A few ‘minor’ questions remain as Chiefs open camp

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JULY 2015 – The John Dorsey/Andy Reid regime leading the Kansas City Chiefs enters its third edition in 2015. As they get ready for the start of training camp later this month, there are questions that still need to be answered if the Chiefs are going to be successful.

Fortunately, the questions are in only three areas. Unfortunately, they are: offense, defense and special teams.

First, a quick reset. The Chiefs finished last season at 9-7, one game out of the playoffs. Losses to dismal Tennessee and Oakland teams were killers for making the playoffs. Coming off a remarkable 11-5 season in 2013—remarkable because of the 2-14 mark in 2012—most thought the Chiefs would take a major step back. It was a step back, but not as big as many feared.

They were 25th in total offense, seventh in total defense. They were 29th in passing offense, second in passing defense. They were 10th in rushing offense, 28th in rushing defense, 16th in scoring offense and second in scoring defense.

So there were plenty of things to make you happy, and plenty of things to make Dorsey and Reid toss and turn at night.

The Chiefs took some steps toward improving the weaknesses, while hopefully not letting the strengths deteriorate. Let’s take a look at those question areas.

Offense
The Deep End. The biggest knock on quarterback Alex Smith was his inability—or maybe an unwillingness—to throw deep. The Chiefs became the first NFL team since the 1964 New York Giants (12-game season ) to go an entire season without a wide receiver catching a touchdown pass. In 1964, the Chicago Bears had the NFL’s best passing offense at just more than 200 yards per game, so it was a different era. But Smith didn’t have a lot of choices.

His top receiver was Dwayne Bowe, who led the receiving corps with 60 receptions and 754 yards. But Bowe’s strength was his strength, not his ability to get open. The Chiefs added former Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin, who had 85 catches for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns as the top target for Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez.

Sponsor-ChiefsThe Chiefs also selected wide receiver Chris Conley out of Georgia. Conley, 6-2, 213-pounds, was a top performer in the 40-yard dash (4.35), bench press, vertical jump and broad jump at the NFL Combine in February.

He’s been impressive in OTA’s and minicamp so far. “He’s getting better every day,” Reid said. “(He’s) big, strong, fast and smart. Those are good characteristics to have.”

Charles in Charge. The rushing offense was good last year, but changes in the offensive line make that an uncertainty for 2015. The biggest questions are: can Jamaal Charles stay healthy, and are the Chiefs doomed if he can’t?

Charles has the second best career yards per carry among all running backs, trailing only Hall of Fame fullback Marion Motley (4,720 yards on 828 carries). His numbers are better than Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders and every other running back you can name. But he’ll be 29 at the end of this season. He has carried the ball nearly 1,250 times, and he’s caught 262 passes in his seven-year career. He will wear out eventually.

Knile Davis took a step forward last year. He’s a big and fast runner, but he doesn’t have the receiving skills needed in Reid’s offense. If Charles goes down, he is irreplaceable in what he can do. Keep your fingers crossed.

Defense
Houston, We (No Longer) Have a Problem. (this article was written before Houston signed his $101 million deal) Outside linebacker Justin Houston had an amazing year in 2014, with a team-record 22 sacks. That’s a half-sack behind the NFL record set by Michael Strahan (a cheap record because Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre fell down with Strahan approaching to give him the record). Houston’s timing was perfect, because he didn’t get the long-term contract he sought heading into last season. Now, the Chiefs must pay him a lot more than they would have before his breakout season.

Houston wants a long-term deal in the range for two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans. Without it, Houston claims he does not want to be here. The Chiefs placed the non-exclusive franchise tag, worth $13.195 million, on Houston, meaning that he can negotiate with other teams. But if he signs elsewhere, the Chiefs have the right to match any offer, or receive two first-round picks as compensation.

So Houston probably is going to play for Kansas City this year (and next, as the Chiefs can tag him again after 2015). But will he be motivated to show what he’s worth, or will he be a disgruntled employee and perform that way? Anticipate one side or another caving in or a compromise met before training camp opens or early into preseason games.

Where’s the Beef (Playing)? One reason the Chiefs struggled in stopping the run last year was the loss of defensive tackle Mike Devito and inside linebacker Derrick Johnson to Achilles tendon injuries in the season-opening loss to Tennessee. Both are expected to be back at full strength by the start of the season. They both had limited participation at minicamp in June and will be working back into shape during training camp.

With Devito back, what will be the best DL combination? Dontari Poe, who is in a contract year, anchors the middle, with Allen Bailey and Tamba Hali (officially listed as an outside linebacker) holding down the ends. The Chiefs didn’t add a lot on the defensive line in the offseason, but the return of Devito should help.

Peters Principle. The secondary performed well last year, but that didn’t stop the Chiefs from using their first-round pick on cornerback Marcus Peters of Washington. Two rounds later, they selected another cornerback, Steven Nelson of Oregon State. Peters is a big (6-0, 195) fast corner with some off-field issues. If he gets focused and stays out of trouble, Peters will be a great addition.

Special teams
Many happy returns. The Chiefs have long been known as a team with good special teams. From “Super Gnat” Nolan Smith in the 1960s to Elmo Wright in the 1970s to J.T. Smith in the 1980s to Tamarick Vanover in the 1990s to Dante Hall in the 2000s to Dexter McCluster in this decade, there always seems to be somebody ready to return kicks and to do it with style.

This year’s choices will come from Davis, whose signature moment came on a 108-yard kickoff return against Denver late in 2013, and second-year players Frankie Hammond and De’Anthony Thomas. Thomas returned the majority of punts last year, and elusiveness is his trademark.

Kicking the habit. The Chiefs kicking game was solid, but not spectacular, in 2014. Punter Dustin Colquitt ranked 21st in punting average, but eighth in net punting average. He tied for fourth with 31 punts inside the 20 (34 led the league), and gave up an average of 6.6 yards per return. Colquitt is under contract for three more years and the salary cap hits go up each year, so the Chiefs are hoping he can maintain his level of performance.

Placekicker Cairo Santos converted 83.3 percent of his field goals, which ranked in the middle third of the league. He hit all 38 extra point attempts. Length is an issue, as he hit one of his two attempts from beyond 50 yards. Inside 40 yards, however, he was 17 of 18.

With training camp starting in July, the hope at 1 Arrowhead Drive is the answers far outweigh the questions. Only time will tell.

Article by David Smale

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