receiving corp was composed of guys that all the other 31 teams didn't want. Defensively, the Chiefs sorely were lacking a run-stuffing NT as Ron Edwards wore down toward the end of the season, and Mike Vrabel was too old and slow to cover backs and tight ends. The lack of a pass rush outside of Tamba Hali was a major cause of their defensive woes, and the strong play of their corners and safeties, forced QB's all season to check down- unfortunately our linebackers struggled mightily in coverage (particularly Vrabel).
- With that being said, I love the offseason moves that they have made. They shored up the receiving corp using their 1st round draft pick on Jonathan Baldwin who gives them a big-play guy who can stretch the field, and open up more holes for Bowe and Charles. Then in free agency, Pioli picked up Steve Breaston and Jerheme Urban to man the slot positions with Dexter McCluster. Both Breaston and Urban played under Haley who figures to be calling plays this season, and are familiar with his system. They will give Matt Cassel some reliable checkdown options along with TE Tony Moeaki.
- The biggest offensive addition imo though is FB LeRon McClain. Last year despite being the #1 rushing attack in the league, the Chiefs faltered on short-yardage situations time and time again. McClain will make for a fantastic lead-blocker for Charles and Jones, and is a nice weapon himself- a bruising weapon who can also catch balls with a decent YAC in the passing game.
- Defensively, the Chiefs were all about getting some more beef against the run, and trying to find that one more pass-rusher that can make this defense an elite unit. The addition of Kelly Gregg to play nose tackle gives the Chiefs the bull that can draw doubles that is vital to the 3-4 that they run. He will also make for a fine tutor to Jerrell Powe who is talented but very raw, and needs to be coached up. Snatching Brandon Siler from the Chargers gives them another solid run-stopper in the linebacking corp, and Siler who has a mean streak will push and compete with Jovan Belcher for PT.
- Finally, the resigning of Tamba Hali and Wallace Gilberry, and drafting of Allen Bailey and Justin Houston (who might be the steal of the draft) shows their commitment to getting after the passer. All the experts have been talking about the offense, but I think it's this defense with 3 stud corners, and Eric Berry in centerfield that will take the big step this year, and be a unit to be feared.
- From my POV this team still has two weaknesses. (1) The offensive line is a major concern to me. The 2nd round pick of Rodney Hudson should give us a reliable center for years to come, but this unit is still undersized. While the zone-blocking scheme is effective for the running game, this unit struggled throughout the season in pass protection, particularly on the right side. There is also very little depth, and if we were to suffer an injury or two, this unit will be in big trouble. (2) Youth: this is still an extremely young team. A very large portion of this team is 25 or younger (including the entire starting secondary), and the improvements mentioned, particularly those of defense, hinge on these young players progressing and constantly improving. While this youth is great for the 5-year outlook of the team, I still fear that our youth will cost us a couple games especially against this nightmare schedule.
The X-Factor: Matt Cassel. Cassel played very well last season: 27 TD's on only 7INT's, especially considering the mickey mouse receiving corp he had. With the Killer B's, Moeaki, and McCluster, on top of the league's #1 rushing attack, he has NO excuse to fail this season. If QB coach Jim Zorn can continue his progression, and Cassel plays as well as if not better than he did last year, this team can become one of the elite teams in the AFC. If he doesn't, look forward to 6-10.
Prognosis: I will wait until the end of the preseason to make my picks for the season, but for the above-mentioned reasons, I think the Chargers will win this division this year, as they are more experienced, will be hungry after last year's disappointment, and know that their window is closing.