After watching his Kansas City Chiefs stumble to a 4-12 mark behind a scattershot offense, coach Todd Haley entered the offseason intent on adding playmakers.
While most would prefer big, dynamic players in those roles, the Chiefs have discovered that good things can come from small packages.
Dexter McCluster, a second-round pick last April, has provided a spark as a multi-purpose weapon. The 5-foot-8, 170-pounder has scored as a receiver and returner, and given the Chiefs an explosive element that was lacking a season ago.
McCluster was viewed as a hybrid player in most draft war rooms, and offensive coordinators were divided on how to take advantage of his unique talents. As a senior at Mississippi, he tallied 1,169 rushing yards on only 181 attempts (6.5 yards per carry) with eight touchdowns against tough SEC competition. In addition, he had 44 receptions for 520 yards with three touchdowns as an occasional slot receiver. That versatility prompted the Chiefs to nab him with the 36th overall pick.
Although he has only played in a limited capacity as a running back, receiver, returner and Wildcat quarterback, McCluster has six plays of 20 yards or more, including a 94-yard punt return score and a 31-yard catch for a touchdown. His ability to deliver game-changing plays has encouraged Haley to use him in a Reggie Bush-like capacity to energize an offense that has sputtered at times despite the team's 3-0 record.
In the Chiefs' surprising win over the San Francisco 49ers, McCluster emerged as the team's top weapon in the passing game. His ability to turn short passes as a receiver out of the backfield into big gains alleviated some of the pressure on Matt Cassel, and gave the quarterback someone to turn to in critical situations.
Given the Chiefs' pedestrian offensive rankings (17th in total offense and 29th in passing), Haley will continue to increase McCluster's role as the season moves forward. The extra opportunities will lead to the kind of production that matches the highlights he has provided so far.
With that in mind, it should not come as a surprise to see McCluster's name among the list of Offensive Rookie of the Year contenders at season's end.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
1. Sam Bradford, Rams, QB (Week 2 ranking, 2): He continues to cement his status as one of the league's promising young throwers with his steady play in critical moments. In leading the Rams to their first win of the season, he showed the poise and confidence to make big plays with the game against the Redskins on the line.
4. C.J. Spiller, Bills, RB (NR): After getting off to a slow start, Spiller finally delivered the highlight plays that everyone has been anticipating with his performance against the Patriots. His 95-yard kick return touchdown followed up a 5-yard score on a bubble screen that showcased his versatility.
Most Valuable Player
1. Peyton Manning, Colts, QB (5): The four-time MVP continues to deliver in a workmanlike fashion. Manning has thrown at three touchdowns each week, and his 325-yard effort against the Broncos represents his second game with 300-plus yards this season.
2. Aaron Rodgers, Packers, QB (1): He has been outstanding directing the Packers' high-powered offense with efficiency. His 316-yard effort against the Bears was his first 300-yard game of the season.
3. Jay Cutler, Bears, QB (3): He has guided the Bears to an unbeaten record on the strength of three strong performances. While he failed to hit 300 yards passing against the Packers, Cutler made enough plays to guide his team to a big NFC North win.
Offensive Player of the Year
1. Michael Vick, Eagles, QB (5): He has regained his Pro Bowl form, and is back to dominating the league, albeit in a different manner. Vick finished with a passer rating over 100 for the third consecutive week, and passed for 250 yards in back-to-back games for the first time in his career.
5. Adrian Peterson, Vikings, RB (NR): The Vikings turned to their workhorse to right their offensive woes and he delivered. Peterson topped the century mark for the second straight game and is second in the league with 392 yards rushing.
Defensive Player of the Year
2. James Harrison, Steelers, OLB (2): He was held without a sack for the first time this season, but continues to be a major factor. His presence off the edge makes opponents have to slide their protection in his direction, which frees up his teammates to make plays from the backside.
3. DeMarcus Ware, Cowboys, OLB (NR): With his team facing a must-win situation, Ware stepped up. He tallied three sacks against the Texans, and dominated the action with his sideline-to-sideline pursuit.
4. Troy Polamalu, Steelers, S (NR): The Steelers' suffocating defense features two players on this list, but both are worthy of inclusion. Polamalu has two interceptions, and continues to set the tone for the unit with his hard-hitting style.
5. Tamba Hali, Chiefs, OLB (NR): The Chiefs' surprising unbeaten start has been sparked by their punishing defense with Hali leading the way. His three-sack effort against the San Francisco 49ers was indicative of the harassment Alex Smith felt in the pocket.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
1. Ndamukong Suh, Lions, DT (1): He has been as good as advertised as the Lions' dominant interior force. Even though he has started to face double teams on an every-down basis, Suh continues to set the table for the unit with his consistent penetration.
3. Earl Thomas, Seahawks, S (NR): The Seahawks' opportunistic defense has been sparked by Thomas' presence. He picked off two passes in the upset win over the Chargers, and showed a knack for being around the ball.
5. Sean Weatherspoon, Falcons, LB (4): The Falcons' defense looks much improved during the early part of the season, and Weatherspoon has been a major factor. The rookie not only leads the team in tackles, but his ability to run and cover has allowed coach Mike Smith to be more aggressive on defense.
Coach of the Year
1. Todd Haley, Chiefs (3): It's time to recognize Haley for the exceptional job that he has done in rebuilding the Chiefs. The team's formidable running game is complemented by an opportunistic defense that is playing at a high level.
2. Mike Tomlin, Steelers (2): The hard-nosed coach has guided the team to an unbeaten mark despite missing the services of his two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback. With his defense emerging as the premier unit in the league, Tomlin has the Steelers in line to make a strong run at a title.