Kansas City Chiefs: Donnie Avery
But the Kansas City Chiefs could get a bigger immediate impact if another veteran receiver, Donnie Avery, can return to their lineup. Avery hasn’t played since having surgery almost two months ago to repair a sports hernia.
He returned to practice on a limited basis in recent weeks but was a full participant on Wednesday for the first time since the surgery. Coach Andy Reid was optimistic about Avery’s chance to play Sunday night against the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium.
While the Chiefs might not have the right to expect much from a player who hasn’t been in their lineup for two months, Avery at least would provide the element of speed that’s been to some extent missing. His replacements, first A.J. Jenkins and then Frankie Hammond Jr., are fast but not the deep threat that Avery is.
"I think you’ll see some of the same things that you’ve seen earlier in the season with him,’’ offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said. "There are some shallow crosses, posts, gos. Just utilize his strength and his strength is speed."
The Chiefs have lacked a downfield passing game most of the season. Their longest pass play through 11 games is 34 yards. Perhaps Avery’s return could help revive that long-dormant portion of their playbook.
If the Chiefs ever need Avery to have a big game, it's on Sunday when they open the regular season against the Tennessee Titans at Arrowhead Stadium. Bowe won't play because of his NFL suspension and the other four Chiefs wide receivers have a combined 21 career NFL receptions.
"Whether it's putting me in some of the Dwayne Bowe plays or putting the young guys in some of the Dwayne Bowe plays, we've got to step up and take that role," Avery said.
Avery is the most logical candidate. Frankie Hammond Jr., playing his first NFL game, will get a lot of the snaps that otherwise would go to Bowe. Junior Hemingway also figures to get a lot of playing time, but he missed most of the preseason with hamstring and hip injuries. A.J. Jenkins hasn't been of much help and Albert Wilson is an undrafted rookie also playing his first NFL game.
If experience means anything, Avery will be the go-to wide receiver Sunday for quarterback Alex Smith.
"We could have done a lot more," Smith said of Avery's 2013 season. "There was a lot out there that we left on the field."
If that happens on Sunday, the Chiefs could be in trouble. The Chiefs could use a game against the Titans like the one the had against Tennessee last year. Avery caught three passes for 91 yards, including two receptions of more than 40 yards.
"Just play calling," Avery said. "We called the right plays at the right time and we hit them."
It makes sense for the Chiefs to dial some plays for Avery again on Sunday.
@adamteicher: They need to make a move at cornerback now. It was evident in offseason practice without Brandon Flowers that the Chiefs were lacking at the position. The other starter from last season, Sean Smith, is practicing but is subject to discipline from the league once his recent arrest for DUI is resolved in court. Marcus Cooper has been in the starting lineup in Flowers' absence, but it's difficult to see how the Chiefs can count on him after the way his play declined late last season. Some veteran cornerbacks available now include Chris Houston, Aaron Ross, Drayton Florence and Asante Samuel. Or the Chiefs could wait to see who else comes available.
@adamteicher: In their base defense it's Smith and Cooper at cornerback, and Eric Berry and Husain Abdullah at safety. It's not a bold prediction to venture it won't look that way when they begin the regular season on Sept. 7.
@adamteicher: Donnie Avery has been consistent as the No. 2 wide receiver, and it certainly doesn't look like the Chiefs are ready to give up on him. A.J. Jenkins has missed some practice time this spring because of injuries and hasn't mounted any kind of challenge to Avery. The Chiefs seem to like Junior Hemingway more as a slot receiver than a starter on the outside. At this point, Avery looks solid as a starter.
@adamteicher: Most of the work in practice goes to the starter, Alex Smith. Chase Daniel gets the second biggest workload, and sometimes Tyler Bray and Aaron Murray don't get many snaps. The backup quarterback situation is still to be played out, but there's nothing to indicate the Chiefs are ready to move on from Daniel as their main backup. Murray has done some nice things. But for raw ability, it's hard not to be impressed with Bray. He has a lot of talent. It's just a matter of whether he can put things together.
@adamteicher: I don't think Berry's role will change much from last season. He might get more time as the deep safety. He has been doing that some in practice, but he did it some last season, too. Berry is valuable to the Chiefs no matter what they ask him to do..
That’s something all teams, the Kansas City Chiefs included, believe. Bigger, stronger receivers are more capable of shucking physical coverage and making catches in a larger radius, thus giving the quarterback more room for error. That’s accepted fact in the NFL, not opinion.
Now comes my ESPN colleague, Mike Rodak, who covers the Buffalo Bills, with an interesting story. Rodak went through NFL rosters and figured an average height for the wide receivers for each team.
The Bills led the league with an average height of 6-2. Of more interest to you, the Chiefs came in next to last at slightly less than 5-11 1/2. And that doesn’t even count rookie De'Anthony Thomas, who should be playing at least some as a slot receiver but is being listed for the time being as a running back.
Thomas is 5-9.
A height of 6-2 is generally considered the dividing line for a receiver between having the right size and not. Dwayne Bowe at 6-2 is the only Chiefs' receiver who passes the test. Among the others who could or might play a significant amount next season, Donnie Avery is 5-11, A.J. Jenkins 6-0, Junior Hemingway 6-1 and Weston Dressler 5-7.
The Bills, as a comparison, have seven wide receivers who stand at least 6-2.
The Chiefs have some tall tight ends who can help compensate. Travis Kelce, who showed some impressive receiving skills last year before a knee ailment ruined his rookie season, is 6-5, as is Sean McGrath. Anthony Fasano, who caught three touchdown passes last year despite missing seven games with injuries, is 6-4.
But this is an issue for the Chiefs. Their receivers were at or near the bottom of the league in production last year and a lack of size is one reason why.
It’s not just my opinion here. Read what Bills general manager Doug Whaley had to say. The Chiefs may not go on the record as saying so, but they agree, too.
We’ll continue here with the wide receivers.
Serious 2014 roster candidates: Bowe, Avery, Jenkins, Hemingway, Weston Dressler, Frankie Hammond, De'Anthony Thomas.
Analysis: This position was already a disappointment last year and trouble signs abound again. Bowe had what was statistically the worst full season of his career and he will be 30 in September. That’s not an age when many receivers make a leap in production. Avery had what for him was a typical season, so he probably won’t deliver much more. Thomas, a fourth-round draft pick, could have an impact as a slot receiver, but it’s not realistic to expect him to give more than McCluster did last season. The Chiefs are hopeful of a big jump from Jenkins, pointing to the big catch he had in the playoff loss to Indianapolis. It may happen, but it’s not wise for the Chiefs to count on it. Kyle Williams had knee surgery late last season, making it difficult to predict if he will make the roster or be able to contribute any time soon. But if he’s healthy in time, he could help.
Better or worse? Worse. The Chiefs lost McCluster, their second-leading wide receiver but didn't replace him with a proven commodity.
But other than the additions of Thomas, a similarly-sized acquisition from the Canadian Football League in Weston Dressler and, so far, a couple of undrafted free agents, the Chiefs are largely the same at wide receiver as they were last year. That’s minus Dexter McCluster, who was third on the team in catches before leaving as a free agent for the Tennessee Titans.
The Chiefs may sign a veteran receiver before they start training camp, but for now we’ll go with what we know. Here’s a look at their depth chart at wide receiver as I see it.
No. 2, Donnie Avery. Avery was inconsistent in his first season with the Chiefs. He had three big games and was largely absent for the others. He dropped too many passes. But that’s been the story of Avery’s career, and the Chiefs wisely didn’t expect a whole lot more from him. Avery is fast and unless another player with his speed emerges, he’ll be a part of things again.
No. 3, A.J. Jenkins. The Chiefs are hopeful Jenkins is that player. He’s fast and a former first-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers, so he has ability for them to work with. He had three catches for 67 yards in his only start last season and then had a big catch in the playoff loss.
No. 4, Junior Hemingway. Hemingway isn’t particularly fast but he’s 225 pounds and uses his size well. The Chiefs have gotten some use from Hemingway as a slot receiver, particularly when inside the opponents’ 20. He’s also a good special-teams player, so while I don’t consider Hemingway a lock to make the roster, he’ll be difficult to beat out.
No. 5, De’Anthony Thomas. He has the size and skills much like those of McCluster, except he’s much faster so the Chiefs will give Thomas a long look as their slot receiver. The Chiefs need to find a way to get the ball to Thomas because he’s their fastest player and a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball.
No. 6, Frankie Hammond Jr. The Chiefs kept Hammond around last season as an undrafted rookie for a reason. He is fast and also has enough ability for them to work with and try to develop. If he makes progress, there’s an opening for some playing time.
No. 7, Weston Dressler. The former Canadian League receiver is on the outside looking in after the Chiefs drafted Thomas. The Chiefs don’t need two small players who play the same position and Dressler doesn’t have Thomas’ size or big-play ability. Unless there’s an injury to another player or Dressler shows unexpected ability, he will have a difficult time making it.
No. 8, Kyle Williams. I wasn’t sure exactly where to place Williams, who is coming off knee surgery. If he misses most or all of training camp, he won’t be of much help. But if he returns in time, Williams can help because he’s also fast and has some versatility as a receiver.
No. 9, Albert Wilson. An undrafted rookie, Wilson was a productive college receiver at Georgia State. The practice squad is the best he can probably hope for this year.
Nos. 10, 11 and 12, Jarrell Jackson, Fred Williams and Darryl Surgent. They’re probably just training camp bodies.
You might think the Chiefs have holes in their starting lineup at right guard and free safety, but I don’t think the Chiefs agree with you there. Their actions in free agency would suggest they don’t. At right guard, they watched without a trace of panic as the two players who shared the starting spot last season walked out the door in free agency, Jon Asamoah to the Atlanta Falcons and Geoff Schwartz to the New York Giants. They did sign Jeff Linkenbach from the Indianapolis Colts and he could wind up claiming that vacant starting spot, though his versatility suggests they prefer him as a backup at both tackle and guard. The Chiefs have three developmental prospects in the middle of the offensive line in Eric Kush, Rishaw Johnson and Rokevious Watkins. At this point, it wouldn’t be a surprise if one of them was a starter next season.
The Chiefs don’t appear interested in re-signing Kendrick Lewis, their starting free safety. But neither have they appeared interested in replacing him through free agency. They could draft a free safety, but the two best prospects will likely be off the board by the time the Chiefs make their first pick. They did re-sign reserve Husain Abdullah, but for backup money. All signs there point to Sanders Commings, a rookie last season, inheriting that job. The Chiefs were impressed with Commings in offseason practice last year and he was going to challenge for playing time but broke his collarbone in the first practice at training camp. That effectively ruined his rookie season but he’s back and will find a role somewhere in their defensive backfield.
Then there’s wide receiver, which is a little bit of a different story. The Chiefs were last in the NFL last season in receptions, yards and first downs from their wide receivers, and that was before they lost Dexter McCluster to the Tennessee Titans as a free agent. It’s unfair and inaccurate to blame this problem on quarterback Alex Smith. The fact is, receivers weren’t getting open enough down the field and dropped too many passes.
The Chiefs tried to sign free agent Emmanuel Sanders of the Pittsburgh Steelers and thought they had an agreement with him on a contract. They believe Sanders’ agent then shopped the offer to other teams and he struck a better deal instead with the Denver Broncos. The Chiefs haven’t and most likely won’t say anything publicly on this matter but they’re not happy about things because the loss of Sanders stings. He would have been the solution to many of their receiving problems and they know it.
Instead, this is what they’re left with at wide receiver: Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery, A.J. Jenkins, Junior Hemingway and Weston Dressler, plus some developmental prospects. You like that mix? They’re good enough for the Chiefs to line up with and not get embarrassed. But probably not much better than that.
In the best-case scenario, Bowe bounces back after a down season, Jenkins plays like the first-round draft pick he once was and Dressler makes the transition from the CFL to the NFL look simple.
The odds are against any of those things happening, much less all three of them. Minus all three things happening, the Chiefs need help at wide receiver in a big way. That's why their priority the rest of the offseason has to be on upgrading their roster of wide receivers.
If he came to Kansas City, Sanders could wind up being the slot receiver who replaces Dexter McCluster. Sanders caught 67 passes and scored six touchdowns for the Steelers last season and since he turns 27 next week, he should be headed into the best seasons of his career.
Wide receiver is the position of biggest need for the Chiefs. Their No. 1 receiver, Dwayne Bowe, had the least productive full season of his career last year. The Chiefs were last in 2013 in wide receiver receptions, yards and first downs and were near the bottom in touchdowns. That was with McCluster in their lineup.
They were also last in targets, which suggests they weren't getting open. Alex Smith's history is to throw the checkdowns and shorter and safer patterns, so that's part of the issue. But Smith hasn't made a habit of neglecting open receivers down the field, either.
With Sanders, Bowe, A.J. Jenkins, Donnie Avery and perhaps a first-round draft pick (the more I think about it, the better LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. would look in a Chiefs uniform), the receiving positions would be improved. Far from best-in-the-league improved, but good enough to pose a threat to opposing defenses.
Let's put it this way: That group should be good enough to get the Chiefs out of last place in wide receiver production.
They will find enough wiggle room as they move along to sign their draft picks and dabble in free agency as well. But this will be a different year for the Chiefs than they’ve had for some time as far as offseason spending. Last year, for example, they re-signed wide receiver Dwayne Bowe to a lucrative, long-term contract, made left tackle Branden Albert their franchise player at a hefty price tag, picked up a big salary when they traded for quarterback Alex Smith and then forked over significant cash in signing free agents like cornerback Sean Smith, defensive lineman Mike DeVito, tight end Anthony Fasano, wide receiver Donnie Avery and backup quarterback Chase Daniel.
So, yes, things will be different for the Chiefs this year. There may be no room for some of their own free agents. The Chiefs appear to be grooming Sanders Commings, a rookie last season who will make the minimum salary in 2014, to replace Kendrick Lewis at free safety. The Chiefs signed CFL veteran wide receiver/kick returner Weston Dressler, also at the minimum, perhaps to replace Dexter McCluster. The Chiefs might make an effort to re-sign defensive end Tyson Jackson, but if he’s too expensive the Chiefs have Allen Bailey ready to step in.
Albert is perhaps the most productive player of the bunch. He was a Pro Bowler last season, a more than capable left tackle.
But the Chiefs drafted tackle Eric Fisher last year with the first overall pick anticipating this scenario. Fisher can move to the left side and the Chiefs have Donald Stephenson, who they believe is a capable starter, to play right tackle.
Albert wants to be paid a premium salary and there’s no shame in that. If he’s ever going to get a huge long-term contract, it’s going to be at this time of his career.
He’s just not going to get it from the Chiefs. In that respect, he could be like a lot of his teammates who are prospective free agents. He could be playing for another team next season, perhaps even against the Chiefs.
McShay gives a different wide receiver, Odell Beckham Jr. of Louisiana State, to the Chiefs in the first round.
Either player makes sense for the Chiefs. Both players entered the draft as juniors so they may need more time to develop. The Chiefs would need immediate help from either player, but not necessarily as a starter. The Chiefs have veterans in Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery, A.J. Jenkins and Weston Dressler, so they wouldn’t have to ask a rookie to carry the load.
But eventually the Chiefs would need him to grow into the No. 1 role, which has been occupied by Bowe for several years. Bowe had a down season, a sign that perhaps he’s started the inevitable downhill slide. Even if not, he will turn 30 in September so the Chiefs have to think about finding his eventual replacement.
Benjamin at 6-4 and 232 is bigger than Beckham Jr. at 6-0 and 193 but Beckham has kick return ability. Otherwise there is little to choose from. Both are fast and run well after the catch.
So it wouldn’t be a surprise to see either Benjamin or Beckham Jr. wind up with the Chiefs.
Roster (10): Donnie Avery, Dwayne Bowe, Frankie Hammond Jr., Junior Hemingway, Jerrell Jackson, A.J. Jenkins, Dexter McCluster, Rashad Ross, Fred Williams, Kyle Williams.
Potential 2014 free agents: McCluster and Kyle Williams.
The position: No area on the Chiefs could use an upgrade quite like this one. It's not a good sign for an Andy Reid offense when a running back, Jamaal Charles, led the Chiefs in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. In addition to finding help for 2014, the Chiefs need to start looking to the future as well. Bowe had what for him is a down season. It's possible he bounces back but the Chiefs can't count on that. Either way, he's going to be 30 in September and if his career slide hasn't started, it will be upon the Chiefs soon. So the Chiefs need to think about replacing him as the No. 1 wide receiver, eventually if not immediately. If they go the draft route for that, they will need to give the player time to develop into the role. Bowe was signed to a lucrative, long-term contract last year so it's cost-prohibitive for the Chiefs to release him this year. The Chiefs have another decision on McCluster, a potential unrestricted free agent. He gave the Chiefs 53 catches but had little impact in the form of big plays on offense. Because of that, he's not worth a lucrative contract but finding an upgrade at a reasonable price could be a problem. The Chiefs would also have to find a suitable replacement as a punt return specialist. Otherwise, Avery and Jenkins are fast but have yet to prove themselves dependable from week to week and down to down. Avery had more than half of his yards in three games. Hemingway is big and uses his body well, but he may never develop into more than a possession receiver. Hammond is an intriguing developmental prospect.
The Chiefs should keep: Avery, Bowe, Hammond, Hemingway and Jenkins. But all of these players except Bowe because of his contract are vulnerable depending on what the Chiefs do in free agency and the draft.
The Chiefs should dump: Jackson, McCluster, Ross, Fred Williams and Kyle Williams. McCluster is worth keeping but only on terms that are friendly to the Chiefs.
Free agency/ draft priority: If there's a player the Chiefs like and believe could eventually step into Bowe' role available when they draft in the first round, it would be a mistake for them to pass on him. Other than the ill-fated selection of Jonathan Baldwin in 2011, the Chiefs haven't picked a wide receiver in the first round since Bowe in 2007. Given that they haven't filled in well at receiver through free agency, it's time they look at doing so again.
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.
Final Power Ranking: 10
Preseason Power Ranking: 19
Biggest surprise: The Chiefs plucked rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper, a seventh-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers, off waivers to start the regular season. Cooper played better than the Chiefs had a right to expect for a long stretch of the season as the third cornerback. He had a rough stretch late in the season before bouncing back at the end. At 6-foot-2 and 192 pounds, Cooper has the size to match up with the league's bigger receivers. Cooper projects as nothing less than the Chiefs' third cornerback next season and could eventually become a starter.
Biggest disappointment: Offensive tackle Eric Fisher was the first overall pick in the draft last year but rarely played like it. The Chiefs used Fisher on the right side, and he initially had trouble making the transition. He also had trouble avoiding nagging injuries, which caused him to miss four games, including the playoff loss to Indianapolis. Fisher should eventually develop into the kind of player the Chiefs envisioned. He showed great athletic skills that will help him reach his potential. Fisher was usually unable to anchor against a strong pass rush and that's where many of his problems occurred. A year in Kansas City's strength program will benefit Fisher greatly.
Biggest need: The Chiefs need a fast wide receiver to energize their passing game. They gambled by giving Dwayne Bowe a lucrative long-term contract last offseason, but Bowe didn't play like a No. 1 wide receiver until the playoff loss to the Colts. Bowe will turn 30 next season, so if nothing else, it's time for the Chiefs to plan for someone else to step into that top receiver's role. The Chiefs have a couple of fast wide receivers in Donnie Avery and A.J. Jenkins. While Avery delivered some big plays, he dropped too many passes and disappeared too many times. Jenkins hasn't been able to establish himself as a consistent threat.
Team MVP: The Chiefs have at least a couple of defensive candidates but the better choice is running back Jamaal Charles. He supplied much of Kansas City's offensive production, particularly early in the season when the offense around him frequently sputtered. Charles led the league in touchdowns and expanded his game to become a much more dangerous pass-catcher. Coach Andy Reid and his offensive staff did a much better job of getting Charles matched up against linebackers in the open field, and he rewarded them with a number of big plays. If the Chiefs had not lost five of their final seven regular-season games, Charles would have been a strong candidate for league MVP.
Running back Knile Davis broke his fibula and sprained his knee and that could force the Chiefs into acquiring a player to serve as a backup to Jamaal Charles. It's clear the Chiefs don't think of Cyrus Gray in those terms, so unless the Chiefs are convinced Davis will be ready to go by the start of training camp, they'll need to either sign a back or draft one.
Linebacker Justin Houston also sprained his knee but he was walking around on it after the game, albeit with a noticeable limp. That one didn't have the look of a serious injury.
Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe had a mild foot sprain that shouldn't be a problem. He finished the game. Charles, wide receiver Donnie Avery and cornerback Brandon Flowers continue to recover from their concussions.