Chiefs offensive coordinator Bill Muir eased himself into a chair after his team's final practice of 2011. A season like this will take it out of you, stealing your energy and stacking pressure on your attitude.
"The two words that come to mind are 'disappointment' and 'frustration,' " Muir said of this season, which ends today in Denver."... I'll look at it during the offseason, and there'll be a lot of introspection, but you just don't shake off a season very easily that you had such high expectations for."
Other than pride, the Chiefs don't have much to play for today. Players and coaches have insisted that they're not looking toward the future, but even though it's the final day of the season, it's the first day of a new year — time to think beyond the disappointments and consider the needs for the future.
Some are pressing, and some can wait. A few will be solved when players begin returning from season-ending injuries, and a few will require a more proactive approach from general manager Scott Pioli. Regardless, the team has plenty of holes to fill if it plans to turn this season's losing record into a potential playoff push next season. There's work to be done.
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This is a position that simply must improve. There are options, at least. Matt Cassel would be in the fourth season of a six-year contract, and the way his deal was structured, the Chiefs have already paid the bulk of its $63 million maximum value. With Cassel familiar with the offense and his teammates, it makes sense to bring him back as the Chiefs' starter — but with more realistic competition than he faced in 2011.
It's unlikely the Chiefs will retain Cassel and re-sign Kyle Orton, who's a free agent after this season, because Pioli isn't the type to have a highly paid veteran on the bench. It's more likely the Chiefs draft a quarterback and develop him as Cassel is given one final season to prove definitively that he's the type of player who could lead his team to the Super Bowl.
Who's likely to return: Cassel and Ricky Stanzi.
Who's not: Tyler Palko's time with the Chiefs is likely finished, and unless the Chiefs have fallen in love with Orton, he'll likely sign elsewhere.
What's realistic: Drafting no higher than eighth, barring a trade into the top five — which also isn't Pioli's forte — the Chiefs will likely miss out on the best quarterbacks in a talented class. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, who's expected to enter the draft, will surely be gone by then and it seems like Landry Jones is staying at Oklahoma. That leaves Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill or Arizona's Nick Foles as the Chiefs' best draft options.
The Packers' Matt Flynn could be an interesting free agent if the Chiefs plan to bring in a legitimate contender for Cassel's job. They also could target the Buccaneers' Josh Johnson. Still, the Chiefs have to make an effort to draft and develop a quarterback, a weakness not only under Pioli but for the past three decades in Kansas City.
The running game was supposed to again be the strength of the Chiefs' offense in 2011, but a season-ending knee injury to Jamaal Charles and time catching up with Thomas Jones got in the way of that plan. Charles will be back, although it's unclear if he'll possess the same speed and shiftiness that he displayed in two seasons as the starter.
Jones' contract expires after this season, and the time has come for the Chiefs to part ways with the 33-year-old veteran.
The Chiefs have been at their best when Charles wasn't carrying the full load, so they'll likely target a complementary rusher. With Charles' talent, even after the injury, it's unlikely the team will go after top free agents, such as the Bears' Matt Forte or Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch.
Still, the Chiefs need insurance at this position — and a fallback plan if Charles doesn't return to 2010 form.
Who's likely to return: Charles and Dexter McCluster, who's valuable for his versatility and ability to return kicks. Jackie Battle could return, but probably in the special-teams and short-yardage role he occupied in previous seasons. Fullback Le'Ron McClain's contract expires after this season, and he'll return only if the Chiefs get him at a bargain.
Who's not: Jones is probably a goner, and Battle also might not return.
What's realistic: The Chiefs will likely target a bigger back to complement Charles. The Packers' Ryan Grant will be a free agent, and although he's not the workhorse that Jones once was, he could be a solid counterpunch to Charles. He also won't command a monster salary, which will be appealing to the Chiefs. The Falcons' Jason Snelling, at 234 pounds, also could be an option.
Dwayne Bowe has emerged as one of the league's most dependable and explosive receivers, but his attitude could still be enough to give the Chiefs pause when it comes to offering him a huge contract. He's a free agent, and it seems likely that the team will make Bowe its franchise player — at least while it decides what to do with him long-term.
Bowe has had two terrific seasons, on top of three disappointing ones to begin his career, and it makes sense for the Chiefs to want to see another promising year before offering a contract that could be worth upward of $40 million. By franchising him in 2012, the Chiefs would pay him the average salary of the league's top-five highest paid receivers (more than $9 million) and give them a look at how Bowe responds to being one of the league's richest players.
Steve Breaston and Jon Baldwin have long-term contracts, but the Chiefs always could look to upgrade. Still, in less than a year, the team went from having one of the NFL's worst receiving corps to one of the more promising ones. The return of Tony Moeaki won't hurt.
Who's likely to return: Bowe, in some capacity, Breaston, Baldwin and Terrance Copper. Jeremy Horne also could get a chance to make the team. At tight end, Moeaki will be back.
Who's not: Tight end Anthony Becht will likely go on to resume his media career and Jake O'Connell might finally be shown the door. Horne also isn't a sure thing. Wide receiver Jerheme Urban is unlikely to return. Tight end Leonard Pope is an unrestricted free agent and also could be allowed to move on.
What's realistic: The Chiefs aren't likely to spend a draft pick on a receiver considering their many other needs. If they bring in a free agent, it's unlikely to be a difference-maker.
Pioli has always believed a team can find quality linemen late in the draft or at a bargain in free agency. It's time to adjust that thinking, considering three years of that philosophy have resulted in one of the biggest liabilities on the team.
This season's pass protection and run blocking were bad, and part of that came from an aging group of lineman. Center Casey Wiegmann, at 38, was on a one-year contract and hasn't ruled out retirement. Guard Ryan Lilja also took a step back this season, and right tackle Barry Richardson was a weak link all season. With that kind of weakness, Pioli will have to make upgrading the line a priority — even if it conflicts with his philosophy.
Left tackle Branden Albert and right guard Jon Asamoah had promising seasons, but neither was dominant.
Who's likely to return: Albert and Asamoah will be back, and backup center Rodney Hudson could step into the starting lineup next season. Reserve tackle David Mims showed promise this season. Lilja also is under contract.
Who's not: Wiegmann is the best bet, although Richardson is an unrestricted free agent. He didn't show much promise this season and might be allowed to walk away. Steve Maneri also could attend training camp, but he didn't help the Chiefs much this season.
What's realistic: Hudson was seen on draft day as a future foundation block, and he should get his chance next season at either center of one of the guard positions. But offensive tackle should be a high priority during the draft, even in the early rounds. If the Chiefs target a first-round tackle, Iowa's Riley Reiff or Stanford's Jonathan Martin could be options. Stanford's David DeCastro is the draft's best interior lineman.
Another position that's ripe for a shakeup. The line was a weakness during most of the 2012 season, even as part of a strong defense. Third-year defensive end Tyson Jackson still hasn't shown himself to be a dominant defender, and Glenn Dorsey has been no better than average. In addition, veteran nose tackle Kelly Gregg will be a free agent, and rookie Jerrell Powe played in only one contest.
If Romeo Crennel remains the Chiefs coach, it stands to reason he'll push Pioli to upgrade the defensive line — particularly at nose tackle. The team bypassed several promising nose tackles in past drafts, and it might not have that luxury this season, particularly if Powe didn't progress as expected.
The Chiefs aren't likely to cut ties with Dorsey or Jackson, but their erratic play makes it likely that pass-rusher Wallace Gilberry will be re-signed.
Who's likely to return: Dorsey, Jackson and Allen Bailey are sure things. Gilberry should be back because he's the team's only real pass-rushing threat on the line, and Amon Gordon was a pleasant surprise this season. Powe will at least get a chance to make the team during training camp, though if the Chiefs use an early-to-mid-round draft pick on a nose tackle, his chances of making the roster will be slim.
Who's not: Gregg and Brandon Bair, though Bair might be invited to camp.
What's realistic: The free-agent pickings are slim, and the Chiefs are probably better off re-signing Gilberry and drafting a lineman in the third-round or earlier. Yes, that will mean another year of Jackson and Dorsey, but the Chiefs like Bailey and think he could develop into a solid sub-rusher. Plus, the defense could improve drastically with a strong nose tackle. If the Chiefs decide to draft a nose tackle, Washington's Alameda Ta'amu would be just fine — though that would mean dropping quarterback or offensive line needs to the third round, a risky enterprise.
This is the Chiefs' most dependable position group, although it could stand a few upgrades, too. Rookie outside linebacker Justin Houston met expectations after a slow start, and Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson were Pro Bowlers. Jovan Belcher, a former undrafted free agent out of Maine, has been a starting inside linebacker the past two seasons, and he's good for where the Chiefs found him. But he hasn't been as reliable, particularly in the run, as the team would like. He's a restricted free agent and will likely return.
Who's likely to return: Hali, Johnson, Houston, Belcher, Andy Studebaker, Cameron Sheffield and Demorrio Williams.
Who's not: Cory Greenwood is an exclusive-rights free agent, but even so, he's likely to return.
What's realistic: If the Chiefs decide to upgrade, this is a position ripe for free agency. The linebackers class is deep, and Pioli could find a diamond if he does his homework. Washington's Roger McIntosh could be a valuable addition, and so could Carolina's Dan Connor. It's also a group that, if necessary, could wait for future upgrades.
It didn't always look like it this season, thanks to injuries, but this will be a strength of the team in the future. The Sabby Piscitelli era will likely be finished once Eric Berry returns. That'll give a talented secondary a much-needed boost, and with Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr entering the prime years of their careers, the Chiefs' young secondary could be one of the best overall units in the league.
That, of course, hinges on the Chiefs bringing back Carr, who was drafted in 2008 in the fifth round and emerged as a dependable cornerback opposite Flowers. Carr had his best season as a pro this season, and the Chiefs would be making a mistake by letting him go — particularly considering they'll likely extend him with a hometown discount.
The Chiefs still need a solid third cornerback, but that's not a pressing need. Javier Arenas and Jalil Brown will do. Free safety Kendrick Lewis also is an emerging young talent.
Who's likely to return: Flowers, Carr, Berry, Lewis, Arenas and Brown are locks. The Chiefs will have to decide whether to re-sign corner Travis Daniels, which would sense from a depth standpoint.
Who's not: Piscitelli is unlikely to return, and so is safety Reshard Langford. Veteran safety Jon McGraw, slowed too often by injuries this year, will be a free agent and might have played his final game with the Chiefs.
What's realistic: Other than going after a third cornerback, the only thing this position group lacks is depth. It would be a good idea for Pioli to bring in a veteran safety in case Berry or Lewis is injured next season. As for cornerback, the Chiefs have drafted a player at the position in each of the past four years. Unless there's a no-brainer on the board, it's time for the team to look toward other needs.
Kicker Ryan Succop would have been a restricted free agent before signing a five-year extension, and other than last week's breakdown, Succop has been a reliable option for points this season. Dustin Colquitt is a solid punter, and McCluster and Arenas will again handle the return duties.
Who's likely to return: Succop, Colquitt, McCluster and Arenas.
Who's not: There could be turnover among members of the return and protection teams.
The most intriguing storyline of the offseason will be whether the Chiefs retain Crennel as coach. It seems to make plenty of sense, given his ability to reach the Chiefs' young players and his responsibility for a defense that carried the team throughout 2011. He's also familiar with Pioli and doesn't seem willing to change his personality for the GM, though that also could be a turnoff.
Still, Crennel's resume and that he lifted the Chiefs over a win against the Packers two weeks ago should be enough to give him the edge.
There will be turnover, more than likely. Offensive coordinator Bill Muir isn't a lock to return to his role, although that would give Cassel his sixth coordinator in five seasons. The Chiefs could combat that by bringing in Rams coordinator Josh McDaniels, who's also familiar with Pioli.
Who's likely to return: If Crennel stays, the offensive staff could be ripe for a shakeup. Crennel and assistant head coach Maurice Carthon have a long-standing relationship. Much of the defensive staff could be back. Special-teams coach Steve Hoffman could be at risk.
Who's not: Muir was unsuccessful as a coordinator, and unless he's willing to resume his former role as line coach, he could be a casualty. No one on this season's offensive staff is a sure bet to return. If Crennel isn't hired on a permanent basis, most anyone could be gone.