NFL team preview: Kansas City Chiefs

INSIDE SLANT

There’s one thing the Kansas City Chiefs proved in training camp and the pre-season leading into the 2010 season — no team spent more time practicing in full pads with as much full-speed physical contact in the workouts than Todd Haley’s team.

His goal was to come out of the pre-season with a physically tough team, one that could run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense. That’s why the Chiefs wore shoulder pads in 31 days of the preparation, sometimes twice a day.

"The reason you’re in pads for 31 days is to be a physical football team and I have seen that come out," said Haley. "I think that’s a good sign for our team and a good sign of the direction we’re going."

Or as offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said during training camp: "I think if you want a team to be physical at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, I think you have to go practice it. I don’t think you can do it any other way."

The camp and pre-season work was a continuation of an off-season where there was near perfect attendance from the roster. The players have bought into the Parcells like approach that was implemented full scale this summer by Big Tuna disciples, Haley, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.

Although the roster still lacks an abundance of talent, there was more competition for spots on the 53-man roster than in Haley’s first season, one that finished with a 4-12 record. Starting jobs were on the line heading to camp at fullback, halfback, center, nose tackle, both inside linebacker spots and free safety. Most of those battles went right down to the final week of the pre-season.

"Generally the more competition, the better team you are becoming," said Haley. "We are becoming a better team."

A lot of that focus on improvement has fallen on quarterback Matt Cassel. He’s coming off his first season as the Chiefs starting quarterback, posting numbers that were below average across the board with a 55 percent completion percentage, just 5.8 yards per passing attempt, 16 touchdown passes against 16 interceptions.

"I’m encouraged with Matt that he’s doing the things necessary to be a good quarterback in the league that helps us win hopefully a bunch of games," Haley said. "The bottom line for this entire team and not just Matt is we have to get a little better every day."

Haley and Weis are implementing the Ray Perkins-Ron Erhardt offense that both came to learn during their times in New York with the Jets (Haley) and Giants (Weis). They want to be able to run the ball in any situation, and they appear to have those tools with Thomas Jones and last year’s sensation Jamaal Charles.

Both back gained 1,000 yards in the 2009 season and Haley says he’s going to go with the hot hand.

To make that happen and to protect Cassel, the Chiefs need improved offensive line play. Signed after he was released by the Colts, Ryan Lilja has stabilized the right guard spot and the left side blockers tackle Branden Albert and guard Brian Waters have had good pre-seasons.

A big jump must come from the Chiefs defense that last year was No. 31 in stopping the run and gave up the league high rushing game and the league high receiving performance. "We’re going to try to emphasize not letting them run the ball on us," said Crennel. "If we can stop the run, that will help the passing game as well — the pass rush and everything. That’s one of the things we’re going to try and focus on and we’ve been talking about."

With first-round draft choice Eric Berry moving into the strong safety role, the secondary is a potential strongpoint with cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr, along with possible free safety starters Jon McGraw and rookie Kendrick Lewis.

It’s the front seven that needs to make the biggest jump in performance. Fronting that group are former first round draft picks Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson. An improved pass rush is imperative to forcing some turnovers, with outside linebacker Tamba Hali, Mike Vrabel and Andy Studebaker providing the most pressure.

COACHING: Todd Haley, 2nd year, 2nd with Chiefs (4-12).

REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 4-12 (4th in AFC West).

PREDICTING: 2010 regular-season record: 6-10 (3rd in AFC West).

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Head coach Todd Haley says the roster moves to reach the 53-man NFL limit will be much tougher for the Chiefs this year than it was last year, his first in charge of the team. "We had competition at every position," Haley said. "It’s going to be difficult to say good bye to some of these guys because we think they can play.

While the competition level increased, the level of talent has not improved to the point where the Chiefs will not continue to scour the waiver wire for possible additions. "From the start we have said we are always looking," said Haley. "We’ve done the work necessary to be ready to pull the trigger if needed."

PLAYER NOTES

–RT Ryan O’Callaghan suffered a right groin injury during practice on Aug. 23 and has struggled to get back on the field. The injury does not appear to be serious enough to keep him sidelined for a long time, but he may miss the season opener.

–QB Brodie Croyle was back taking a normal practice load after suffering some sort of right arm injury on Aug. 13 playing against the Atlanta Falcons. Croyle was shelved from serious throwing for two weeks and he was wearing a pad on his right forearm.

–RB Jamaal Charles will start the 2010 season with a couple bumps and bruises that he picked up during the pre-season, including a sore elbow and a sore right leg. While the Chiefs won’t provide specific information, Charles said he’s 100 percent and ready to start the regular season.

–WR Dwayne Bowe followed up his best offseason of work with his best training camp and preseason of the four he’s put in with the Chiefs. Bowe has kept his weight under control, as well as his mouth. He remains cordial with reporters, but has not consented to interviews. He’s dropped fewer passes and appears stronger than in the past.

–WR/RB Dexter McCluster will be very active for the Chiefs on offense and special teams. In fact, that’s one of the toughest duties that head coach Todd Haley will face, making sure coordinators Charlie Weis (offense) and Steve Hoffman (kicking game) don’t overuse him in any one discipline.

–CB Javier Arenas has shown throughout the preseason that he will be a factor in punt and kick returns for the Chiefs during the 2010 season. Arenas has an uncanny ability to bounce off the first hit, as he keeps his legs churning and he frequently breaks containment.

–RB Thomas Jones was not overused in the pre-season, so he should be fresh and ready to attack in the regular season as he goes after a sixth straight 1,000-yard season. Jones will be the starter, so he’ll have the opportunity to stay on the field, as Todd Haley says he will go with the back that’s hot, rather than a pre-determined plan to split up the carries.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/5, SS Eric Berry, Tennessee — Immediately moved into the starting spot on his second day in the offseason program, Berry has done nothing but solidified his hold on that spot. He’s shown good speed, quickness, tackling and recognition.

Rd. 2/36, WR/RB Dexter McCluster — The 5-8, 170-pounder has been the flashiest player in the Chiefs pre-season and will get snaps on offense and special teams as a returner. Offensively, he’ll lineup all over the field.

Rd. 2/50, CB Javier Arenas — Showed right off the bat that he’s going to be making contributions in the return game this season. He handled punt and kickoff return duties, as well as playing as the nickel back.

Rd. 3/68, C/G Jon Asamoah — Displayed throughout the pre-season all the characteristics that the Chiefs saw in his tapes from Illinois. He’s got good feet, displays some power and he plays with a nasty disposition. He spent most of his time working at right guard.

Rd. 3/93, TE Tony Moeaki — Was probably the biggest disappointment of the pre-season. He teased the Chiefs when he was healthy and practicing with good routes, very good hands and solid blocking. But just as he did at the University of Iowa, Moeaki spent a lot of time out of practice with injuries; there was nothing significant, but enough to stunt his development.

Rd. 5/136, S Kendrick Lewis — Got the first takeaway for the Chiefs defense in the ’10 preseason, making a nice leaping interception in the center of the field. What he lacks in speed, Lewis makes up for with smarts and anticipation. He’s challenged for the starting spot at free safety.

Rd. 5/142, OLB Cameron Sheffield — Was nearly invisible in the team’s off-season program, but once the pads went on in training camp, he made a giant leap forward. Explosive off the edge, Sheffield showed the ability to burst towards the quarterback and plow through backs and tight ends trying to block him.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Matt Cassel. Backups — Brodie Croyle, Tyler Palko.

Is Cassel the type of quarterback that can lead a team to the playoffs, or is he a game manager, who will be a complimentary addition to more important parts of the team? This is the season where Cassel must step forward and earn that $63 million that he signed for in ’09. He must become more accurate, get the ball out of his hands quicker and he has to be willing to demand more from his offensive mates. Croyle is an adequate backup who always seems to be injured. Palko is nothing special.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — Thomas Jones, FB Tim Castille. Backups — Jamaal Charles, Jackie Battle, Javarris Williams, FB Mike Cox.

The backfield is probably the strongest position group on the team’s roster to open the 2010 season. Both Jones and Charles gained over 1,000 yards in ’09 and they have very different styles that will make preparation for opposing defenses that much tougher. Jones turned 32 years old in August, and that’s an age where many backs hit the wall when it comes to production. Charles showed last year he can be one of the most explosive backs in the league, as only Tennessee’s Chris Johnson out ran him over the last eight games. Battle is a solid, big back, while Castille and/or Cox are adequate fullbacks.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Leonard Pope. Backups — Tony Moeaki, Jake O’Connell.

The Chiefs are still feeling the absence of Tony Gonzalez at tight end; he was traded back in April ’09 to the Falcons, leaving the team as the leading receiving tight end in NFL history. Pope is no Gonzalez, and he’s more blocker than catcher. Moeaki has many of the same traits as Gonzalez, but he appears to be injury prone.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Dwayne Bowe, Chris Chambers. Backups — Dexter McCluster, Jerheme Urban, Terrance Copper, Jeremy Horne.

Compared to last year’s group of early season receivers — Bowe, Bobby Engram, Bobby Wade and Lance Long — the Chiefs have made significant improvement in the level of talent with the additions of Chambers, McCluster and Urban. Chambers has become the target that QB Matt Cassel trusts and looks for, while Bowe continues to try to develop some consistency in his performance. McCluster has worked out of the slot where his quickness is a threat. Urban is big and athletic.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Branden Albert, LG Brian Waters, C Rudy Niswanger, RG Ryan Lilja, RT Ryan O’Callaghan. Backups — C Casey Wiegmann, T Barry Richardson, C/G Jon Asamoah, G/T Ikechuku Ndukwe.

Last year the story of the Chiefs offensive line was broken into two chapters. In the first half of the season, they were awful, providing little room for Larry Johnson to run and poor pass protection. In the second half, they improved considerably, helped Jamaal Charles gain more than 1,100 yards and cut their sacks allowed in half. Four of the five spots remain unchanged, with the addition of Lilja at right guard.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LE Tyson Jackson, NT Ron Edwards, RE Glenn Dorsey. Backups — DE Wallace Gilberry, DE/NT Shaun Smith, NT Derek Lokey, DE Alex Magee.

This is the position group on the roster that needs to take the greatest leap in performance. Dorsey had a far better second season than his rookie year, and he needs to continue to improve. Jackson was invisible at times in his rookie season, and he needs a big jump in production and play. Edwards is serviceable on the nose. Gilberry is a good pass rusher off the edge.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — LOLB Mike Vrabel, LILB Jovan Belcher, RILB Derrick Johnson, ROLB Tamba Hali. Backups — OLB Andy Studebaker, OLB Cameron Sheffield, ILB Demorrio Williams, ILB Corey Mays, OLB Pierre Walters, ILB David Herron.

Vrabel is the grizzled veteran who gets things done with his head and heart more than his speed and strength. Hali is the team’s only true pass rushing threat (he had 8.5 sacks last year). The pre-season battle was for the starting spots at both inside LB spots, with Johnson and Belcher able to play on all three downs. Studebaker is a growing threat on the outside, as a pass rusher and playmaker.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Brandon Flowers, SS Eric Berry, FS Jon McGraw, RCB Brandon Carr. Backups — CB Javier Arenas, S Kendrick Lewis, CB Maurice Leggett, CB Travis Daniels, S Reshard Langford.

The strongest part of the Chiefs roster is the secondary with the additions of Berry and Lewis. Joining Flowers and Carr, they form a young and talented quartet that could be in place for years. Arenas can rush the passer out of the nickel. McGraw is a veteran presence in the secondary.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Ryan Succop, P Dustin Colquitt, LS Thomas Gafford, KOR Dexter McCluster/Javier Arenas, PR Dexter McCluster/Javier Arenas.

A solid group, as Succop had a very good rookie season as kicker, Colquitt continues to improve on a yearly basis and can tilt the field on a single swing of his leg. McCluster and Arenas have shown explosion as returners.