(Hindsight is … Complicated Part II, for Part I, click here)
To me, among the most intriguing Chiefs picks in the draft were WR Devon Wylie (4th round) and RB Cyrus Gray (6th). Wylie is a short wideout with ridiculous speed who would have gone earlier in the draft if it weren’t for injury concerns. Gray is a small and speedy back with breakaway speed. Both were also great special teamers in college. Together, they basically make a better version of Dexter McCluster.
As I have been going back and re-watching all of the games from the 2011 season, one theme has consistently arisen – there are lot of Chiefs players that I am very jaded about. One of those is Dexter McCluster.
Drafted initially be to a Wes Welker type receiver, he spent a lot more time last season in the role of a running back as a complimentary Darren Sproles type. So far, he has lived up to neither comparison, but he might some day and therein lies the dilemma.
Last year, when Jamaal Charles went down, so did our offense. Having one of the most dynamic players in the league touching the ball 20 times a game had allowed the Chiefs to hide a lot of weaknesses on the offensive side of the ball. With Charles gone, Haley struggled to throw together something resembling an offense with depth players off the trash heap. Even during his rookie season, clouded by the excitement of the Chiefs’ first winning season in ages was the fact that McCluster was all but a bust as a playmaker. He had just 21 receptions and 18 carries with his only memorable play being a touchdown on a screen pass against San Francisco.
At the end of the 2010 season, Haley seemed to be giving up on the idea of McCluster as a slot receiver and said he would be giving him more snaps at running back. I don’t think they planned on him having 114 carries in 2011, but that’s how it shook out. What’s interesting about going back to the numbers is that they conflict wildly with my own perceptions and affections. I’ve always liked McCluster as a seemingly hard-working guy who has the kind of grit you wouldn’t expect from a 170-lb munchkin.
Still, the numbers don’t lie. McCluster just doesn’t make big plays, which is his only purpose. RB Jackie Battle was a guy who was able to get what was already there with the ability to break a tackle or two. McCluster basically gets what’s there plus 3 yards due to his speed, but he won’t be breaking any tackles and he’ll get stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage for a few serious losses a game. Even Battle beat him as the KC running back with the biggest ground gain of the 2011 season with a 34-yarder against Denver.
All of this brings us back to the Chiefs’ eternal offensive problem since the Trent Green days. We move the ball, but we don’t make big plays and we can’t score for the life of us. McCluster is not currently helping to alleviate this problem. He’s not a great receiver, not a great running back, useless in pass protection, and only had one return for a touchdown in two seasons. So where does he fit?
Despite the fact that the Peyton Hillis signing gave the Chiefs’ roster three running backs (not counting Shaun Draughn), I still thought they needed at least one more body. Charles is still rehabbing his ACL, Hillis is coming off of schizophrenic year with injuries and odd behavior, and McCluster, as we have established, is nothing special and can’t currently be trusted to shoulder a serious portion of the carries.
What I expected they would do is go after a power back more in the mold of Thomas Jones when he had speed. Instead they grabbed Gray, a guy known for his quickness, but who can handle more contact than McCluster can. They also picked up Wylie, a dude who ran 4.25 40 in 2009 before breaking his foot, and projects well as a slot receiver with some downfield ability. If both of these guys pan out, McCluster will be unnecessary.
But that’s assuming that McCluster will not continue to develop. In Scouts Inc.’s blurb on him, the only bad thing they pointed out in his game is: “He has good ball skills but will struggle when competing for the ball in a crowd. He needs a lot of work on his route running and setting defenders up and will settle into crowded zones at times rather than find a window for the quarterback to throw though.”
Meaning, he can still be taught.
Sproles, who was in many ways a trailblazer for sparkplugs like McCluster, only had 148 touches in his first three years with San Diego. McCluster had 160 in 2011. Sproles only really came on in his 4th season, and truly exploded for the Saints last year with 1,313 total yards from scrimmage split almost perfectly evenly between runs and passes. The difference is that he was in the high-octane Saints offense getting the ball from Drew Brees.
Could McCluster eventually develop into Sproles? It’s possible, but very hard to tell. Although they are both short, Sproles is two inches shorter and 20 lbs heavier than McCluster, giving him a bit more beef to sustain hits and an even smaller profile to grab or shut down by filling the gaps in front of him. Also, being so small, you have to be an excellent route-runner because otherwise it’s just too easy for defenders to box you out, and if you’re not in the exact right spot, it’s hard for the quarterback to get the ball to you. Sproles has gradually become an excellent route runner; McCluster clearly still has a lot of work to do.
Getting the most out of these little guys also depends heavily on the person designing the scheme. All indications are that McCluster was a Pioli pick – he comes from the New England mindset of getting versatile gadget players, Haley loves big physical receivers. Because of that, I think there is reason for optimism now that Brian Daboll has taken over the offense.
Although it took him too long to install with the lockout, Miami was humming once they understood his offense last year. Just watching them demolish the Chiefs at Arrowhead again was enough to convince me this guy knows how to draw up plays. The color commentators couldn’t stop talking about one play that led to their tight end burning Derrick Johnson for a touchdown.
Often times, these sort of unique players need to find the right pairing with a coach who can figure out how to maximize them. RB Danny Woodhead got almost 1,000 yards for New England in 2010 after being cut by the Jets. Sproles was one of the best free agent signings of 2011, leaving Chargers for the Saints. I worry that if McCluster doesn’t pan out for the Chiefs, we will soon be seeing him in highlight reels wearing a different color.
What do you think addicts? Is it time to bring the McCluster experiment to an end, or is he one more offseason away from being the dynamic weapon we’ve been waiting for?