With so many question marks on defense, some on offense and a renewed commitment by the coaching staff, there are some bright spots and some potential problems heading into next season.
1. John Tait could be a very difficult sign for the Chiefs. Though there is no doubt that Tait is the premiere right tackle available in free agency this year, some lingering effects of his initial contract squabble remain. Though Ethan Locke is out of the picture, the Chiefs want Tait to accept a ‘Home Town Deal' so the Chiefs can save much needed cap space to sign potential free agents on defense. Tait has made it very clear that he wants to stay in Kansas City and he told that to Chiefs President Carl Peterson after the season ended. But that does not mean the two sides can reach a deal. As a friend of the Tait family told me, if a contract is done it will go down to the wire. Tait does not expect to be franchised by the Chiefs.
2. Safety Jerome Woods has indicated a preference to stay in Kansas City after the hiring of defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. Woods flew in from Memphis to attend the press conference introducing his former coach and all indications around Arrowhead are that Woods will be re-signed. Woods and fellow safety Greg Wesley, who already inked a 6-year deal with the Chiefs last month, should excel in Cunningham's new defensive schemes. Woods made the Pro Bowl this year based on his first half performance but with injuries to the linebackers, no pass rush, Woods was asked to do far too much and simply did not make the plays he did in the first eight games of the season. Expect a deal to get done with Woods and the Chiefs soon.
3. Eric Hicks is another candidate to return to the Chiefs but like Tait, Hicks will have to accept less to stay in Kansas City. Hicks grew up under the tutelage of Cunningham but he was MIA in Greg Robinson's defense the last three years. Hicks is a high character guy and a Vermeil favorite. But that might not be enough to keep him in the fold for 2004 and beyond. Hicks has been very quiet this off-season and said after the season was over that he'd like to return. Hicks lives in the Kansas City area year round and he'd like to finish his career with the Chiefs. I think the feeling is mutual but it has to be at the right price.
4. The one player the Chiefs must sign before free agency begins in March is back-up tight end Jason Dunn. The Chiefs can't afford to lose Dunn. His blocking ability on running plays is so crucial to the success of the running game that when he's not on the field, the team does not run the ball as effectively. Dunn in my opinion is the best blocking tight end in the NFL bar none. He is so far above anyone else that it's not even a fair fight when you compare everything he brings to the running game. Dunn also showed an ability to catch the ball in the end zone this year catching three passes for touchdowns. But Dunn is an extension of the ‘Five Horsemen' and if Tait leaves his value will be even greater to the success of the Chiefs offense in 2004 and beyond.
5. Johnnie Morton might have played his last game as a Chief against the Colts. His two dropped passes were one in a series of mistakes that cost the Chiefs a win against Indianapolis. Too many times this season, Morton never showed up for games. Defenses were able to focus on other receivers and Morton though he had his moments was not consistent. Morton made a lot of noise after struggling in his first season with the Chiefs back in 2002. Offensive coordinator Al Saunders made a point of trying to get the ball to Morton in 2003. It worked early in the season but Morton seems to have lost a step or two and his concentration level makes him a liability in the Chiefs offense. It's already been noted by Vermeil that he'd like to upgrade the receiver corps in 2004 and will look at possible free agents. If they sign one, then Morton could be a cap causality on June 1st.
6. I thought the playoff performance of Priest Holmes against the Colts signaled that he was finally healed from the hip injury that plagued him all off-season. I don't think many Chiefs fans understood how serious the injury was and it's a testament to Holmes that he worked as hard as he did to get back on the field for the Chiefs in 2003. His record setting playoff performance showed that the old Holmes was back. It's amazing that he was playing at 80-90% the entire season and still managed to set the NFL single season touchdown record. Holmes is a warrior and 2004 could be the year he carries the entire Chiefs offense on his shoulders.
7. With free agency on the horizon, the Chiefs are deciding what potential players might be available in March at receiver and cornerback. You'll hear names like CB Charles Woodson and Shawn Springs, WR Terrell Owens and Darrell Jackson to name a few. But the Chiefs might not be able to sign the higher priced players. So names like WR Dennis Northcutt and Dez White might be better fits. CB Antoine Winfield and Bobby Taylor might cost the Chiefs a few bucks less than the other cornerbacks available.
8. One free agent name that keeps making the rounds at Arrowhead is Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse. Though Kearse is in a heated contract squabble with Tennessee, he remains a strong possibility for the Chiefs. Without a strong pass rushing end, Cunningham can't implement the attacking defensive style that's needed to get the Chiefs into the upper echelon of defenses in the NFL. Kearse could be franchised by the Titans but that's not likely. The Titans have major cap issues and Kearse could be let go. The only problem with Kearse is his agent Drew Rosenhous. He was the agent that represented Hugh Douglas last year and that negotiation has left a bad taste in the Chiefs mouth. In hindsight, not signing Douglas was a good thing as he was a bust in Jacksonville last year.
9. The Chiefs must make a decision on kicker Morten Andersen. As the season played out, Andersen's range was limited to 35-yards on field goal attempts. His missed field goal in the Colts game might have signaled an end to his time with the Chiefs. The free agent market has one kicker that the Chiefs should go after. Bengals kicker Shayne Graham was stellar for Cincinnati in 2003. He hit 22 of 25 attempts and was virtually automatic under 50-yards. What's even more impressive is the fact he had that kind of success kicking half his games on the worst field in the NFL. The turf in Cincinnati is virtually all sand and Graham could have even better numbers at Arrowhead. He struggled outside of 50-yards missing both attempts, but that's not something the Chiefs will need out of their kicker too often with their high powered offense. In addition he can kick-off the ball and put it in the end zone.
10. Last but not least Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil. It became crystal clear to me that when Vermeil decided to return for another two seasons; that Kansas City has a short window of opportunity to get back to the Super Bowl. With some aging players on offense, under-utilized players on defense, Vermeil has to find a balance in upgrading talent in free agency and the draft in order for his team to jump to the next level. The Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots wrote the blue print for success in getting to the Super Bowl in 2004. Vermeil has to put together a team that never lets up and always attacks on offense and defense. Everyone at Arrowhead wants to win an AFC Championship for team owner Lamar Hunt. With Mr. Hunt's recent health problems; the urgency to get that done falls squarely on Vermeil.