Kansas City Chiefs: Predicting the second-year players

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Dec 28, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) is sacked by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford (55) and inside linebacker Josh Mauga (90) during the first half at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs rookie minicamp is concluded after three days of practice. With that, Kansas City fans and national analysts alike can make wild predictions for the successes or failures of the rookies for the upcoming season. I shall duly follow tradition, and provide some predictions (guesses) for the Chiefs in the coming year.

Rather than look at the Chiefs’ incoming rookies, let’s look at how the draft class of 2014 may fare in 2015. How will sixth-rounder Zach Fulton progress after playing on a poor offensive line? Will De’Anthony Thomas’ improvement continue to entice and excite? Is Phillip Gaines able to maximize his potential as the Kansas City’s slot corner of the future? Will Dee Ford actually play?

In the first round, general manager John Dorsey shocked nearly everybody in selecting Ford with the 23rd pick. The outside linebacker was considered a bit of a reach at the time (although Dorsey claimed he was at the top of their big board). The Chiefs had one of the best pass rushes in the league with Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, so reaching for Ford felt uncomfortable with many of the Kansas City fan base.

“Dee will just take another step forward. He’s more familiar with everything. We moved positions for him where he had to be a linebacker instead of a defensive end, so there was a lot of learning that goes on there. It takes a young guy some time to digest all that, but I think it will be a win-win for everybody.” – Andy Reid

Both Hali and Houston were due to hit free agency in 2015, so it seemed as if Ford was picked as a replacement for one of the two stellar edge-rushers. But since Hali became everybody’s favorite Chiefs player and took a pay cut, and Houston was slapped with the franchise tag, Ford’s place on the roster has become unclear at best.

In 2014, Houston had a franchise record 22-sack season and Hali continued to complement him on the opposing side. Ford only played a total of 122 snaps last season, and quite simply from a first-rounder, he should be playing and producing more. In fact, Arrowhead Addict’s own Ben Almquist suggested that Ford should be moved to inside linebacker, to accommodate him in the starting lineup.

I fear that his season may be similar to 2014, although I expect Ford to play a larger role in rushing the passer on third down. Reid mentioned it took Ford time to adjust to his change of  position from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 linebacker, and Ford’s snap count did significantly improve towards the end of the season. I believe that Ford will begin to have a bigger impact in the upcoming season, but I fear it will still be limited. Ford is a talented pass-rusher, so here’s hoping that defensive coordinator Bob Sutton is able to dial up expansive blitzes involving Ford throughout the season.

Next: Onto Mr. Gaines and DAT

Aug 7, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Phillip Gaines (23) on the line of scrimmage during the second of the game against the Cincinnati Bengals half at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs won 41 – 39. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs didn’t have a second-round pick, as it was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in 2013 for Alex Smith. In the third round, the Chiefs bolstered their secondary by acquiring Phillip Gaines. Gaines had a fairly strong rookie campaign, playing mostly as a slot corner. Running a 4.38 40-yard dash, Gaines is fast but does struggle in run defense. Gaines was the second-rated corner in pass coverage for Kansas City, but was also rated the worst in run defense, with a -4.7 rating per Pro Football Focus.

In 2015, Gaines will compete with rookies Marcus Peters and Steven Nelson to play alongside Sean Smith. Gaines’ percentage of passes completed against improved significantly as the season progressed, and I expect Gaines to play at a higher level next season. Furthermore, with the additions of Peters and Nelson, Gaines will be playing in a much improved secondary (thank your lucky stars that Ron Parker won’t be playing corner again), and alongside the shutdown corner in Smith, I feel Gaines will look to impose himself as a solid Chiefs defensive back for years to come.

Kansas City’s fourth-round pick was the most exciting for many fans. De’Anthony Thomas is quite simply electric. I love watching him play; his speed, his quickness. He also possesses great versatility. He can play out of the backfield, in the slot and excels in punt returns, rated second in the league behind Darren Sproles on PFF. I love Thomas, and I am especially excited to see him play in this coming season.

Without speculating too much as to what the former Oregon Duck is referring to with his “new position”, I predict Thomas will see more snaps as a receiver rather than a halfback. Wherever he plays, I am excited to see him on the field, and I expect Reid to produce various screens and end-arounds. I’m hoping, and expecting, big things for Thomas in this coming season.

The Chiefs’ next pick was quarterback Aaron Murray from the University of Georgia. Murray was an interesting pick since Kansas City already had a reliable backup in Chase Daniel and a project quarterback in Tyler Bray. I think Murray has the potential to be a starter in the NFL. He is mobile, extends plays well and is highly intelligent. But, with him currently sitting third on the roster, I fear his development may be stunted by Daniel ahead of him.

Going into his sophomore season, Murray will continue to sit behind Daniel and Smith. I would like to see Murray promoted to the reserve role, but feel that head coach Andy Reid and Dorsey prefer the reliability and dependability offered by Daniel. I can’t see Murray having a significant part to play next season, but will remain on the roster as a project quarterback due to Bray’s long-term injury.

Next: Can Zach Fulton step up in 2015?