ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs ended training camp Thursday, wrapping an encouraging three weeks of practices for coaches and players while still leaving some mysteries to solve before the season starts for real Sept. 11 against San Diego.
Linebacker Derrick Johnson said it was among the best camps of his 12-year NFL career.
“Definitely at the top,” Johnson said. “One of the best teams I’ve broken camp with for sure.”
The team’s depth and cohesion are big reasons the Chiefs hold optimism for the 2016 season. The Chiefs enter year four of the Andy Reid era as head coach, and this year’s team appears more confident and relaxed than in years past.
“We have a pride about ourselves when we get on the field that we’re the best defense in the league,” Johnson said. “When we go out on the field, we have to prove that every time.”
He credits Reid for creating the winning atmosphere.
“When you can have a steady coaching staff, a steady core group of guys that you can build off of and we’ve been getting additional other people to the team, that’s great,” he said. “We’re a pretty good team. I’ve been here for 12 years, and I know a good team and this is definitely a good team.”
Reid agreed this year’s camp was the sharpest in his four years at the helm, crediting continuity for the team’s improvement.
“You expect it to continue the longer you’re around,” Reid said. “They’ve done it and they kind of know the offense, and defense and special teams. I would tell you they started off sharp and finished sharp.”
The team’s progression under Reid includes not just greater constancy but also improved depth. Quarterback Alex Smith is among the chorus praising the roster’s long list of talent.
“Across the board, whether it be the receiver group, the tight end group, the running back group, when you look at the skill positions we’re so deep,” he said. “I feel like we’ve got a lot of guys that can make plays no matter who’s in there and that’s what you want.”
Despite the hopeful tone, Reid points out there’s plenty of room for improvement.
“Do we have room to improve and things that we need to get straight before we play? Absolutely,” Reid said.
The biggest question marks surrounding the team deals with players not on the practice field. The Chiefs activated running back Jamaal Charles from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list on Tuesday, but he has yet to participate in full team drills.
Linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali remain on the PUP list while rehabilitating from knee injuries. Safety Eric Berry has yet to report to camp.
The absence of Charles may be the least problematic of the group. The Chiefs weathered the loss of the All-Pro running back a year ago with the tag-team duo of Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West picking up the slack. The return of Charles gives the team perhaps the deepest backfield in the league.
Houston and Hali, however, are a different matter, Johnson said.
“We need that edge rush,” Johnson said. “That edge rush is even better when they’re running the ball and you’re setting the edge. That helps out the whole defense too. It’s big shoes to fill until those guys get back.”
The linebacker duo continues their rehabilitation as the team shifts back to Kansas City. The same cannot be said for Berry, who has yet to report to camp. Berry and the Chiefs were unable to come to terms on a new contract. The only option for Berry to play in 2016 is to sign the franchise contract tender of $10.8 million, but there are no indications when and if that may happen.
For now the Chiefs lineup with Dee Ford and Frank Zombo at outside linebacker while Daniel Sorensen takes Berry’s role at strong safety. All are experienced, veteran players but carry far fewer credentials than their predecessors.
The Chiefs also have a number of other position battles to settle during the preseason and once practices resume at the team’s training facility in Kansas City. Among the top battles to watch are for the inside linebacker slot alongside Derrick Johnson and the rotations at wide receiver behind Jeremy Maclin and the cornerback role opposite Marcus Peters.