St. Joseph, Missouri—The 2012 Kansas City Chiefs have been picked by many to win the AFC West after missing out on the playoffs following the 2011 season. If what we saw at training camp is any indication, the Chiefs will be contenders for the West and more.
After a lackluster campaign in 2011, general manager Scott Pioli got aggressive, and it led to one of the best offseasons of any NFL team. Pioli added free agents Eric Winston (RT), Peyton Hillis (RB), Kevin Boss (TE), Stanford Routt (CB) and drafted defensive tackle Dontari Poe in the first round to anchor the defensive line. No team brought in a crop of free agents with as much proven talent as the Chiefs did, and the on-field performance is noteworthy thus far.
Winston is as solid as they come on the right side—in fact he was our top-ranked right tackle in our B/R NFL 1,000 rankings. Winston is a perfect fit for the zone-blocking scheme being implemented under offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and offensive line coach Jack Bicknell. The scheme not only benefits Winston, but the entire offense looks faster with the linemen moving through the defense as opposed to sitting and waiting. With top-level athletes like Branden Albert (LT) and Rodney Hudson (OC) in place, a transition to an agile blocking system was smart by Pioli and head coach Romeo Crennel.
Having Winston on the edge, where he can seal the strong side in run situations, is key. He's able to get upfield to block for speedy Jamaal Charles—something we saw in camp.
Routt steps in for departed Brandon Carr in a signing that grades out as a push. While with the Oakland Raiders, Routt graded out very well in his "burn rate"—which is an average of how many completions you allow per attempt thrown your way. Routt is an ideal fit in the man scheme Crennel and Anthony Pleasant have the Chiefs running.
HIllis and Boss were brought in mainly as backups, but we saw in camp that they are seeing serious time with starters Jamaal Charles and Tony Moeaki on the field too. The Chiefs have no fears of running a personnel package that features two running backs and two tight ends on the field together, and they are able to get away with that because of the versatility of the players involved. We saw many times today where Moeaki would flex out to the slot, with Hillis and Charles in the backfield together and Boss in line on the right side.
The big question of the day was, "How does Jamaal Charles look?" Well, he looks great. Charles missed all but two games in 2011 with a torn ACL, but his trademark quickness and agility are back. Not once did he hesitate or struggle with conditioning, agility drills or when running a team session. The Chiefs are fortunate, and fans of Charles' play will be happy in 2012.
Also returning from injury is Moeaki, and as mentioned above, he's already back to moving laterally and exploding off the line. There's no reason for concern with his play from what we saw.
Eric Berry also missed the 2011 season, but he looked crisp during on-field work. He was among the fastest defensive players in every drill ran and, like Charles, showed no hesitation in cutting and running.
Quarterback Matt Cassel didn't miss as much time as the others last year, but he too is returning from injury. Cassel started the day a little shaky, but by the end of the team session he was sharp. It's easy to see early on that Cassel's fully healthy.
A big key to the Chiefs' improvement in 2012 will be the play of Cassel under center. When talking with Winston after practice, we learned that the system Daboll has installed is very complex, but he explains it and implements it in a way that the veteran Kansas City offense is picking it up quickly. It also helps that Daboll and Cassel are on the same page from both being part of the New England Patriots' system.
Cassel looked confident today, and the timing on his throws was much better than the quarterback we saw last year. And mind you, this is without his No. 1 target Dwayne Bowe, who is holding out over a contract situation. Albeit in practice, Cassel was sharp and on-point once the first-team offense got rolling. He's throwing downfield more, and his chemistry with Jonathan Baldwin has been the story of training camp thus far.
The new scheme on offense—both the line play and the route combinations—looks like a major success. The effort to get playmakers in space, especially Charles, Baldwin and Dexter McCluster, is a nice change from the Todd Haley offense we saw last year.
Miscellaneous Notes and Thoughts
Not every player observed fits neatly in the little categories, so here are my random takeaways from training camp.
- Ricky Stanzi's velocity looks good. He was slinging the ball on a line with good pop, but his placement is off even when throwing on air. There's still fundamental work to be done here. Those thinking Stanzi can step in and replace Cassel are at least a full season off.
- The environment at St. Joseph is great. Getting the Chiefs away from Kansas City and in a small college environment suits the small-town feel that Pioli and Crennel have built this team around. The facilities are new and the two practice fields side by side are picturesque.
- Dexter McCluster spent the day grouped with the wide receivers, but the bulk of his work came as a returner on punt and kickoff return teams.
- The inside linebacker job next to Derrick Johnson is open, and my prediction is that Brandon Siler takes it during the preseason. Siler looked more smooth in the open field and faster in his reads today.
- Outside linebacker Justin Houston is poised for a big, big year opposite Tamba Hali. He looks much-improved in camp.
- The nickel cornerback job is Javier Arenas' to lose. He looked sharp in camp, and his speed is a big boost to the secondary.
It's been said in this space many times already, but the Chiefs are my pick to win the AFC West. The combination of a stout defense, a very fast offense and a much-improved offensive line will be enough to get them over the competition in the tough Western division. A 10-win season should be the expectation for everyone involved.