On the surface, the scoreboard for the Chiefs in free agency was not very positive.
The club lost five starters — offensive tackle Branden Albert, guard Geoff Schwartz, linebacker Akeem Jordan, defensive end Tyson Jackson and safety Kendrick Lewis — as well as top kick returners Dexter McCluster and Quintin Demps.
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To replace them, the Chiefs signed some lower-profile free agents such as guard Jeff Linkenbach, defensive end Vance Walker, linebacker Joe Mays, cornerback Chris Owens and Canadian Football League wide receiver Weston Dressler.
While salary-cap issues played a part in how aggressively the Chiefs could be in free agency, general manager John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid also looked inside their own locker room for the next wave of potential starters.
And they began by watching the replay of the Chiefs’ 27-24 overtime loss in the regular-season finale at San Diego.
That was the game in which the Chiefs were locked into the fifth playoff spot, and Reid rested 20 of 22 starters. The Chargers, meanwhile, took the field knowing a victory would clinch the sixth and last playoff berth.
Had normally reliable kicker Ryan Succop not missed a 41-yard field-goal attempt at the end of regulation, the Chiefs would have won that game with a slew of backups making their first NFL starts. The Chiefs are counting on many of those subs to compete for, if not win, jobs in 2014.
“To put it bluntly, I thought they beat up on a playoff team,” said starting quarterback Alex Smith, who watched from the sidelines as backup Chase Daniel completed 21 of 30 passes for 200 yards and a touchdown.
“They played well, good enough to win. They made a lot of plays out there. All the guys who got opportunities stepped up and this was (against) a team that had the playoffs on the line. The game meant everything to them, and our guys played well against a team that won a playoff game the next week.”
The lineup in San Diego included guards Rishaw Johnson, who will get first crack at the right guard spot vacated by Schwartz, and Rokevious Watkins, another candidate to provide depth as a replacement for Jon Asamoah.
Inside linebacker James-Michael Johnson, who will compete for the job vacated by Jordan, made six tackles and had a sack of Philip Rivers. Husain Abdullah, the likely replacement for Lewis, had eight tackles.
“The thing that isn’t as obvious to people, but it is to our team, is we kept a load of offensive linemen on the roster, a number of young guys, knowing something like this would happen,” Reid said of the departures of Schwartz, Asamoah and Albert. “They were able to get some experience and now have an opportunity to compete in there.”
Though the Chiefs were foiled in their attempts to sign free agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, and most mock drafts have them drafting a wide receiver, Reid liked what he saw in A.J. Jenkins in the San Diego game.
Jenkins, a 2012 first-round draft pick of the 49ers who was acquired from San Francisco during preseason last year, made his first NFL start at San Diego, caught three passes for 67 yards. He tacked on a 27-yard gain on a reverse in the playoff loss to Indianapolis.
“I think you saw what he can do there,” Reid said of Jenkins. “You saw it again in the playoff game. He’s a capable player. I thought he made big strides last year.”
Others who gained valuable experience in that San Diego game and could make a push for more playing time in 2014 included cornerback Ron Parker, who had an interception; inside linebacker Nico Johnson, who made seven tackles at the end of an injury-riddled rookie season; and third-year wide receiver Junior Hemingway, who caught five passes for 45 yards in his second NFL start.
Chiefs strong safety Eric Berry was sorry to see draft classmates Lewis and McCluster leave, but doesn’t believe the cupboard is bare. He practiced against Rishaw Johnson, Watkins, Jenkins and Hemingway every day last year and worked with the young defensive players. He was happy to see them this week at the Chiefs’ voluntary off-season program.
“Today at workouts, I was just smiling,” Berry said. “A lot of people may not know the names of the guys we have right now, but those guys came in ready to work. We’ve got practice squad guys who are ready to come in and make plays.
“They may not have a name for themselves in the league, but I can see the passion they have and how hungry they are to get on the field and make plays. As long as we’ve got that, I feel like we can mold this defense into something great.”