Commentary

Cassel's presence impresses

Originally Published: August 7, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Matt CasselAP Photo/Orlin WagnerThe Chiefs are impressed with Matt Cassel's command in the huddle. Cassel also has surprising mobility, rushing for 270 yards last season for New England.
RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- This town lived up to its name Friday morning. A downpour pounded the Chiefs for two hours as first-year head coach Todd Haley tried to steer the team through a tough practice. River Falls was Water Falls, resulting in dropped passes, occasional fumbles and receivers who slipped on the wet grass.

But playing in the slop didn't slow Haley, who called out mistakes by players or shouted at them to do better. A fumble or a bad play by the offense resulted in a penalty: Haley made the 11 players involved sprint to the end of the field and back.

After going 2-14 last season, the Chiefs need that.

Here are five things I learned at Kansas City's camp:

1. Focus on Matt Cassel: The Chiefs' new QB resembles a taller, sturdier version of Trent Green. That thought should put Chiefs fans at ease.

Green played quarterback like a point guard in basketball, quickly getting the ball to others. In his 15 starts for the Patriots last season, Cassel handled the job basically the same way. An accurate passer (63.4 percent completion rate in '08), Cassel is also surprisingly mobile at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds. He was one of the league's best running quarterbacks, rushing for 270 yards last season -- something you wouldn't expect for his tall frame.

With the Patriots, coaches asked Cassel to dump short passes to Wes Welker, Randy Moss and others and didn't require him to make long throws. The Patriots hoped to win with yards after the catch and not with Cassel's arm, so it's hard to tell whether he can successfully work the long passing game. Haley said Cassel can make all of the throws, including long ones.

Receiver Dwayne Bowe and other players on offense love how well Cassel leads the huddle. Years of being Tom Brady's understudy helped him become a leader. Once Cassel gets to the huddle, he quickly puts his 10 other players at ease by explaining the situations and delivering the assignments.

2. Let's get in shape, fellas: Apparently, the Chiefs went 2-14 during the regular season and lost a postseason battle with the Kansas City "Chefs."

Haley believed he inherited a lot of players with midsections a little too big. Left tackle Brandon Albert checked into the offseason program at around 340 pounds. Defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey was also around 340. Bowe was around 238. To improve the team's athleticism, Haley ordered some players to go on diets. By his latest count, the Chiefs have collectively lost about 800 pounds.

The weight loss was so dramatic that a few players struggled in the first few days of camp. Albert, for example, felt too light moving around at 35 pounds less. Bowe said he also felt different running around weighing less than 210 pounds. One week into camp, however, players have adjusted to their new weights. The lighter offensive linemen should move quicker on zone blocks and traps. Bowe feels quicker after worrying he might not be as physical against cornerbacks in press coverage. Haley believes the lost weight means the Chiefs won't fade in the final months of the season.

3. What kind of offense will the Chiefs run? Haley can't answer that because it is clearly a work in progress. On Friday, Haley looked at a four-receiver package out of the shotgun, but there are clear weaknesses at receiver. Bowe is a star at split end who can break tackles and make big plays. After that, Haley and the Chiefs don't know what they have. In fact, they will hit the waiver wire for the next few months to find players who fit.

Receivers Mark Bradley and Devard Darling are holdovers from last season, but don't be surprised if they are eventually replaced. Bobby Engram, 36, was signed to work the slot and looks good. Flanker Amani Toomer, formerly of the New York Giants, was signed last week. It's pretty clear that Cassel doesn't have many run-after-catch options except for Bowe and perhaps Engram out of the slot. Receivers on the team believe Kansas City will use more three-receiver sets, but figuring out who the receivers will be is the toughest part.

[+] EnlargeLarry Johnson
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerLarry Johnson, who rushed for 874 yards in 2008, is eager to become the Chiefs' workhorse running back again.
4. Lots of Larry Johnson? With the passing offense in flux, don't be surprised if Haley goes with a running attack led by Johnson. Haley doesn't mind running the ball 35 or more times a game if he must.

After a horrible 2008 season, Johnson has done everything possible to persuade the organization he can be a workhorse again. Following Haley's weight-loss edict, Johnson now weighs in the 220s and is running with authority. This is a critical season for Johnson, who turns 30 in November. That's an age at which most backs begin to decline.

Johnson averaged 4.5 yards a carry last year but had only had 193 attempts in an offense that had only three basic running plays. Haley has added traps and numerous other running plays to the playbook.

5. Those old linebackers: Watching practice, I now know why Scott Pioli acquired 30-something linebackers Mike Vrabel, Zach Thomas and Monty Beisel. Switching to a 3-4 defense, Pioli needed players who knew the scheme. It may be a tough transition for a defense that has played the 4-3 for years.

Tank Tyler is adjusting well at nose tackle. Former defensive linemen Tamba Hali and Turk McBride are projects as they make the switch to outside linebacker. Hali will start on the outside even though he's not perfect in coverage. You wonder if McBride, a former second-round choice, will make the team. He's being juggled between the second and third team and might be a trade option for teams looking for a defensive lineman.

Derrick Johnson, a fluid weakside linebacker in the 4-3, should be able to run around and make plays at inside linebacker. Dorsey may need time to feel comfortable moving from defensive tackle in a 4-3 to end in a 3-4. It will help having former LSU teammate Tyson Jackson with him at end. I also like what I see from Alex Magee, a 298-pound third-round choice who is playing end.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer