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Scouting report: Kansas City Chiefs

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The Texans will be intent on stopping Chiefs running back Larry Johnson celebrations such as this from happening during the Liberty White home opener against the Chiefs.

Reliant Stadium will be rocking as the Texans kick off the 2007 season against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Texans, who ended the preseason as the highest-scoring team in the league, dropped a tough loss to Tampa Bay last Thursday night to finish 2-2. A playoff team in 2006, the Chiefs will be a tough first test for Matt Schaub and the rest of the new-look Texans.

The best news of the preseason for Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards came when Pro Bowl running back Larry Johnson ended his 3 1/2 week holdout by signing a six-year, $45 million contract. The Chiefs, who finished the preseason 0-4, will need Johnson's big-time production now more than ever if they are to return to the playoffs in 2007.

Offense

The success of the offense relies heavily on Johnson's production. This was never more evident than last season when Johnson carried the ball 416 times for 1,789 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. The 27-year-old All-Pro is also a dangerous receiving threat, catching 41 passes for 410 yards and 2 touchdowns last season. Although a few other star running backs saw their production slip after carrying the ball 400 times in a season (i.e. Eric Dickerson and Eddie George), there is little doubt that Johnson will once again put up huge numbers this year.

When Johnson is not in the game, former 1,000-yard rusher Michael Bennett will carry the ball. In limited action last season, Bennett rushed for 200 yards and caught 9 passes. The Chiefs spent a fifth-round pick in April's draft on Louisville running back Kolby Smith, who will be the third back.

The battle for the starting quarterback job was not decided until late in the preseason. Eleven-year veteran Damon Huard won the job after a camp-long competition with second-year man Brodie Croyle. Huard, who filled in for the injured Trent Green last season, led the Chiefs to the playoffs with a 5-3 record as starter. The 34-year-old was very efficient last season, throwing 11 touchdown passes and only one interception. Only Peyton Manning had a better quarterback rating than Huard's 98.0.

Though Croyle is still seen as the Chiefs' quarterback of the future, he failed to impress the coaches enough to win the job this preseason. The former University of Alabama standout has a "gunslinger" mentality and possesses a big-time arm, but needs to improve upon his decision-making skills before taking over the starting job.

At receiver, the top two starters remain unchanged, with Eddie Kennison and Samie Parker returning this season. Kennison showed that he is still a dangerous threat downfield, averaging 16.1 yards per catch last season. Parker, though hauling in a career-best 41 catches, will need to be wary of 2007 first-round pick Dwayne Bowe. The rookie from LSU can stretch the field with his outstanding speed and will provide Huard a big-framed target (6-2, 217) over the middle.

All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez remains the best passing threat on offense. Gonzalez, coming off his eighth consecutive Pro Bowl selection, is one of the most sure-handed tight ends in the game and shows no signs of slowing down after posting 73 receptions and five touchdowns last season. Backup Jason Dunn is valued for his blocking skills, not his receiving ability (only 4 catches in 2006).

Along the offensive line, the Chiefs will have to replace yet another All-Pro in the trenches. Last season, All-Pro left tackle Willie Roaf retired during training camp. This offseason, right guard Will Shields decided to hang up his cleats. Pro Bowl left guard Brian Waters and center Casey Wiegmann will be asked to anchor the line. At left tackle, the Chiefs signed ex-Dolphin Damion McIntosh to a six-year contract. John Welbourne, who manned right tackle in 2004 and 2005, slides to right guard to replace Shields. Veteran Kyle Turley inherits the right tackle spot from Welbourne. Chris Terry, who has over 80 starts in his career, is the most experienced backup offensive lineman on the roster.

Defense

With the return of right outside linebacker Donnie Edwards, the Chiefs can boast one of the most talented linebacker corps in the league. Edwards returned to Kansas City after a five-year stint in San Diego, where he led the Chargers last season with 141 tackles. A fiery leader, Edwards also showed he remains one the league's best linebackers in pass coverage by picking off three passes.

Edwards joins left outside linebacker Derrick Johnson in the talented linebacker unit. Johnson, one of the fastest linebackers in the league, turned in a fine 2006 season notching 75 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Free agent acquisition Napoleon Harris takes over at middle linebacker. Last season in Minnesota, Harris racked up 59 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three interceptions. Last year's starting outside linebacker Kendrell Bell will head the reserve group of backers.

Last year's first round pick, Tamba Hali, headlines the defensive line. Hali, the former Penn State star, is a ferocious pass rusher from left end who will line up in many positions along the line this season. Fifth-year veteran Jimmy Wilkerson will line up opposite Hali to start the season while regular starter Jared Allen serves a two-game suspension. In the middle, free agent acquisition Alfonso Boone and returning veteran Ron Edwards will look to clog up space in the running game. In reserve roles, 2007 draft picks Turk McBride and Tank Tyler should see more action as the year progresses.

In the secondary, former Pro Bowlers Ty Law and Patrick Surtain return after solid seasons in 2006. The Chiefs hope that Law (65 tackles, 4 interceptions) and Surtain (66 tackles, one interception) both stay healthy, because there is not much depth behind them. Benne Sapp is the top cornerback reserve and will see action on nickel and dime situations. Dmitri Patterson, who was out of the league for most of last season, and Tyrone Brackenridge, an undrafted rookie, fill out the cornerback spots.

At safety, two new starters will step in. Free safety Jarrad Page, a 2006 seventh-round pick, took over for former starter Greg Wesley late last season and will reprise that role again this year. At strong safety, the physical Bernard Pollard made former starter Sammy Knight expendable in the offseason. Both are young, but talented safeties who can make plays. Former New York Jet Jon McGraw and Wesley will team up to be a pair of talented backups.

Special Teams

After a lackluster 2006 season, the Chiefs parted ways with place kicker Lawrence Tynes. They spent a fifth round pick in April's draft to select UCLA kicker Justin Medlock. Medlock missed a few kicks during the preseason but has no competition at the position on the roster, although the Chiefs brought in six different kickers for workouts on Tuesday.

Third-year veteran Dustin Colquitt looks to improve upon his impressive sophomore season when he averaged 44.3 yards per punt.

Returning kicks, former Pro Bowler Eddie Drummond will pull double duty on punts and kickoffs. Drummond was signed late in the preseason and will have to replace the big shoes left by former return man Dante Hall.

What to Watch For

  • The Chiefs will have to improve on their sack total of 32 from last season if they are to return to the playoffs. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham invested two 2007 draft picks in Turk McBride and Tank Tyler and signed free agent Alfonso Boone to help improve the pass rush. How these players disrupt the quarterback with sackmaster Tamba Hali will determine the success of the defensive unit in 2007.
  • How short of a leash is Damon Huard playing on this season? Anyone who watches HBO's "Hard Knocks" knows that Croyle lost the starting quarterback spot more than Huard won it. Kansas City coaches are enamored with Croyle's big-play ability, but don't trust his decision-making qualities right now. If Huard struggles early on, look for Croyle to be given another opportunity to play.
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