Eric Fisher, offensive line will be key to Chiefs being contenders and not pretenders
FOX Sports senior NFL writer Alex Marvez's training camp tour made its sixth stop in St. Joseph, Mo. Here are some of the things he learned and observed while visiting Falcons camp with SiriusXM NFL Radio co-host Gil Brandt. Read his Falcons report today and check back on the following dates for his next stops on the tour:
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Missouri's "Show-Me State" motto applies to no Kansas City Chiefs player more than Eric Fisher.
The left tackle himself will tell you his play was underwhelming in his first two NFL seasons. The pressure of being the No. 1 overall pick in his draft class -- especially one trying to make the leap from a mid-level Division I school in Central Michigan -- compounded the problems he was experiencing on the field.
"It was tough at times," Fisher said. "There's a lot being thrown at you. I definitely had some growing pains through the process. But I'm really confident in what I'm doing this year."
There is good reason for the Chiefs to have that same confidence in Fisher. For the first time since entering the league, he was able to participate in Kansas City's strength and conditioning program for an entire offseason. Fisher now weighs 320 pounds, which is five pounds more than his listed weight, and is noticeably bigger in the upper body.
Such weight-room strides should help him in run blocking and better handling the bull-rush in pass protection.
"He's healthy and feeling really strong," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. "He battled that the first couple of years playing through those things and having (offseason) surgery and trying to get back to full strength."
The Chiefs also have given Fisher a mentor in new left guard Ben Grubbs. The nine-year veteran was acquired in an offseason trade with New Orleans.
"Ben's one of those players we call a salty vet -- someone who has been there and done that through everything," Fisher said. "I love his experience that he has on the field and what he's done in his career. Playing next to a guy like that is just awesome. We're getting the communication and chemistry down."
As much grief as Kansas City's wide receiving corps gets for not producing a touchdown catch in 2014, offensive line issues were just as big a reason for the Chiefs (9-7) failing to return to the playoffs. Even with his standing as one of the NFL's most efficient quarterbacks, Smith was sacked a career-high 45 times in 15 starts.
Running back Jamaal Charles, whose production dipped as well, took a shot at the 2014 unit earlier this week when describing it as "average" to Chiefs media. Charles is far more excited about this year's group -- as well he should be.
Besides the addition of Grubbs, the Chiefs selected University of Missouri center Mitch Morse in the second round of this year's draft to replace free-agent departure Rodney Hudson (Oakland). Zach Fulton, a 2014 sixth-round pick, is at right guard. Jeff Allen, who missed almost all of last season with an arm injury, has supplanted Donald Stephenson at right tackle.
The Chiefs also have better depth this season with Stephenson, center Eric Kush and free-agent newcomer Paul Fanaika (Arizona) as backups.
"We're looking forward to taking it upon ourselves to get the job done," Fisher said.
That starts with Fisher carrying his share of the load.
"The biggest change is mentally," said Smith, who initially foundered as the No. 1 overall pick by San Francisco in the 2005 draft. "As a young guy and the top pick, you can see the weight on his shoulders. I can remember the feeling. You're trying to please too many people.
"You can just see him unload that and get back to enjoying being in the huddle with the guys and playing football."
Target practice: After last season's wide receiver touchdown drought, nobody is happier than Smith about the free-agent signing of Jeremy Maclin. He caught 85 passes for 1,318 yards and 10 scores last year in Philadelphia.
Smith said he had already studied plenty of Maclin tape in 2013 when first arriving in Kansas City while learning the offensive system head coach Andy Reid was bringing from the Eagles. Smith, though, said the extent of Maclin's competitiveness "every single play" can't truly be grasped until playing with him.
"Jeremy has been awesome," Smith said. "He has such good anticipation with the ball. We move him inside, we have him outside. The guy does everything. It's been fun."
Close, but no cigar: Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson had every reason to feel jinxed.
He was 15 tackles away from breaking Kansas City's all-time tackles record before suffering a torn Achilles in the 2014 season opener. Gary Spani's mark of 999 stops was safe as Johnson headed to injured reserve.
In a perfect world for Johnson, his 1,000th career tackle would come in the Chiefs' Week 1 matchup against Houston, which is located three hours away from where he grew up in Waco, Texas. Johnson, though, will be appreciative just being back in the starting lineup following the first major injury of his 10-year NFL career.
"It was hard but being out of football, I learned I am not ready for retirement," the 32-year-old Johnson said with a laugh. "That's a good thing. I've got a lot left in me."
Berry good: Eric Berry's return following a battle with lymphoma has provided a huge morale boost. Not only is he one of the most respected members of the roster, Berry is quickly regaining the form that made him one of the NFL's top free safeties. That was evident during last Wednesday's practice when Berry intercepted a deflected pass and returned it for a touchdown, drawing a standing ovation from the sizeable crowd at Missouri Western State University.
"It looks like he never missed a step," Chiefs safety Tyvon Branch said.
Reid said Berry will get snaps in the first quarter of the preseason opener against Arizona.
Rookie is ready: Although listed as a backup cornerback on Kansas City's first depth chart, it shouldn't be long before 2015 first-round pick Marcus Peters is in the starting lineup -- and not just because Sean Smith faces a three-game suspension stemming from a drunk-driving charge.
"He does a wonderful job of reading receivers' routes," Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said of Peters. "He's got a really good intuitive feel. He catches the ball. One practice during camp I believe he made three interceptions. You can see that he's now beginning to listen not only to the veteran players and position coaches but understand what it takes to play in the NFL."
Next stop: Miami Dolphins training camp. Alex Marvez and co-host Mark Dominik will be live on SiriusXM NFL Radio from Noon to 3 pm ET Sunday with Alex's analysis of the Dolphins appearing Monday at FOXSports.com.