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Old 08-12-2005, 07:22 AM  
Sam Sam is offline
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Rookie Johnson running Free


RIVER FALLS, Wis. (Aug. 11, 2005) -- Twenty-six teams regretted passing up Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino in the 1983 draft, and it's starting to look like 14 are going to regret passing up Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson.

No player has garnered more attention at Chiefs camp than Johnson, who likely will be in Kansas City's starting lineup for Friday night's preseason opener against Minnesota and will be in the starting lineup for the Sept. 11 regular-season opener.

Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil said he could have waited to move Johnson into the starting lineup, let the rookie pay his dues, but really, who would he have been fooling? Johnson is ready now.

He has looked so good that Vermeil, who has been at this a long time, already is proclaiming Johnson the most talented linebacker he has been on a field with. Ever.

And it's not hard to see why. At 6-foot-3, 248 pounds, Johnson might be the fastest player on the entire Chiefs team -- faster than wide receivers Eddie Kennison and Dante Hall, faster than cornerbacks Patrick Surtain and Eric Warfield.

A linebacker.

And a player teams are going to regret not taking.

Depending on one's perspective, the Chiefs are the AFC's Vikings, or the Vikings are the NFC's Chiefs, but both teams are now fielding reborn and remade defenses.

They had to, especially Kansas City. Last season, the Chiefs surrendered more plays of 20 or more yards than any team in the league. In their seven wins, they allowed an average of 26 points a game, which reveals just how potent Kansas City's offense was and just how putrid its defense was.

But no longer. The Chiefs signed free-agent linebacker Kendrell Bell and safety Sammy Knight. They traded for cornerback Patrick Surtain and defensive end Carlos Hall. They drafted Johnson. They remade a defense the way Minnesota has.

Now the Chiefs expect their defense to be a blast from the past, considerably more like the dominant ones they lined up in the mid to late '90s. And the one underrated player who will most help pull the unit together is Knight

Since 1997, no player in the league has forced more takeaways than Knight, who has 35 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries during that time. Next closest is NFL Network's Rod Woodson, with 33 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries.

Woodson is headed to Canton. Knight will settle for Detroit.

The Class of '83 was known for its quarterbacks, and the Class of '93 should be known for its offensive linemen.

Out of the same draft class came offensive tackle Willie Roaf and guard Will Shields, veritable fortresses at their respective offensive line positions.

Forget about running back Priest Holmes or tight end Tony Gonzalez. The two Chiefs with the best chance to get to Canton and the Pro Football Hall of Fame are Roaf and Shields.

Each has made Hawaii its address for one week during the offseason. Roaf has been voted to 10 Pro Bowls, Shields has been voted to 10 straight Pro Bowls. Players who make it to Hawaii that often usually find their way to Canton, as well.

But there aren't too many seasons left for either player. Roaf is 35. Shields, who contemplated retiring this offseason, is about to turn 34. And both sound as if this season will be their last.

Plus, Holmes, who contemplated retiring before last season, turns 32 in October. Fullback Tony Richardson turns 34 in December. Even Gonzalez is -- and can this be? -- 29.

So the window on the greatest offense west of Indianapolis is gradually closing. But it's not shut yet.

Flat out, the Chiefs overworked receiver/returner/human dynamite Dante Hall last season. They exposed him more than they should, partly due to injuries at wide receiver.

Dick Vermeil plans to pick his spots for speedy Dante Hall this season.
Dick Vermeil plans to pick his spots for speedy Dante Hall this season.
But Hall should touch the football up to six times a game, no more. A couple of kick returns, a couple of punt returns, maybe a catch and a reverse.

Hall needs to be used primarily as a returner, not as a receiver. It is the best way to get maximum production from the player who has returned nine kicks and punts for touchdowns the past three seasons.

This season the Chiefs will go back in time, reduce Hall's playing time, and expect him to regularly change games the way he did during the 2003 season, when Hall was the game's most explosive player.

Questions about whether the Chiefs are as good as they were in 2003 or as average as they were in 2004 will be answered the first month of the season, in the ultimate litmus test.

Check out the Chiefs' first four games: Home against the New York Jets on opening day, Sept. 11; at the Oakland Raiders in a Sunday night game; at the Denver Broncos in a Monday night game; home for the defending NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles.

Kansas City needs to come out of the season's first month with at least a 2-2 mark. Because waiting in the second half are games at San Diego, at Buffalo, and at Dallas, and home against New England, Denver and San Diego.

But get ready for some answers. The season is now one month away.
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Sam is a favorite in the douche of the year contest.Sam is a favorite in the douche of the year contest.
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