NFL preview 2014: Kansas City Chiefs

Jamaal Charles stops and cuts against the Raiders. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams—including why you should or shouldn’t be rooting for them this season—in the month leading up to NFL kickoff on Sept. 4. Today, the Kansas City Chiefs.

Last year’s record: 11-5

Coach: Andy Reid

2014 is about… Holding on to what they’ve got. The Chiefs were expected to improve upon 2012’s 2-14 record last season, but not to this extent. They rattled off a 9-0 start to the year before taking a week off, then came face-to-face with the wrecking ball that was the Broncos offence in week 11. A so-so stretch run left them at 11-5 and locked into a first-round wild card tilt against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. That game might have been the best NFL game of last season, but that was small comfort to Chiefs fans, who watched their team cough up what should have been an insurmountable lead and then allow Luck to write another chapter in his burgeoning legend. It was a great comeback year, despite its unfortunate conclusion, and the Chiefs now must keep the momentum going. It won’t be easy.

Core players: Alex Smith (QB), Derrick Johnson (LB), Eric Berry (S), Jamaal Charles (RB), Justin Houston (LB)

But they lost… Tackle Brandon Albert played a big role in both Charles’s MVP-runner-up campaign and Alex Smith’s extremely solid season protecting the football. He’s off to Miami and will be replaced by Eric Fisher, who manned the right side last year… to less-than-stellar effect. The Chiefs also said goodbye to Brandon Flowers, a former Pro Bowl cornerback who battled a knee injury and often looked out of place in the Chiefs’ system last year. The only other notable departure is slot receiver/scat back Dexter McCluster, who nobody in Kansas City ever seemed to find a proper use for. All in all, the Chiefs weren’t exactly decimated in the off-season.

Yeah, but they got… Well, they also didn’t add a lot, especially not in free agency. Joe Mays (LB) will join a group that could desperately use a reliable presence in the interior to pair with Johnson. Chris Owens (CB), meanwhile, will be given a chance to win Flowers’s old spot. The Chiefs’ real addition came in the draft, where they drafted pass-rushing outside linebacker Dee Ford with the 23rd pick. Ford is raw, but incredibly athletic, and fits the Chiefs’ aggressive 3-4 scheme well. He’ll need time to get up to speed, but could offer insurance if Tamba Hali and Houston grapple with injuries, as they did last year down the stretch when the Chiefs’ 9-0 start threatened to implode.

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Growing from within: The Chiefs need a second cornerback. Marcus Cooper, a converted receiver, stepped into one vacancy and showed enough that he’s got his spot—if not the best opposing receiver—locked down. The hope is that one of Owens, Sean Smith or draft pick Phillip Gaines can step up—but Owens isn’t exactly highly regarded, Smith did not impress last year and starting a rookie corner is always a dicey proposition. On offence, Knile Davis (RB) is expected to grow into a larger role behind Charles, who could use the occasional breather; and TE Travis Kelce, a promising second-year pro who missed his rookie season with a knee injury, will hopefully offer Smith another respectable target behind Dwayne Bowe and the extremely inconsistent Donnie Avery.

Why this team? The Chiefs have arguably the best running back in the NFL (but don’t tell LeSean McCoy if you feel that way). They also have a defence that, when healthy, features perhaps the league’s scariest bunch of playmakers. They have a coach who has proven he can get the most out of mediocre pieces—wave hi, Alex Smith—and an elite special teams unit. When the Chiefs are clicking on all cylinders they can play with anyone and they’ve proven as much. And you get to root for a great story.

Why not? They’re top heavy and no top-heavy team survives two years in a row. When Houston and Hali got hurt, the vaunted Chiefs D allowed 30-plus points in four of the season’s final seven games. If Charles goes down, the Chiefs lose both their leading rusher and leading receiver, and if Berry or Cooper get hurt, there’s literally nobody in the secondary who has a prayer of replacing them. There’s so much starting talent with so little talent behind it that every time a player takes more than three seconds to get up you’ll break out in a cold sweat. Does that sound like a fun season to you?

Perfect for fans of… Amazing guitar solos. The Chiefs are like that totally boring, competent bar band that has a fantastic guitarist. You don’t need to listen to every song, you can carry on a conversation and drink your beer—just be prepared to turn your head and shut the hell up when the superstar starts doing his thing.

How much hope? 6/10. If everyone’s healthy, they’re a force to be reckoned with. But everyone has to be healthy. Oh, and they play in the AFC West, with the Broncos, so second place and a second-straight wild-card spot is probably the ceiling here.

Will you be mocked for front-running? No, sir. You get to root for Alex Smith to redeem himself after failing to win the big one for the Niners; for Andy Reid to redeem himself after his exit from Philadelphia; and for Kansas City itself, home to one of the greatest home crowds in all of the NFL.

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