Chiefs mailbag: Diving into the deep ball

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This edition of the mailbag tackles questions on the passing game and the offensive line, among other subjects, with the first week of voluntary organized team activities (OTAs) in the books.

It is important to consider a few areas for context before responding to this two-part question.

Everybody loves the deep ball, but keep in mind the system when it comes to Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who runs the West Coast offense.

The scheme’s design in its purest form places an emphasis on short, timing routes within 10 to 15 yards from the line of scrimmage, which is why versatile running backs and the tight end position are critical to the system’s success.

Reid’s scheme, of course, will incorporate deep throws once the defense has softened.

A look at quarterback Alex Smith’s statistics in 2014, where he completed 303-of-464 passes for 3,265 yards, reflect he accomplished what was asked of him in the short to intermediate game.

Smith completed 91-of-115 passes for 491 yards with throws behind the line of scrimmage for 491 yards; 163-of-250 passes for 1,780 yards of plays between 1-10 yards; and 45-of-80 passes for 860 yards for passes thrown between 11-20 yards.

The deep ball, however, proved another matter.

Smith completed 3-of-18 passes for 114 yards between 21 to 41-plus yards, with the two longest connections coming on a 41-yard pass to wide receiver Jason Avant in Week 14, and then a 48-yard pass to then-rookie wide receiver Albert Wilson in Week 15.

Horrific offensive line play in 2014 that saw Smith get sacked a career-high 45 times likely played a role in the Chiefs’ inability to stretch the field, however.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Maclin recorded 85 catches for 1,318 yards (15.5 yards per catch average) and 10 touchdowns on 143 targets with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014, albeit in Eagles coach Chip Kelly’s offense.

Of note, the 2014 season marked the first time in Maclin’s career he topped 1,000 yards receiving.

Maclin’s previous high came in 2010 during his second season with Reid, where the wideout posted 964 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns on 70 catches, averaging 13.8 yards per catch.

Maclin, who established a career-long 83-yard reception in 2010, will clearly help the Chiefs offense because he knows it. He also had a 70-yard reception in 2012, a 59-yard reception in 2011 and a 56-yard reception in 2009, which all came with Reid in Philadelphia.

The former Missouri Tiger’s presence and ability to work the field will keep a defense on its toes, and open up other positions to make plays.

The latter area is a key component to consider before projecting gaudy downfield and overall production numbers for Maclin.

Only three wide receivers throughout Reid’s 16 years as a head coach have topped 1,000 yards receiving: Terrell Owens (2004), Kevin Curtis (2007) and DeSean Jackson (2009-10).

Simply put, Reid’s offense isn’t designed to highlight a single player in the passing game and the plays will be distributed to take advantage of mismatches on the field.

Now to the questions.

There should be more deep passes in 2015 because Smith, tight end Travis Kelce and running back Jamaal Charles enter their third year in the system. Running back/wide receiver De’Anthony Thomas and Wilson enter their second year in the offense, and the Chiefs upgraded the offensive line during the offseason.

Toss in Maclin and Avant, both of whom have a full understanding of what is expected from their time with Reid in Philadelphia, and the arrow points up.

A very strong argument presents itself that Smith enters the 2015 season with the best group of offensive playmakers at his disposal since he arrived in 2013.

In the meantime, it is too early to properly evaluate the chemistry between Smith and Maclin with just three organized team activity (OTA) practices in the books.

But that cohesion should build leading to training camp.

Maclin, in particular, touched on developing rapport with Smith as a goal during the summer following practice on the first day of OTAs.

“We’ll continue to work at it,” Maclin said. “This is what it’s all about; right now it’s all about perfecting the timing.”

The Chiefs opened OTAs with Eric Fisher at left tackle, Ben Grubbs at left guard, Eric Kush at center, Jeff Allen at right guard and Donald Stephenson at right tackle.

While Stephenson moved to left tackle and Fisher took second-team snaps on the third day of OTAs, it is extremely important to not overreact and read too much into that.

Coach Andy Reid said on the first day of OTAs the personnel would rotate on the offensive line, and he has stayed true to his word.

That said, it is hard not to like the initial first-team offensive line of the early offseason workouts.

Kush will likely be pushed for the starting job by rookie Mitch Morse leading to training camp. But Kush has an advantage from knowing the system and spending two years learning from Rodney Hudson.

Fisher and Grubbs, a two-time Pro Bowl selection (2011, 2013), give the Chiefs arguably the best combination on the left side. Allen and Stephenson have an edge over competition on the right side with both having experience in the offense.

There is added incentive for Allen and Stephenson to perform in 2015, as they enter the final year of respective contracts.

The competition in the coming months leading to the regular season will be tough, especially at center, right guard and right tackle. But more importantly, the battles will prove healthy in the search for starters and identifying the important swing positions.

And the Chiefs enter the summer months with perhaps the best offensive line group in terms of talent and depth since Reid arrived in 2013.

When it comes to predicting the starting five, put me down for – left to right – Fisher, Grubbs, Kush, Allen and Stephenson.

Mitch Morse, Zach Fulton, Paul Fanaika and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif add quality depth and versatility to play along the offensive line, and there is potentially room for another lineman.

For a comparison, the Chiefs entered Week 1 of the 2014 regular season with 10 offensive linemen.

Emphatically agree.

The Chiefs are currently loaded at cornerback with Sean Smith, Phillip Gaines, Jamell Fleming, Marcus Cooper, Aaron Hester, Deji Olatoye, and rookies Marcus Peters, Steven Nelson, De’Vante Bausby and Justin Cox.

Kansas City entered Week 1 of the 2014 regular season with five cornerbacks: Smith, Cooper, Gaines, Chris Owens and Ron Parker, who eventually shifted to safety.

Should the Chiefs follow the same path for 2015, the top five arguably project as Smith, Gaines, Fleming, Nelson and Peters.

Smith could be facing a two-game suspension to start the season after pleading guilty in March and receiving two years of probation for a 2014 DUI charge, so the Chiefs must plan accordingly with depth.

Gaines has been solid through three days of OTAs, Fleming supplanted Cooper in the starting lineup in Week 7 of 2014 and the Chiefs used a first-round pick on Peters and a third-round pick on Nelson during the 2015 NFL Draft.

Peters and Nelson, unfortunately, have been absent from OTAs due to the NCAA quarter system, but they will be back for the three-day mandatory minicamp on June 16-18.

While in shorts and helmets, the 6-2, 180-pound Bausby and the 6-1, 191-pound Cox, who played free safety in college, have looked good during OTAs even as they are not allowed to press given the no-contact rule of offseason workouts.

Bausby and Cox, both of whom were signed as undrafted free agent, display an ability to track the football and break-up passes.

Cox, in particular, showed his 4.36 40-yard dash speed during the third OTA practice by staying with De’Anthony Thomas on a deep post route and breaking up the pass at the goal line. While the pass was underthrown by Aaron Murray, it was fun to observe Cox stay with the elusive and speedy Thomas down the field.

The first week of OTAs offer a small sample, but the Chiefs will have hard decisions to make before the regular season if Bausby and Cox sustain their work.

The Chiefs continue to list De’Anthony Thomas as a running back/wide receiver on the offseason roster.

At the same time, there is an interesting aspect observed of Thomas during the early stages of OTAs.

The second-year pro typically worked with the running backs last year during the individual position drills of practice before team-related drills, but he has spent time with the wide receiver group during OTAs.

Thomas’ versatility to be used at a variety of positions signals to not peg him solely as a “slot wide receiver,” because he presents a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses regardless where he lines up on offense.

To put it bluntly, Chase Daniel and second-year pro Aaron Murray looked like backup quarterbacks when compared to Alex Smith during the first week of OTAs.

It is extremely early, of course, but Daniel and Murray each had their share of errant throws, either of the overthrown, underthrown or behind-the-receiver variety.

That said, Daniel looks better than Murray and the veteran knows the system, a major plus.

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