Time To Step Up

The drive for a Super Bowl begins now for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Like the phoenix, teams arise from the previous season's ashes with one goal in mind: a championship.

Different teams have different philosophies on how to get there, but the one thing all teams have in common is sweat.

Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards is no different. The last couple months brought significant changes to the team, particularly where the coaching staff is concerned. Dick Vermeil is out. So is Al Saunders. In their places are Edwards and former offensive line coach Mike Solari. Still, the core philosophy remains the same. Work, sweat and learn.

The Chiefs are entering the off-season workouts minus some familiar faces. Eric Warfield and Dexter McCleon, once the starters at cornerback, are both gone. So is linebacker Shawn Barber, gone home to Philadelphia. Special teams ace Gary Stills was signed by Baltimore, and fullback Tony Richardson is now a Minnesota Viking.

The offseason program consists of strength training, Organized Team Activities (OTAs), and mini-camps. Typically, the team participates in two mini-camps, but since Edwards is a new coach the Chiefs will hold an extra mini-camp to give him more time to evaluate his roster. After the draft in April, the team will hold rookie camps, and the coaching staff will start to slot the new players onto the roster. By the time training camp starts in June or July, the depth chart will already by set.

As you follow this off-season, there are ten key Chiefs that will be under close scrutiny. These players and coaches will go a long way towards determining the outcome of Kansas City's 2006 season. The Chiefs are likely in the final year of their Super Bowl window, and they'll need big performances from most of these players and coaches.

Offensive coordinator Mike Solari

The Chiefs have fielded the number one offense in the NFL over the last four years. Under Saunders, the Chiefs offense was dynamic and unpredictable. Solari knows the Chiefs running scheme as well as anyone else on the staff, but will have to work on the passing game. Solari has said there will be no major changes to the Chiefs offensive scheme. It'll be interesting to see the wrinkles he adds to the Chiefs offense through his game planning and play calling.

LB Kendrell Bell

Possibly the biggest signing of the 2005 free agency period for the Chiefs was also the biggest disappointment. Is Bell's shoulder shot? Is he just not suited for the 4-3? Bell registered 41 tackles in 16 starts. Not good numbers for a linebacker. The Chiefs asked Bell to do a lot of pass coverage last year, which isn't his forte. He's at his best as a downhill linebacker, rushing the quarterback and mixing it up against the run. Bell still needs to prove that he can be a force in the Chiefs defensive scheme, whether it's a 3-4 or a 4-3.

CB Alphonso Hodge

Hodge is one of the rising defensive stars on the Chiefs roster. Coach Edwards is high on the young cornerback. Why? Hodge has natural ability, intangibles and instincts that can't be taught. He's got all the tools to be a great player in the NFL. The only thing he lacks is experience. Hodge will get plenty of that once the Chiefs get back on the field. The longer the Chiefs go without signing a veteran cornerback, the more likely it is that the Chiefs will opt to go with the young man out of Miami (Ohio).

LB Keyaron Fox

If Coach Edwards is truly an advocate of open competition in training camp, the battle for the right outside linebacker position will be fierce. Fox was ready to start last season, but was derailed by injury and the coaching staff's desire to play Kendrell Bell. Fox can play any of the three linebacker positions, but his athleticism makes him a perfect weakside linebacker. This season, Fox is ready to go, and itching to make his mark on the league.

WR Craphonso Thorpe

Even though Thorpe was drafted in the fourth round, he's got the talent of a first-rounder. Now that he's a couple of years removed from the horrific leg injury he suffered at Florida State, the young receiver is ready for prime-time. The coaches expect Thorpe to play a larger role in the offense this season, and even compete for a starting spot. He's got speed, size and soft hands. He'll only benefit from getting a year in the NFL under his belt.

RG Will Shields

After 14 years in the NFL, the old warrior will likely hang up his cleats at the end of this coming season. Shields struggled last season with an arthritic back. It took a valiant effort just to step on the field at times. Still, the Chiefs need Shields for what will likely be the final push for a Super Bowl. Last season, Vermeil handled Shields with kid gloves, preserving the 10-time Pro Bowler for Sundays. It will be interesting to see how the current coaching staff handles Shields, and if the grizzled veteran will be able to withstand the rigors of another long season.

LT Willie Roaf

Another older player on the Chiefs offensive line, Roaf is arguably the most important player on the offense. The Chiefs need Roaf to stay healthy for the entire season. When he's out of the lineup, the Chiefs are an entirely different team. Roaf gives the Chiefs offense versatility and explosiveness in the passing and running games. When he was out last season, the Chiefs had trouble running the ball on the perimeter and protecting quarterback Trent Green. Without Roaf, the Chiefs' 2006 season will likely be a failure.

WR Samie Parker

This is a do-or-die season for the young speedster. Last season, Parker came up big in spots, but lacked consistency all season long. There were times when Parker was clutch on critical third downs, and then there were times where he had big drops at inopportune times. If Parker can't show that he's a consistent weapon, particularly in critical situations, he'll find himself back on the bench. He'll have to fend off a charge from Thorpe, who'll be looking for time in the starting rotation. Parker has the ability to be a game-breaking receiver. It's time for him to step up.

DT Ryan Sims

Sims is another player with his back against the wall. One of the Chiefs few first-round picks in this millennium, the pressure is mounting on Sims to become the force in the middle the Chiefs envisioned. After being drafted with sixth pick in 2002, Sims has had a tumultuous relationship with the Chiefs' coaches. First there were the caustic negotiations on his contract, highlighted by a holdout and ending with Sims showing up out of shape. Then there have been a number of injuries that have kept the former University of North Carolina standout out of the rotation.

Sims appeared to have turned the corner last year, working hard all off-season until being forced out with a painful foot injury in the first game. Before the injury, Sims showed the power and speed the Chiefs drafted him for, and busted his butt to get on the field. Late in the season, Sims was instrumental in the middle, plugging holes and forcing opposing running backs to the outside.

TE Kris Wilson

This is déjà vu all over again. Every season there are huge expectations for Wilson, a dynamic and multi-talented tight end. His rookie year, Wilson tore it up in the preseason, before breaking his leg and essentially robbing him of his entire year. Since then the Chiefs haven't been able to take full advantage of his talents. Wilson can block, catch and run. Now that legendary fullback Tony Richardson is gone, it's interesting to see how the Chiefs will use Wilson. The initial plans for Wilson were to use him in an H-back role and move him around. Wilson may get that opportunity now that Richardson has moved on to greener pastures.

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