5 Bold Predictions for Kansas City Chiefs 2014 NFL Draft Class
Initially, the pick settled with Chiefs Nation about as well as a 3 a.m. run to Taco Bell.
"A pass-rusher? What the hell is Dorsey thinking? We need a wideout and free safety!"
It was certainly a bold move for a general manager who brought Kansas City from the depths of the NFL's cellar just one year ago. Forgoing immediate needs in favor of future security? Increasing the possibility of regression immediately following the organization's historic turnaround?
But John Dorsey has done this before, right? The same guy who had a hand in drafting Aaron Rodgers shouldn't be second-guessed, right?
That was the internal conversation that many Chiefs fans were still having with themselves when Dorsey snagged cornerback Phillip Gaines on Day 2.
More confusion. Another bold call.
Still no safety. Still no wideout. Optimists wrote it off as "interesting"; pessimists began cutting the holes in their brown paper bags.
However the careers of Kansas City's six draft selections shake out, its 2014 class is already cemented as one of the organization's most fascinating in recent memory. Each one was seen as a unique acquisition in his own way, and one or two may even sneak into a role this season.
Here are five bold predictions for a bold Chiefs draft class in 2014.
Writer's Note: Sixth-round picks Zach Fulton and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif aren't mentioned here. Don't expect any surprises with either not making Kansas City's 53-man roster, but neither will see many snaps, if any at all, in 2014.
5. Phillip Gaines Leapfrogs Marcus Cooper at Nickelback
Exactly how defensive coordinator Bob Sutton will handle three-receiver sets in 2014 is a bit of an unknown. It was clearly among Kansas City's bugaboos last season, as Brandon Flowers was forced to slide over to nickelback midseason after both Marcus Cooper and Dunta Robinson proved incapable.
Flowers still manned the outside but moved inside to cover the slot when lined up against three-plus wideouts. The transition may have contributed to his inconsistent 2013 campaign.
Cooper's initial trouble in the nickel can likely be attributed to the fact that he was a rookie and lacked experience at cornerback—he played only one season there at Rutgers after switching over from wide receiver.
Due to the Chiefs' lack of depth at the position, he was thrown into the mix prematurely, and expectations weren't high to begin with. But, even through his struggles, he still ended up snagging Kansas City's rookie of the year at its postseason awards.
So, where does Sutton go from here? Does Flowers continue to serve as nickelback? Will Cooper get another shot?
Behind an impressive training camp and preseason, third-round pick Phillip Gaines may wind up providing legitimate competition for the spot. NFL.com's Mike Maycock pegs him as a work-in-progress, remarking that "I felt like he's a developmental guy, but he has starter skills."
What he lacks in coverage skills may be masked by his elite speed—his 4.38 40-yard dash at the NFL combine was the second-fastest for a CB. Nevertheless, NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki observes that he "doesn't play to timed speed" in his predraft profile of Gaines, which could hurt his stock if it proves true.
Ultimately, this hypothetical is more reliant on Cooper's progression than Gaines'. With his first year under his belt and a full offseason of NFL conditioning as well, Cooper is anticipated to make tremendous strides in 2014.
If he makes those strides, it's hard to envision a scenario in which he gets surpassed by Gaines.
Kansas City appears to have a lot of faith in the second-year man's continued development, and he still has ample room to grow before he reaches his proverbial ceiling. Though, if he doesn't end up realizing that potential, he certainly wouldn't be the first.
If Cooper doesn't show marked improvement from his rookie year, Gaines could be pushed into an immediate role, similar to Cooper last season.
4. De'Anthony Thomas Scores at Least 8 Touchdowns
Eight scores for a rookie may seem like a lofty projection. In all likelihood, it probably is, but if nothing else, it's certainly bold.
Though, rest assured, there is some semblance of logic here.
Thomas may be utilized as a red-zone threat
It's been thought that he'll be a situational player on offense to begin the year, and that "situation" may be near the goal line. Many disregard DAT's prowess in this regard due to his lack of size, but there's much more to consider than simply stature here.
His shiftiness often allows him to find space quickly off the snap—he could act as the slippery slot receiver near the end zone, a la Wes Welker in 2013. Moreover, Thomas will likely see some targets on swing routes and screens out of the backfield—it would create space for the speedster while discouraging blitzes as well.
If he can prove capable against press coverage, it's easy to see him becoming a weapon near the red zone. He's generally known for his big-play ability but has the potential to serve as a viable option for Alex Smith in "and-goal" situations.
Junior Hemingway isn't a lock for 53-man roster
Hemingway became somewhat of a fan favorite last season.
He provided a pair of reliable hands for Smith while more or less designated as a red-zone specialist. He didn't disappoint in the role, but his niche in Kansas City's offense may be too specific to earn a roster spot in 2014—particularly considering the questionable depth at other positions.
He garnered 19 targets last season, with a healthy amount of those coming within the opposition's 20-yard line. Roster slots will be at a premium this season. Hemingway is expendable, which gives Thomas an even better shot at seeing significant action near the goal line.
Element of surprise
Very few have an idea of how Thomas will be used—those "very few" are all within the team's inner circle. If properly exploited, he could be working at a huge advantage in 2014. It's notably similar to Tavon Austin's situation in St. Louis last year—one that offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer frustratingly failed to take advantage of.
Andy Reid shouldn't make the same mistake. Early on, expect Thomas to benefit from Reid's offensive mind and opposing defenses' unfamiliarity. Sure, it's going to take some time for him to adjust to his role in an NFL offense, but it'll also take defenses some time to adjust to an athlete who is as versatile as Thomas.
Somewhere in the ballpark of two touchdowns on the ground, three in the air and three in the return game may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Still, much hinges on whether Hemingway makes it past the final cut and how quickly Thomas can find his place in Reid's offense.
Keep an eye on him in the preseason for a better idea of how Reid plans to use him in 2014. If he serves on both kick and punt returns, he could end up in the neighborhood of 100 all-purpose touches—which would bode well for his chances at eight scores.
3. Aaron Murray Is Placed on Permanent Injured Reserve
This move could be a sneaky fix to Kansas City's dilemma at quarterback.
If you're a little behind, here's what's going down: The Chiefs currently have four quarterbacks. All four will not make 53-man roster. Alex Smith is a lock—either Chase Daniel, Tyler Bray or Aaron Murray will be the odd man out. There's no clear-cut course of action.
However, placing Aaron Murray on the injured reserve is a sly move that would allow Kansas City to essentially keep all four in 2014.
He tore the ACL in his left knee this past November and has spent the past sixth months rehabbing. It appears he's progressing as expected and recently said, "I feel healthy. I feel great," per Adam Teicher of ESPN.com. Whether or not that's actually the case, he's not going to contribute as a rookie and would take a spot from somebody who could.
While an injured reserve designation may hinder his development—he wouldn't be able to practice with the team—it would maintain the stability that Daniel offers while also holding onto Bray's potential. Murray would be retained for 2015 without wasting a roster slot this year.
If the front office truly believes that Murray is the quarterback of the future, stalling his progression to salvage a roster spot for somebody who'll possibly be gone next year is unlikely. Exactly how much the Chiefs value Bray is somewhat of an unknown—this will wind up as the determining factor in what the organization decides to do here.
A move like placing Murray on injured reserve might not please the fans, but there's really not a move to be made here that would.
2. Dee Ford Records One Sack or Less
Ford's selection was likely made with the idea that he'll fill the possible void left by Tamba Hali at right outside linebacker in 2015. Ford is a designated pass-rusher on a squad that already boasts two of the league's best—his impact in his rookie season could be minimal.
He'll serve in situational roles—third down and nickel—and it's been speculated he may be utilized in a Wide 9 technique. This would keep both Hali and Justin Houston on the field as well, while essentially giving Ford the green light to blitz on passing downs.
Sounds good, right? But it's not likely to happen.
As exciting as it is to imagine all three on the field at the same time, the technique increases vulnerability to the run, which is precisely what Kansas City doesn't need. It was 24th in the NFL against the run last season, allowing opponents a healthy 4.5 yards per carry. Improving against the ground game will be a focal point for Sutton's group in 2014.
Contingent on where Sutton envisions him, Ford may not be able to utilize his oft-referenced quick first step to beat tackles around the outside. He could struggle initially while adjusting to a new defensive scheme, position and the speed of the NFL game.
Even with Houston and Hali commanding the majority of offensive coordinators' focus, don't anticipate Ford being ultra-effective as a rookie. While he does appear poised to see at least a handful of snaps, he won't immediately cement himself among the league's premier pass-rushers.
NFL.com's Nawrocki observes that he "struggles to discard blockers when locked up and gets inverted." He'll experience more of this as a professional than he ever did at Auburn, which may initially prove frustrating for the rookie.
No longer able to exploit the inferior athleticism of opposing linemen, he'll need to add some creativity to his repertoire—a realization that may come quicker with failure. One sack or less isn't too outlandish of a projection for Ford as he endures some growing pains in 2014.
1. De'Anthony Thomas Earns a Pro Bowl Bid
Andy Reid shed a little light on what to expect from De'Anthony Thomas in 2014, saying on 810 WHB (h/t Arrowhead Pride) that "he'll probably have more impact on special teams quicker than he will on the offense."
Given Thomas' lack of a true NFL position, this isn't necessarily a shocking revelation. With the loss of return men Quintin Demps and Dexter McCluster through free agency, it's been clear that Thomas' value as a rookie will be earned as part of special teams coordinator Dave Toub's unit.
Thomas was electric as both a kick and punt returner at the University of Oregon—his raw speed and elusiveness in the open field are two tools that won't require a transition period in the NFL. He could be a sneaky candidate to grab a Pro Bowl spot on special teams, particularly if he handles both KR and PR duties.
During his three years in Eugene, he was utilized mainly as a kick returner but sparkled in the limited opportunities he received as a punt returner. He ended his college career averaging 25.8 yards per kick return and 17.1 yards per punt return while scoring at least one special teams touchdown in every season.
This wasn't simply a product of playing against inferior squads such as Colorado, either.
He boasts amazing awareness, seemingly owning a sixth sense that allows him to identify seams well before they open up. Furthermore, his notorious straight-line speed is ridiculous—once he finds said seam, there's no chance that anybody is catching him from behind.
Well, it hasn't happened yet anyway.
DAT's return prowess coupled with last season's No. 1 kick return unit is primed to give opponents fits throughout 2014. Assuming he receives a shot at PR as well, he could show flashes of a young Devin Hester in his rookie year
If he can quell his occasional lateral and backward movement and simply follow blockers, there's no reason to think that Thomas won't take at least couple to the house in 2014. He'll have a chip on his shoulder following his 4.5 40-yard dash at the combine and will look to prove he still has Olympic-caliber wheels.
Note: Combine results courtesy of NFL.com.