KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Eric Warfield will receive plenty of practice time when the Chiefs begin training camp next week. He just won’t be getting any as a starter. Coach Dick Vermeil indicated the Chiefs hope to keep Warfield as sharp as possible during camp but plan to waste no time finding his replacement at starting cornerback for the first four games of the regular season.

Vermeil said veteran Dexter McCleon would be given first shot at Warfield’s job. Benny Sapp would be next in a line that also includes Ashley Ambrose. Warfield was suspended by the NFL for the first four games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. He is eligible to return for the Oct. 16 game against Washington at Arrowhead Stadium.

“He’ll practice just like he would be playing, except he’s not going to be in the starting unit,” Vermeil said. “He’ll get his share. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that if he’s going to be our starter after four games, he’s prepared to be the starter.”

That sounds as if it’s less than a sure thing Warfield will be handed his starting job back once he returns. There is precedent for a cornerback losing his starting job because of injury.

In 2003, McCleon replaced injured William Bartee for the start of the season and played so well he kept the job once Bartee returned.

Vermeil said the Chiefs plan to bring Warfield back as the starter against Washington.

“Normally, a guy would not lose his starting job due to injury and this would be in the same category,” Vermeil said. “But if someone else is playing the position so much better than it was being played, then you have an obligation to the team to play the best player. Eric was our best corner last year. There’s no reason to believe he won’t be as good or better this year. He had the best offseason he’s ever had.”

Warfield couldn’t be reached for comment. He did release a statement Thursday through his agent, Craig Domann, and apologized for his actions leading to the suspension.

Warfield pleaded no contest in January to driving under the influence of alcohol. The Overland Park incident was the third time in three years Warfield was charged with DUI in Johnson County.

“I am looking forward to Chiefs’ training camp next week and getting back with my teammates to play some football,” Warfield said in the statement. “I’m anxious to get back onto the field and make an impact on the Chiefs’ defense. I am grateful for this opportunity, and I plan to make the most of it.”

Domann said the Chiefs haven’t told Warfield he would return as a backup.

“Eric will start 12 games and be a valuable contributor to the Chiefs this season,” Domann said. “I expect Eric to bounce back in a big way and have one of his best seasons yet.”

During his suspension, Warfield will not count against the Chiefs’ regular-season roster limit of 53 players.

Cornerback was a position of great upheaval for the Chiefs during the offseason. They lost Warfield for four games and Julian Battle for the season because of a torn Achilles’ tendon.

They added one starter, Patrick Surtain, in a trade with Miami. They recently signed Ambrose, another veteran.

“I’d like to have another Patrick Surtain. I’d like to go out and get another All-Pro corner,” Vermeil said, addressing his comfort with the cornerback situation.

A former Pro Bowler, Ty Law, is available, though his asking price will apparently have to drop significantly if he’s to join the Chiefs.

“The last time I talked to (assistant general manager Denny Thum) about that, (Law’s) agent was talking numbers that were delusions of grandeur,” Vermeil said.

“I have a lot of confidence in Dexter McCleon. It’s not blind confidence. I’ve seen him play extremely well. I’ve seen him play extremely well for the Kansas City Chiefs. He’s healthy, and he will play well. I also think our coaches will do a good job of asking our corners to do what they can do well.”

(c) 2005, The Kansas City Star.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-07-21-05 2034EDT

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