After so many years as an offensive power, the Chiefs are now, officially, on the defensive.
The process started last year with the hiring of defense-minded Herm Edwards as coach. But it really picked up steam this year with the signing of three free-agent defensive starters – linebackers Napoleon Harris and Donnie Edwards and tackle Alfonso Boone.
But even with last season's defensive improvement and the offseason additions, the defense is not yet strong enough to carry the team. Whether the Chiefs can challenge in the AFC West or earn a second straight wild-card berth will depend on how fast a rebuilding offense can get up to speed.
The Chiefs have an unsettled situation at quarterback, which likely will translate – at least early – into problems moving the ball. Young Brodie Croyle will be given every chance to win the starting spot ahead of veteran Damon Huard.
Offense: The offense likely will run more smoothly than it did last season under coordinator Mike Solari, who had never called plays before, but the philosophy won't change in Year 2. The Chiefs will be playing under the confining parameters established by Herm Edwards, who believes in a power running game and the minimizing of turnovers.
The Chiefs will feature a liberal dose of running back Larry Johnson and a passing game based on play action. If Croyle is the quarterback, the team will play even more conservatively. The Chiefs will try to limit his mistakes while building his confidence.
Defense: The Chiefs will stay with Herm Edwards' Cover 2 system, but the free-agent additions give coordinator Gunther Cunningham flexibility. In Harris, Donnie Edwards and Derrick Johnson, Cunningham has three linebackers who can stay on the field in all situations. A fourth, Kendrell Bell, has pass-rush skills, which opens the possibility of using a 3-4 as a change of pace.
QBs Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard: Younger fans can't even remember the last time the Chiefs went to training camp without a clear-cut starter. But that's the situation they face as Croyle prepares to state his case for the job. Herm Edwards would like to resolve the situation not only for this season but for many to come. If Croyle wins the job, that's what would happen. If the Chiefs are forced to go with Huard, the long-term picture will remain hazy.
In the short term, Huard would provide more stability. He filled in nicely for an injured Trent Green last season and played the position the way Edwards and Solari would like their quarterback to. He did a nice job protecting the football, took few chances and threw more accurately than the Chiefs expected.
But Croyle has more upside. He can make all of the necessary throws and has most of the intangibles teams look for in a quarterback. The downside to Croyle is that the Chiefs would have to endure his inevitable growing pains. He missed valuable practice time in training camp and the preseason last year because of an injured shoulder, so his development was delayed.
RB Larry Johnson: Johnson, who has threatened to hold out if he doesn't receive a contract extension prior to training camp, won't be as busy this season after setting an NFL record with 416 carries. Though Johnson will remain the focus of the Chiefs' power running game, they intend to reduce his burden.
The Chiefs had similar plans last season but became addicted to Johnson, particularly in close games. This year, they intend to make better use of veteran Michael Bennett, who joined the team during training camp last year but was limited by injuries and later was neglected by coaches who never seemed comfortable with his abilities. A full offseason to integrate Bennett into the system apparently has removed lingering doubts.
With Bennett's speed, he provides a nice change of pace to the powerful Johnson. The Chiefs would like to use Bennett in a way similar to how they once used Priest Holmes: They want to get him the ball in the open field on draws, sweeps and screens. They also want to use Johnson more as a receiver and raise his reception total from 41 to somewhere in the 50s.
TE Tony Gonzalez: Gonzalez, 31, is showing no signs of declining skills. His numbers were down slightly last season, but that's more a reflection on pass protection and quarterback problems than on Gonzalez. Look for him to lead the Chiefs in receptions again.
DEs Tamba Hali and Jared Allen: A better inside rush with former Bear Alfonso Boone could increase the production of the ends. Both Hali and Allen played well last season but were frustrated when opposing quarterbacks had time to step up in the pocket and avoid sacks. Allen and Hali are high-energy players who frequently make tackles from sheer effort. They will only get better as they gain experience, improve their techniques and get help up the middle.
Hali will find out early whether that help is on the way, but Allen was suspended for the first four games for two offseason transgressions. In his absence, the team will find out whether second-round pick Claude McBride can provide the pass-rush savvy he displayed at Tennessee.
VINNIE IYER'S TAKE
The defense will improve again under Coach Edwards, but a change at quarterback will prevent Kansas City from keeping up with the more explosive offenses in San Diego and Denver. Prediction: 8-8 (3rd in the AFC West).
The Chiefs aren't far from being a contender in the AFC West, but everything would have to fall in place quickly. Foremost in the equation is the play at quarterback. The Chiefs need Croyle or Huard to seize the starting role and provide a steady hand. Everything could unravel quickly if neither takes command. The team also needs its defensive additions to make an impact.
If those things happen and the Chiefs stay healthy at key positions, they could stay in the race. But it might be more realistic to expect some bumps in the road and maybe a run at another wild-card spot.
Adam Teicher covers the Chiefs for the Kansas City Star and Sporting News.