NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps over the next few weeks. Bucky Brooks details his visit with the Kansas City Chiefs. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
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The Chiefs hosted a night practice at Spratt Stadium on the campus of Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Mo. The night skies were gorgeous, but the stifling heat and humidity created a challenging environment for players and fans.
1. Matt Cassel looks good directing Brian Daboll's offense. After enduring an offseason of harsh criticism following a disappointing performance a season ago, Cassel has been impressive through the first few days of camp. He looks confident and decisive in the pocket, and his accurate throws are the result of his self-assuredness as a playmaker. More importantly, Cassel appears to have complete command of Daboll's offense. He repeatedly worked through progressions to identify the second and third options in the route, and his efficiency has allowed the Chiefs' passing game to thrive, even with top target Dwayne Bowe missing in action (holdout). In addition, Cassel's keen understanding of the scheme has enabled him to get the Chiefs out of bad plays against certain fronts through checks and audibles.
2. The emergence of Jon Baldwin has lessened the impact of Bowe's absence. The buzz surrounding Chiefs camp has centered on the rapid development of Baldwin, who has been sensational. I walked away impressed with his playmaking potential. Baldwin possesses the size, speed and athleticism to overwhelm defenders in isolated matchups, and he has started to figure out how to utilize his superior physical traits to dominate on the perimeter. Chiefs officials raved about his ability to make highlight catches appear routine. During the night practice, he demonstrated those traits by making an acrobatic catch in the end zone during which he used his extraordinary length to reach up high to grab a ball before nimbly dragging his feet along the end line. If he can continue to display this kind of playmaking ability, the absence of Bowe will not impact the Chiefs' chances of fielding a top 10-caliber offense in 2012.
3. Eric Berry's return makes the Chiefs' defense scary good. After playing the majority of the last season without their most versatile and explosive defensive playmaker, the Chiefs' defense is set to become a dominant unit upon his return. Berry has the capacity to cover wide receivers or tight ends in the slot, and is a gritty defender in the running game. Coach Romeo Crennel capitalized on his unique skills in 2010 by deploying him in various alignments to neutralize the opponent's top threat in the middle of the field. In addition, he would occasionally send him off the edge on blitzes to add speed and athleticism to the pass rush. After watching Berry closely at practice, I'm convinced that he hasn't lost a step following his ACL surgery and is certainly capable of reprising his role as the Chiefs' designated playmaker. With more AFC teams set to feature the tight end as a primary option in the passing game, the return of Berry provides an effective counter to the tactic.
4. Justin Houston will become a household name in 2012. After studying Houston on game tape and watching him work in practice, I'm convinced the Chiefs have an emerging superstar on their hands. Houston displays outstanding first-step quickness and shows a natural knack for getting to the quarterback off the edge. Last season, he provided a glimpse of his immense potential when he tallied 5.5 sacks in the team's final five games. While Houston must continue to refine his hand skills and countermoves, he possesses all of the requisite traits (speed, athleticism and burst) that you look for in an elite pass rusher. Playing opposite Tamba Hali, he will thrive against the isolated matchups he receives. If the Chiefs can routinely force opponents into long-yardage situations by successfully defending the run, I would expect to see Houston collect 10-plus sacks as a second-year player.
THE NEW GUYS
Peyton Hillis: After suffering through a miserable 2011 campaign, Hillis looks ready to be a key contributor for the Chiefs. He reported to camp in outstanding shape and is running the rock with the urgency and physicality that made him a feared runner in Cleveland. With Hillis also displaying soft hands and superb receiving skills in practice, it wouldn't surprise me to see the Chiefs use him as a feature back in a variety of sub packages to take advantage of his versatility.
Eric Winston: The Chiefs desperately needed to upgrade their offensive line on the perimeter after struggling last season, and Winston certainly fits the bill. He has shored up the right side of the line with his athleticism and quickness, allowing the Chiefs to incorporate more zone-based running schemes into their package. With Daboll intent on fielding an offense that can attack with the run or pass, the addition of Winston was a major coup for the Chiefs in the offseason.
Dontari Poe: A lot has been made about the Chiefs' decision to select Poe with the 11th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, based on his "boom-or-bust" potential following a non-descript career at Memphis. But he looks like a solid inside defender in drills. I love his combination of athleticism, strength and power, and believe he will emerge as an effective inside rusher in the Chiefs' nickel package. Although Poe will eventually need to become a starter and dominant all-around player to justify his lofty draft status, I don't mind Kansas City bringing him along slowly to foster his development.
"There is no doubt that this is the best personnel group we've had since we've been here in Kansas City."
-- Cassel, telling reporters about the multitude of offensive weapons at his disposal.
1. Daboll's system will challenge the football aptitude of the Chiefs' opponents with constant pre-snap movement. During the practice, the Chiefs routinely put one or two players on the move before the snap, and the dizzying array of formations will certainly lead to mental mistakes from the opposition. While several offensive coordinators throughout the league utilize intricate pre-snap movement to create favorable matchups along the line, Daboll's usage of motions and shifts is complemented by a constant shuttling of offensive personnel that makes it difficult to anticipate his intentions. With Hillis, Dexter McCluster and Kevin Boss possessing the athleticism and versatility to align in multiple spots, the frenetic pre-snap approach of the Chiefs should lead to better production from the offense in 2012.
2. Attention to the fundamentals is a priority. The defense went through an assortment of bag drills that reminded me of the "county fair" agility circuit often performed at high school practices. From the defensive linemen to the defensive backs, each member of the defense performed a series of high knee drills, lateral shuffles and "W" movements that emphasize the proper balance and body position needed to perform at a high level. Meanwhile, the offense ran through a series of "perfect plays" during the opening period of practice to simulate the proper execution of the unit's key plays without facing a defense. Although these drills are commonplace throughout the league, the priority placed on the attention to detail was apparent by the speed and urgency displayed by the players.
3. Remember the name Anthony Toribio. The unheralded nose tackle has been one of the most impressive performers in training camp. Although he wasn't expected to fill a role as a starter due to the arrival of Poe, he has been so good during workouts that he continues to run with the first unit and could be the linchpin that allows the Chiefs' talented linebacker corps to roam freely in the middle. When I asked about what makes Toribio so effective in the middle, Chiefs officials cited his strength, leverage and flawless technique. Given the importance of the nose tackle to the Chiefs' version of the 3-4, Toribio could become the most important player on an underrated defensive front.
The Chiefs should be the overwhelming favorites to win the AFC West based on their personnel. They are the most talented team in the division on both sides of the ball, and the return of several key playmakers should make them a popular sleeper to make a run at the AFC crown. Although they must develop an identity on offense to suit their talent, there is a lot to like about the Chiefs heading into the 2012 campaign.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.