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Chiefs’ roller coaster offseason doesn’t mean you should write them off

The Chiefs lost marquee players, abruptly fired their general manager, and still may be one of the NFL’s best teams.

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NFL: Kansas City Chiefs-Minicamp Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In the four years Andy Reid has been on the sideline for the Kansas City Chiefs, the team had one of the NFL’s best rosters. With plenty of star power returning in 2017, that’s still true.

But the offseason threatens to be a step backward for a team that can’t afford a misstep in the competitive AFC West. The Oakland Raiders are in the middle of a Super Bowl window and the Denver Broncos still have one of the NFL’s best defenses. Still, the aspects of the Chiefs that created a combined 43-21 record in the last four years are still in place.

In the months after the Chiefs were bounced from the playoffs with an 18-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team has undergone many changes.

Gone are running back Jamaal Charles, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, and nose tackle Dontari Poe. Also out of Kansas City are front office executive Chris Ballard, who became the general manager of the Indianapolis Colts, and salary cap specialist Trip MacCracken, who was fired in May.

The latest and most significant chapter in the Chiefs’ rocky offseason was the abrupt dismissal of general manager John Dorsey — considered by many to be one of the best talent evaluators in the NFL.

It’s hard to imagine that Dorsey saw the move coming when less than two months prior he orchestrated a draft day trade that landed the Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. It was a move for the long-term stability of the franchise and one that likely wouldn’t have been made by an executive who believed his job was on the line.

Prior to the firing of the general manager, the Chiefs cut Charles and Maclin to save cap room. The team also lost Poe in free agency to the Atlanta Falcons.

Sounding the alarms is premature, though. The Chiefs are still set up to be one of the NFL’s tougher teams to beat in 2017, but there are questions that need to be answered:

Who’s going to replace Jeremy Maclin?

Like the firing of Dorsey, the most surprising thing about the release of Maclin was the timing. Cutting ties with starters and recognizable names is common practice in the NFL, but fidgeting for extra cap room typically happens in February or March while teams are gearing up free agency.

After the slicing and dicing of free agency and the NFL draft, rosters are typically left alone until training camp. At that point, if a player isn’t playing at a level worthy of their contract, releasing them before the regular season makes sense.

Why not open up the $10 million saved by releasing Maclin months ago and make an attempt to keep Poe on the roster? Or why not wait until training camp to see if his play looked valuable enough to keep him on the roster despite the price tag?

Whatever the team’s reasoning was, the handling of the release didn’t sit well with Maclin, who said he was informed of the decision on a voicemail.

But that’s in the past now. The question at hand is how the Chiefs will replace the production of one of the NFL’s most dangerous deep threats.

According to Reid, the answer is second-year return threat Tyreek Hill.

“He works hard and he’s skilled,” Reid said of Hill, via the Kansas City Star. “Is he still learning? Yeah he is still learning. I’ll tell you that with the receivers because that’s what they do until they get defenses down. But, he will give you good production at that (Z) position.”

Hill is a couple inches shorter than Maclin, but among the league’s fastest players who set the league on fire as a rookie with 12 total touchdowns. It’s unsurprising that the Chiefs plan to expand his role and find a way to get the ball in his hands more often.

Still, it’s a different role than Hill played in last year. He ran just 260 routes during the 2016 season and often contributed out of the slot — catching short passes and turning them into more with yards after the catch. He finished the season with more touches on rushes, punt returns, and kick returns than he did on receptions.

Increasing Hill’s snaps could jeopardize the production he provided in other aspects and there’s no guarantee that he’ll handle the transition well.

Will the Chiefs be able to handle defensive line changes?

The Kansas City offense isn’t the only unit in flux. The Chiefs’ defensive line will attempt to move on from two starters, with Poe joining Atlanta and Jaye Howard signing with the Chicago Bears after getting cut in April.

But like Hill stepping in Maclin, the changes may be welcomed for the Chiefs defense.

The team was No. 26 in rushing yards allowed and No. 24 in opposing yards per carry during the 2016 season. While Poe entertained as an offensive threat in goal-line situations, he was wildly inconsistent as a nose tackle in the middle of the Kansas City defense.

Replacing him with former Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Bennie Logan may constitute an upgrade, even if the team’s new starting nose tackle is listed at 37 pounds lighter than the 346-pound Poe.

The best player on the defensive line in 2016 was Chris Jones, who started 11 games as a rookie. Jones’ 23rd birthday is in July and he promises to be an even more dominant force in 2017.

The strength of the Kansas City defense during the tenure of Reid has been its pass rushers and defensive backs. Those will stay intact with Eric Berry finally under contract for the long-term and Justin Houston entering the offseason healthy after missing 11 games in 2016.

If the addition of Logan and the emergence of Jones improve the team’s run defense and pressure up front, the Chiefs defense may be primed to return to the dominant form of 2014 and 2015.

Can Alex Smith lead the Chiefs over the hump?

In three trips to the playoffs with Alex Smith at quarterback and Reid on the sidelines, the Chiefs are 1-3. The only victory was a 30-0 rout of the Brian Hoyer-led Houston Texans in January 2016, but was followed by a 27-20 loss to the New England Patriots.

Before coming to Kansas City, Smith had a miraculous postseason victory with the San Francisco 49ers in January 2012, but couldn’t lead the team to a win over the eventual Super Bowl-champion New York Giants a week later.

One year later, the 49ers turned to Colin Kaepernick, who led the team to the Super Bowl.

Smith, 33, is a known commodity at this point in his career. He’s far from the worst quarterback in the NFL, but his career best touchdown total is 23. He finished the 2016 season with 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions — a decent stat line, but one that nowhere near rivals the elite quarterbacks of the NFL.

With a $20.6 million cap hit on the way in 2018 and the potential to recoup $17 million of it with his release, this is it for Smith. If he leads the Chiefs to big things, the team could attempt to restructure his contract to keep him in Kansas City.

The likely scenario is that the team turns to Mahomes — a wildly talented rookie making the difficult transition from the Air Raid offense of Texas Tech. But taking Mahomes in the 2017 NFL Draft meant the Chiefs passed on the opportunity to upgrade the roster for instant results in the upcoming season, also sending away a third-round pick and a 2018 first rounder to the Buffalo Bills.

The Chiefs have exciting young talent at just about every positional group on the roster. Players like Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones, Marcus Peters, Dee Ford, and Justin Houston allow for flexibility and bold decisions.

But making those personnel decisions for the Chiefs moving forward will be a new general manager and front office staff. While Dorsey’s decision making and evaluations are the most significant reason Kansas City is in such good shape, the team’s viability as a contender will depend on another executive providing continuity.

Transitions and shuffling of the front office will have a significant impact on the future of the franchise.

The team didn’t have the “all in” style offseason of the Patriots. But with so many building blocks to work with, it’s a team that can’t be ignored or dismissed.