Just What Is Dex? … Monday Cup O’Chiefs

Is he a running back, or a wide receiver?

Fans of the Chiefs have been asking those questions about Dexter McCluster since he joined the team out of the second round of last year’s NFL Draft.

Todd Haley and his coaching staff have been asking the same questions. At this point in the 2011 pre-season, they’ve decided that the 5-8, 180-pound McCluster is a running back.

That was not the case last season. Within minutes after he was drafted, the Chiefs were letting the media know that McCluster was a wide receiver, even though he was essentially a running back at the University of Mississippi. That’s where he was listed all during his rookie season with the Chiefs, when he had 18 carries and 21 catches.

The Chiefs still list him on the roster among the wide receivers, although he’s spent the entire 2011 pre-season working with the running backs exclusively. So far, he has eight catches and 7 runs, producing 118 yards. In what has been an anemic offensive performance in three games, only RB Jackie Battle has gained more yards (141) and touched the ball more (39) than McCluster.

So why the pogo stick on positioning for him? It’s a product of two factors: 

  1. McCluster’s athletic ability, speed and quickness.
  2. McCluster’s size.

The goal is to get the ball in his hands in mismatch opportunities, especially in the open field. That’s where he can use that speed and quickness to push the ball vertically. But given his smallish stature, there’s only so much physical pounding that his body can take. Evidence on that came last year when he suffered a sprained ankle in the sixth game of the season and missed the next five weeks.

It’s like having one of those very expensive Italian sports cars. You want to take it out for a drive because it’s beautiful and high performance. But every mile driven wears on the car, chipping away at its effectiveness and performance. It makes taking the car out of the garage a discussion point every time it’s considered.

But that does not mean that the Chiefs coaching staff doesn’t know what to do with McCluster.

“There is a clear-cut vision for him right now,” said head coach Todd Haley. “He’s a guy that we knew had versatility to do both – he did both in college and he’s very productive in both areas at different times, along with the returning.”

Given the conditions of the 2011 off-season, with no OTAs and classroom work available to the coaches and players, Haley and his staff felt it was important to put McCluster in a position where he could really use his skills and create some thrills.

They decided that wasn’t as a wide receiver, but as a running back.

“I think being that slot receiver from a learning-standpoint takes some time when you haven’t lined up and done it for four years in college where you’re really just used to seeing everything,” Haley said. “Knowing we were going to miss an off-season, I thought that would be a potential setback for him but I like some of the things you’re seeing, at least from the other night, the guy can run the ball.

“We’re still working hard on the protection issue. But from a standpoint of creating some matchup issues out of the backfield, I think there is some exciting stuff potentially.”

In his limited playing time as a rookie, McCluster showed that he can be a game-breaker if he can find his way into open spots in the defense. For someone of his size, that’s actually easier to do from the backfield, than split out as a wide receiver.

Say McCluster lines up in the slot or wide receiver and goes out for a pass. Because he’s 5-8, there were times last year when QB Matt Cassel had trouble locating his diminutive receiver amidst all the bodies down the field. That’s not the case when he lines up in the backfield and runs routes in to the open flat behind the line of scrimmage. If not there, then like they did against St. Louis, Cassel and McCluster connect on what is essentially a wide receiver screen. But again, he’s easy for the passer to locate.

There’s another angle on the size factor – when he’s coming out of the backfield, he’s much harder for the defense to locate. If he gets down behind the blockers, it’s hard to figure what gap he might be running towards. Plus, add his quickness and ability to move side-to-side and he can change that gap very quickly.

“I like that, being behind all those guys and having the defense have to find me,” McCluster said. “We did some of that when I was in college and it was always pretty effective.”

It can work, but only if McCluster is willing to run between the tackles. Despite the increased chances of getting his blocked knocked off, he enjoys running inside with the big boys. “I guess I may have a running back mentality, because running between the tackles is something I like to do. I really enjoy it.”

Third down will be when McCluster gets his chance to play. But if he’s going to lineup in the backfield as a RB, he must improve one specific area of his game – pass protection. The size that makes him so hard to find on the field for the defense makes it hard for him to handle pass rushers headed for his quarterback.

It’s not a question of willingness to handle the chores; it’s just learning enough of the fundamentals and tricks of trade to be able to slow down the rush.

“I’ve seen enough in practice that Dexter physically will stand in there with anybody,” Haley said. “But there is some learning that’s involved and the technique. I know he’s being well coached on it and I believe he’ll figure it out.

“That guy, you can say he has to protect, protect, protect, but they also have to cover him, cover him, cover him. I think you can handle it a couple different ways.”

The question that remains unanswered is how Haley and his staff will handle the amount of playing time McCluster gets, not only on offense, but as a returner in the kicking game as well. Last year he lost five games to a sprained ankle that he suffered in the October 24th game against Jacksonville. So he played in 12 games, including the playoffs. He touched the ball 88 times and produced 1,114 yards. That broke down into 302 offensive yards and 812 yards in kick and punt returns.

It averaged out to 7.3 plays with the ball in his hands per those 12 games. Factor in the games missed to injury and it’s just 5.2 touches per game in the season schedule. The most offensive touches McCluster had in a single game was nine against Jacksonville, in the game where he got hurt. The most combined offense-special teams touches he had was 12 against Denver in his first game back from the ankle injury.

Based on what he did last year and his size, anything more than an average of 7 or 8 touches per game would put him in the danger zone for injury.

“To me it’s four or five runs and four or five catches (per game) and however many snaps that takes that doesn’t matter to me nearly as much as this guy in space clearly is a hazard to the defense,” Haley said. “That’s the way we’ve kind of been practicing and trying to get to that – and without putting a ton of scheme in, and that’s a role that would be schemed pretty heavily I would think.”

6 Responses to “Just What Is Dex? … Monday Cup O’Chiefs”

  • August 29, 2011  - John says:

    “But given his smallish stature, there’s only so much physical pounding that his body can take. Evidence on that came last year when he suffered a sprained ankle in the sixth game of the season and missed the next five weeks.”

    Bob, I generally enjoy your coverage and writing, but I think the correlation you attempt to draw there is a bit of a stretch. Using a high-ankle sprain as fuel on the “McCluster is too small to survive in the NFL” fire doesn’t appear to be sound reasoning to me…

    Now you COULD use some of the very hard hits McCluster has taken in his 2 years in the league, except that he pops right back up from most of them. In fact, if I am remembering correctly, his injury didn’t even occur on a play on which he received a particularly strong “pounding”.

  • August 29, 2011  - Kenneth says:

    John I agree with you that McClusters high ankle sprain wasn’t from impact or being pounded on and Larry Johnson is proof that even a bigger rb can get a bad leg or foot injury while being tackled.

    Somne guys like to use a supposed rule that little guys in the NFL will always be getting hurt but there are guys like Darren Sproles and others that bust that supposed rule all the time.

  • August 30, 2011  - tuan says:

    injury is injury !!! not because of he’s small that why he got hurt !! regular NFL (size) player got hurt all the time and what you have to say about that Bob, ( bad luck ) haha ..

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