Training camp postcard: Chiefs
SI.com has dispatched 10 writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. For the complete schedule of postcards, click here.
SETTING THE SCENE
The Chiefs practice at the University of Wisconsin's River Falls campus. The place has the feel of Mayberry, with its country-like setting and slow pace. It's the kind of town that has a one-screen movie theater, and the locals line the street to see the latest blockbuster. There wasn't much to be seen at practice Wednesday because the team held only one "workout," a walkthrough in preparation of Thursday's exhibition opener at Chicago. As for being in River Falls, a handful of players said they couldn't be happier. The temperature Wednesday was in the low 80s with a nice breeze. During the week back home in Kansas City, the heat index was said to be in the neighborhood of 100.
1. You definitely need a roster when attending practice. Rarely has a team remade itself as quickly as the Chiefs have. In one offseason, they went from being one of the league's oldest clubs to having an astounding 30 first-year players in training camp, though most of them will have a tough time making the roster. The youth movement was not by accident. After the club lost its final nine games to finish 4-12, coach Herm Edwards and management decided to turn the roster upside down and rebuild through the draft and rely on young players.
2. QB Brodie Croyle appears more comfortable and authoritative entering his third season. He lost a training-camp competition for the No. 1 job last season but showed enough in starting six of the final seven games to be named the starter in the offseason. Edwards says Croyle is light years ahead of where he was at this point last year. That's good because the Chiefs are going to need him to move the chains. Kansas City ranked second in the league last year with 63 three-and-outs on offense. In fact, 32.5 percent of its offensive possessions ended in three-and-outs, tying San Francisco for the league high.
"He is a different guy, just from throwing the ball, command, everything," Edwards says of Croyle. "Quarterbacking is the key to this league. ... What young guys have to learn is, they don't have to do everything. Just do these (few) things well, and that other stuff will come. But they get impatient because they feel the pressure of, I've got to put the team on my back because I'm the quarterback. No, you don't."
3. Running back Larry Johnson says he is fully recovered from the foot injury that caused him to miss the final eight games last season. He says he initially thought he would be out only a few weeks but then learned the hairline fracture was on an off-center joint. That meant a longer recovery time. "It was an injury that you really don't see football players get," Johnson says. "It was kind of a freak injury."
Johnson says he didn't start jogging again until Week 14 or 15, but still was unable to cut without pain. It wasn't until the offseason workouts that he started feeling like his former self, adding: "To be able to go out there and run plays and cut, I felt good doing that. I was able to run full speed and not have to worry about it. That's when I felt I was back."
NEW FACES, NEW PLACES
There are too many to list. All of them are young. The team passed on free agency to give its youngsters a shot.
LOOKING AT THE SCHEDULE
Edwards would like to generate early momentum to help build confidence among his young players. The schedule could work in his favor. After a tough opener at New England, the Chiefs play four consecutive opponents who failed to win more than seven games last season: Oakland (4-12), at Atlanta (4-12), Denver (7-9) and at Carolina (7-9). The Chiefs figure to get stronger as the season progresses -- barring injury -- because their young players should become better acclimated to what it takes to succeed. Edwards says he can envision five rookies starting at some point this year, and a few others who'll see playing time.
MEMORABLE IMAGE FROM CAMP
The Chiefs made a splash on the opening day of the draft by acquiring the highest-rated defensive tackle (Glenn Dorsey) and one of the higher-rated offensive linemen (Branden Albert) in the top half of the first round. But both are sidelined with injuries. Dorsey has a sprained knee that will cause him to miss time in the preseason, though the club is optimistic he'll be ready for the season opener. The prognosis is less rosy for Albert. He has a foot injury and currently is getting around on crutches. Albert says he expects to be ready for the season opener. But the club has no firm timetable for his return because foot injuries can be tricky on men the size of Albert (6-foot-5, 316).
Johnson carried the ball a staggering 752 times over the 2005 and '06 seasons, a pace that has been known to cut years off a career. But Johnson says he feels fresher this year than he has in some time. "For some reason now, my legs aren't as sore as I thought they'd be. I don't know if it's conditioning or if I've just gotten used to things. I really haven't changed much of anything. I still finish plays, finish runs, 50 yards or 60 yards down the field. But they haven't given me any soreness."
Johnson figures to remain fairly fresh during the season because the Chiefs have greater depth at the position this year. Rookie Jamaal Charles and former practice-squadder Jackie Battle have looked good, and 2007 backup Kolby Smith was having a solid camp until straining a leg muscle.
A player to keep an eye on this season is outside linebacker Derrick Johnson. He is entering his fourth season and will be given greater opportunities to rush the passer this season. His production also could take a leap because he's getting extra coaching from coordinator Gunther Cunningham, who is doing double-duty as the linebackers coach this season.
"I've learned so much from him being my linebackers coach," Johnson says. "It's a little different from just working with him as the defensive coordinator. He knows a hell of a lot more than I thought he knew, a lot more. He's coached all the positions and he's coached Pro Bowl linebackers before, guys like Derrick Thomas and Keith Bulluck. For me to try to step into that small circle of great ones that he has coached, it's a great opportunity for me to show what I can do. He's going to put a lot of responsibility on me and put me in positions to make plays."
The offensive line has a new starter at every position except left guard, where Brian Waters returns. Damion McIntosh has been switched from left tackle to right tackle (it's the first time in his nine-year career that he is being counted on to play the right side -- he spent a game or two in an emergency situation one year in Miami); Albert has been penciled in at left tackle, and third-year center Rudy Niswanger is projected to make his first pro start this season.
One player who has caught the staff's attention is second-year defensive tackle Tank Tyler. He struggled at times last season after being drafted in the third round, but he's been a force this summer. "I watched tape on him last night and I went, 'Dang, he figured it,'" says Cunningham. "I watched him play a game in college against Boston College, and I had never seen anybody dominate a game like that as a defensive lineman. Last night, I saw that on tape of him out here. When I saw him this morning, I said, 'Were we playing BC on this field yesterday?' "
Added linebacker Derrick Johnson: "Tank has really surprised me this year. I don't know if it's because of Glenn coming in or what, but he's got a fire under his butt. That's good. We need him to play like that." Tyler is working with the first unit while Dorsey is sidelined.