ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – One year ago, the Kansas City Chiefs were coming off a two-win season that led to the ouster of the general manager and coach, and the turnover of roughly half the roster.
There's a different feel heading to training camp this season.
General manager John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid are firmly entrenched, and there has been less personnel turnover. That means most players will have had a year in Reid's system, and that could help build on an 11-5 season that ended with a playoff loss to Indianapolis.
"We're ahead of last year, just natural progression," Reid said, "and that's a good feeling. Last year, every day was a new day, and so it was a heavy workload, plus the mental part of that, the new scheme. We're quite a bit ahead."
That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of work to do.
The Chiefs are still in search of their first playoff victory since 1993, and nobody around Arrowhead Stadium will be satisfied until that dubious streak finally ends.
The problem is that Kansas City was limited in making upgrading moves this offseason. Already bumping against the salary cap, the Chiefs watched three starting offensive linemen leave on the same day in free agency: Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert, guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah. Pro Bowl punt returner Dexter McCluster signed with Tennessee, and Pro Bowl cornerback Brandon Flowers was released in a cost-saving move.
The Chiefs are hopeful their draft class can fill some holes.
They drafted a pass-rushing linebacker in Dee Ford out of Auburn in the first round, and added cornerback Phillip Gaines and running back De'Anthony Thomas later on. But how much can the rookies be counted on?
"I don't want to say football is my life, but it's what I do 90 percent of my day," Ford said. "If you want to be great, it's more of a mentality than actually playing the game. You have preparation before you even step on the field."
That preparation will continue at training camp in St. Joseph, Missouri, a couple hours' drive north of Kansas City. On the sweltering fields of Missouri Western, Reid and Co. will begin to answer the questions:
WHAT TO DO WITH JUSTIN HOUSTON? The Pro Bowl linebacker is due to become a free agent next season and wants a new contract. The Chiefs would like to give it to him, too, but only if the price is right. That quibble led to Houston skipping the entire offseason program, including a mandatory minicamp. Houston is expected to report, just when is anybody's guess.
DITTO ALEX SMITH? The quarterback is also a free agent next year, and the Chiefs have been trying to reach a long-term deal for months. Asked whether he shared in Reid's optimism that a deal will be done before the season, Smith replied: "Absolutely, I do. But like I said, it's playing quarterback. That (other) stuff gets figured out."
WHO PLAYS CORNERBACK? The release of Flowers saved the Chiefs about $15 million in salary cap space over two seasons. It also created a gaping void at cornerback. Marcus Cooper and Ron Parker are first in line, but keep an eye on Gaines, who has a bigger frame and seems to fit what Reid and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton prefer in their cornerbacks.
AND ON THE OFFENSIVE LINE? Rodney Hudson is back at center. Jeff Allen will reprise his role at left guard. After that? The line will be entirely new. Eric Fisher is expected to move from right to left tackle, and veteran backup Donald Stephenson will slot in on the right side. But right guard remains a mystery heading into camp.
WHO WILL PROVIDE DEPTH? There are plenty of backup jobs up for grabs. Aaron Murray, Chase Daniel and Tyler Bray are competing at quarterback, and Travis Kelce, Demetrius Harris and Sean McGrath are battling at tight end. There will also be intriguing competitions at linebacker, safety and along the defensive line. And who steps in when star running back Jamaal Charles needs relief?
"We've got a lot of work to do when we get to St. Joe," Reid said during a recent meeting with reporters, "and the guys understand that. They are wired that way. They don't shy away from the work. Once we get up there we will be ready to go."