When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.
After his first two lackluster seasons, I was ready to write Dexter McCluster off. The selections of WR Devon Wylie and RB Cyrus Gray in the 2012 Draft seemed to indicate that the coaching staff felt the same. This preseason has proved me to be utterly wrong.
In April, looking back on McCluster’s career, I wrote:
[T]he 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.
The 2010 Scout’s Inc. report on McCluster said “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.”
Indeed that seemed to be his biggest struggle during his rookie season. Making the position switch from running back to slot receiver took longer than anticipated. Not only was it a new position, but he was learning to do it against NFL-quality defenders. In end, he had trouble consistently getting separation, which is a problem due to his small size overall. He ended the season with 21 receptions and 18 carries for a total of just 280 yards.
In 2011, Dex filled in at RB primarily because the Chiefs’ wretched depth was exposed after Jamaal Charles went down. The team was left with Thomas Jones and Jackie Battle – two guys who can pick up yardage through wide-open holes when they’re there, but neither is going to do anything special for you. Dex provided a spark, and was a popular option when the Chiefs knew they needed some dynamism. They gave him the ball 37 times on 3rd down. But, although he was a better target than Battle in those situations, he was also inconsistent. On his 16 carries on 3rd and 6+ yards, he averaged 5.4 yards per carry – just enough to not make it most of the time.
Still, he improved his overall skills and Scouts Inc. described him in their 2011 report as “explosive and extremely nimble, but lacks the great top-end speed to be a consistent home run threat. He is very elusive when he gets the ball in the open field and has excellent vision and instincts. He is a natural receiver out of the backfield as well as on downfield routes. He also shows good ball skills and the ability to reach out and pluck the ball away from his body.”
I for one was a bit worried when reports came out of training camp that McCluster was working exclusively with the wide receivers, because it seemed to me that they were forcing him back into a role that wasn’t his strong suit.
Then came this preseason.
McCluster currently leads the team in receptions with 13 receptions for 129 yards and a touchdown in the first three preseason games. Furthermore, he is has shown himself to be the most reliable target for Matt Cassel. Against the Seahawks, Cassel stalled in consecutive drives due to drops by generally sure-handed targets in Bowe, Moeaki and Baldwin. Then he turned to Dexter. In a long drive that would gain the starting offense its only touchdown, he targeted McCluster over and over again. Like most KC fans around the world, I was also shouting, “Just throw it to 22!” The week before, when Cassel was forced out of the pocket, in a situation that would have normally been a throw-away situation for him, he found McCluster open for a 1st down.
If McCluster can keep this up he can serve a role that is just as important as the #1 receiver on the team. As the league has gradually changed, one major evolution that few people talk about is the emergence of the slot receiver. The ability to make quick high-percentage throws to quick receivers matched up on linebackers has become the cornerstone of effective offenses. The Patriots pioneered this with Wes Welker. The Chiefs saw the effectiveness of a high-end slot receiver when they got carved to pieces by Sam Bradford’s security blanket, Danny Amendola, in Week 2 of the preseason.
Whatever you think about Matt Cassel, I think everyone can agree that he can benefit greatly from having a reliable outlet guy for short, high-percentage throws. Perhaps even more importantly, if opposing defenses begin to view McCluster as a major threat that needs to be covered by a safety or CB, it will both take pressure off Dwayne Bowe and draw defenders away from the running game.
The Chiefs may have had an overall uninspiring performance over the last two games, but that’s not the story for me. To me the biggest story of this preseason is the rise of the midget – McCluster’s transition from liability to security blanket, and I can’t wait to see how this goes with him moving into the regular season.