NFL Preview - Tennessee (0-0) at Kansas City (0-0)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Kansas City Chiefs got one big distraction out of the way.
Quarterback Alex Smith, armed with a brand new contract extension, will lead the Chiefs into Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday against the Tennessee Titans looking to move past a disappointing finish to an otherwise solid season from a year ago.
The Chiefs and then first-year head coach Andy Reid acquired Smith, the former first overall pick of the 2005 draft by San Francisco, from the 49ers on March 12, 2013 and helped key a big turnaround in Kansas City.
After winning just two games the previous campaign, Reid and Smith helped Kansas City get off to a 9-0 start and the club ended up going 11-5 while finishing second in the AFC West.
However, after losing five of seven to close the regular season, the Chiefs were knocked out of the playoffs by the Indianapolis Colts, 45-44, as they blew a 28-point third-quarter lead.
That may have put some doubt as to if the Chiefs could win the big game with Smith under center, but the franchise put its faith in the signal-caller with a four-year extension that included a reported $45 million in guaranteed money.
"I was really hoping that it would get done before (the start of the season)," Smith said of the new contract. "I didn't want to go into the regular season with that. As much as you don't think about those types of things, subconsciously you can't help it, they sit in the back of your head and you're thinking 'Oh, I'm playing for a contract,' and this and that. Sometimes it can just be an added distraction. I certainly was hoping and I'm really happy that it did get done."
While the Chiefs are ready to embrace Smith for the next few years, the Titans are starting over under new head coach Ken Whisenhunt after going 7-9 and finishing second in a weak AFC South last season under Mike Munchak.
As if bringing in a new head coach wasn't enough proof, Tennessee showed its full hand of a rebuild phase by cutting ties with long-time running back Chris Johnson.
While Shonn Greene is listed at No. 1 on the depth chart at running back, rookie Bishop Sankey figures to get his share of carries. It is also probably only a matter of time before tackle and 2014 first-round pick Taylor Lewan is a regular on the field as well.
"Well this league has become about rookies playing, they have to play early," said Whisenhunt. "That is an important piece of it, so you always want to try to get your rookies ready to play. It is different how you build your roster. I think it really depends on where your team is."
Regardless of who is on the field, the Titans are hoping Whisenhunt can pick up a victory in his Week 1 debut with the club, one that would give the franchise its 400th all-time win in the regular season.
The Chiefs, though, have won seven of their last 10 meetings with the Titans and lead the all-time series 29-20.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The pressure will be on Smith and for all his faults, one thing he does do very well is protect the ball. Since 2010, Smith has thrown the fewest interceptions among quarterbacks with at least 1,400 pass attempts and last season was picked off only seven times while throwing for a career-best 3,313 yards with 23 touchdowns.
"Alex is a smart, talented football player that has adapted well to our offensive scheme," said Reid. "He also, obviously, has had a tremendous amount of success as a quarterback in this league. We as a team are very happy to have Alex as our quarterback moving forward."
It helps having one of the best running backs in all of football lining up behind Smith in Jamaal Charles, who led the Chiefs offense last season in both rushing (1,287 yards) and receiving (70 receptions, 693 yards).
However, Smith will be working behind an offensive line that lost left tackle Branden Albert and guards Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz to free agency and is looking for left tackle Eric Fisher, the first overall pick of the 2013 draft, to take a step forward.
Also hurting is the four-game suspension of right tackle Donald Stephenson for a violation of the league's PED policy, as well as the Week 1 loss of wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, suspended for the opener for violating the league's substance-abuse policy stemming from a November 2013 arrest for speeding and marijuana possession.
With Bowe out and A.J. Jenkins dealing with a concussion, Frankie Hammond and Albert Wilson are in line to see action across from Donnie Avery. Hammond spent last season on the club's practice squad, while Wilson was signed as a college free agent in May.
Still, the Chiefs do return seven Pro Bowl players from last season -- Smith, Charles, safety Eric Berry, linebackers Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali, as well as defensive tackle Dontari Poe.
Houston and Hali each had 11 sacks last year.
For Titans quarterback Jake Locker, he is just trying to hold onto a starting job after getting taken in the first round of the 2011 draft. He has started only 18 games over the last two years and missed most of last season after suffering a Lisfranc injury in Week 7.
Last year, Locker completed 60.7 percent of his passes for just 1,256 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions, but he was 21-of-30 passing in three preseason starts for 268 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Greene, meanwhile, appeared in 11 games without a start last year with the Titans and will have to hold off Sankey, the first running back selected in the most recent draft who is athletic with down-field vision.
"I think that it was obvious that he's a talented young man. He ran the ball very well (in the last preseason game), very decisive, made good cuts. We've seen growth from him, as well," noted Whisenhunt.
Tennessee's line will feature a veteran addition in Michael Oher at right tackle, while on the defensive side, the unit will feature a new 3-4 look.
The Titans also have a Chiefs Pro Bowl selection from last season on the roster in punt returner Dexter McCluster. In four seasons with Kansas City, he logged 152 carries for 662 yards and a touchdown; 172 receptions for 1,500 yards and four touchdowns; 79 punt returns for 959 yards and three touchdowns; and 52 kickoff returns for 1,087 yards.
Few head coaches in the NFL get more out of their players than Reid, so overcoming a new look on the offensive line and a few missing players shouldn't slow down the Chiefs.
The presence of Charles will put a lot of pressure on Tennessee's defense, especially the linebackers, and Smith's ability to play ball control won't leave Locker much time to find a groove and get his running backs involved.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chiefs 23, Titans 13
09/04 11:59:35 ET