ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – Taking a look at the Chiefs training camp roster of 90 players, the math shows that defensive backs, offensive linemen and wide receivers are the most populated position groups – a total of 47 bodies in those three areas, or 52 percent of the team.
Nowhere is the competition for roster spots and playing time tighter than what’s going on at wide receiver.
There are 14 pass catchers on the list, and generally there will be no more than three wideouts on the field together during a single play. There are four or five defensive backs on every play and five blockers on the offensive line.
With 14 players and likely six roster spots available for wide receivers, training camp practices at Missouri Western State University take on even more importance. For some of the young receivers – half of the group is 23 years old or younger – the preseason games become mini-Super Bowls for their football futures.
“With a tremendous amount of plays in right now, we want to find out how they are handling the mental part,” head coach Andy Reid said, “and how they are handling the physical part and if they’re producing out here.”
But how does a young receiver catch the coaches’ eye? Simple.
“They make plays,” Reid said.
Last season production at wide receiver was down for the Chiefs. The group caught 129 passes for 1,588 yards. That was 40 percent of the team’s receptions (320) and 46 percent of the club’s passing yards (3,428). And, there was the most glaring number for the wide receivers: zero touchdown catches in 16 games
There were necessary changes that had to be made. Seven wide receivers caught passes, topped by Dwayne Bowe with 60 balls for 734 yards. Bowe was released and signed with Cleveland. Also released were the No. 3 most active wide receiver Donnie Avery (15 for 176 yards) and the No. 6 receiver A.J. Jenkins (9 for 93.)
Returning is the No. 2 most productive wide receiver Albert Wilson (16-260), along with No. 4 Jason Avant (13-152), No. 5 Junior Hemingway (12-108) and No. 7 Frankie Hammond (4-45).
The Chiefs signed unrestricted free agent Jeremy Maclin to a 5-year, $55 million contract. They traded up in the draft to the 76th selection and selected Chris Conley out of the University of Georgia. They also used a seventh-round choice on Da’Ron Brown from Northern Illinois University. Second-year man De’Anthony Thomas was moved from running back to wide receiver. Returning from last year’s team are Avant, Hemingway, Hammond, Wilson and Fred Williams.
Plus there were five other receivers signed: first-year player L’Damian Washington and college free agents Kenny Cook, Adam Drake, Tello Luckett and Jeret Smith.
Maclin and Wilson have been running as the No. 1 and 2 receivers, with Thomas working as the No. 3. Maclin did not practice on Monday because of neck spasms that may have been caused by the blow to the head he received from Marcus Cooper in Sunday’s practice. Maclin and Cooper tangled after that play.
Conley returned to practice on Monday, after missing 11 days of work to a strained right knee. That absence may have hurt his opportunities for making big contributions right out of the gate.
“This was just a test to see where he’s at,” Reid said of Conley’s participation. “We’ll see if there’s any pain when he’s done. If it flares up again, we’ll sit him out. We just have to be smart with it.”
Avant and Hammond are getting the bulk of the second group snaps, while also occasionally working into the No. 1 offense. The offense has been showing a four-wide receiver formation with Maclin, Wilson, Thomas and either Avant or Hammond. Sometimes Williams is factored in as well.
Hemingway (hip) and Smith (hamstring) have been out of action for several days now, but neither was getting a lot of reps before heading to the sidelines.
Right now, it appears that the wide receivers are stacked in this fashion:
Group A – Maclin, Wilson, Thomas and Conley.
Group B – Avant, Hammond, Williams.
Group C – Brown, Cook and Washington.
Group D – Drake, Hemingway, Luckett, Smith.
Essentially it comes down to this: Group A makes the roster and Group B should be fighting for spots as well. It’s going to be tough for Group C and D to find a slot on the 53-man, and they’ll likely have to rely on injuries on the depth chart ahead of them as the preseason goes on.
There was a lot of attention during the offseason practices on Cook and Luckett. Both came out of small college programs (Cook from Gardner-Webb University and Luckett from Harding College.) There have been flashes at times from both players, but no consistent production.
Drake was added on Saturday and already in two practices he’s picking up snaps. Washington was signed last week and the former Mizzou receiver has the body that teams like to see at 6-4, 204 pounds.
In his 10th NFL training camp, Avant was asked what the young receivers at the bottom of the list must do to gain the attention of the coaches and secure a full-time job. He entered the league in 2006 as a fourth-round draft choice by the Eagles.
“Focus on what you have to do,” Avant said of the advice he’s given his younger mates. “You have to focus one play at a time and not looking at who is behind you and who is in front of you. You make the team by knowing what you have to do; doing everything you can on and off the field in order to put yourself in the best light in the coaches’ eyes and working hard.
“In the NFL, I think the average career is 3.1 years. You might as well do everything you can. That means studying extra, getting extra catches, talk to the quarterbacks. You have a short window of opportunity so you might as well exhaust every resource you have.”
Bob Gretz is the senior editor for ChiefsDigest.com. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @BobGretzcom.