ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs could be facing a serious leadership void as Brian Waters and Mike Vrabel set about doing other things with their lives and careers.
Together, those two totaled 27 years of NFL experience and excellence.
Waters, released by mutual consent on Thursday, was a five-time Pro Bowl left guard and one of the most respected players not only on the team, but in the league. The 2009 NFL man of the year, Waters was so highly regarded he was asked to be a member of the negotiating team that represented players during the 4½-month lockout.
Vrabel's leadership was mainly what Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley were interested in when they brought the rugged linebacker over from New England shortly after they joined Kansas City in 2009. Without doubt, the three-time Super Bowl winner helped turn around the attitude and work habits of a downtrodden franchise which broke through last season for a 10-6 record and AFC West title.
But Vrabel retired this month to become linebackers coach at Ohio State.
Clearly, time had eroded the skills of both players. Replacements will be found. Andy Studebaker, a fourth-year pro, goes into camp as the top prospect to fill Vrabel's shoes at outside linebacker. o replace Waters, the will likely count on Jon Asamoah, an impressive third-round pick last year out of Illinois. Another possibility at left guard could be Ryan Lilja, an eight-year veteran who played capably last season at right guard and is capable of moving around.
But where will the leadership come from?
"I'm confident in this core group of guys we've got," Haley said Friday as he prepared to take his team out for its first training camp practice. "Not that it will be easy."
He said he hasn't targeted any specific players for that all-important leadership role.
"I don't think we can hope for certain guys that we'd like to see take certain steps in certain areas. But that's just that team dynamic of who steps up, who stays in the background," he said. "I am confident in our group that we've got a lot of potential guys that are capable of taking charge a little more than they have in the past. Now it's just got to happen. If we want to continue to take steps as a team, this will be a big stepping stone for us."
The undisputed team leader of the Chiefs has clearly become quarterback Matt Cassel. It was Cassel who organized a voluntary, players-only "minicamp" during the lockout. He also invited first-round draft pick Jonathan Baldwin to stay at his home for a while and work out individually.
Baldwin, a 6-4 wide receiver from Pittsburgh, signed a four-year deal Friday with an option for a fifth year.
But successful teams need more than one leader.
"Any time you have voids in the roster like we've had here between Brian and Mike, a sign of a good team is one that can have young guys developing — players developing to then step in and fill roles in the roster, leadership, team chemistry, all those types of things," Haley said. "So this will be a great test for us."
Haley also said he was encouraged by the level of conditioning he's seen as players come in after the long lockout.
"The majority of them look like they've taken care of themselves, which is not always easy when you're on your own," he said. "Not that everybody's at the same level."