Kansas City Chiefs: Questions That Still Must Be Answered This Preseason
Five particular questions loom large for the Kansas City Chiefs as the start of the 2014 NFL season approaches. They include whether or not a reshuffled secondary can perform in an AFC West division featuring the feared passing attacks of the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos.
The answer to that probably depends on the success and consistency of a formidable-looking pass rush. The Chiefs added first-round pick Dee Ford to premier outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston this offseason.
Now it's up to defensive coordinator Bob Sutton to use the talent appropriately. He is already crafting sub-packages designed to get his best pass-rushers on the field together. These schematic wrinkles must succeed in freshening up a system that became predictable toward the end of last season.
Over on the offense, a return to form for wide receiver Dwayne Bowe would certainly be welcome, as would the emergence of a quality third option alongside Bowe and Donnie Avery.
However, the ultimate success of the offense will be determined by how well a depleted line holds up.
Here's a closer look at the five biggest questions still surrounding the Chiefs.
All statistics via NFL.com.
Can Dwayne Bowe Return to His Best?
The Chiefs need a rebound season from Bowe. The 29-year-old is supposed to be the team's primary wideout, yet he hardly played like it last season.
He caught just 57 passes for 673 yards and a mere five touchdowns in 2013. That's dismal production in an offense that should suit Bowe's physical attributes.
The 6'2", 221-pounder has usually made his living going across the middle and winning inside. Those are invaluable skills in the version of the West Coast offense the Chiefs run. It's one heavily imbued with slant concepts and reliant on yards after the catch.
That second area is one where Bowe must improve the most. Superior conditioning could help in that regard.
Wide receivers coach David Culley recently praised Bowe's efforts to turn up for offseason work at peak fitness, per Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star: "He’s in the best shape he’s been in from here. I know from last year, this is completely different. When he came back from the offseason he was in great shape."
Of course, that doesn't automatically guarantee Bowe will be stronger and quicker once the real action begins. One man who remains skeptical is ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher:
So their best chance to see dramatic improvement at the position may rest with Bowe. He had a tough day at practice on Wednesday, dropping a pair of passes and deflected another for an interception.
That’s hardly an indication that Bowe won’t rebound this season. But he hasn’t had a great camp and the Chiefs may be guilty of wishful thinking when it comes to their top wide receiver.
This offense needs Bowe in prolific form this season. The options behind him are not exactly elite, with a brittle veteran and unproven younger pass-catchers filling out the rotation.
Bowe's steady work underneath can help create big-play opportunities over the top, as well as giving quarterback Alex Smith a natural go-to receiver. Keep a close eye on Bowe's mechanics during preseason.
Will a Quality 3rd Receiver Emerge?
It would certainly help Bowe if he wasn't always counted on as the main option at his position. The Chiefs need another potential playmaker to emerge.
Perhaps it could be A.J. Jenkins. The onetime 2012 draft bust for the San Francisco 49ers has showcased a lot of speed and some big-play skills since arriving in Kansas City following a trade during last season.
He proved he can go deep when he hauled in a 48-yard reception against the Chargers in Week 17. Jenkins also revealed his quickness across the middle when he took a cleverly designed screen pass for 27 yards in the AFC Wild Card Round against the Indianapolis Colts.
Of course, those two plays aren't overwhelming evidence that Jenkins is finally ready to make the grade in the NFL. But they do serve as brief but tantalizing glimpses of what he could do in an offense built on the premise of releasing speed in space.
Jenkins can make an impact at a position that still offers more questions than answers. The current rotation is deep and loaded with potential, as noted in an Associated Press report appearing on CSNBayArea.com:
Bowe is the unquestionable leader of the group, but Junior Hemingway also has emerged as a big, reliable slot target. De'Anthony Thomas already has proven to be an electrifying playmaker, whether the rookie's taking a handoff or splitting out wide. And a group that includes Donnie Avery, Kyle Williams, A.J. Jenkins and Frankie Hammond Jr. has all had moments of brilliance.
The problem is that in many cases that potential remains untapped. Avery is certainly talented, but he's also far from durable, as well as inconsistent with his hands.
Hemingway offers intriguing size at 6'1" and 225 pounds. As the report noted, he should be able to win from the slot, something else this passing game needs.
But what's really needed is another fast matchup target who can be moved around to create big plays and draw attention away from Bowe. Preseason should steadily offer clues about whom they might be.
Will New Pass-Rush Packages Freshen Up the Defense?
There's no doubt that opposing quarterbacks sussed Kansas City's coverage and pressure tendencies as last season wore on. Injuries on the outside to Hali and Houston didn't help, but it's the schemes that need a refresh, not the personnel.
The Chiefs are hoping a bit of both will revamp their defense. One of the key additions is outside linebacker Ford. Having him rush in combination with Hali and Houston is an exciting prospect for Chiefs fans and a frightening one for quarterbacks.
Sutton is working on ways to make an outside linebacker-heavy front work. One of the things he's come up with is a one-D-lineman, five-linebacker scheme.
The new look has been detailed in an AP report appearing in USA Today:
Pro Bowl linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, first-round draft pick Dee Ford and fellow pass-rusher Josh Martin all trotted onto the field at the same time, leaving defensive tackle Dontari Poe as the lone down lineman in a unique scheme designed to create pressure.
Elsewhere in the NFL, similar personnel groups are known as "NASCAR packages" — the idea is that they overwhelm the opposing offense with their speed.
Randy Covitz of The Kansas City Star noted that inside 'backer Derrick Johnson is also in the mix. This makes the package closer to a "Psycho" look in its 1-5-5 design.
Whatever the correct name, the Chiefs needs this twist on last season's formula to yield results. With five linebackers shifting around pre-snap, the rush schemes should be a lot more unpredictable this year.
So far this new look has been confined to camp. It's the kind of thing coaches may wish to keep hush-hush before the real action begins. Yet that shouldn't stop Sutton from experimenting with a few more new concepts during preseason.
Anything the Chiefs can do to expand the ways they create pressure and free blitzers has to be welcome in a division that stellar quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning call home.
Can the Reshuffled Secondary Perform Well?
If Sutton can scheme more ways to put quarterbacks under duress, it will be a massive boost to a suspect secondary. There are as many questions here as any other position on the roster.
At cornerback, Brandon Flowers is gone and fellow 2013 starter Sean Smith faces a fight for his job. It's a fight he is working hard to win, according to The Kansas City Star's Covitz:
Sean Smith started nearly every period at right cornerback with the Chiefs starters during Wednesday’s training camp practice, while Ron Parker, who had displaced Smith earlier in camp and started the preseason opener, split duty on the left side with starter Marcus Cooper.
It may be a matter of time before Smith, who started 15 games last year and returned an interception for a touchdown in the preseason opener, will regain his spot in the starting lineup. Parker, meanwhile, was beaten on a couple of big plays against Cincinnati.
The Chiefs need Smith to play a prominent role this season. He can be the veteran leader of a group that may not find it as easy as expected to replace Flowers. Parker and Cooper can both be burned, particularly in Sutton's risky, single-high concepts.
The veteran coordinator may be wise to tweak his schemes to give his cornerbacks more help. More regular use of a two-deep shell would be a start.
Of course, any schematic changes like that will depend on the strength of a position still acclimating Husain Abdullah in a starting berth alongside Eric Berry.
Speaking of safety, depth remains an issue. It's one that was compounded when recent signing Steve Gregory did a U-turn into retirement.
Fortunately, undrafted rookie Daniel Sorensen has earned rave reviews this offseason, per Paylor. But even in that context, the cupboard is relatively bare behind Berry and Abdullah.
Playing in a pass-happy division means a lot of focus will be on this defensive backfield.
It has to hold up. Preseason will offer a glimpse of whether or not it can.
Will the New-Look Offensive Line Succeed or Fail?
It's all change along the O-line for this season. Left tackle Branden Albert went to Miami during free agency, while guards Jon Asamoah (Atlanta) and Geoff Schwartz (New York Giants) weren't far behind.
It's Albert's defection that creates the biggest question along this front five. Namely, can 2013 top overall draft pick Eric Fisher improve in year two?
He was a disappointment as a rookie, often struggling out of position on the right side. Now Fisher gets a chance at his natural position, left tackle. That means he has to live up to his lofty draft billing.
It's an opportunity he is keen to take, per Vahe Gregorian of The Kansas City Star:
It’s almost like being right- or left-handed, surprisingly. One thing just feels more natural than the other, and I think a lot of tackles would tell you that …
Technique is huge in this league. When you play with technique, it’s just that much easier. And sometimes technique isn’t natural.
The Chiefs need Fisher up to speed for the new season. The AFC West is loaded with pass-rushers who can give left tackles fits.
The Broncos will unleash DeMarcus Ware, while Dwight Freeney is back for the Chargers. Meanwhile, the Oakland Raiders barely left a veteran pass-rusher on the market during free agency.
The Silver and Black added Antonio Smith, Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley via free agency, and drafted Khalil Mack, adding to a defense already featuring hidden gem Sio Moore.
But it won't all be about Fisher up front for the Chiefs. Center Rodney Hudson must also improve, per Bob Gretz of bobgretz.com:
He’s in the final season of his contract, playing for a coach and general manager that did not draft him. He played all 16 games last season as a starter at the pivot for the Chiefs, but was inconsistent. In the ’13 season he saw 1,035 snaps on offense, was penalized four times and gave up five sacks, plus another nine hits and hurries of quarterback Alex Smith. He was tied for second among all centers in sacks allowed.
Hudson may have a rookie starter on one side of him, in the form of sixth-round pick Zach Fulton. The first-year guard has made a very positive impression this offseason, putting himself in starting contention, according The Kansas City Star's Covitz.
If any of the new starters or struggling incumbents falter, depth is questionable. Veteran retreads Jeff Linkenbach, J'Marcus Webb and Ryan Harris were all signed this offseason, yet none inspire a great deal of confidence.
The success or failure of this group will determine if the Chiefs can build on some impressive offensive displays toward the end of last season or if the defense will be under greater pressure to carry the team.
The unit hardly made a great start by surrendering six sacks to the Cincinnati Bengals during the preseason opener. Up next are the Carolina Panthers, another team with strong pass-rush depth.
Performances along this O-line are sure to face intense scrutiny for the remainder of the preseason.
The main questions still plaguing the Chiefs mostly concern finding support for the strong nucleus of talent that is still in place. An offense with Bowe, running back Jamaal Charles and quarterback Alex Smith is certainly capable of producing points.
Meanwhile, the defense still boasts players such as Hali, Houston and Berry, stars most teams around the NFL would welcome in a second.
But these principle players can only do so much. They must be supported by complementary units like the O-line and secondary.
That support, along with some more creativity at the scheme level, can ensure a return to the playoffs.