De'Anthony Thomas taking the ball across the goal line on a punt return against the Bengals on Thursday. (Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
By Dan Greene
I’m high above Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, with a clear view of the top of the Royals’ Kauffman Stadium, which sits just beyond Arrowhead’s upper deck in my press-box sightline. The Chiefs are hosting the Bengals in both their and my first taste of full-blown football this season, though given my removed vantage point, the immediacy and physical toll of our tastes differ just a tad. The game proves to be a fun if occasionally sloppy affair, with a trio of pick-sixes, a missed tackle begetting an 80-yard punt return, and a fumble setting up a subsequent touchdown on which there was also a flag for illegal hands to the face. Football’s back!
One vivid memory from watching the Chiefs’ first preseason game
Perhaps this should be accompanied by a caveat about confirmation bias, but two of the players I planned on watching the closest in this game were left tackle Eric Fisher and cornerback Ron Parker. Fisher, last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick out of Central Michigan, had an up-and-down rookie season on the right side before undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. Parker, who spent two years on and off various practice squads before the Chiefs claimed him off waivers last September, has been elevated over Sean Smith onto the first-string for much of the offseason after Smith’s DUI citation in June. With the free agent departures along the offensive line and the secondary’s futility late last season, both are in positions vital to this team’s success. But in a short span in Thursday’s first quarter, each had pivotal plays to forget. Bengals defensive end Robert Geathers pushed Fisher back and reached around him to knock the ball loose from Alex Smith for a turnover. Three plays later, Parker tried to jam Brandon Tate at the line, but drew a flag for hitting him in the facemask and let Tate get by him for a nine-yard touchdown anyway. An inauspicious start, though it’s still quite early.
How this team can go 12–4
Alex Smith (Jeff Moffett/Icon Sportswire)
They will need to play more like the team that began last year 9-0 than the one that finished it 2-6, punctuated by a disastrous playoff collapse in Indianapolis. Yes, injuries played a part in the defense’s second-half swoon, but so did the schedule. After going up against a string of marginal quarterbacks—Blaine Gabbert, Michael Vick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Terrelle Pryor, Case Keenum, Jason Campbell, and Jeff Tuel—the Chiefs found themselves trying to stop Peyton Manning (twice), Philip Rivers (twice) and Andrew Luck (twice, including the playoff game). Suddenly, what had been the league’s top defense was alit regularly. With Manning and Rivers on this season’s slate a total of four times, along with Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick, the Chiefs must quickly sort out a secondary that lost Brandon Flowers and gained little of note.
Should they find themselves in shootouts, the offense will have to be more than just the Jamaal Charles Variety Hour. The Chiefs largely stood pat at receiver this offseason, a surprise considering how badly they could use a playmaker there. Thus the development of second-year tight end Travis Kelce and/or one of the young slot receivers will be a boost to the passing game. Alex Smith should at least be his usual efficient self, though he will need to be provided with enough time to make plays. That will require the jelling of an offensive line that lost Branden Albert, Jon Asamoah, and Geoff Schwartz in free agency.
How this team can go 4–12
The defense picks up where it left off last season, putting the offense in such holes that it can’t ride Jamaal Charles as much as it needs for peak function. The concerns at secondary and offensive line could become liabilities that offset strengths in the front seven and the backfield, dropping the Chiefs from last season’s surprise quick-fix playoff team to another January spent on the outside looking in. Falling all the way back to the four-win range would be a bit drastic, but a total of eight games against the Broncos, Chargers and the unforgiving NFC West will offer less margin for error than last season’s run through the league’s quarterbacking underbelly.
Now, from fantasyland …
1.With all due respect to the rest of the NFL, you’re not going to draft Jamaal Charles too high. It’s just not possible. If you are fortunate enough to land him, be sure to also grab Knile Davis, who is more than your run-of-the-mill handcuff. He offered a nice glimpse of his ability against Cincinnati by bouncing left-to-right two yards past the line of scrimmage for a 17-yard gain, then picking up 11 yards on a delayed handoff on the next play. Should something happen to Charles, Davis could produce like a top-10 back.
2. There’s not a lot to be excited about at receiver here.
Considering Dwayne Bowe is the clear No. 1 wideout in an offense that will score points, it would seem difficult for him to not top last season’s paltry totals (57 catches, 673 yards, five touchdowns) but the odds of him returning to the 1,110-yard range seem low. Draft him with hopes of splitting the difference.
3. Travis Kelce is a name to know at tight end. After missing essentially his entire rookie season due to a knee injury, the 6’5”, 260-pound Kelce has been emerging as the kind of athletic receiving option the Chiefs were hoping for when they drafted him in the third round out of Cincinnati 16 months ago. Against the Bengals, he caught a short pass over the middle and accelerated past the defense for a 69-yard touchdown. Afterwards, he said he’s continually proving to himself that he’s still the same athlete he was before his injury. Believe him.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
Anthony Fasano / Travis Kelce
A.J. Jenkins / Junior Hemingway / Albert Wilson / Kyle Williams
Ryan Succop / Cairo Santos
The slot receiver spot is hard to gauge given the injuries limiting Jenkins, Hemingway, and Williams in camp thus far. Wilson, a 5’ 9” rookie with 4.4 speed, went undrafted out of Georgia State and has made a strong impression on coaches in the others’ absence. He also had a nifty 63-yard kick return on Thursday…. Kelce’s strong camp and the offense’s need for the kinds of mismatches he can create should increase his snaps.... Though Parker is currently playing with the first team at corner, Smith is expected to win his job back. The interception he returned for a touchdown against the Bengals should help his cause.... The Brazilian-born Santos earned All-America honors as a junior at Tulane in 2012. He should push Succop through the preseason.
Thomas eluding the grasp of a tackler on his 80-yard punt return TD. (Jeff Moffett/Icon Sportswrire)
Best new player in camp
De’Anthony Thomas, the diminutive Oregon speedster in the No. 1 jersey who Kansas City will be using both out of the backfield and as a slot receiver. Against Cincinnati, Thomas absorbed a blow from Dre Kirkpatrick almost immediately upon receiving a punt, bounced off the defender, looped to the right around a coverage team that had been gunning to pin him against the left sideline, and took the ball 80 yards for a touchdown without a second defender touching him. Thomas enters the pros having already mastered caps-lock tweeting, which is something Chiefs fans will often do if he makes such big plays a common occurrence.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Justin Houston will lead the AFC in sacks. OK, so this isn’t going out on too far a limb—he was on pace for 16 sacks before his knee injury last season, which would have placed him second in the conference. But it would be quite an accomplishment for the 25-year-old linebacker, and particularly timely given his impending free agency.
What I thought when I walked out of Arrowhead Stadium
After last year’s nine steps forward, this season could see the Chiefs take a few back thanks to the back of the defense and front of the offense. Still, Andy Reid will keep his team in the hunt for a wild card spot, even if a run like last year’s opening stretch won’t be repeated.