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Camp Confidential: Kansas City Chiefs

8/7/2014

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Quarterback Alex Smith recently spent some time looking at video from last year’s Kansas City Chiefs training camp, and even he was surprised by the differences one year made.

"We’re in a different place," Smith said. "We actually even went back and looked at a little bit of the film from last year. It’s funny to look back watching and compare where we are because it isn’t very close."

Everything was new last year for the Chiefs, from Andy Reid and the rest of the coaching staff to Smith. This year the emphasis is on continuity and familiarity, and the Chiefs are counting on that to carry them further than they went last season, when they won 11 games and earned a wild-card playoff berth.

The Chiefs are doing many of the same things they did last season but are trying to do them better. That’s particularly true on defense, where after a strong start the Chiefs collapsed down the stretch and in the postseason.

But they also had one of the NFL’s top passing games over the season’s last several games, and that’s where Smith’s aim has been throughout camp.

"That’s the goal we’re getting at," he said. "That is part of the focus."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. The Chiefs had a pair of potential holdouts from training camp, but both running back Jamaal Charles and linebacker Justin Houston have been on the field from the first practice. A holdout by either player would have been bad enough, but not having both would have been devastating to the Chiefs. Charles is their offensive engine and Houston arguably is their most valuable defensive player. Charles received the contract extension he desired, while Houston reported for camp without a new deal. Judging from their play in camp, Charles and Houston look poised for big seasons.

2. The Chiefs might not provide more relief to Charles than they did last year, when he had a big workload. But they should be able to thrive if they choose to give him more rest. Rookie De'Anthony Thomas has shown big-play ability at training camp. Thomas is fast, and the Chiefs can use him in a variety of ways in search of favorable matchups. At 174 pounds, Thomas will be limited in how much he can play, but the Chiefs also have Knile Davis. He looked lost at training camp last season as a rookie but appears far more prepared to contribute this season.

3. In outside linebackers Houston, Tamba Hali and first-round draft pick Dee Ford, the Chiefs have the makings of a dynamic pass rush. The Chiefs midway through last season were on pace to set an NFL record for sacks, but their production fell off greatly over the second half without Houston, who missed the final five games with a dislocated elbow. The combination of Houston and Hali is difficult for opponents to deal with, and now the Chiefs have added Ford to the mix. In camp he flashed the qualities of a great pass-rusher, including a quick first step, a variety of moves and the ability to finish.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The Chiefs allowed an alarming 63 pass plays of 20 or more yards last season and another six in their playoff game. Since then, they released one starting cornerback and demoted another from their lineup. Under different circumstances, that might not be such a bad thing, but the replacements are players the Chiefs picked up off waivers last season. One is Marcus Cooper, who played well as the third cornerback the first half of the season but played so poorly over the second half that he had to be benched. The other is journeyman Ron Parker, who had been released eight times before joining the Chiefs.

2. Four of the five starters on the offensive line were selected by the Chiefs in first three rounds of the draft, so they have some talent. But inexperience is an issue. Those four players have a total of 73 career NFL starts, and the fifth starter, guard Zach Fulton, is a rookie. Eric Fisher, the first overall pick in the draft last year, had a rocky rookie season and has moved to left tackle, where he will protect Smith’s blind side. Fisher still projects to a solid NFL player, but it could be some time before he gets there.

3. The Chiefs quietly finished last season with one of the league’s best passing games but could struggle to pick up where they left off. There was no indication at camp the Chiefs will get more from starting wide receivers Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery. The best receivers at camp were two developmental players, Frankie Hammond Jr. and undrafted rookie Albert Wilson. Both could wind up playing, but they are untested, so it’s unwise to expect much from either player. Tight ends Travis Kelce and Anthony Fasano have looked good in training camp but are unreliable from an injury standpoint. Kelce missed all of last season and Fasano half of the season with injuries.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Chiefs will lean heavily on rookies. They have expectations for Ford, Fulton and Thomas and hopes for Wilson. In addition, Cairo Santos is a strong candidate to win the place-kicking job.

  • The Chiefs don’t have an obvious candidate to provide adequate relief for nose tackle Dontari Poe, so they again need him to play an inordinate number of snaps for a big man. Teams generally rotate players the size of Poe, who is listed at 346 pounds, but he rarely came out of the lineup last year. The Chiefs are better with Poe on the field against the pass and the run.

  • The Chiefs should be good again on special teams. They scored four touchdowns on kick returns last season and should match or exceed that number this year. Thomas, who is fast and can make the first defender miss, has the skills to be a great punt returner.

  • Results from preseason games could change this, but during camp neither of the developmental quarterbacks, Tyler Bray and rookie Aaron Murray, looked advanced enough to be the main backup to Smith. The Chiefs would be smart to hang on to veteran Chase Daniel.