Offseason Wrap-Up: Expecting increased competition at Chiefs training camp

Posted Jun 19, 2012

Three positions to watch heading into training camp

The Chiefs wrapped up their offseason program last week with plenty of excitement.

Head coach Romeo Crennel enters the summer genuinely pleased with the progress he saw during his first offseason at the helm. General manager Scott Pioli also carried a positive outlook when talking about the team’s roster during a volunteer trip to Joplin, Mo. last Friday.

“I’ll say this – we’re all very encouraged,” Pioli said. “Romeo is encouraged, I’m encouraged and I think everyone on this entire coaching staff is encouraged. The players are encouraged. We’ve seen signs of progress that we’re encouraged about.”

Every NFL city is excited this time of year with all 32 teams deadlocked in the standings. Regardless, from top to bottom, this looks to be the deepest roster the Chiefs have put together since Pioli arrived in Kansas City three-plus years ago.

During last week’s Chiefs LIVE, I asked “Voice of the Chiefs” Mitch Holthus for position-by-position analysis of the Chiefs roster exiting the offseason program (watch that analysis here). To Holthus, Chiefs training camp is all about increased depth and competition.

As a follow-up to last week’s segment, here are three positions I find particularly interesting heading into training camp.

Three Interesting Positions to Watch

1.)    Fullback

After 10 OTA sessions and a three-day minicamp, I’m still uncertain of how new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll will utilize the fullback position. It’s an answer I don’t think we’ll receive until Jamaal Charles returns for a healthy pairing with Peyton Hillis.

Right now, it’s a pair of inexperienced players battling for the job. There’s Shane Bannon, a former seventh-round pick who spent the majority of his rookie season on the practice squad injured list, and Taylor Gentry, an undrafted rookie out of NC State.

“Every day is different,” Bannon said. “We have different sets every day and I’m looking forward to seeing how (Daboll) is going to use us. Sometimes we’re split outside, sometimes we’re in the backfield and sometimes we’re up on the line. You’re not sure what each day brings, but it’s pretty exciting and I’m looking forward to seeing what he has in store for us this August.”

“Definitely getting a lot of reps, getting a lot of work,” Gentry added. “We are rotating in and out with the ones, twos and threes.  Just getting reps and trying to find some work.”

Daboll has a history of using both traditional and hybrid fullbacks over his career as an offensive coordinator.

Last year, in Miami, Daboll moved around versatile tight end/h-back Charles Clay to create mismatches against base defensive personnel. Look at the tape of Miami’s 31-3 win in Kansas City to see the mismatches a versatile fullback can produce.

However, during his time in Cleveland, Daboll opted for a traditional bruiser in veteran fullback Lawrence Vickers. 

The Chiefs will have several options this August at the position.

There’s the option of going the traditional route with Bannon or Gentry. Flexibility can be found in tight end Jake O’Connell, who’s shifted in and around the backfield during his time with the Chiefs. Then there is the wildcard in Hillis, who began his career as a fullback and briefly played the position under Daboll before moving to tailback on a permanent basis.

Could Hillis do a bit of both in Kansas City? Thus far, we’ve only seen him lineup at tailback.

We’ll see which direction Daboll heads once the backfield returns to full strength.

2.)    Cornerback

This position will be interesting to watch for a number of reasons.

First, there will be a change to the starting lineup for the first time since 2008. Brandon Carr made 64 consecutive starts over the past four seasons before departing this offseason via free agency. Former Raider Stanford Routt is slated to start at Carr’s old post opposite Brandon Flowers.

Much of the focus this preseason will be on Routt and his ability to replicate the standard of play that made him one of the NFL’s best supporting cornerbacks two seasons ago. Routt was at his best playing opposite All-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha in 2010, but struggled with penalties as the feature corner in Oakland’s press-man coverage last year.

While Routt’s transition is worth watching, so is the fight for positions behind him.

The battle for sub-package jobs will be strong enough between Javier Arenas, Jalil Brown, Travis Daniels and De’Quan Menzie, but what about the primary reserve job on the outside behind Flowers and Routt?

Since 2008, the Chiefs have opened just five games without a Flowers/Carr combination. It was Flowers who went down to injury on all five occasions. In the last such instance, which occurred in 2010, the Chiefs opted to start inexperienced Jackie Bates over both Arenas and Daniels. Bates would go on to tear his ACL that game, thrusting Daniels into outside cornerback duties.

Last year, it was Daniels who received the majority of outside snaps when Flowers suffered an in-game ankle injury at San Diego. Daniels would appear to be the front-runner for that job again, but moved to safety during OTAs and minicamp.

“I’ve always been a guy that can play multiple positions, just being a guy that the team can count on and to go in there and handle those roles whenever,” Daniels said.  “It’s hard because in this game you are always preparing for the unknown, you never know when a guy may go down for whatever the reason may be and I like to pride myself being that guy that can go in and step in and fill that role.”

The Chiefs currently roster 19 defensive backs, which is an unusually high number heading into training camp.

3.)    4th…5th…6th? Wide Receiver

Dexter McCluster is a receiver. Or maybe he’s still a running back.

The Chiefs are leaving their options open with McCluster heading into training camp, listing him as a running back on the official roster but giving him a full-slate of work at slot receiver during offseason practices.

McCluster is the team’s offensive wildcard in its most literal sense.

Running back Cyrus Gray and wide receiver Devon Wylie, both 2012 draft picks, nursed hamstring injuries during OTAs. If a hammy flares up again down the road, the Chiefs have the flexibility to utilize McCluster wherever the offense is running thin.  If everyone is healthy, McCluster can shift around based on offensive gameplan.

It’s worth noting that McCluster looked solid this offseason during his move back to slot receiver, especially in Red Zone work. McCluster’s permanent home and Wylie’s development are only two factors in a position group that should be fun to watch from top to bottom.

Jonathan Baldwin’s highlight-reel catches stole the show this offseason and Steve Breaston continues to be his speedy, reliable self. Terrance Copper is a viable veteran that has historically been one of the team’s top special teams producers.

But there are plenty of other players pushing for reserve positions as well.

Josh Bellamy, undrafted out of Louisville, caught Crennel’s eye throughout OTAs and has a brief history at cornerback that can only help his special teams cause. Seventh-round draft pick Junior Hemingway had a solid minicamp last week and Jeremy Horne has been on and off the active roster for two seasons.

You can bet those won’t be the only names looking to make noise at camp.

Of course, Dwayne Bowe’s contract situation also plays into the events that make this position one to watch.

Honorable Mention

Reserve Linebackers – With two Pro Bowlers in Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson, the team’s rookie of the year in Justin Houston and a blue-collar thumper in Jovan Belcher, the Chiefs cast of front-line linebackers is thought by many to be the class of the AFC West.

But what about their backups?

Inside linebacker is especially interesting with Brandon Siler on the mend from an Achilles surgery. If he’s at full strength, the unit only gets stronger. If he’s not, the door is open for a new face to make an impact.

At outside linebacker, longtime reserve Andy Studebaker will be fighting off a pair of former fifth-round picks in Cameron Sheffield and Gabe Miller. It’s likely these three players will compete for just two positions.

Backup Quarterback – Brady Quinn and Ricky Stanzi traded second-team reps throughout offseason work and will command plenty of media coverage throughout training camp.

Swing Tackle – Who’s ready to step-up as the swing tackle behind Branden Albert and Eric Winston? David Mims boasts raw talent and third-round draft pick Donald Stephenson is one of several young players trying to find his way.

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