Brian Waters had nothing to do but ride and watch.
Nursing an injury for much of training camp, the Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowl guard was relegated to jockeying an exercise bike instead of practicing with his teammates. With a perfect sideline view, Waters noticed something develop in the summer heat as he pedaled for countless hours.
The Chiefs had some extremely talented young players.
“Sitting there on the bike, our young guys really stood out to me,” Waters said this week. “I noticed the 2008 class was really developing out there, and then there was the rookie class. They were really something. The combination of those two classes really gave me hope that we might be on to something. Those two classes are a big reason why we’re where we are.”
There are several reasons why the 10-6 Chiefs – who won a total of 10 games in the previous three seasons – went from worst to first in the AFC West and will play host to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday in the AFC wild-card round. The Chiefs are well coached, quarterback Matt Cassel has developed, the running game was tops in the NFL, the offensive line was strong, they didn’t make many mistakes, and the defense was aggressive and improved its pass rush. A lot of those reasons can be attributed to the development of Kansas City’s third-year players and rookie class.
“The Chiefs have some very good young players,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. “I think a big reason why this team improved so much is because of those two classes. There’s a ton of guys who are giving the Chiefs big-time contributions from 2008 and 2010.”
The 2008 draft -- buoyed by the Jared Allen trade to Minnesota – was the final contribution of the 20-year Carl Peterson era in Kansas City. Many league observers thought that draft class had a chance to be special. But it looked anything but special for the first two seasons, although second-round pick Brandon Flowers (cornerback) and third-round pick Jamaal Charles (running back) showed signs of being excellent players early on.
The two first-round picks, defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey (No. 5 overall) and left tackle Branden Albert (No. 15), were nothing special in their first two years. However, Dorsey and Albert have both made big progress this season.
Dorsey has flourished in defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel’s 3-4 defense after struggling in the 3-4 under Clancy Pendergast last season. Dorsey has been the anchor of the defense, and he plays with a high motor. Many scouts thought the LSU star was the best player available in the 2008 draft, and he is now showing how good he is. Albert has melded well with the veterans on Kansas City’s line, and also has made major strides in 2010. There had been talk before the 2010 draft that the Chiefs would take Russell Okung with the No. 5 pick (who went one pick later to Seattle) and move Albert to right tackle.
The Chiefs have to be thrilled they didn’t make that move. Kansas City has its left tackle for the next several years, and it seems to have scored big with safety Eric Berry, the team’s top pick in 2010.
“Dorsey and Albert are showing why they were such high picks,” Williamson said. “Dorsey has been much better in the 3-4 than I thought he would be. He’s playing with a great purpose, and Albert is the best player on a good line.”
The showcase player of the Chiefs’ 2008 class, of course, is Charles. Kansas City drafted Charles out of Texas because of his blazing speed. The Chiefs hoped he’d be a nice change-of-pace player. In his third NFL season, Charles -- who along with Albert was a prize from the Allen trade -- has developed into the NFL’s premier game-breaker.
Charles was second in the NFL in rushing this season with 1,467 yards. His 6.38 per-carry average was the second highest single-season average behind the legendary Jim Brown, who averaged 6.4 yards a carry in 1963. If the Chiefs have a chance to beat the Ravens, it will start with Charles’ big-play threat.
The class, which also features right tackle Barry Richardson, also netted Kansas City’s two cornerbacks, who have a chance to be with the team for several years. While Flowers showed strong signs of being a good player (Williamson says he thinks Flowers can be a top-five cornerback), right cornerback Brandon Carr has come on strong this season. The fifth-round pick led the Chiefs with 19 passes defended, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
While Peterson and coach Herm Edwards’ swan song presented Kansas City with a terrific parting gift, the second draft class of the Scott Pioli-Todd Haley era has been a jackpot. Their first class was small and so far uninspiring besides kicker Ryan Succop, the final pick of the entire 2009 draft. But their second class has been one of the best rookie classes in the NFL, along with those of Oakland, New England and Tampa Bay.
In June, Haley said he didn’t think the task was too big for his draft class, and that was before he had seen the players in training camp. Through the regular season, Haley had to feel the same way. This class has been extremely productive.
It starts with Berry. While he is still learning, he has been a complete player and has the look of being a fierce player for a long time. Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. notes that Berry, who was named the NFL's defensive rookie of the month for December, is an excellent blitzer, strong in run support and continues to improve in coverage. Berry had four interceptions as a rookie. It’s noteworthy that Berry will be on the same field as the Ravens’ Ed Reed in his first postseason game. Berry has a chance to a have a Reed-like impact on the Chiefs in the coming years.
Next to Berry, perhaps the next most productive rookie has been third-round pick Tony Moeaki. Cassel looks to have complete trust in Moeaki, a tight end who can split the field and has soft hands. How good has Moeaki been? His rookie season has been much better than former Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, the NFL record holder for all relevant tight end receiving marks.
Moeaki had 47 catches for 556 yards this season. His reception total was a team rookie record by 14 catches, and his yardage total was three yards off the team’s rookie mark. Safety Kendrick Lewis also has been a contributor this season.
“You have to give a lot of credit to the young kids,” veteran receiver Chris Chambers said. “They’ve come in here and acted like pros. They are a big reason why we’ve been so successful this season, no doubt about it.”