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Five Burning Questions Concerning the Chiefs

Find out the top five questions concerning the Kansas City Chiefs heading into the 2015 season.

Mark Gunnels



Heading into the 2015 campaign, expectations are very high in Kansas City. After a season of up and downs, some believe this Chiefs squad is poised to reach the postseason, while potentially dethroning the Denver Broncos in the AFC West.

With training camp just being a couple weeks away, let’s take a look at five questions the Chiefs must answer if they want to make serious noise.

Can Alex Smith take KC to the promised land?

The Kansas City Chiefs haven’t been to the Super Bowl since 1969, which is when the franchise won their lone championship. To make matters worse, Kansas City hasn’t won a playoff game since 1993.

While it’ll take a collective effort to reach the Super Bowl, a lot of the weight will be on Alex Smith’s shoulders. Fans locally continue to question if the former No. 1 overall pick has what it takes to lead a team to the big game.

Chiefs star pass rusher Justin Houston believes in Smith.

“I’m very convinced. The past two years we’ve had winning seasons. But we need some more pieces. This year I feel our offensive line struggled a little bit. We had some injuries on our offensive line that caused him to get sacked more than usual. But I think we can do it with Alex.”

Last season, the Chiefs wide receivers weren’t able to catch a single receiving touchdown. This historic feat has only happened three times, with the 1964 New York Giants being the previous team to complete the embarrassing season.

It’s easy to blame Smith for not distributing the ball, but at the same time Kansas City’s receiving corps was less than stellar.

In past years, Dwayne Bowe was the Chiefs one saving grace, but after his Pro Bowl season in 2010, Bowe’s production fell off dramatically.  Bowe had 15 touchdowns in 2010, and over the past four seasons he’s only accumulated 13.

With Jeremy Maclin in Kansas City now, there should be no reason why Smith doesn’t produce at a higher level.

“[He’s] a guy that just does it all,” said Smith. “I don’t think you can really pigeonhole him in any one facet of the receiver game. A guy that can do all of those things really well, move him inside, move him outside, he’s good outside the numbers, he’s really fast, he’s good in and out of breaks.”

Maclin is also a legitimate deep ball threat, which is something Smith isn’t known for. Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson wants Smith to be more aggressive. 

“We’ve got to sort of retrain, rethink just a little bit,” Pederson said. “But going from that first year to where we are now with (Smith), now he sees that kind of stuff. It’s just a matter of cutting loose.”

Kansas City only had four completions of 35 yards or more last season, which ranked dead last in the NFL.

“If he misses a down-the-field throw, it’s my job and it’s our job to show him on tape exactly what he’s looking at in order to see that throw,” Pederson added. “That’s the development of a quarterback. You do want to be aggressive. You’ve got to stay on the edge of aggression. When the throw is there, you make it. That’s part of what we teach.”

The Chiefs have Smith under contract for the next three years and with their championship window being open right now, they’ll need Smith to deliver in order for them to get where they want to be.

Who will be the #2 receiver?

The Chiefs finally have a legit No. 1 receiver in Jeremy Maclin, but what about the rest of the guys?

Well, after Maclin, there’s little to be desired. The candidates for the second receiver job are Albert Wilson, Jason Avant, Frankie Hammond, De’Anthony Thomas and rookie Chris Conley.

None of those receivers have ever caught over 60 passes in a season, so it’s clearly going to be a learning curve for whomever wins the job.

One would assume second year Albert Wilson has the inside track, considering how he bursted onto the scene during the latter stages of last season.

“[I’m] more comfortable out there,” Wilson said. “[I’m] just trying to take advantage of this opportunity. We’re still early in the season in OTAs and we still have camp to go, so I’m just out there fighting for a spot.”

Don’t overlook Chris Conley. After all, Kansas City did invest a third round pick on the 6-foot-3 Georgia product. He has all of the physical tools to be a factor in this league, but just like any other rookie, the question is how long will it take him to fully understand the playbook?

Veteran receiver Jason Avant sees the upside in the rookie.

“He can play; he can play some football,” Avant said of Conley. “Real fast guy, he has to learn the little small things at this stage. Those are the big things from graduating to the next level. He has the potential to be really, really good.”

If Conley is able to pick up things quickly, he’ll see a lot of action immediately.

“I’ve been lucky enough to have some young guys that came in as rookies and played for us in a big role,” head coach Andy Reid said. “I’d tell you generally it takes a wide receiver a year or two or three to learn.”

Can Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito turn KC’s run defense around?

Typically, a championship formula consist of being able to run the ball and stopping the run. The latter is what hindered Kansas City last year.

In 2013, Kansas City had the 11th-ranked run defense, but last year they dipped all the way down to 28th. A major reason for the free fall was the losses of former Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive end Mike DeVito. Both guys went down with Achilles injuries in Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans.

The presence of Johnson and DeVito alone should improve Kansas City’s defense, but how much?

Johnson just has to get back into the flow of things.

“As far as being explosive and running, I’m there,” Johnson said. “It’s just, I’ve got to get the mental part down again. It’s like riding a bike. I’ll get there. I’m very confident in myself.”

The road back to this point wasn’t a breeze, but going through it together made things easier.

“We were brothers before, but we really built that bond even more so,” DeVito said. You don’t really know the person you’re with when you face adversity with them, so it was awesome. I don’t know if I would have made it to this point right now if it wasn’t for working with DJ.”

Until we see Johnson and DeVito in action, it’s impossible to fully dissect how they’ll perform, but Johnson seems confident.

“As long as we stay healthy,” Johnson said, “we’ll do a lot for this team.”
Will Jamaal Charles begin to wear down?
When you think about the Chiefs offense, the first name that comes to mind is Jamaal Charles and for good reason.
Last year, Charles only carried the ball 206 times, which is a low total for him compared to the previous two seasons, where he had 259 and 285 carries respectively.
Charles turns 29 this winter and that puts him close to the running back danger zone of 30. When most running backs hit 30, it’s the beginning of the end. However, the 4-time pro bowler doesn’t see it like that.
“I want to play another six years,” Charles said. “I’m seeing guys at 37 or 38 still playing football in the trenches and that’s somewhere where you don’t want to play. So I just want to change the game with the running backs. I want this to last longer and then when I retire, I’ll be happy with where I end my career at.”
The Chiefs star running back has been dealing with injuries throughout his career, including last year, but he was able to play through the pain. 
“It was just frustrating. It wasn’t the line; it was just me getting hurt,” Charles explained. “I had never played a whole season where I had nagging injuries and I can go in and I’ve got to come back out because my ankle hurt. And that was all the frustration? it wasn’t about the team. The team did a great job. We won nine games last year, so it couldn’t be the team.”
One way to make sure Charles stays fresh is to give backup Knile Davis more opportunities. And if you ask Davis, he feels he’s just as good as Charles.
The third year back out of Arkansas had a career-high in carries last year with 134.
Will Eric Berry return?
3-time Pro Bowler Eric Berry only appeared in six games last year because he was diagnosed with Hodgkins disease, which is a form of cancer. After the shocking news surfaced, Berry released this touching message.
“My family and I are very grateful for the amount of support we have received over the last couple of weeks,” Barry said in a statement. “I can’t tell you enough how much I appreciate all the words of encouragement, the blessings and well wishes. I want to thank the Emory University School of Medicine, along with Dr. Flowers and his team, for all of their hard work and effort in diagnosing and creating a plan for me to battle this thing. I will embrace this process and attack it the same way I do everything else in life. God has more than prepared me for it. For everyone sharing similar struggles, I’m praying for you and keep fighting!”
Months later, Berry has now completed all of his cancer treatments and according to Andy Reid, he’s been making good progress.
“Everything up to this point has been very positive from the doctor and from Eric, so I think we’re heading in the right direction with that.”
As unlikely as it may have seemed that Berry could be back, newly paid pass rusher Justin Houston appears to be optimistic.
“I think it’ll be really big,” Houston said. “I think he’s one of the best safeties in the game. Any time you get one of the key pieces to your defense back, it’ll help a lot.”
Kansas City had the second best pass defense last year, but a major part of that was their ability to get consistent pressure on the quarterback. If Berry is able to return, this already good defense would be downright scary.

Mark Gunnels is an NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has several years of experience covering the NFL and NCAA football. He's the radio color commentator for Lincoln University football. Mark's work has been featured on Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and Yard Barker.

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