Early in the 2010 season, Dexter McCluster was looking like a brilliant pick by Kansas City Chiefs GM Scott Pioli.
McCluster helped the Chiefs upset the San Diego Chargers on Monday Night Football by returning a punt for a touchdown. It was the longest punt return in the team’s storied history.
Against the San Francisco 49ers, McCluster caught a pass in the flat from Matt Cassel. The little dynamo raced up the sidelines before taking flight from the five-yardline for the touchdown.
Yes, early in 2010, McCluster looked to be every bit of the playmaker fans hoped he would be. Unfortunately for Dexter, however, a high-ankle sprain put the rookie on the shelf for a number of weeks. When he returned, it was clear McCluster had lost some of his shiftiness and burst that made him so dangerous early in the year. He was a virtual non-factor the rest of the season.
The Chiefs drafted McCluster to primarily play receiver. The team was looking for players with speed and play-making ability in 2010 so the pick made sense at the time. McCluster, however, had trouble making an impact as a slot receiver. He was a rookie without a lot of experience playing the position. The fact that the Chiefs had so few receiving threats made it even more difficult for McCluster to stand out.
In 2011, however, McCluster is going to reap the benefits from KC’s beefed up receiving core. The additions of Steve Breaston and, when he gets on the field, Jon Baldwin, are going to force defenses to back off a little bit. The word is also out on Tony Moeaki. Teams know the TE is a threat not only blocking but also catching the football. Moeaki won’t be able to sneak up on teams this year but his new hardship will benefit McCluster.
We’ve already seen evidence that McCluster is going to be more effective in the Chiefs 2011 offense. While the Chiefs have struggled on offense this preseason, one of the few bright spots has been McCluster. He appears to have back every bit of his speed and burst that made him dangerous early in 2010. The difference, however, is that teams appear to be paying less attention to him. In 2010, when Cassel tried to dump the ball off to McCluster in the flat, there was generally a defender on him pretty quickly. This scenario led to a fumble in the team’s playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
This year, QB’s Tyler Palko and Ricky Stanzi have discovered that McCluster is a very valuable safety valve. McCluster appears to have more room to work with when he gets the ball. The return of his speed is allowing him to turn and get up field quickly before the defense can react.
The Chiefs may not look sharp yet on offense but McCluster could very well be the key to their 2011 success. A healthy McCluster coming out of the back-field means the Chiefs have one weapon too many. If defense are focusing on stopping Bowe, Moeaki and Breaston, they will have less energy to focus on McCluster. Once Baldwin gets in the mix, the Chiefs will have a lot of size and speed at receiver. As such, McCluster’s value sky rockets.
Wes Welker is an extremely talented player but Randy Moss did wonders for him. Having the deadly Moss galloping down field pulled a lot of speed away from the underneath routes Welker was running. The Chiefs now have enough weapons to free McCluster and give him the space he needs to be more of a consistent threat.
The key for Dexter will be staying healthy. McCluster is extremely small and is susceptible to some brutal hits. If he becomes injured and loses his speed and elusiveness, he loses most of his value.
If he can stay on the field, however, defenses could have a real problem on their hands when McCluster has the football.