Eric Winston sampled the best barbecue Kansas City has to offer when the Chiefs brought him in for a free-agent visit.
The big tackle, who spent the past six seasons in Houston, hit Gates first, followed by Jack Stack. And, to seal the deal, the Chiefs brought in ribs from Oklahoma Joe’s.
“In three days, three different shirts had stains,” general manager Scott Pioli said of Winston, who had been cast adrift by the Texans despite starting the last 87 consecutive games.
Winston was one of four key free agents the Chiefs signed during the offseason. In each case, the players’ previous teams no longer wanted their services for either salary-cap reasons or because they didn’t fit in new systems.
Tight end Kevin Boss and cornerback Stanford Routt, who had signed big contracts in 2011 with the Raiders, were released by Oakland’s new management. And running back Peyton Hillis was an unrestricted free agent after two seasons with the Cleveland Browns, who did not show much interest in re-signing him.
The Chiefs considered each of the four newcomers a good investment and anything but a gamble.
“Every one of them has been a starter,” Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said, “so when you can get that kind of experience and ability, it helps your team.
“We still think that they have some gas in their tank, and we’re going to use it. In the NFL, a lot of things happen, a lot of guys become available, and if you think the guy can fit in your program and in your system, you try and bring the guy in. Now, you’re not always successful, because sometimes guys have their agendas and it may not be here, but these guys chose us and we feel good about it.”
Winston, who signed a contract for four years worth up to $22 million, became the immediate starter at right tackle; Routt (three years, $19.6 million) replaced departed free agent Brandon Carr at right cornerback; Boss (three years, $9 million) will share tight end duties with Tony Moeaki; and Hillis (one year, $2.8 million), will divide carries with Jamaal Charles.
“Anytime you get cut from a place, you want to go somewhere where you’re wanted,” said Winston, who blocked for three 1,000-yard rushers, including NFL rushing leader Arian Foster in 2010, and was an integral part of Houston’s first playoff team in franchise history last season.
“More so than anything, more so than the offense we’re going to run, more so than the coaching staff, you can tell they really wanted me here. To me, that was important. I think anybody wants to go somewhere where they’re wanted as a professional.
“Scott called me, (offensive-line coach Jack) Bicknell called me, coach Crennel called me everybody was calling me, where other places, it was, ‘Hey, I hope you make it in for a visit’ It felt good to be wanted.”
Boss spent four years with the New York Giants, including the Super Bowl championship season of 2007, before signing as a free agent last year with Oakland, where he caught 28 passes for 368 yards and three touchdowns.
“Coming from New York to Oakland and then to here, this feels like a great fit, a classy organization from the top down,” Boss said. “Coming on my visit, sitting down with everybody, it’s made me excited. I hope to be here for a while.”
The Chiefs hope to pair Boss with Moeaki in the type of two-tight end formations that have proven so successful in New England and elsewhere the past few years. Boss caught a career-best 42 passes for New York in 2009, and in five career playoff games, Boss has caught eight passes for 142 yards, including a crucial 45-yard reception in the Giants’ Super Bowl XLII victory over New England.
“This is a tight end-friendly offense,” Boss said. “Tony and I talk about all the games, getting on the field together and creating mismatches, and it’s nice to have him back. The possibilities are endless, really. The nice thing this year was having spring practices and not having that lockout like last year, where a lot of the rookies or new guys didn’t learn the playbook until we got to training camp.
“I worked with Matt (Cassel) all summer to work on our timing. Staying in Kansas City to throw together was helpful.”
Hillis also spent the offseason in Kansas City with his new teammates and is reunited with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who served in that role for Cleveland in 2010 when Hillis rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns while catching 61 passes for 477 yards and two scores.
“I’m looking at this as a new beginning,” Hillis said. “This was the perfect place for me. With coach Daboll and the system they have here, and being in tandem with Jamaal Charles, who’s one of the best backs in the league, I feel it can be good for me here. It will be good to be in a tandem, somewhere I can fit in and don’t have to carry the load.”
Routt ranked second on the Raiders with four interceptions and took on the role as the Raiders’ No. 1 cover corner following the departure of Nnamdi Asomugha to Philadelphia. Routt, who also was guilty of a league-leading 17 penalties last season in Oakland’s man-press coverage, should be more comfortable opposite the Chiefs’ Brandon Flowers in a scheme that plays off the receiver.
“We saw here a team that was very, very good last year and even better the year before, when they won the AFC West,” Routt said of why he and the others chose to sign with the Chiefs. “Heck, I was on the opposite side of them for the past seven years
“I don’t think it was about other teams not wanting us. I think it’s four guys who want to win, and they see this is a place that can win this place won two years ago and there’s no reason this team can’t win the AFC West this season.”
Another benefit to signing Routt, Winston and Boss is that, because they were released by their previous teams, they don’t count against the Chiefs in the compensatory pick formula. For every unrestricted free agent a team loses, it receives a compensatory draft pick until it signs an unrestricted free agent.
The Chiefs lost four unrestricted free agents this year (quarterback Kyle Orton, fullback Le’Ron McClain, tackle Barry Richardson and Carr) but signed just two, Hillis and quarterback Brady Quinn. Winston, Boss and Routt don’t count in the formula.
All four newcomers will also contribute as much to the locker room as they will on the field.
“Kevin Boss has brought a number of things to this football team,” Pioli said. “He is an absolute professional a tremendous makeup guy. We want to keep bringing in players to upgrade our talent, and we also want to bring in players who upgrade our community and represent the organization the right way. This guy is off the charts as a human being.”
“Eric Winston has a big personality,” Pioli added. “He is a leader, he is really smart without being overbearing. He still has a lineman’s mentality in a very good way. He’s another good player for the rest of the young players to see how to be a professional.”
It made the investment in all those barbeque dinners worth it.
“Well,” said Crennel, “you have to recruit a little bit, because you do have competition.”