KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The roster overhaul of the two-time defending AFC West champions began in earnest weeks ago, when the Kansas City Chiefs agreed to trade quarterback Alex Smith to the Washington Redskins.
It began for real on Wednesday.
That's when the new league year ushered in a flurry of moves that could finally become official, including the blockbuster deal that sent Smith to the Redskins — where he had already agreed to a new contract — for cornerback Kendall Fuller and a third-round pick in this year's draft.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Alex and what he was able to accomplish with us these past five seasons," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "He put every ounce of energy into making our team better and I appreciate his leadership and how he came to work with the right attitude every day."
The Chiefs also made official a trade of two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters to the Los Angeles Rams for a fourth-round pick this year and a second-round pick next year, and the signings of wide receiver Sammy Watkins and linebacker Anthony Hitchens to fill two of their biggest holes.
Among their own free agents, the Chiefs are bringing back fullback and special-teams standout Anthony Sherman and defensive tackle Jarvis Jenkins. They also put a sixth-rounder tender on defensive tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches and non-tendered linebacker Ramik Wilson and cornerback Keith Baxter.
The 24-year-old Watkins agreed to a $48 million, three-year deal Tuesday that includes $30 million in guarantees. Watkins spent four injury-filled years with Buffalo before spending last season with the Rams, where he managed to stay healthy enough for the Chiefs to feel comfortable signing him.
At his best, Watkins is a potent playmaker with blazing downfield speed, and he should pair nicely with Tyreek Hill to give new quarterback Patrick Mahomes II plenty of options.
Throw in the emergence of running back Kareem Hunt, who led the NFL in rushing as a rookie last season, and perennial Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce, and the Chiefs should have one of the AFC's best offences even after trading their Pro Bowl quarterback to Washington.
The 25-year-old Hitchens, who likewise agreed to a $45 million, five-year deal on Tuesday, should fill Derrick Johnson's old spot at middle linebacker alongside Reggie Ragland. Hitchens was a fourth-round pick who exceeded all expectations in Dallas, earning a contract in his first free agency.
Earlier this off-season, the Chiefs parted ways with franchise tackles leader Johnson and Tamba Hali, who ranks second only to Derrick Thomas in career sacks. The veteran linebackers were let go along with safety Ron Parker, who had become a critical part of the defensive backfield — especially when star safety Eric Berry went down with a season-ending injury last year.
All of the off-season decisions, including the aggressive trades of Smith and Peters, have served two purposes for new general manager Brett Veach: get younger and save money.
The Chiefs' rapidly aging defence was a particular concern last season, and bringing Hitchens and Fuller into the mix immediately lowers their average age. Throw in the potential rookies that they net with their new draft picks and the pieces are in place for a massively revamped unit.
"After a thorough evaluation of our roster we decided it was in the best interest for us and for Marcus to move in different directions," Veach said of the embattled cornerback, whose immature antics rubbed many the wrong way. "We appreciate Marcus' contributions and wish him the best of luck."
Veach also inherited a salary cap mess from former GM John Dorsey, whose unparalleled ability to unearth talent was tempered by a dismal record in signing long-term contracts. The decision to trade Smith was a no-brainer with Mahomes waiting in the wings, as were the decisions to move on from Johnson and Hali, while the trade of Peters was made with an eye toward the future.
The money the Chiefs freed up allowed them to aggressively target Watkins and Hitchens, and thus filled two of their most pressing needs the moment free agency began.
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL