Roundtable: 5 areas to monitor in Chiefs training camp

Lazy days of summer will soon be replaced with the excitement of football when the Chiefs kick off training camp in late July at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Mo.

Rookies, quarterbacks and select players report on July 28 before veterans show up July 31. The Chiefs’ first full practice commences on Aug. 1.

Chiefs quarterbacks Aaron Murray (7), Chase Daniel (10) and Alex Smith (11) watch a drill during 2014 training camp. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Chiefs quarterbacks Aaron Murray (7), Chase Daniel (10) and Alex Smith (11) watch a drill during 2014 training camp. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

There are plenty of scenarios to monitor for training camp, and arguably the biggest surrounds outside linebacker Justin Houston, whom the Chiefs designated as a non-exclusive franchise player.

The Chiefs and Houston’s camp are expected to renew talks Tuesday.

But the All-Pro linebacker’s situation will have clarity by Wednesday, which is the deadline for the Chiefs and Houston’s agent to have a multiyear or extension in place.

After July 15, Houston can only sign the one-year, $13.1 million franchise tender for the 2015 season. He could also choose to not report for training camp before eventually signing the tender or hold out into the season.

While Houston’s situation will dominate headlines in the coming weeks, here are five additional areas with a view to training camp discussed among the ChiefsDigest.com staff:

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST QUESTION MARK HEADING INTO TRAINING CAMP?

• HERBIE TEOPE, publisher: The struggles of the offensive line last season are well-documented and the unit went through changes during the offseason.

Gone are center Rodney Hudson, guards Mike McGlynn and Jeff Linkenbach, and right tackle Ryan Harris.

The Chiefs added guards Ben Grubbs and Paul Fanaika, and drafted versatile Mitch Morse. The team also welcomes back Jeff Allen, who landed on injured reserve after the season opener.

Tackle Eric Fisher and Grubbs are virtual locks on the left side and Eric Kush should have an edge at center. But there is plenty of competition at center, right guard and right tackle.

The offensive line looks vastly improved on paper even with the pending training camp battles.

How the unit comes together in training camp and preseason action when the pads are on will go a long way in determining the team’s success in 2015 and beyond.

• MATT DERRICK, associate editor: The state of the pass rush.

The track record of training camp holdouts is spotty, and the prospect of Justin Houston missing time appears high at the moment. Tamba Hali turns 32 in November, and is at an age where speed and ability can drop precipitously. While Dee Ford demonstrated strong pass rushing skills at times, he has yet to prove an ability to be a three-down player.

The ability to put pressure on the quarterback is the cornerstone of the Chiefs pass defense, which features plenty of youth in the secondary. It will be difficult for Houston to replicate last year’s career season as it is, and if the collective pass rush suffers, the defense could take a big step backward.

• NICK JACOBS, contributing writer: Does this team know its identity yet?

Andy Reid and the coaching staff has schemed this team to compete, but they don’t have a strength they rely on when they need to push through for a victory. The scheming has proved they can get to Week Nine before teams can counter what they are doing.

The team needs to find their identity in year three. Each talent team has plays they can lean on no matter what the opposing side is doing; the Chiefs need to find that this season.

POSITION OF HIGHEST COMFORT

• DERRICK: Surprisingly, the least number of question marks for any position group may be quarterback.

Alex Smith protects the football, and with the continuity in the coaching staff and the addition of a prime No. 1 wide receiver in Jeremy Maclin, Smith should make another step forward this season.

Smith is not on the level of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning, but he’s consistent and dependable.

In two starts the last two seasons, Chase Daniel has demonstrated the ability to keep the Chiefs on track in an emergency.

• JACOBS: The wide receiver corps has become less of a concern since observing spring practices. Jeremy Maclin, Chris Conley, Jason Avant and De’Anthony Thomas can provide a consistency and the ability to get open.

The staff had to scheme their receivers open in prior seasons because they couldn’t consistently beat the press on their own and run precise routes. The four players mentioned above showcased that ability. Albert Wilson, who missed time during OTAs and mandatory minicamp with a hamstring injury, will provide the same skill set when he is healthy.

• TEOPE: The Chiefs finished second against the pass in 2014, while not allowing a 300-yard passer, and there are no signs of slowing down with the core intact.

The cornerback position arguably became stronger with the additions of first-round pick Marcus Peters and third-round pick Steven Nelson, while second-year pro Phillip Gaines looked exceptional during OTAs.

That depth carries significance in the event the NFL suspends cornerback Sean Smith, who pleaded guilty in March to a 2014 DUI incident.

While strong safety Eric Berry’s status remains unclear, the Chiefs re-signed Ron Parker, who started 11 games in Berry’s place last season, and free safety Husain Abdullah returns in a contract year.

The Chiefs need to sustain last year’s performance when considering the caliber of wide receivers outside of the division on tap for 2015, specifically the likes of Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Alshon Jeffery, Antonio Brown, Sammy Watkins, and rookie Kevin White, among others.

WHO HAS THE MOST TO GAIN?

• JACOBS: Outside linebacker Dee Ford has the most to gain this season. He didn’t get the repetitions his rookie year, but the athletic ability from a pass rushing perspective is there.

If the Chiefs can get him the right amount of reps, he can ease their concerns about moving on from Tamba Hali down the road or if they elect to go in a different direction from Justin Houston.

• TEOPE: This is about opportunity and second-year pro De’Anthony Thomas will have plenty of them.

While the Chiefs continue to list the 5-8, 176-pound Thomas as a running back/wide receiver, he spent the offseason working almost exclusively with the latter group.

The Chiefs will look for more ways to get the ball in Thomas’ hands in open space by lining him all over the field, and he is a nightmare mismatch as a receiver for opposing defenses out of the slot or backfield.

Keep in mind Thomas’ development during the early part of the 2014 season was hampered by a hamstring injury, which kept him out of the first four games.

He is healthy and has a better understanding of the scheme; Thomas should thrive in the offense.

• DERRICK: Linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive end Mike DeVito are entering critical seasons.

Johnson turns 33 this season, DeVito turned 31, both are entering the last year of their contracts and both are returning from ruptured Achilles tendon injuries last season.

The Chiefs run defense never truly recovered from the loss of Johnson and DeVito in 2014. If the Chiefs are to stop the run, they need either of the two to return to form. Recovering from their injuries will be critical to both extending their careers and their futures in Kansas City.

Johnson’s 725 career tackles are second all-time in Chiefs history behind Kevin Ross’ 827. Johnson could be winding down a career that will likely end in the team’s Ring of Honor.

WHO HAS THE MOST TO LOSE?

• DERRICK: It’s not an intriguing battle because it’s the third quarterback spot, but it seems likely the Chiefs will only keep three quarterbacks this year.

That means the end of the line for either Tyler Bray or Aaron Murray. The smart money on who the team keeps is on Murray, who looked solid at times in camp as a rookie last year.

Bray has tremendous talent and size, but has yet to parlay the potential into performance on the field, which was also a hallmark of his up-and-down college career as well. There is also the issue of Bray’s torn ACL in January.

While the Chiefs might be able to once again keep him around for a full season on injured reserve, it’s time to make a decision one way or another on Bray.

• JACOBS: Alex Smith has the most to lose this season. General manager John Dorsey improved the roster at both the wide receiver and offensive line positions, and it will be up to Smith to take that offense to an explosive level.

The pieces are there for Smith to succeed, but it is just a matter of him trusting his wide receivers to win contested catches and trust that his offensive line will give him the time to push the ball downfield. The timing of the passing offense needs to come together in training camp. Smith needs to begin to show the necessary improvement before fans and media lose patience.

• TEOPE: Cornerback Marcus Cooper obviously has a lot to gain, but he also has plenty to lose given his journey the last year.

The third-year pro’s experienced a downward spiral from starter to mostly special teams contributor after the Week 6 bye of the 2014 season.

The Chiefs currently have 10 cornerbacks on the offseason roster, and the top four projects as Sean Smith, Phillip Gaines, Marcus Peters and Steven Nelson.

Cooper, who has two years remaining on his contract, won’t have an easy path.

There are plenty of challengers, including Jamell Fleming, who supplanted Cooper last season as a starter.

MOST INTRIGUING TRAINING CAMP BATTLE

• JACOBS: The most intriguing battle will be at the right guard position.

Jeff Allen, Zach Fulton, Mitch Morse and Paul Fanaika will likely be pushing for time at the position. Allen is the best player at this moment and entering a contract season. It will be interesting to see if Fulton, Morse or Fanaika can push Allen from that spot.

The interior pass protection and their inability to win at the line of scrimmage or properly pass off protection in 2014 was a big culprit in the team’s ineffectiveness to move the football on a consistent basis.

• DERRICK: The most wide-open competition should be along the offensive line, particularly at center and right guard.

The departure of center Rodney Hudson leaves that position wide open, with third-year center Eric Kush set to compete with second-round draft pick Mitch Morse for the position.

Ben Grubbs, acquired in a trade from New Orleans, is a virtual lock at left guard along with Eric Fisher at left tackle. The good news is the Chiefs should be in position to make an upgrade on the right side of the line.

The return of Jeff Allen, who could play either right guard or right tackle, along with tackle Donald Stephenson and guard Paul Fanaika look to give the Chiefs depth they lacked a year ago. Zach Fulton, a starter at right guard as a rookie in 2014, could slide to a backup role in the upgraded line.

• TEOPE: The spotlight falls on the offensive line, but let’s step outside of the box and look elsewhere.

There are plenty of under-the-radar position battles worthy of attention, including Andrew East vs. James Winchester at long snapper and Cyrus Gray vs. Charcandrick West at third running back.

The Chiefs transition to a new long snapper for the first time in seven seasons, and it carries significance considering the late-season snapping woes in 2014. Expect this battle to be settled during preseason action.

The pending battle between Gray, who returns from an ACL injury, and West should be entertaining, provided Gray is ready for training camp. West feels comfortable in the offense entering a second season and took advantage of repetitions during OTAs and minicamp during Gray’s absence.

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