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GLENN DORSEY went to a luncheon in Kansas City this summer expecting the standard fare: chicken breast, bread roll and all-you-can-eat optimism about the 2009 season. He wound up with an extra helping of reassurance, delivered from an unexpected source. Neil Smith approached Dorsey during the event and told him about a highly touted defensive end from New Orleans who was drafted at No. 2 by the Chiefs in 1988 but finished his rookie year with just 2½ sacks for a team that went 4-11-1. The following year K.C. drafted future Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas. With Thomas monopolizing attention, the end from New Orleans had 6½ sacks in his second season, and the Chiefs went 8-7-1. The year after that he racked up 9½ sacks for an 11--5 club.
The subject of the story, of course, was Smith himself. "I used to watch Neil when I was growing up in Louisiana, and I think he saw that we had some things in common," says Dorsey. "He wanted me to remember to keep pushing."
The similarities between Smith's background and Dorsey's are startling. Dorsey was drafted at No. 5 out of LSU last year but finished his rookie season with only one sack, in part because he never took the time to allow a sprained knee in training camp to fully heal and started all 16 games. Now that Kansas City, under first-year coach Todd Haley, is switching to a 3--4, Dorsey is moving from tackle to end, where he'll play opposite this year's first-round draft pick out of LSU, Tyson Jackson. No one is comparing Jackson to Thomas, but Jackson is also a vaunted speed rusher and should not need long to develop into a force that could free up Dorsey. They were Tigers teammates—and roommates—who still reminisce about taking their recruiting trips to Baton Rouge on the same weekend.
The Chiefs have a host of promising defensive linemen, including '06 first-rounder Tamba Hali, '07 second-rounder Turk McBride and '07 third-rounder Tank Tyler. The shift to a three-man front will move some of them out of their natural positions. While Dorsey slides from tackle to end, Hali and McBride are migrating from end to outside linebacker, and tackle Tyler is learning to play the nose. All must embrace a system in which linemen are often asked to occupy blockers while linebackers get most of the shots at the quarterback and the ballcarrier.
"We have a lot of highly drafted defensive linemen here, but I think we can use that to our advantage," Tyler says. "We're all talented enough to get ourselves in a position to make plays."
Something had to change about the K.C. defense after it finished last season ranked 31st in the NFL and mustered only 10 sacks, lowest for a team since the league began keeping sack statistics in 1982. There are a lot of reasons the Chiefs won only two games last year—inconsistent quarterback play, a dearth of contributors in their prime, an unhappy Larry Johnson, an inordinate number of last-minute losses—but the lack of a pass rush was at or near the top of the list. "We have to create more havoc in the backfield," says Haley. "It just has to happen."
Kansas City has undergone a massive makeover. In addition to the new coach and the new defense, there is a new general manager, Scott Pioli, and a new quarterback, Matt Cassel, both by way of the Patriots. Haley, the offensive coordinator in Arizona last season, brought with him defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, a 3--4 proponent. The Chiefs should be better with Cassel (who might be slowed by an injured knee to start the season), but how much better really depends on that front seven—whether all the bonus babies can realize their potential in the new scheme. "It's going to be a different mind-set," Dorsey says, "but I like the change." Playing end, he enjoys more freedom, sees fewer double teams and, when times get rough, can call on a mentor who was once in the same spot.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
COACH: TODD HALEY