Preseason is in full swing and, with it, the hope that this year's crop of rookies will make a meaningful impact their first year. The truth is, rookies rarely make much of an impact, let alone start. That's just part of the development and maturation process of turning a former college player into a professional. The Chiefs, however,could have six members of their seven-man rookie class making major contributions this year, a rarity in the NFL. While some of these contributors may not be traditional starters on either side of the ball, they will contribute quickly.
The only player practically guaranteed to start is first-round/fifth-overall pick Eric Berry. Berry gives the Chiefs a playmaker at safety. Not only should he help the Chiefs defense dramatically reduce the number of 3rd and long conversions they allowed last year, but give them a turnover-creating player. When Berry does get the ball, watch out. He can create significant return yardage when he picks off a pass; Berry missed the NCAA record for interception-return yards by 7 yards in only 3 years of college football. Berry's contribution goes deeper than that. His blend of size, speed, quickness, and intelligence allow him to play any position in the secondary, including cornerback. As a result, Crennel can move Berry around to create different looks and coverages to confuse opposing offenses, much as Dick LeBeau does with Troy Polamalu. Speaking of Polamalu, safeties have proven to be catalysts for their defense. The 2006 Colts and the 2009 Steelers provided stark examples of how well their defenses performed with and without their star safety.
Even though he wasn't the first-round pick, Dexter McCluster has generated the most buzz. The fast and ultra quick McCluster has demonstrated the ability to turn even small plays into big gains, using his open field quickness to elude defenders for several yards. As a receiver, this ability will really help quarterback Matt Cassel, who is accurate in short-to-medium passes, but struggles with the deep ball. McCluster is slated to play primarily slot receiver, but will also contribute at running back (as a runner, receiver and even blocker), wide receiver, and KR. He will even play some wildcat QB and maybe even a little PR, depending on how fellow rookie Javier Arenas performs. As a result, while he may not technically be a starter on the field, he will get plenty of playing time as Weis moves him around to create mismatches. McCluster's biggest obstacle may be his lack of size. He may be able to do plenty of things, but coaches will have to gauge how much wear and tear he's taking on.
A pick with a legitimate chance to start is TE Tony Moeaki, although he is currently behind Leonard Pope on the depth chart. Even in limited reps, Moeaki has shown himself to be an excellent receiving threat, creating mismatches against the defense and displaying good hands and body control to make the tough catch. As a blocker, Moeaki needs to work on his technique, but he has the size to be an effective blocker. As a receiving threat, Moeaki can exploit the middle of the field. Teamed with someone like McCluster, the Chiefs can open up the middle of the field with the pass, which helps open up the running game, which sets up the occasional deep pass. Moeaki's biggest threat is injury. He battled several nagging injuries in college and even missed a large part of OTAs due to injury. If he can't get on the field, he won't be a lot of help. The Chiefs had a similar problem 15 years ago with a TE named Keith Cash. He had great ability, especially as a receiving threat, but had a lot of trouble staying on the field. Let's hope Moeaki avoids the same fate.
Another pick with good chance at starting is Kendrick Lewis. Lewis has seen action with the first team, splitting reps with Jon McGraw. While many Chiefs fans, including myself, wanted to see the Chiefs address the front seven, Lewis is making Scott Pioli look pretty smart right now. With Jarrad Page holding out, Lewis gives the Chiefs an insurance policy that they are already cashing in. Lewis isn't extremely fast and he's a little undersized, but he has outstanding instincts and has a knack for getting near the ball. Lewis is also a special teams ace, with 2 blocked kicks and a blocked punt for TD to his credit, but his contribution could very well end up being more than that.
Javier Arenas was one of my less favorite players when selected, but he is another player who could contribute right away. His primary area of impact will probably be as the designated return man. The Chiefs kick-return and punt-return units have been putrid since Dante Hall's fall from his performance of 2002-2004, ranking in the bottom third for the last few seasons. Arenas holds the SEC record for punt return yardage and TDs, and fell 11 yards and 1 TD short of breaking the NCAA record. Arenas has a feel for his blocking and the oncoming coverage unit, finding a seam and then turning on the speed to break it open. Arenas will also start at nickelback for the Chiefs, using his short area quickness to effectively cover slot receivers. Out of the nickelback spot, Arenas is very versatile. Although his primary responsibility will be to cover the slot, he is an effective blitzer; Arenas notched a DE-like 5.0 sacks and 12 TFL his senior year. Like fellow rookie DB Berry, Arenas has the kind of versatility that will allow Romeo Crennel to mix up coverages and looks. Arenas could even compete for the RCB, as Brandon Carr has been getting beat badly throughout training camp. Arenas is possibly not ready for this role, as he struggled at times in college against elite competition.
Jon Asamoah is currently backing up Ryan Lilja at right guard, and for now, projects as a backup RG/LG. Even with the injury to Brian Waters, Asamoah didn't crack the first team, but I think he still has a very good shot. Ryan Lilja, at 290 pounds, isn't exactly going to blow defenders off the ball. With more teams going to the 3-4, this isn't as much of a issue, but the lack of size will be a liablity against 4-3 teams and even against teams that run the 3-4 well. The Indianapolis Colts, despite winning the AFC, ranked 32nd on run offense. Indy's undersized line was the culprit. Asamoah has good size and good strength, and is effective in both run blocking and pass blocking. If he even refines his technique a little, he is a legitimate starter at the pro level. I honestly don't think Lilja is the answer, but teams are slow to change O-linemen, as group chemistry is as important as individual talent. Of the six rookies that could be starters, Asamoah has the longest shot right now, but he is at least an excellent long-term prospect.
What about the odd man out? Cameron Sheffield doesn't project to see much time this year, but he's looking very promising as a developmental prospect. Sheffield has had a solid training camp and made several would-be plays (no tackling) in Saturday's scrimmage. He has a quick first step off the ball and a good outside-inside move against offensive tackles. From his size and speed to his pass-rush style, he is practically a Tamba Hali clone. Sheffield has taken advantage of an injury to Pierre Walters, and has a great shot at taking the last available OLB spot on the 53-man roster.
As with all rookies, there is no guarantee any of these guys will pan out, but they're all having solid camps and most are showing the skills that made them draft picks. If these guys keep progressing, they will contribute to pulling the Chiefs out of their recent losing ways, and probably sooner than usually is the case.