Jeff Herr, a finalist in the 2011 Big Gig Contest on 610 Sports Radio, was born and raised in Kansas City. Following the Chiefs, Royals, and Jayhawks all his life has led him to blog about all three extensively at the-jeff-report.blogspot.com. He has also spent time covering the Royals for the blog site kingsofkauffman.com as well as serving for a period as the lead editor of throughthephog.com a blog covering the Kansas Jayhawks. When not writing about the local sports scene, he pays the bills by serving as an accountant.
Jeff Herr: Dexter McCluster...Secret Weapon
by Jeff Herr,posted Jul 30 2012 6:07PM
Training camp has completed its first weekend and the notes and tidbits have started to pour out. In the early goings of training camp it is the duty of the credentialed press to blow every possible tidbit wildly out of proportion. In Kansas City such is the way of things. The Royals season is over as they flirt with being 20 games under .500. Searching for something to talk about, items such as Matt Cassel overthrowing Jonathan Baldwin in his first pass of training is a lightning rod sports topic.
One of the biggest stories coming out of camp so far has been Dexter McCluster and his role on this team. When drafted in 2010 McCluster regarded himself as an “OW” meaning “offensive weapon.” This seemed to be right where he was headed when he had his “breakout” game against the 49ers that year with 3 receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown.
He continued to find his footing until getting a high ankle sprain in the sixth game of the season. After a long road to recovery he wasn’t quite the same in 2010.
Last year was a precarious year for McCluster. He was put into a tough spot after being told he would focus less on running back and then being forced back into that role after the injury to Jamaal Charles. McCluster was unprepared for this going in to the season and in many ways ill suited.
The Chiefs began to use him as a normal running back. While he didn’t get a bulk of the carries, the ones he did get were standard running plays. The only problem is that McCluster is not a standard running back.
As a player McCluster needs to be in open space, to react in the open field where he can change direction if needed. Putting McCluster in a situation where he needs to read the defense, find the hole, and hit the hole, is not his strong suit.
The Chiefs knew this when they drafted him. This is why he was going to be utilized more as a slot receiver in his rookie year. Lots of bubbles screens, reverses, end arounds, and maybe even a few pitch outs were in store. All plays designed to confuse the defense, give the player the ability to make people miss in space and turn them into a threat.
Up to this season the narrative on McCluster has been that he hasn’t been that player and hasn’t lived up to “the hype” (which was relatively little, but was still there). Some would argue that it’s not even so much living up to the hype as it is living up to his draft status, which was the 36th overall pick, a very valuable selection the Chiefs held in 2010.
His first season was largely a letdown, which was in great part due to his injury. Many people spent all of last year lamenting how McCluster was not suited to being the go-to running back (which is correct) and that he didn’t provide as much value as he should. To the latter, I disagree.
Specifically in the second half of the season, after the Chiefs understood how they should utilize McCluster with Charles out, he began to become a very valuable player. For the season McCluster racked up 844 total yards and two total touchdowns. Not being a very physical runner or receiver, such low TD numbers are to be expected. He’s not going to get many goal line carries nor is he going to get many passes thrown his way inside the 20.
Even so, he was still a valuable cog in what little offense the Chiefs were able to muster last year, once the Chiefs fully figured out how to use him. Of his 844 total yards last year, McCluster put up 503 of those yards in the second half of the season. Breaking that down even further, 52% of his rushing yards came in the second half, and 71% of his receiving yards came in that same timeframe.
McCluster’s second half included a season high games of 61 rushing yards (which he hit twice) and 89 yards receiving. During that span he averaged 4.5 yards per carry and 10.3 yards per reception. Keep in mind; this was all without Charles, a healthy offensive line, a decent quarterback, and an aging Thomas Jones.
The Chiefs have noted their intention to have McCluster fill more of his slot receiver role in the upcoming season. Of course, running back reps haven’t been ruled out, nor should they be. With Charles back in the fold and a full set of healthy wide receivers and tight ends, there will be no shortage of weapons on this Chiefs team.
The question is how McCluster will fit in.
I think McCluster is ready for a true breakout year. After two seasons the Chiefs have a better idea of what he’s capable of and where his strengths and weaknesses lie. Barring any unforeseen injuries, McCluster won’t be expected to step outside his defined role. He will be able to grow more comfortable in his role on this team and that will translate into better results on the field.
Important to keep in mind here that “breakout years” are relative. A breakout year for McCluster would be right around 1,000 total yards, with a few more touchdowns. However, if he puts up these types of numbers his true effect will be how the defense reacts to him when he doesn’t get the ball.
Of course, this all comes with a caveat.
So far the Chiefs have said that he will focus more on his slot receiver role, yet he is listed as RB on the team’s website. In interviews even McCluster has been somewhat cryptic about how his position will be handled.
If McCluster is to be a valuable part of this team, as I believe he can be, it will depend on his comfort level. This is something the Chiefs directly control. By providing a clear message to McCluster up front, he will be able to gain more familiarity with his role as he did the second half of last season and the results should be similar.
As with most training camp notes, there’s a lot of “ifs” in this scenario. However, McCluster stands a chance to be breakout offensive weapon on this team that could help the Chiefs to their goal of a second division title in three years.