Deep draft class awaits Chiefs, other teams starting Thursday at NFL combine

Thanks in large part to the record 102 underclassmen who have declared for the draft, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock couldn’t be more excited about this year’s crop of talent.

He is not the only one, either.

“From my perspective, this is the deepest and best draft class I’ve seen in probably 10 years, and that’s been reinforced by most of the general managers and scouts I’ve talked to throughout the league,” Mayock said in a Tuesday teleconference.

That is certainly good news for the Chiefs, who surrendered their second-round pick in the Alex Smith trade but have no shortage of needs.

“I had one GM tell me the other day that having a top-20 pick this year is very similar to having a top-10 pick last year,” Mayock said. “I think there are certain positions that are stacked this year, and you can get a quality player through three or four rounds.”

After going 11-5 in coach Andy Reid’s first season at the helm, the Chiefs — who hold the 23rd overall pick in the first round — will surely be keeping a close eye on several prospects at positions of need at this year’s NFL Combine, which begins today and ends Tuesday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Mayock said the Chiefs could go in a number of different directions, particularly on defense. After a 9-0 start to the season, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s unit fell apart at the end of the season, culminating in a crushing playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Following the loss, Mayock — who called the game as an analyst for NBC — said injuries to several Chiefs, including cornerback Brandon Flowers and outside linebacker Justin Houston, played a part in the collapse. So did a strong performance from Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck.

But Mayock said there is one position, in particular, that the Chiefs need to upgrade on defense.

“When I look at Kansas City, I go, ‘OK, you’re pretty solid up front,’ ” Mayock said. “Now on the back end, Brandon Flowers is still a solid player (at corner and so is) Sean Smith.

“I think the free safety position … is an important one for them to make some decisions on.”

Indeed, the Chiefs likely will seek a replacement for free safety Kendrick Lewis — a heady player who battled some injuries, struggled down the stretch and surrendered the game-winning score against the Colts — via draft or free agency.

The team remains high on 2013 fifth-round pick Sanders Commings despite the fact his rookie season was wiped out by injuries. And he’ll have the chance to show he has the range and ball skills to play in Sutton’s defense. However, the team will still be taking a hard look at safeties this week.

Mayock mentioned safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama and Calvin Pryor of Louisville as potential first-rounders.

“They are different players,” Mayock said. “For me, Calvin Pryor is like a bigger, stronger Bob Sanders. He flies around, he hits people, he explodes everywhere. I think he is a little better in the box than he is on the back end.

“Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, on the other hand, has got better range, and I think he’s more of a deep third, deep-half guy, he tackles well and he can invert up into the box. He’s a complete player.”

If the Chiefs decide to bring in someone at a different position, Mayock said, it might be wise to make a move or two to solidify their pass rush for years to come.

Star outside linebackers Houston, 25, and Tamba Hali, 30, racked up 22 combined sacks last season, but while Houston comes cheap in 2014 — with a base salary of $645,000 — he will surely command an enormous raise once his rookie contract runs out after next season. Hali, meanwhile, will earn $11.4 million in 2014 and $11.9 million in 2015.

Teams typically avoid paying top dollar for two players at the same position, especially when they have cap issues like the Chiefs, who will need to release, restructure or extend a few contracts just to carve out enough cap room to be a real player in free agency, which starts March 11.

On offense, Mayock said the Chiefs could also use another playmaker at receiver, provided 2013 third-rounder Travis Kelce, whose rookie season was wiped out by an injury, fulfills expectations as a middle-of-the-field weapon at tight end.

Luckily for the Chiefs, receiver is one of several positions, along with cornerback and offensive tackle, that Mayock says feature plenty of high-end talent.

“There’s more quality at the top end of this draft than I’ve seen in a long time,” Mayock said.

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