Insider Slant: Chiefs Look Toward Draft

Their biggest needs remain on defense, and the Chiefs are known to be very excited about several defensive tackles that might fall to them on the 30th pick in this year's NFL draft.

Even so, it wouldn't surprise anyone if Kansas City didn't buck the trend for a second straight year and take an offensive player -- should the right receiver be on the board.

It was a real surprise last year when the Chiefs, again needing help on defense, traded down and took an offensive player, running back Larry Johnson of Penn State, with the 27th pick of the first round. The move made sense only in that a) Kansas City didn't know how well Priest Holmes would ultimately return from a serious hip injury, and 2) they didn't know how far Holmes was willing to go to get the new contract he was demanding.

So, the Chiefs drafted Johnson as an insurance policy that, thankfully, never paid out a claim during a season in which Holmes returned to rush/receive for 2,110 yards. But the unattended defense improved only from the league's worst in 2002 to fourth-worst in '03.

Kansas City faces an almost identical situation this spring. Its only major defensive change was firing coordinator Greg Robinson and bringing back popular former coordinator/head coach Gunther Cunningham. The Chiefs spent nearly all their free agent money on retaining their own defenders (safeties Jerome Woods and Greg Wesley along with linemen John Browning and Eric Hicks). Their only defensive free agent acquisition to date, DT Lional Dalton, is a rotation player.

That leaves KC looking to the draft for either immediate help or a future starter. The chance of getting immediate help isn't great unless the Chiefs can make a move up and land an impact interior tackle like Maryland's Randy Starks or Texas' Marcus Tubbs.

DRAFT STRATEGY
With the likelihood that prospects like Starks or Tubbs will be gone at No. 30, the Chiefs invited tackles Igor Olshansky of Oregon and Darnell Dockett of Florida State to Arrowhead for "on campus" visits last week.

But coach Dick Vermeil came away from those meetings raving about personal interviews he conducted with two other tackles, Isaac Sopoaga of Hawaii and Junior Siavii of Oregon. They're prospects that likely will be available in the second and possibly third rounds.

Seven of the 19 collegians invited to Arrowhead were interior defensive linemen. That number, coupled with Vermeil's enthusiastic comments about the quality of defensive tackles available, provides some insight into the leanings of the team heading into the draft.

But what may be even more interesting is watching what the Chiefs do should a wide receiver of value fall to No. 30.

The Chiefs got an unscheduled visit last week from Ohio State receiver Michael Clayton, who stopped by Arrowhead while in Kansas City visiting his agent, Tom Condon.

It was the kind of initiative that normally appeals to Vermeil, and as the Chiefs truly need help in their receiving corps, it might well have helped Clayton's prospects after his recent running performances weren't up to what scouts were hoping to see.

With all its draft picks available, Kansas City has the ability to move up a couple of spots should a player they really covet fall to within their grasp. Conversely, it wouldn't surprise anyone either to see them trade down some spots to pick up additional picks and still get a player of value early in the second round.

TEAM NEEDS
Going into the draft -- Defensive tackle, receiver, cornerback, quarterback, kicker/punter.

DT - Even with the presence of 2002 top pick Ryan Sims at interior tackle, the Chiefs still don't have the run-stuffing, pocket-pressing middle presence they need. Just awful in rush defense (30th last year, 32nd two seasons ago), Kansas City needs a run anchor with rush potential, something they haven't had since Dan Saleaumua was in his prime in the early 90s.

WR - Veteran starters Eddie Kennison and Johnnie Morton might be nice third, maybe second receivers on some teams, but they don't keep opposing corners awake at night. KC needs a quick-twitch receiver here -- a bigger Dante Hall, who right now is KC's No. 3 wideout.

CB< - Starter Dexter McCleon will be 31 this season, and the oft-maligned Eric Warfield is coming off back surgery. Nickel back William Bartee doesn't appear ready to get his starting spot back from Bartee yet, and second-year man Julian Battle isn't ready. A rookie corner might not be able to contribute much in a first year, but KC has little coming up here.

QB - The Chiefs lost their No. 3 QB when Jonathan Quinn took a free agent offer from Chicago, where he will try to become their No. 2 guy. KC has struggled to develop young QBs, but never tires of the effort.

P/K - A punter who can kick off effectively has a job here after incumbent Jason Baker struggled last year. Kicker Morten Andersen turns 44 before the season opens and his range falls by two yards with every passing year. A kicker with reasonable accuracy and depth on kickoffs has a real shot here.

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
Kansas City's interest in cornerbacks seems to have cooled. The re-signing of nickel back William Bartee, coupled with what the team hopes is the continual development of second-year corner Julian Battle, seems to have reduced the team's previously expressed desire to upgrade the corner position with some high-round draft help.

QUOTE TO NOTE
"It's obvious how ABC feels about the Chiefs with four Monday night games (one in preseason) and one Sunday night game on ESPN. But it's unfortunate that only one of our regular season prime time games will be played in Kansas City." -- Chiefs president Carl Peterson, happy to be back in prime time but disappointed to be sent on the road for two of three Monday Night Football appearances, as well as the Sunday night opener in Denver on ESPN.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (1): CB Darrius Johnson.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: TE Billy Baber; P Jason Baker; CB William Bartee; LB Monty Beisel; RB Derrick Blaylock; LB Quinton Caver; DT Eric Downing; TE Jason Dunn; LS Kendall Gammon; S Shaunard Harts; DE Eric Hicks; DE R-Kal Truluck; S Lyle West; S Jerome Woods.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED: OT Chris Bober; DT Lional Dalton.

PLAYERS LOST: QB Jonathan Quinn; OT John Tait.

MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.


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