KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Trucks loaded with everything from barbells to bottled water pulled out of Kansas City on Tuesday and headed north to St. Joseph, Mo.
It’s a clear and welcome sign that the Chiefs are back in business.
Players, for the first time in more than four months, started arriving at team headquarters to take physicals, pick up playbooks and greet their coaches with excited smiles and big bear hugs.
At 9 a.m. — not 9:01 — general manager Scott Pioli and his assistants got to work in what promises to be a free-agent frenzy, contacting players and their representatives in a hurried effort to get everyone signed and the roster set. The first preseason game is Aug. 12 at home against Tampa Bay.
“We’re really excited to get back to football,” Pioli said. “We do have a very good plan in place. We understand there’s going to be challenges.”
The defending AFC West champions will collect players in their Kansas City complex on Thursday evening and take buses to St. Joseph, about 60 miles away. They’ll have their first practice at their two-year-old complex on the campus of Missouri Western at 3:30 p.m. Friday.
About a dozen or so players reported to the facility Tuesday morning, led by Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Cassel and guard Ryan Lilja. Not many Chiefs actually live in the Kansas City area, so coaches did not expect everyone to come in all at once.
Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, a member of the owners’ negotiating committee, met briefly with reporters and acknowledged there were days during the long lockout when he was very worried.
“As we went through the process over the last four or five months, my emotions ebbed and flowed,” he said. “There were times I thought we would be able to get it done in the summer, and there were other times where I was afraid we were going to miss games, including potentially some regular-season games. Being able to preserve the entire preseason and all of training camp I think is a huge win for everybody associated with the league.”
Like his 31 counterparts across the league, head coach Todd Haley’s first order of business will be to assess the conditioning of players who’ve been on their own since the NFL lockout began in March. To overwork somebody who might be less than physically fit could be dangerous, especially with practice fields baked by temperatures around 100 degrees.
“The No. 1 thing we have to do as a staff is evaluate where our guys are,” Haley said. “I think that’s going to be a critical aspect of this, evaluating where our guys are.”
Conditioning figures to be a test of the “high character” that Pioli and Haley have emphasized with players since they took charge of the Chiefs following the 2008 season. Haley said he is confident that conditioning will not be a widespread problem.
“I think we’ve got a good group of guys that now have a couple of years under their belt. They understand our expectations. I think they have high expectations,” he said. “I believe that they’ve been doing the things that they need to do. But it’s different on your own. It’s not necessarily what would have been going on here.”
As of Tuesday, teams were free to start signing their draft picks as well as undrafted rookies. They could also start making trades and negotiating with their own free agents.
The salary cap, set this year at $123.75 million, figures to be kind to the Chiefs since they were under the cap a year ago. Pioli declined to say how much cap room they will have.
“It’s a philosophical belief of mine and Todd’s that spending money isn’t what makes a good football team,” he said. “It’s spending money wisely on good football players that makes good football teams. The plan is to spend money wisely.”
He would be hugely expensive, but to most Chiefs fans the most intriguing free agent available would be Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Teamed with young cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr and safety Eric Berry, who went to the Pro Bowl last year as a rookie, and the Chiefs could have as fine a secondary as there is.
Another need is at nose tackle. San Francisco’s Aubrayo Franklin would be a good fit between young defensive ends Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson, the Chiefs’ first-round picks in 2008 and 2009.
Another top priority will be wide receiver and 2011 first-round pick Jonathan Baldwin.
It’s not unreasonable, Pioli said, to get everybody signed by the time they would first be eligible to practice, on Aug. 4.
“It’s reasonable to expect that and we’re hopeful,” he said. “We were able to contact all our draft choices and rookie free agents yesterday. I think the way the system has been put together, it makes it pretty close to cut-and-dried.”