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Free agency can occasionally be a path to the playoffs in the NFL. In 2001 the Patriots signed 17 lower- and middle-tier free agents and rode them to the Super Bowl title. But the New England personnel man behind that haul, Scott Pioli, isn't normally a free-agency man. He's always believed that the clearest path to the playoffs is to strike gold on draft weekend.
Pioli left his Belichickian cocoon in 2009 to become the Chiefs' general manager and is back to his drafting magic. How have his first two classes rated? His first gets a middling grade; defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Alex Magee and kicker Ryan Succop have stuck in prominent roles. And though it's way too early to accurately judge the 2010 draft, early indications are that Pioli did even better with this year's crop, which is a big reason why the Chiefs, who were 4--12 last year, are 3--0. Four of the starters in Sunday's 31--10 win over the 49ers were drafted in April; two more nonstarters, including nickelback and punt returner Javier Arenas, also played prominent roles.
Back in the spring Kansas City was very interested in signing restricted free-agent runner/receiver/returner Darren Sproles of the Chargers. But San Diego beat Pioli to the punch, re-signing Sproles. So for a fraction of the average-per-year money, the Chiefs used the 36th pick in the draft on the Sproles of this year's draft: Ole Miss runner/receiver/returner Dexter McCluster. In his first game in the league, McCluster returned a punt a franchise-record 94 yards for a touchdown. On Sunday, McCluster made his first start, and he caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from Matt Cassel.
"Last year," said coach Todd Haley, who also has his fingerprints on the draft, "we were so involved with hiring coaches and establishing a program. This year I spent much more time looking at the prospects, and McCluster's a guy I really fell in love with."
Pioli placed an emphasis on character this year. His top five picks were captains on their college teams. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz told Pioli that tight end Tony Moeaki was one of the three most important players in his program in the coach's 11-year tenure at the school, and even though Moeaki averaged only 15 catches a year at Iowa, Pioli took him in the third round. Now Moeaki is a starter, and he's been thrown to more times (19) and has more catches (12) than any other receiver on the team.
So far, so good. Who'd have thought the Chiefs, 10--38 in the last three seasons, would have a two-game lead in the AFC West entering October? We'll soon find out if they're for real. After a bye this week, Kansas City travels to Indianapolis and Houston.
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