Kansas City Chiefs Top Five Training Camp Roster Battles
The grass is cut, the locker rooms are stocked with brand new equipment, the coolers are overflowing with water and Gatorade and the players are returning to the field.
The long wasteland that is the period from the end of the NFL draft and offseason OTAs to the beginning of training camp is finally over and football has returned.
Training camp is a time for coaches to try out new schemes they've been dreaming up during offseason. While the players were in weight rooms across the country keeping themselves in football shape, coaches were in film rooms trying to devise new ways to beat the 13 opponents they'll face during the regular season. Yes, training camp is a time to install new plays and evaluate the men running them.
For the players, it's a time to shake off the cobwebs of not playing real football six or seven months. While training in a weight room and running offseason drills is a great way to keep a professional athlete's body physically ready for the rigors of a 16-game football season, there is no better way to train to play football than to play football.
And that is the ultimate goal for these 90 men on each team. To play football.
But, NFL regulations stipulate that each team can field only a 53-man roster at the start of the regular season. That means 37 of the 90 athletes heading to camp won't find themselves on the team they're practicing with—or potentially any team—by the end of the preseason. Training camp isn't just for practice, it's to separate the "haves" from the "have nots." It's a time for competition, not against opposing teams, but within the same team to see who truly is the best at each position.
The 2014 Kansas City Chiefs are no different. Though there are many presumed "locks" on the roster—guys like Alex Smith, Dwayne Bowe, Jamaal Charles, Tamba Hali, and Justin Houston—the fact that the team cut cornerback Brandon Flowers a month ago shows that no one is truly safe from getting a pink slip taped to their locker.
What follows are the top five roster battles that will occur during the Chiefs' training camp at St. Joseph, Missouri over the next few weeks.
No. 5: Ryan Succop vs. Cairo Santos
While a kicking competition is far from the glitz and glamour that most football fans are accustomed to, it is a legitimate roster battle that could have major repercussions on the Chiefs' season down the line.
In an article written a couple of weeks ago, I outlined the specifics of this competition. The bottom line is, while Succop is a reliable kicker, he doesn't have the biggest "boot" in the league. Plus when the pressure is on and the team is relying on him to kick a game winner, he can struggle.
Santos, on the other hand, is an unknown. While he did have some success at Tulane as their placekicker, he has yet to kick in the NFL, being an undrafted rookie free agent. Still, he was a perfect 21-of-21 on field goals last year for the Green Wave, including a 57-yarder, which is three yards better than Succop's NFL career long.
This could be an interesting battle as Succop, the last player chosen in the 2009 draft, has done well for the team. But, missing critical field goals last season—for example, missing what would have been a game-winning kick against the San Diego Chargers in Week 17—could prove to be the difference in kickers for the Chiefs in 2014.
No. 4: Zach Fulton vs The Chiefs O Line
The biggest news during free agency in regards to the Kansas City Chiefs had to do with the fact that they lost "three starting offensive linemen." While this is technically true, it paints a bit of a distorted picture of the Chiefs offensive front five, because all three of the linemen who departed didn't start at the same time during 2013. And, anyone who could read the writing on the wall could see that it was bound to happen.
Left tackle Branden Albert had one foot out of the door during the entire 2013 campaign. Getting blocked from being a free agent by having the franchise tag placed on you can do that. That blow was lessened by the fact that the Chiefs drafted his eventual replacement in Eric Fisher during last year's draft.
However, when both men who started at right guard for the Chiefs during different times—Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz—departed for presumably "greener pastures" that stung a bit. While Asamoah was a serviceable interior lineman, Schwartz really was a diamond in the rough who shined during the stretch of games he was the starter, a job he won from Asamoah.
Those losses leave the right side of the Chiefs interior line wide open with the position being open for the taking. Enter Chiefs' sixth-round draft pick Zach Fulton.
By all accounts, Fulton should be the guy to win the spot in camp. His competition consists of several unknowns as well as guys who have been around like Rishaw Johnson and newly-signed free agent Jeff Linkenbach and a player who will spend his first four games of the 2014 season under suspension for failing a drug test in Rokevius Watkins. Yes, Fulton's chances look better and better the more you look at the situation. But, can he be a solid right guard? If what he said to Chiefs' report B.J. Kissel after the first full day of camp is true, he could be the monster the Chiefs need up front.
No. 3: Tyler Bray vs. Aaron Murray
While other teams may be trying to figure out their quarterback situation during camp, it's generally the starting quarterback position that's in question, not the third-string job. For now, at least, the Chiefs seem to be set with their starter as Alex Smith has at least one more year in the "Fountain City."
The Chiefs entered camp with four quarterbacks on the roster, just as they did last offseason. While Smith is firmly cemented as the starter—and barring a slip in space and time Chase Daniel is his backup—the third QB position is somewhat up for grabs.
Prior to the start of the 2013 season, Kansas City's new regime led by head coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey must not have liked the prospect of handing Ricky Stanzi the third QB roster spot. After the dust settled on the 2013 draft, they were able to lure former Tennessee Volunteers signal-caller Tyler Bray to the team as an undrafted free agent. In camp it was clear Bray was superior to Stanzi, and he easily won the third quarterback spot during the preseason.
There might even have been some fans who looked at the physically gifted Bray as the "quarterback of the future." Perhaps under the expert tutelage of "quarterback whisperer" Andy Reid, Bray could be molded into an elite, home-grown, quarterbacking talent the Chiefs roster has been lacking for so long.
Yet, when the 2014 draft rolled around, Dorsey shocked most everyone when he selected Georgia Bulldog quarterback Aaron Murray in the fifth round, fresh off surgery to repair a torn ACL.
This puts the Chiefs in the same predicament as last offseason. There are four quarterbacks on the 90-man training camp roster, but it's nearly a guarantee one of those won't be there when the final 53-man roster is released in late August.
This could give a whole new excitement and drama to the fourth quarter of the Chiefs' preseason games next month.
No. 2: Ron Parker vs. Marcus Cooper
Ron Parker is what many in the NFL would call a "late bloomer."
Originally an undrafted free agent from Newberry College, South Carolina, Parker was originally a member of the 2011 Seattle Seahawks before being cut and signing with the Oakland Raiders. After a short stint there, he was re-signed by Seattle, before being cut again and signing with the Carolina Panthers. He then went back to Seattle again before the Chiefs finally signed him after he was cut yet again by last year's eventual Super Bowl champions.
Still after all that moving around, Parker found a degree of success with the Chiefs in 2013, racking up 13 tackles, an interception and a game-changing sack/strip of Tony Romo against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2. None of that even begins to highlight his special teams contributions.
Along with Parker, another relatively unknown talent is set to have a big year in the K.C. secondary. Marcus Cooper was a last-minute signing by Dorsey after he was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the seventh round and then cut following the third week of the 2013 preseason.
For a former seventh-round player who was all but immediately released by his first team, Cooper had quite the season for the Chiefs, recording 44 tackles, three interceptions and a special teams touchdown. Although he struggled down the stretch against elite passers like Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers, Cooper proved that he could potentially be a force in the NFL. Showing the respect his teammates and coaches have for him, he was named the winner of the team's Mack Lee Hill Award as the Chiefs' outstanding rookie for 2013.
The Chiefs' cornerback situation is far from solid. With the release of veteran Brandon Flowers, the team is seriously lacking in proven talent at the position. Penciled in as the starter is Sean Smith, who enters his second season in Kansas City facing a DUI conviction. The competition at this position will be tough during camp, and the hope amongst Chiefs fans is that clear-cut winners begin to show themselves.
The hope is Parker and Cooper can be those winners that the team desperately needs.
No. 1: Donnie Avery vs. A.J. Jenkins
Prior to the draft, most people were convinced the Chiefs would select a wide receiver in the first round. Without a second-round pick, the team was in dire need of a speedy receiver to line up across from highly paid incumbent Dwayne Bowe.
That pick never happened.
Dorsey and Reid seem to be content with the talent they have at wide receiver, at least for the moment. Not only did the Chiefs fail to target a receiver in the draft, but outside of signing CFL standout Weston Dressler (who should be relegated to slot receiver), they've made no moves to acquire one.
The Chiefs had one of the lowest producing wide receiver corps in the NFL last season. While the team has arguably the most talented all-purpose back in the NFL in Jamaal Charles—he not only led the team in rushing yards but in receiving yards and catches—he shouldn't be relied upon to carry the load for the second year in a row.
The Chiefs need to be better at getting the ball to the guys on the outside, and the guys on the outside need to be better at getting open and catching the ball.
One of the biggest downfalls of the Chiefs receivers in 2013 was dropped passes. Donnie Avery, who spent the majority of his time as the No. 2 receiver last season and is penciled in to reprise that role this year, was one of the biggest offenders.
While the depth chart at wide receiver contains a slew of unknown names, one of the guys who could have a huge impact is A.J. Jenkins, a former first-round bust with the San Francisco 49ers who was acquired in a trade that sent the Chiefs' own bust, Jon Baldwin, to the West Coast.
Once Jenkins was integrated into the Chiefs' system in 2013, he showed flashes of ability, and he certainly has the speed to be a vertical threat. With a full season and offseason in Reid's system under his belt, the hope is he can change his stars and become what the 49ers saw in him when the drafted him in 2012.
Honorable Mention: The Battle of the Tight Ends
No countdown list would be complete without an "honorable mention" slide, and this one is no different.
Another huge battle at Chiefs' training camp is focused on the tight end position. On paper, the Chiefs have perhaps one of the more talented groups at this position. After watching highlight film on second-year player Travis Kelce last year, many Chiefs fans were salivating at the thought of watching their very own Rob Gronkowsk. After a micro fracture to his knee ended his rookie season, salivation turned to tears of sorrow.
However, it appears that Kelce is back and healthy according to multiple sources from Chiefs' training camp, including ESPN's Adam Teicher:
Still, his return was a victory for the Chiefs and Kelce. An ailing knee and the resulting surgery caused Kelce to miss all of his rookie season last year, and then he was a bystander for virtually all of offseason practice.
Kelce moved around well and did so without a brace or any other kind of protection on the knee.
Along with Kelce, second-year tight end Demetrius Harris will be competing for a roster spot as well. A former college basketball player, Harris reminds this observer of Antonio Gates. One person who is very high on the young tight end prospect is The Kansas City Star's Terez Paylor, as he discussed here on my podcast, “Chiefs Central Radio.” (Note: He discusses Harris at about the 5:10 mark.)
Along with these two young stars, veteran Anthony Fasano returns—hopefully—healthy, and of course fan favorite Sean "The Beard" McGrath is also still on the roster.
Should the Chiefs carry all four tight ends, they'll be very deep at the position. If they have to cut one, it would be a tough decision indeed.