Postcard from camp: Chiefs
The Chiefs are holding camp for a second consecutive year at St. Joseph's Missouri Western State University, home of those fighting Griffons. St. Joe is only about an hour north of K.C., but strangely enough given the Chiefs' 2010 success, Saturday afternoon's Family Fun Day full-padded practice didn't draw anywhere near as big a crowd to Spratt Stadium as last year's event, which I also attended. Maybe NFL fans in these parts aren't quite as starved for the game post-lockout as I had presumed.
Receiver Steve Breaston, fullback Le'Ron McClain, linebacker Brandon Siler, defensive tackle Kelly Gregg, and safety Sabby Piscitelli are solid role players who improve Kansas City's depth and add some needed toughness in key spots. McClain will upgrade the Chiefs' short-yardage game that was mostly dismal last season, and Gregg is a valuable veteran cog to throw into the mix at defensive line. Kansas City never goes looking for rock stars in free agency, just solid components who can plug in and play at a high level. Running back Thomas Jones and guard Ryan Lilja are just two examples from K.C.'s 2010 free agency class.
Haley had the players' lockers moved together, and the duos will room together in the dorms and in hotels, and even sit together on the team plane. All in an effort to create a bond between the two, and give the Chiefs a chance of coming out of the lockout a little stronger and a little tighter than most other teams. Haley stressed that it's not a mentoring program, it's just giving every rookie a buddy to turn to during what figures to be an overwhelming preseason. Haley mixed and matched his pairings, never putting two guys together at the same position.
Gregg and rookie offensive lineman Rodney Hudson are teamed, as are first-round receiver Jonathan Baldwin and safety Eric Berry, and rookie quarterback Ricky Stanzi and safety Kendrick Lewis, and third-round linebacker Justin Houston and tight end Leonard Pope. So far, the chemistry experiment seems to be working.
But Cassel, the Chiefs' third-year starting quarterback, has welcomed Zorn with an open mind, and Haley raves about the fit between the two, as well as his own comfort level with the soft-spoken but strong-willed Zorn. Offensive line coach Bill Muir was given the dual title of offensive coordinator upon the departure of Charlie Weis for Florida, but I think Zorn's the key to Cassel taking the next step in his development as a passer and team leader.
Andy Studebaker, OLB. With Mike Vrabel retired and joining Ohio State's staff as an assistant coach, the Chiefs have an outside linebacker job waiting to be won by someone. Don't bet against Studebaker, the fourth-year pro out of tiny Wheaton College, because's his whole NFL career has been about beating the odds as a collegiate free agent. "You're not going to replace Vrabel completely, but every time Andy's been in there he makes plays,'' Haley said. Rodney Houston, the former Georgia standout who arrived via the draft's third round, figures to be in the mix at some point as well. But the rookie is "lost'' early on in the estimation of defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, so it's Studebaker's spot to lose as the regular season looms.
Steve Breaston's arrival in free agency could be one of the best recent moves made in the league, because the fifth-year ex-Cardinals receiver helps solidify a Chiefs receiving corps that was obviously dangerously short of playmakers beyond Dwayne Bowe last season. How short? Kansas City signed veteran receiver Kevin Curtis on the Tuesday before its playoff opener against Baltimore last January, and Curtis wound up starting that Sunday, just a week after he had been sitting on the beach during a vacation to the Bahamas.
With Bowe, first-round pick Baldwin, and Breaston, the Chiefs have the makings of a legitimate three-deep receiver set that could cause matchup problems for opposing secondaries. Maybe even a Killer B's nickname is in store, creating a little promotional buzz? Baldwin has been slowed a bit by an early hamstring problem in camp, but he has caught everything in sight, and Bowe looks serious and focused on raising his game to another level after his stellar 2010 season.
"We have potential, but now we've got to go out there and do it,''said Breaston, who played in Arizona for Haley when the Chiefs head coach was the Cardinals receivers coach. "It's a young team, and a young offense, but very talented. It's exciting to be around a bunch of playmakers again. I've been around a bunch of playmakers before, and we had a lot of success.''
Sometimes in the NFL, progress can't always be measured by the realities of your won-loss record. The Chiefs probably over-achieved last season, going 10-6 and winning the AFC West at least a year ahead of schedule. I think they've got an even better and deeper team this year, but I'm not sure they'll have a better record. Something in the 8-8 range feels about right, especially when I see the brutal five-game stretch that faces Kansas City in November and December. The Chiefs in that span play all of last year's final four teams, plus the team with the best regular-season record: At New England, home against Pittsburgh, at Chicago, at the Jets, and home against Green Bay. Kansas City won't sneak up on anyone this season, and their three nationally televised night games will help show us if they're ready for the increased spotlight that comes with last year's success.