Chiefs Slant: Defense Was Priority at Combines

Kansas City looked at everybody, of course, but the Chiefs paid special attention to defensive prospects during the annual NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

After the somewhat stunning selection of running back Larry Johnson in the first round of the 2003 draft -- an insurance move (given the uncertainty then of Priest Holmes' recovery from a hip injury) that seemed to catch even coach Dick Vermeil by surprise -- the Chiefs almost have to look for an impact player on defense this year.

"Defense is a priority," Chuck Cook, the Chiefs' director of college scouting, told the Kansas City Star. "We could use a linebacker, a corner, a defensive lineman."

The Chiefs, however, also could use some help at wide receiver and the draft this year could provide some help there as well.

Still, the need to think defensive becomes especially important for the league's 29th-ranked team in total defense when viewed in the light of the limited money the Chiefs figure they'll gave available for free agency shopping this year.

In 2003 Kansas City acquired three free agent defensive players who became immediate starters -- linebacker Shawn Barber, defensive end Vonnie Holliday and cornerback Dexter McCleon.

This year, however, they expect to spend most of their projected $8 million in cap availability to retain their own free agents, especially free safety Jerome Woods, right tackle John Tait and defensive end Eric Hicks.

Without being active in free agency, the development of their own young players -- players like second-year linebacker Kawika Mitchell, defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson and rush specialist R-Kal Truluck -- and finding new contributors in the draft appear to be Kansas City's chief source of finding new defensive help in the immediate future.

With free agency approaching on March 3, the prospect that the Chiefs won't be able to retain all their own prospective free agents is starting to look more likely.

The Chiefs haven't yet been able to make preemptive deals with free safety Jerome Woods, right tackle John Tait and defensive end Eric Hicks -- all starters -- as they did with prospective free agents Greg Wesley and John Browning before the season ended.

Tait may represent the biggest concern of the three. For while Woods seems genuinely interested in being reunited with defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham -- the man who essentially drafted and developed him -- Tait's only ties that bind (just barely) are a desire to continue playing on an offensive line that has started 33 consecutive games together.

"We were only a couple of plays from being in the AFC championship game. The future is now for the Kansas City Chiefs. The window is open for us to be successful right now." -- Dick Vermeil, on why he thinks the Chiefs can win big immediately by retaining players currently on the roster as opposed to bringing in a host of new ones through free agency.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: The Chiefs aren't making the progress they had hoped to be making in keeping some of their top prospective free agents off the market. Talks have been ongoing with representatives of FS Jerome Woods, RT John Tait and DE Eric Hicks, but nothing appears imminent.

The Chiefs hinted earlier in the process at using either the franchise or transition protections available to them, though the cost of doing that could prove prohibitive. That's especially true with Tait and the $7 million he would command as a franchise tackle.

Kansas City will pick No. 30 in the first round and should be looking hard for help at corner or wide receiver in the early rounds. Later on, pass-rushing ends and run-stuffing linebacker will be priorities.

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