It's that time of the year again where NFL teams prepare for the start of the new league year and fans prepare their latest mock drafts and free agency plans for their favorite NFL teams. While it doesn't make a bit of difference what players and/or moves the fans want their teams to make, it doesn't make it any less fun for the fans because it's a way to engage with their favorite teams.
It's part of what makes the NFL the most popular professional sports organization in this country. Fans have platforms like SB Nation to talk and debate with one another about what their teams should do moving toward next season. Most of the talk is regarding free agency and the draft, specifically, players not currently on the team they support. While most teams would argue that development of the players currently on the roster is far more important than any new players they sign or draft for the next season.
This is especially true for players who just finished up their rookie years and are headed into their first NFL off-season. It wasn't your typical off-season for these guys after the draft last April because of the prolonged lockout. They weren't able to get with their positional coaches and strength coaches to get prepared for the season like they would have in any other year. This is also the most crucial time of the year for these players looking to take that next step in their careers. While watching these guys on Sundays in the fall may seem like it's where they make or break their careers, it all starts with their preparation and commitment to their craft when the lights aren't on and the stadiums aren't full. That's right now for these guys.
The Kansas City Chiefs have a handful of guys coming into their second year that are one really good off-season away from setting up their careers in Kansas City, as well as putting the team in great position to battle for an AFC West championship again next year. These players are Rodney Hudson, Jerrell Powe, Justin Houston, Jalil Brown, Jon Baldwin, Ricky Stanzi and David Mims.
The Chiefs drafted Rodney Hudson in the second round out of Florida State last year to be the heir apparent to Casey Wiegmann at the center position. He was rated as one of the top interior linemen in the draft and was considered a steal when he fell to the Chiefs' pick at No. 55 overall. But his playing time in 2011 was strictly at the guard position, which is the position he played at Florida State and another one of the reasons he was rated so high coming out of college. He had the versatility to play both guard and center and it was something that worked in his favor last year as he was able to get some playing time with injuries to the Chiefs' offensive line during the season.
Hudson should be the starter at center for the Chiefs next season with the probable retirement of Wiegmann. Hudson's off-season will need to see him develop into not only a player who can be an effective starter in his second year in the league, but into one who can help the Chiefs regain their status as the best rushing team in the NFL. This will be key to the entire offense heading into next season.
One of the two biggest question marks heading into next season is nose tackle Jerrell Powe. In what seemed like an absolute steal at the time, Powe fell all the way down to the sixth round of the 2011 draft before the Chiefs took him with the 199th overall selection. Most thought Powe would compete with veteran signee Kelly Gregg for a spot in the defensive line rotation last season, but it was the surprising Amon Gordon who stepped in there and rotated with Gregg at the nose tackle spot for the Chiefs throughout the year.
Powe was inactive for all but one game last season, which does not bring a whole lot of optimism that he's a guy who can be counted on to develop into a rotational guy along the defensive front next season. But that's exactly why he's one of those most important players for the Chiefs this off-season. That's if they don't address the position via free agency. Even if that is the case and they do go out and sign a Paul Soliai, Shaun Rogers or Aubrayo Franklin, you can never have too many good players that can rotate along the defensive line. Chalk up Powe as one of the players with the most to gain from a fantastic off-season of development.
The next player has already shown that he can produce for the Chiefs defense. Justin Houston made huge strides toward the latter part of last season and it's that development that has Chiefs fans optimistic about the two OLBs for the Chiefs for the next several years. Houston and Tamba Hali have already made themselves a formidable pair that opposing offenses must account for on every play. Everyone around the league is already aware of what Hali brings to the table but, with Houston stepping up and giving the Chiefs another solid pass-rusher, it really takes this defense to a whole new level.
His first NFL off-season isn't about developing his game to make him just a contributing member of this defense; he's already shown he can do that. It's about taking his game to the next level and making him one of the most all-around complete 3/4 SOLBs in the game. He's got the strength and athletic ability to be able to make all the plays needed out of his position. He can disengage from offensive linemen in the run game, he can get to the passer and he can cover in space. The sky's the limit for this kid and it's these next few months that will determine whether he's going to be a good player or a special player next season.
The next player has been discussed a little bit over the past few days with the Chiefs' signing of former Oakland Raiders starting cornerback Stanford Routt. That player is former University of Colorado cornerback Jalil Brown. Most of the attention has been on what the Chiefs had planned on doing with Brandon Carr, and whether they'd be able to get a contract done that both Carr and the team could he happy about. While Brown will most likely not be competing for a starting position for next season as it would stand right now, that doesn't mean his development is any less important to the short-term and long-term success of the Chiefs.
You can never have enough good defensive backs and defensive linemen. The Chiefs ran the nickel/dime formations so many times last year that good defensive backs, especially ones with good size like Brown has, will always have a shot at making a difference for the team on defense and even special teams. Brown's biggest knock in coverage last year was that he struggled to get his head around when the ball was in the air -- something Carr had trouble with early in his career too.
With the signing of Routt, it became clear that the Chiefs were not going to let wide receiver Dwayne Bowe leave via free agency. If they aren't able to get a deal done with Bowe soon, then he's most likely going to receive the franchise tag in hopes of then coming to an agreement on a new deal before too long. Otherwise he's slated to make a little over $9 million with the tag in 2012. That means that 2011 first-round pick Jon Baldwin will not have the pressure of trying to develop so quickly that he has to make up for the lost production of a Pro Bowl receiver. That means good things for Matt Cassel, or whoever ends up being the starting quarterback for the Chiefs next season.
Baldwin has the physical attributes to be a top-flight wide receiver in the NFL. He showed flashes last year of the player that all Chiefs fans had hoped they drafted at No. 27 overall out of the University of Pittsburgh last April. Baldwin, Breaston and Bowe should make up one of the best wide receiver trios in the entire NFL.
The next player on this list has been long forgotten, it seems, in this crazy mock draft time period. Ricky Stanzi was drafted with much fanfare last year when his selection was publicly praised by ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper as a fantastic pick by the Chiefs and a future starter in this league. But Stanzi didn't have any impact on last season's finish, leaving one to wonder whether that was by design or by struggles that made it obvious he wasn't ready to play at that level. Maybe they decided Stanzi just wasn't going to play his rookie year no matter what, regardless of how bad the quarterback play could be (and was...Palko).
As of right now, it's just Cassel and Stanzi with contracts for the Chiefs next season at quarterback. They'll be adding another quarterback through free agency or the draft this off-season. If they do take a quarterback in the draft, it would be a boost of confidence in that they are prepared to roll with Stanzi as the backup next season after not seeing any action in the regular season in 2011.
I don't think you'll see them grab a quarterback in free agency AND draft a guy unless it's really late in the draft and they plan to stash him on the practice squad. It'll most likely be through free agency with Jason Campbell, Chad Henne or even Peyton Manning if they really want to make a splash. If Stanzi were to make real progress during the off-season and rightfully prove he can handle the backup role, it would make for an interesting decision on what the Chiefs would do with the loser of the starting quarterback competition if they signed a veteran quarteback in free agency.
The last player we're going to talk about is offensive tackle David Mims. The UDFA out of Virginia Union was talked about as one of the best UDFA pickups by any team in the entire NFL last year. While he struggled in the preseason to show he was ready for that level, it was an encouraging sign that the Chiefs brought him up off the practice squad toward the end of the season when they cut Jared Gaither. With right tackle being one of the most popular topics this off-season for Chiefs fans, how much better of a spot could the Chiefs be in if Mims were to develop over the off-season into a capable player that could at least compete during OTAs as a possible starter?
It might be a longshot to think that way but, even if he developed into a backup swing tackle, it would provide some much needed depth along the offensive line for the Chiefs heading into next season. Mims has the biggest opportunity of any of these players to make a huge mark on this team as a player that could fill a position widely regarded as the Chiefs' biggest need right now.
How huge would it be if Mims showed enough toward the end of last year and before this coming draft that the Chiefs front office was even a little optimistic that he could compete with anyone for that starting position? It might not change who they draft in the first round come April, but it could change who they draft late, and that is another opportunity to find a guy at another position that can make a difference.
This was a snapshot of a few of the second-year players that, with a big off-season in terms of progress and development, could push the Chiefs that much closer to another AFC West championship and playoff berth. Not to mention solidify the ever-shrinking number of positions that perceivably need to be addressed.
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