GLENN DORSEY went to a luncheon in Kansas City this summer expecting the standard fare: chicken breast, bread roll and all-you-can-eat optimism about the 2009 season. He wound up with an extra helping of reassurance, delivered from an unexpected source. Neil Smith approached Dorsey during the event and told him about a highly touted defensive end from New Orleans who was drafted at No. 2 by the Chiefs in 1988 but finished his rookie year with just 2½ sacks for a team that went 4-11-1. The following year K.C. drafted future Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas. With Thomas monopolizing attention, the end from New Orleans had 6½ sacks in his second season, and the Chiefs went 8-7-1. The year after that he racked up 9½ sacks for an 11--5 club.
The subject of the story, of course, was Smith himself. "I used to watch Neil when I was growing up in Louisiana, and I think he saw that we had some things in common," says Dorsey. "He wanted me to remember to keep pushing."
The similarities between Smith's background and Dorsey's are startling. Dorsey was drafted at No. 5 out of LSU last year but finished his rookie season with only one sack, in part because he never took the time to allow a sprained knee in training camp to fully heal and started all 16 games. Now that Kansas City, under first-year coach Todd Haley, is switching to a 3--4, Dorsey is moving from tackle to end, where he'll play opposite this year's first-round draft pick out of LSU, Tyson Jackson. No one is comparing Jackson to Thomas, but Jackson is also a vaunted speed rusher and should not need long to develop into a force that could free up Dorsey. They were Tigers teammates—and roommates—who still reminisce about taking their recruiting trips to Baton Rouge on the same weekend.
The Chiefs have a host of promising defensive linemen, including '06 first-rounder Tamba Hali, '07 second-rounder Turk McBride and '07 third-rounder Tank Tyler. The shift to a three-man front will move some of them out of their natural positions. While Dorsey slides from tackle to end, Hali and McBride are migrating from end to outside linebacker, and tackle Tyler is learning to play the nose. All must embrace a system in which linemen are often asked to occupy blockers while linebackers get most of the shots at the quarterback and the ballcarrier.
"We have a lot of highly drafted defensive linemen here, but I think we can use that to our advantage," Tyler says. "We're all talented enough to get ourselves in a position to make plays."
Something had to change about the K.C. defense after it finished last season ranked 31st in the NFL and mustered only 10 sacks, lowest for a team since the league began keeping sack statistics in 1982. There are a lot of reasons the Chiefs won only two games last year—inconsistent quarterback play, a dearth of contributors in their prime, an unhappy Larry Johnson, an inordinate number of last-minute losses—but the lack of a pass rush was at or near the top of the list. "We have to create more havoc in the backfield," says Haley. "It just has to happen."
Kansas City has undergone a massive makeover. In addition to the new coach and the new defense, there is a new general manager, Scott Pioli, and a new quarterback, Matt Cassel, both by way of the Patriots. Haley, the offensive coordinator in Arizona last season, brought with him defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, a 3--4 proponent. The Chiefs should be better with Cassel (who might be slowed by an injured knee to start the season), but how much better really depends on that front seven—whether all the bonus babies can realize their potential in the new scheme. "It's going to be a different mind-set," Dorsey says, "but I like the change." Playing end, he enjoys more freedom, sees fewer double teams and, when times get rough, can call on a mentor who was once in the same spot.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
COACH: TODD HALEY
0--0 in NFL, first season with Chiefs
Ryan SUCCOP (R)
Free agents Amani Toomer and Bobby Engram add veteran WR depth; second-year RB Jamaal Charles (5.3 yards per carry) backs up the mercurial Johnson.
Tyson JACKSON (R)
Tenth-year veteran SS Mike Brown (74 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INTs for the Bears) will push leading '08 tackler Pollard.
(R) Rookie: College Statistics
TTD: Total touchdowns
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2008 RECORD 2--14
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 16 > 20 > 24
DEFENSE 30 > 28 > 31
13 at Baltimore
27 at Philadelphia
4 N.Y. GIANTS
18 at Washington
25 SAN DIEGO
8 at Jacksonville
15 at Oakland
29 at San Diego
27 at Cincinnati
3 at Denver
NFL Rank: 17T
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .484
Games against playoff teams: 6
Starting with Week 3, the Chiefs play four straight NFC East opponents. At least new coach Todd Haley knows those clubs from his time as offensive coordinator with Arizona: The Cards played all four NFC East teams last year and also knocked off the Eagles in the conference title game. A young team will be battle-tested before the bulk of its divisional matchups.
Branden Albert, Tackle
AFTER BEING drafted at No. 15 as a guard out of Virginia in 2008 and then missing all of his first NFL preseason because of a foot injury, it hardly figured that Albert would start at left tackle for the Chiefs in Week 1 at New England, play every snap and do better than hold his own against Patriots Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour. But he did.
At 6'5", 316, Albert is stout, smart and nimble, the kind of offensive lineman Kansas City would clone if it could because the line is clearly an area of concern. Projected starting guards Mike Goff and Brian Waters both have 10 or more seasons under their belt, so Albert provides youth and promise to a unit that could use more of both. The Chiefs are banking on him to invigorate running back Larry Johnson by blowing open a few more holes and to protect the blind side of the franchise's most valuable asset, new quarterback Matt Cassel. "Last year I was trying to establish myself," Albert says. "Now I'm trying to become a leader." He has already taken the first step, defending his linemates against training-camp criticism and insisting they'll improve as a group this season. "As a whole, we're going to get better," Albert says. "But it's easy to tell people that. We've got to prove it."
CLIFF WELCH/ICON SMI
TIGER TALE Dorsey (left) will pair up at DE with '09 pick Jackson, his Baton Rouge roomie.