Thursday, August 5, 2010
Dexter McCluster: KC's X factor
By John Clayton ESPN.com
Dexter McCluster rushed for 1,169 yards last season for Ole Miss, but he's being used primarily as a slot receiver in Chiefs' practices.
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Todd Haley's first offseason as Kansas City Chiefs coach was akin to the "Biggest Loser" reality show.
Haley targeted overweight players and berated them until they got his message. The result: The team overall lost more than 700 pounds of excess weight.
This summer, Haley turned up the heat. After years of spending summers in the cooler climate in River Falls, Wis., the Chiefs moved their camp into the 100-degree heat of northwest Missouri. Ownership planned the camp move to the Missouri Western State University campus, but Haley and general manager Scott Pioli welcomed it. A hot camp reinforces the discipline being emphasized by the Haley-Pioli brain trust.
In rebuilding the Chiefs, they are trying to rebuild the mindset of this franchise. Years of success caught up to the Chiefs after they allowed the roster to age. The young talent base wasn't being developed. Young studs had guts. Bodies softened.
That forced Haley to use his first season as coach reconstructing the bodies of his players. This year, he's working on their minds, and you can see the progress. The Chiefs had great attendance in offseason workouts, and Haley didn't have to order instant diets because the players stayed in shape since the end of the season.
Unfortunately for Chiefs fans, the talent base has not developed enough for the team to completely shed the "Biggest Loser" tag. It's reasonable to think the noticeable improvements should take the Chiefs from four wins to about six victories. With a few breaks, maybe the Chiefs can get to 8-8.
The good news is that if the Chiefs climb out of the NFL's losing basement, they should stay in contention. While it's nice to throw together talent, the key in the NFL is developing that talent. Haley and Pioli are trying to do it the right way.
Here are three observations from Chiefs training camp:
1. Dexter McCluster is the most exciting addition to the Chiefs' offense in the past two years, but it's hard to say how much he can affect the offense. He is only 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighs 179 pounds, but, wow, is he electric. The former Ole Miss running back has return skills that should put him among the best special teams players as a rookie.
Working out of the slot, he looks like a pinball version of Chicago Bears speedster Devin Hester. McCluster will provide some of the run-after-catch skills needed to improve quarterback Matt Cassel's numbers. In 2008, Cassel was good enough filling in for an injured Tom Brady to pace the New England Patriots to 10 wins playing pitch and catch with YAC specialists Wes Welker, Randy Moss and Kevin Faulk. Last season, Cassel came to a Chiefs team that didn't have any YAC threats. Worse, they couldn't catch.
The Chiefs had more than 50 dropped passes by Haley's count. The season was hard on Cassel, who during his collegiate career sat behind other USC quarterbacks. He didn't get a chance with the Patriots until Brady's knee popped in Week 1 in 2008.
Although he doesn't have the strongest arm, Cassel can be as effective as Kyle Orton, David Garrard, Jason Campbell and others if he gets the right mix of talent around him. The pass offense is a work in progress. Last season, Cassel began with No. 1 wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and whomever Pioli could find off the street to start on the other side of the field. Cassel's numbers picked up when the Chiefs grabbed Chris Chambers after the receiver was released by the San Diego Chargers.
One interesting rookie to follow is third-round pick Tony Moeaki. The former Iowa star offers some speed and pass-catching ability from the tight end position. As long as the Chiefs hold on to the throws, Cassel's numbers should improve.
2. Haley isn't saying how he will use running backs Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles, the question most fantasy fans are asking. Charles is currently running with the first team because of his tenure with the Chiefs, but you have to figure Jones will eventually take over as the starter. Jones is coming off a 1,402-yard season with the New York Jets, and even though 30 is a scary age for running backs, Jones isn't ready to retire.
Haley labels Jones one of the best locker room leaders he's ever been around. Just as Jones led the Jets' resurgence, he's been invaluable to the Chiefs. Haley said he's been one of the leaders in the offseason training program. But leaders stay leaders only if they play.
You have to figure Haley and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis will find a way for Jones and Charles to share enough of the position for both to get around 15 or 16 carries a game. Charles is coming off shoulder surgery and he's not as big and sturdy as Jones, but he is explosive, finishing in a flurry with 1,120 rushing yards in 2009.
Charles is an example of how this coaching staff is developing the players on the roster. Charles was a talent coming into the league, but now he works with Maurice Carthon, one of the best running back coaches in the league. Jones should eventually start, but Charles will be a big part of the Chiefs' offense.
3. Chiefs fans might have to be a little more patient for the development of the defense. It's not easy building 3-4 defenses these days because more than 14 teams are using them.
What slows down the Chiefs is they are competing against the Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos and Patriots for the same type of 3-4 players. These five teams follow the same model of 3-4 players used by Bill Belichick of the Patriots and Bill Parcells of the Dolphins. In the early 2000s, Belichick had an easier time grabbing the type of players who fit his scheme because no one else followed his defensive formula of success. The successes of the Patriots and Parcells teams have made the talent competition intense.
The key additions for the Chiefs this season are first-round safety Eric Berry and second-round cornerback Javier Arenas. Berry has Pro Bowl potential for his range and play-making ability. Arenas already has established himself as a nickel corner and will eventually press Brandon Carr for a starting job.
The challenge for defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is getting more out of the front seven, particularly defensive linemen Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey. Haley has a top-flight staff of coaches.
Sometimes, it's not a matter of the acquisitions as much as it is the development of the talent that is there.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.