If the past two weeks’ of OTA’s are any indication, things are going to be hot in River Falls this summer. The fight has already begun for roster spots and depth chart positions at several key positions, particularly on defense. New faces dot the roster, and there are even some familiar faces at new positions. Each player is determined to stake his place on the team.
The biggest fight is at linebacker, where several quality players are gearing up to fight for one of two starting spots. Realistically, if healthy, OLB Kendrell Bell will start, being the most accomplished linebacker on the Chiefs roster. At middle linebacker and the linebacker spot opposite Bell, however, it remains to be seen which players will be the starters in September.
Competing for the middle linebacker spot are incumbent starter Kawika Mitchell and 2005 fifth round pick Boomer Grigsby. Also looming are veteran linebackers Mike Maslowski, who, although injured last season, is quietly become healthier, and Rich Scanlon, the phenom of NFL Europe, who’s been head and shoulders above the other linebackers in that league.
Although supremely talented, Mitchell has had trouble being consistently effective in defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham’s schemes. While the Chiefs are being patient with him, they are promoting competition for his spot. Boomer Grigsby, though young and still green, has the athleticism, smarts and attitude to play the middle linebacker position. Under linebacker coach Fred Pagac’s tutelage, Grigby could develop into a real player in the NFL.
Maslowski, whose injury in 2003 derailed a potential Super Bowl season, has been quietly rehabbing since last summer, actually appears healthy. The Chiefs have been very cautious in Maslowski return to the field. If he is truly healthy, the competition for the middle linebacker could be over. Maslowski is a self made player, tough and smart. He made several key plays during the Chiefs 13-3 2003 campaign.
Rich Scanlon has been a pleasant surprise for the Chiefs. The front office allotted him to the Berlin Thunder of NFL Europe, and he has made the most of the opportunity. Scanlon is leading the league in tackles, and has been voted defensive player of the week twice. If he brings the same torrid play to training camp, he will be difficult to ignore.
On the outside, the competition has been fierce. 2004 starter Shawn Barber will be sidelined with a knee injury he sustained last season until training camp, possibly even into the season. In his absence, former starter and 2004 leading tackler Scott Fujita, Keyaron Fox, and former Texas standout Derrick Johnson are battling it out for the position. Also in the mix is special teamer Gary Stills, making the switch from defensive end to outside linebacker.
Fujita is a solid, scrappy young linebacker who has been a starter ever since the Chiefs drafted him in the fifth round of the 2002 NFL Draft. Fujita is an ascending player who, although he has been solid, has found his way into the coach’s doghouse and must work hard to regain the favor of the staff. Keyaron Fox, after a lackluster camp in 2004, has been a force of nature in the OTA’s. It appears that the light has come on for him. Fox has been consistently blowing up plays and showing the playmaking ability the Chiefs felt he had when they drafted him out of Georgia Tech.
So far, Derrick Johnson has justified the Chiefs selecting him with the 15th pick in this year’s draft. He has impressed everyone with his enthusiasm, athleticism and playmaking ability. Johnson has been blowing up plays like a veteran all through the OTA’s to this point. Gunther Cunningham remarked on the radio last week, that if he could build a linebacker from the ground up, the end result would be Derrick Johnson.
Also vying for a spot is Gary Stills, pass rushing specialist and special teams standout. While still a bit heavier than the prototypical linebacker, Stills’ athleticism and ability to rush the quarterback cannot be denied. The ability to apply quarterback pressure will take you far in Coach Cunningham’s attacking scheme, and if Stills can grasp the other aspects and nuances of the linebacker position, he will be tough to beat out.
While the linebacker battle rages, there is also fighting for position in the defensive secondary. Truthfully, the cornerback position has been a weakness throughout Dick Vermeil’s tenure as head coach. However, with the much improved play of Eric Warfield last year, and now the addition of Patrick Surtain this off-season, the starting corners look set for years to come. The competition is at the nickel and dime spots, the third and fourth corner.
Veterans Dexter McCleon, Julian Battle and Benny Sapp, and rookies Justin Perkins and Alphonso Hodge, are all fighting for the third, fourth and fifth cornerback positions. McCleon is coming off a difficult 2004 season, where he was hurt for a few games and when he got back on the field, was thoroughly demoralized by season’s end. Despite the disappointing performance, McCleon is still a savvy veteran, who was overmatched playing on the outside against the league’s top receivers. He belongs on the inside, playing against teams’ third and fourth receivers.
McCleon was actually brought in to fill the nickel role, but was pressed into a starting role in 2003, where he filled in admirably. Now, with the starters set, McCleon can go back to his natural role.
Benny Sapp, an undrafted rookie in 2004, played very well last season. With the Chiefs unable to find the consistent answer at the second and third corner spots, Sapp stepped in and provided the team with quality play. Now, with a full year under his belt, Sapp is looking to be the stable presence at nickel the Chiefs are looking for. Sapp was hurt in the last OTA, but he looks to be ready for training camp.
Fifth round draft pick Alphonso Hodge from Miami (Ohio) has been an absolute force of nature. Hodge has looked like a seasoned veteran. He’s had an answer for everything the coaching staff has thrown at him so far. There are whispers that he may be the front runner for the nickel spot. Fellow undrafted free agent rookie Justin Perkins from Connecticut has looked just as impressive in the early stages of the OTA’s. These two rookies are like a breath of fresh air for the Chiefs, who haven’t seen their cornerback draftees play this in years. .
Julian Battle looks to be the odd man out. Somewhat of a project for the Chiefs, Battle has not become the force the front office thought he would become after being selected in the third round in 2003. A superb athlete, Battle has had trouble grasping the cornerback position at this level. The Chiefs have been patient with him, but in the upcoming training camp, he will find that patience growing thinner. With the rookies playing as well as they are, it will take a strong camp to regain the confidence of the coaches.
Finally there is the battle at safety, which will be the camp battle that garners the most attention. With the addition of Sammy Knight, who it is assumed will man the strong side, incumbent starters Greg Wesley and Jerome Woods will fight for the remaining starting spot. Wesley has been manning the free safety position while Woods, who has manned that position for the last decade, was away, choosing to workout in his hometown of Memphis.
Wesley is younger and more athletic, and has made a ton of tackles from the strong safety position in the five years he has been a Chief. Woods is a tough, smart veteran, who, with the exception of last season, has played the free safety position as well as anyone over the last several years.
This years training camp will be the one of the most spirited camps in the history of the Kansas City Chiefs. With so many talented players vying for a limited number of spots, it will raise the level of play of each player on the roster. True competition has a synergistic effect on teams. When players know that there is a talented player on the bench or practice squad, they raise their level of performance to ensure their spots on the team. At the outset of the off-season, it was apparent that one of the things the Chiefs wanted to do was encourage competition. To the detriment to the rest of the NFL, it looks like they got their wish.