Training Camp Tour: Chiefs' search for true No. 2 receiver continues
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – Monday proved not to be the best day to attend Kansas City Chiefs camp, as we somehow managed to venture to Missouri Western State University on the one non-padded practice sandwiched around five full-padded affairs. The Chiefs took part in a glorified walkthrough Monday morning, as the offense executed their plays against a half-hearted defense that looked like a cross between traffic cones and a secondary from the Big 12.
Still, there are plenty of stories coming out of Chiefs camp heading into the season, particularly given their strong finish to 2015 and first playoff win in over 20 years.
Wide receivers ready to take next step?
After a lack of production in 2014, the wide receivers took a step forward last season, in large part due to the arrival of Jeremy Maclin. He carried over his sure-handed ways, dropping just one pass for the second consecutive season and finishing with 92 receptions, 1,140 yards, and a strong 82.0 overall grade.
Despite Maclin living up to the free-agent hype in year one, there is still room to improve around him. Albert Wilson was solid last season as he emerged as the No. 2 threat, while rookie Chris Conley and veteran Jason Avant played less than 400 snaps apiece, supplying sporadic production. For the Chiefs’ passing game to take the next step, it’s up to both Wilson and Conley to continue their development, though there may be a new face in the mix. Even during the jog-through, the camp buzz for rookie fifth-round pick Tyreek Hill (West Alabama) was strong. He was featured a number of times in the deep game during the practice, so keep an eye on him during preseason action. No matter which name steps forward, the Chiefs need to find a more viable option opposite Maclin.
New faces in secondary
The Chiefs featured one of the league’s best secondaries a year ago as they got strong play from CB Sean Smith, combined with a rejuvenated Tyvon Branch, while Husain Abdullah added versatility in the middle as a dime linebacker. However, all three players have moved on, and the Chiefs are left with second-year CB Marcus Peters and our fourth-highest-graded safety from a year ago, Eric Berry, who has yet to sign his franchise tender.
While Peters and Berry are a good starting point, there are plenty of questions to answer around them. Third-year cornerback Phillip Gaines gets the first crack to replace Smith at right corner, though an injury-riddled start to his career has limited him to only 545 snaps in his two seasons. He had a promising start to his career with four passes defensed on only 35 targets in 2014, but the sample size is still too small to draw any conclusions on Gaines, who has graded right around average during his time on the field. Second-year corner Steven Nelson is the top option to man the slot, though he brings even less experience to the table, with only 62 snaps last season. We liked Nelson coming out of college as a solid coverage man who didn’t miss a tackle during his last season at Oregon State.
As for replacing Abdullah, Daniel Sorensen took a crack at it last season, with poor results as he struggled both against the run and in coverage. while missing five of his 26 tackle attempts. If the Chiefs are going to challenge for an AFC West crown, it may come down to Gaines, Nelson, and Sorensen replacing key players in the secondary.
Improving along the offensive line
The offensive line is undergoing some change heading into 2016. They Chiefs signed RT Mitchell Schwartz as a free agent from the Cleveland Browns, after Schwartz posted the second-best grade among right tackles in the league last season. Only five years in the league, Schwartz is now the elder statesman up front, and according to teammates, has already made a difference with his calming influence and football smarts. On the other side, former first-round pick Eric Fisher has shown improvement each year of his career, and another step forward will go a long way toward solidifying the line.
The biggest questions are on the interior, where center Mitch Morse was solid as a rookie, but the guard position is slated to be manned by rookie Parker Ehinger (University of Cincinnati) and third-year pro Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. Ehinger played left tackle for the Bearcats last season, where he graded above-average as both a run- and pass-blocker. Duvernay-Tardif struggled early on in his first NFL action last season, but the former McGill University (Canada) product showed improvement over the second half of the year. Given his lack of experience and pedigree playing in Canada, there should be even more development as he heads into his second year as a starter. While there are questions up front, the development of the young players—combined with Schwartz’s veteran presence at right tackle—could have the Chiefs’ offensive line taking a step forward in 2016.
Other camp notes
– The Chiefs are crowded at the quarterback position, particularly after the recent signing of free agent Nick Foles (Rams). Alex Smith is the unquestioned starter, with Foles now slotted in as the backup. That leaves Tyler Bray, Aaron Murray, and fifth-round rookie Kevin Hogan (Stanford) to round out the depth chart, and they took snaps in that exact order on Monday morning.
– There was plenty of positive buzz for rookie second-round defensive end Chris Jones out of Mississippi State. We’re not surprised, as he ranked as a top-15 pick for us last April due to his impressive combination of size, burst, and strength. Still, the defensive line rotation will be difficult to crack, as fellow defensive ends Jaye Howard and Allen Bailey are coming off strong years.