KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In each of the first 49 seasons the Chiefs played in Kansas City, their fans had a wide selection of veteran players to root for. In season number 50, they won’t have that opportunity.
When they get to training camp Thursday at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Mo., the Chiefs will have the league’s youngest roster. They are the only NFL team to begin camp with no player older than 30 years.
They have six players who are 30: quarterback Matt Cassel, offensive lineman Ryan Lilja, wide receiver Terrance Copper, defensive lineman Amon Gordon, safety Abram Elam and punter Dustin Colquitt. Other than Cassel, none of those players could be considered essential to the success of the Chiefs this year, so they will be counting on their many younger players to carry them.
“This is kind of the way it’s going in the NFL: young, fast, athletic guys,” said Copper, used by the Chiefs mainly on special teams. “It’s definitely a blessing if you can stay in the league for awhile.”
No team has embraced a youth movement like the Chiefs but it’s difficult to say whether that’s a good thing for them or a negative. Many of the teams generally considered to have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations are heavy with players 30 and over. New England has 13, Baltimore 10 and Pittsburgh nine.
Then again, the Green Bay Packers have just four, so there’s no one way to build a Super Bowl contender.
Either way, this way of constructing a roster is new for the Chiefs, who had enthusiastically and successfully chased aging players near the end of their careers since general manager Scott Pioli arrived in 2009. Players in this group included linebackers Mike Vrabel and Zach Thomas, wide receiver Bobby Engram, center Casey Wiegmann and running back Thomas Jones.
To an extent, the Chiefs were forced into some of those decisions. Pioli had been left with a roster that a year earlier had been gutted to make room for a youth movement. The situation begged for some veteran players to act as stabilizers.
In a sense, the current roster is the result of that youth movement. In 2008, the Chiefs drafted among others Glenn Dorsey, Branden Albert and Jamaal Charles, Brandon Flowers and those four players remain as pillars of the team.
The Chiefs’ Romeo Crennel, like most head coaches, prefers veteran players over youthful ones, everything else being equal. The Chiefs attempted to sign more veteran players during the offseason. They came close to adding wide receiver Reggie Wayne before he decided to remain with the Colts.
In a more publicized failure, the Chiefs whiffed on their attempt to interest quarterback Peyton Manning, who instead signed with the division rival Broncos.
“I’m not saying we didn’t try to get some veterans,” Crennel said. “We had some guys in who made decisions to go other places. As it works out, we’ve got a younger roster so we’ll coach those guys and try to get them better quickly.”
Still, it can’t be all coincidence that none of the Chiefs’ four main free-agent additions — offensive lineman Eric Winston, tight end Kevin Boss, running back Peyton Hillis and cornerback Stanford Routt — is older than 28.
Hillis, 26, takes over for Jones, who will be 34 in August. Among newcomers to the starting lineup, center Rodney Hudson, 22, replaces Wiegmann, 39, and rookie nose tackle Dontari Poe, 21, takes over for Kelly Gregg, 35.
“These guys were available and we were able to entice them to come join us,” Crennel said. “Eric Winston has been a starting tackle in the NFL. Those guys don’t fall off a tree and into your lap every day, so we feel fortunate to have him. Stanford Routt is the same thing. He got cut in Oakland and then we talked to him and sold him on our program and he liked what he saw. Those things just kind of happen sometimes.
“That’s just the way it worked out. We had some guys retire. We lost some guys for whatever reason. That’s kind of the way it worked and we replaced most of them with younger guys. What we have to do is try to do the best we can to get these guys up to speed and give them a scheme and a design they can play with and execute.”
All of this youth could mean the Chiefs play with an energy like no other team in the league. But that could come at a cost.
Their inexperience could show up most where the Chiefs can afford it the least: on their offensive line. Winston, Lilja and Albert are veterans but Hudson is in his first season as a starter and right guard Jon Asamoah, 23, is in his second.
“Casey brought a lot to the table,” Lilja said. “He brought an element of toughness and that set a tone for everybody. He brought a lot of experience. He knew what was going to happen before it happened. He didn’t get surprised out there. He can still play so having him gone hurts.
“But he was here for two years and he rubbed off on guys. We’ve got a good group in the offensive line room. We don’t have a ton of experience. It’s a young room now. But that’s just the nature of the business.”
The Chiefs last year lost two of their leaders when Vrabel retired and guard Brian Waters was released. This year, two more are out. Jones and Wiegmann became free agents and the Chiefs didn’t re-sign them.
The season might hinge on whether the Chiefs can find players willing to take their place in the locker room. After drafting plenty of players who were captains of their college teams, they have several candidates.
But leading a group of pros is a big step and it’s this kind of thing that can keep a coach tossing and turning at night. So Crennel, before the Chiefs finished offseason practice last month, was already compiling a list.
“Matt Cassel by the nature of being the quarterback is a leader,” Crennel said. “Eric Winston is going to be a leader. Steve Breaston is a quiet leader. I think Boss is going to be a leader in a quiet way. So we have some guys who have some experience and they know about winning and how a team should be run and they’ll be able to help the young guys we have.”