Chiefs camp preview: Larry Johnson and …?


Editor's note: These camp previews are up to date as of the start of preseason games. For the latest changes since then, check our updated rankings, projections and profiles.

Youth. That's the theme of the 2008 Kansas City Chiefs. Or would they more accurately be the 2009 Kansas City Chiefs? Or 2010? It's a long-range rebuilding project in good ol' K.C., though that's the kind of thing you'd expect when your starting quarterback is Brodie Croyle and you've dealt your best defensive player for draft choices.

Partially thanks to the Jared Allen trade with Minnesota, the Chiefs had 12 picks in the 2008 NFL draft: two of them in the first round and six in the first three rounds total. As such, rookies will get greater opportunities in Kansas City than they might have in other cities. Maybe that's exciting for Chiefs fans looking ahead a year or two from now and hoping for a rebound, but for fantasy, it's actually a bit troubling for this season.

A quick scroll through the roster reveals only four players who cracked the top 200 of our fantasy player rankings: Dwayne Bowe, Tony Gonzalez, Larry Johnson and Kolby Smith. Only the Dolphins and Falcons boast fewer. The defense is considered one of the league's worst, the quarterback is undesirable for fantasy and the kicker position is a collection of retreads. The winner of each of those positions may not have had any appeal in our game to begin with.

Still, sleeper choices must be unearthed from somewhere, and young players on a team willing to cater to youth often make interesting bets. Top pick Glenn Dorsey will be an immediate starter and a potential individual defensive player bargain. Fourth-rounder Will Franklin stood out in minicamp and could get a look starting alongside Bowe. And third-rounder Jamaal Charles could get a chance to step in as Larry Johnson's long-term successor. Not that any of the three is necessarily draftable today, but with continued success in the preseason, any or all could warrant late-round consideration.

What to look for in camp

Key position battles: It's incredible to think the Chiefs' two biggest preseason battles will come at quarterback and kicker, and neither of the winners is likely to be drafted in the vast majority of fantasy leagues. Croyle heads into camp the favorite to start at quarterback, having drawn high praise from new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, though many believe Tyler Thigpen will press him for the starting role perhaps as soon as Week 1. That's right, Damon Huard has effectively slipped to third on an already-thin depth chart. But even if Croyle goes unselected for fantasy, his camp performance warrants close attention. He averaged 154.5 passing yards with five scores and five interceptions in six late-season starts in 2007, and his sluggish performances dropped Bowe's numbers in those December weeks. Bowe's prospective owners will need to see continued development from Croyle in the preseason, and in ultra-deep leagues, his performance also will have an impact on either Devard Darling or Franklin, whoever steps up as the No. 2.

At kicker, Nick Novak, who didn't appear in a game in 2007, will take on undrafted rookie Connor Barth. That two mediocre options are battling for a spot on one of the league's weaker offenses tells you all you need to know.

Fitting in: Of any of the aforementioned rookies, Dorsey is the one for whom we'll all be abuzz. He's a dominating defensive tackle in spite of his 6-foot-1, 297-pounds size, and he's sure to amass plenty of tackles even in his rookie season, especially because the Chiefs will play six intradivision contests against the run-oriented Broncos, Chargers and Raiders. In addition, that the Chiefs lack elite overall talent on the defensive side means opponents probably will run against them more often, something that can only help Dorsey's IDP numbers. He's not a top IDP pick, but he's a sleeper and a dynasty-league gem.

On the mend: Johnson, who missed the final eight games of 2007 with a foot injury, has had his work limited during minicamp, but that's more of a precautionary measure than something to be considered a setback. The team deliberately kept him off artificial turf, rested him more often in favor of Smith and made a statement with the insurance pick by drafting Charles. Not that Johnson can't make a full, clean recovery, but how he looks during preseason games will go a long way toward determining his draft appeal. With some luck in the health department, he'll make a case for top-10 overall status. With any setbacks, he'll slide deep into the second round.

On the line: Sadly, though the addition of Branden Albert at No. 15 overall in the draft will help the Chiefs' cause on the offensive line (at least once he returns from his foot injury), one talented rookie alone won't turn around the unit's fortunes. Blame much of Larry Johnson's early-season struggles in 2007 on an O-line widely considered the game's worst; the Chiefs ranked 31st in yards per carry as a team (3.3), and only the 49ers surrendered as many sacks (55). Johnson is a bounce-back candidate, but he has a lot of hurdles to clear: the aforementioned injury issues, the hefty workloads he endured earlier in his career, the weak supporting cast and, most notably, his running behind arguably the least-talented set of blockers in football.

The bottom line

Of all the questions surrounding the Chiefs this preseason -- and there are plenty -- there's none as big as, "What does Larry Johnson bring to the table in 2008?" Look at the 2007 results: The Chiefs lost the Week 9 contest in which he got hurt, and then all of their final eight games when he was absent. Many of those weren't even close contests, and if you look at the depth chart, things get messy in a hurry when Johnson isn't around. Unfortunately, answering that question isn't easy; it brings all these other key questions into the fray. Who's the quarterback, and is he productive? Is the offensive line looking even respectable? It's plenty of homework to do, but if you're in one of those back-end draft spots, it's homework you'll need to do.

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.