Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: the biggest Chiefs question, pressuring Brett Veach, and more

Highlights, injuries and updates from Chiefs training camp

Chiefs beat writer Brooke Pryor talks about the highlights on Monday from Chiefs training camp.
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Chiefs beat writer Brooke Pryor talks about the highlights on Monday from Chiefs training camp.

We have entered a parallel universe where the question is no longer what needs to go right for the Chiefs to be special but rather what might go wrong to prevent it.

This is a strange place to be, because the team with the red helmets usually requires good breaks and a little over-performance to be taken seriously. But even as we are mostly adults here and understand the biggest trap in NFL prognostication is overvaluing the previous season we can see that the Chiefs will be a mother to take down.

They won 12 games and came within a coin flip of the Super Bowl with a relentless buzzkill of a defense that has since been radically made over in personnel, scheme, and coaching.

The players most responsible for pushing the franchise to its most exciting season in a generation are not just back, but without exception in the ascending or prime portions of their careers.

So, anyway, the answer:

The cornerbacks.

Nobody should be expecting the Chiefs to suddenly defend the run well or even solidly, but in today’s NFL that’s sort of like when your windshield wipers start to smear. It’s annoying, and there’s a chance it could turn into a big problem, but for the most part you can still get where you need to go.

The bigger problem is if teams are able to keep Chris Jones and Frank Clark from their quarterback for 3 seconds.

Because at some point, Bashaud Breeland is going to be isolated on Keenan Allen or DeAndre Hopkins or Stefon Diggs or Adam Thielen or Davante Adams and that will be a problem.

The tendency is to assume the defense will be better, and that’s natural for at least two reasons:

can’t get much worse.

they basically changed everything they could.

But the corners aren’t better. Steven Nelson is, objectively, a better player than Breeland. The rest of it is the same as the end of last season.

Now, you can make a sound case that Charvarius Ward will be better with experience and confidence and that Kendall Fuller will be better with a new coordinator and more time in the slot and that the group will be lifted with better support from the safeties.

But if you look at this particular team, at least at this almost absurdly early point in the season, the most sensible way to attack the Chiefs might be to double Jones, chip Clark, and attack the corners.

Chiefs fans go wild for Tyreek Hill as he signs autographs after the team had their first public practice on Saturday in St. Joseph, Mo.

The problem only became realer with Keith Reaser’s injury. The Chiefs will prioritize adding a veteran corner for depth now, but whoever is available is available for a reason and would presumably be coming into a new system and terminology.

This is justifiably the most anticipated Chiefs season in a generation, and perhaps ever. Maybe the best proof for that fact is that we’re talking about what might go wrong, rather than what needs to go right.

But the corner play and depth is the biggest and most obvious question to be answered.

This week’s reading recommendation is my friend Liz Merrill on a Villanova basketball star who became a nun, and the eating recommendation is the beef short rib sandwich at The Bite.

Please give me a follow on Twitter and Facebook and as always thanks for reading and thanks for the help.

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I used to be a staunch If You Take Car Seats With You It’s Not A Vacation guy, but now I see the light and have become a If You Take Twitter With You It’s Not A Vacation zealot.

I deleted it from my phone, and never felt freer.

Probably ended up checking Facebook and Instagram* more than usual, and I did miss seeing a lot of interesting stories I would’ve read while out. But the tradeoff was amazing.

*I’ve resisted it for a while, but would anybody be into it if I made a “professional” Instagram account?

I’ve never done this before, but I took two straight weeks off. One for a trip with most of my best friends to Hood River, and another with my family to Michigan. I wish I had the self discipline to make this unnecessary but basically using my phone only as a camera and GPS made both trips feel fuller and purer.

But, yeah, I’m sure Twitter was totally reasonable and smart while I was gone.

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It’s a good question.

For me, part is the understanding that Jones basically wants the contract he’d get with one more terrific season right now. That’s an oversimplification, but the point is the Chiefs don’t really have an incentive to do that deal.

Assuming Jones balls out, if it’s the same contract next year (when they would still have the leverage of a potential franchise tag*) the Chiefs will have lost nothing while paying him just $1.2 million this year.

*Depending on what happens with Tyreek Hill, which is another complicated issue we’ll get into more as time goes on.

So, that’s a big part of it.

Justin Houston and Eric Berry had already proven all that needed to be proven. I guess questions existed about each player’s health, but you could say that about any football player. The Chiefs also handled those negotiations — particularly the one with Berry — with enough condescension and arrogance to sour what should’ve been better relationships.

At least as far as I can tell, that hasn’t happened with Jones. Yet.

Again, I wrote about a lot of this a few weeks ago, but the Chiefs have some real reasons to wait here. The cap goes up every year and with the CBA expiring after next season kicking the metaphorical financial can down the road could be prudent strategy.

The first day of Chiefs training camp workouts July 24, 2019, head coach Andy Reid talks about Travis Kelce, the defense and more.

Risk exists no matter the path, and if Jones has 18 sacks while improving against the run the Chiefs may face the choice of giving him an even bigger deal than he’s seeking now or trading him for cap relief and draft capital.

But at the moment, I understand the logic behind what they’re doing.

I also respect the hell out of Jones’ side, and as a guy who believes every NFL player should get their full value plus 20%, I hope he gets what he’s asking for.

That’s the problem, though. Both sides are buoyed by reason. That’s how these contract standoffs start.

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In order:

1. Brett Veach.

2. Andy Reid.

(pause for commercial break because we need to go way down the list)

3. Patrick Mahomes.

Let’s discuss, in reverse order.

Mahomes is the literal MVP. Pressure is always a thing, and he’ll be perhaps the closest watched player in the league* but he’s low on this list for several reasons.

*Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham would headline my list of contenders for that title.

First, it’s genuinely difficult to imagine him screwing this up. Everything we’ve seen is a diligent, committed, smart, hyper talented and uber competitive guy surrounded by loads of talent and terrific coaching support. Also, even a bad year can be explained as a learning experience. He’s still just 23, for crying out loud. He’s got a lot of time in this league.

Reid is the most established person on this list. He could quit tomorrow and be remembered as one of the best coaches of his time and a man who actually had a hand in changing the way NFL teams play.

But he’s closer to first on this list than third because he’s also 61 years old. He’s entering his 21st season as a head coach, and even with four straight NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl appearance after the 2004 season he has never had an opportunity quite like this.

He’ll be respected no matter what, but his accomplishments going forward will determine whether he flies into the Hall of Fame or is the guy who couldn’t turn a unicorn quarterback into a Super Bowl championship.

Veach goes first for me because he’s the least accomplished of the bunch, is currently walking two tightropes with potential contract extensions for Jones and Hill, just gave up the equivalent of both arms and a firstborn son for Frank Clark, and doesn’t want to be the guy who had a Hall of Fame caliber head coach and Mahomes and couldn’t get to a Super Bowl.

I believe in Veach and think he’s done well so far, even outside his work on trading up to draft Mahomes. But with the contracts for Sammy Watkins and Anthony Hitchens and no obvious star from last year’s draft class* the general opinion could nosedive if the defense doesn’t improve.

*Which didn’t have a first-round pick because of the Mahomes trade, but still.

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Connor knows how to get in the Minutes, you guys. Rest of you animals should take notes.

The worst case scenario is that Frank Clark is a more expensive Dee Ford and product of the Seahawks’ system who also cost the Chiefs the chance to draft a good cornerback, that Tyrann Mathieu is either injured or not as productive after being paid as he was while working toward being paid, that Chris Jones forces a trade, and Anthony Hitchens and Kendall Fuller don’t benefit from the coaching and scheme change.

Best case is that Clark is a defensive player of the year candidate, Mathieu is a more versatile version of what Eric Berry used to be, Chris Jones earns that contract, Hitchens is solid in the middle and Fuller is even better than his last year in Washington with more time in the slot and better safety support.

That’s a wide spectrum, and maybe I’m just an optimist, but I do believe we’re looking closer to the above paragraph than the one before.

It’s tempting to pick out one key, but all of this stuff works together, and not just in the way that Clark and Jones up front can make plays easier or more difficult for Mathieu and Fuller in the back.

If Steve Spagnuolo proves to be a significant upgrade — and, at the very least, his history says he’ll be much less predictable and harder to manipulate than Bob Sutton — that’s a rising tide that lifts all boats.

But you can see the vision for what the Chiefs are trying to do. They are stacking the defensive line with young depth around two studs and taking their chances with cheaper cornerbacks. That’s not unlike what the Eagles did in winning their most recent Super Bowl.

One of the great failures of the Chiefs defense the last few years has been a lack of playmaking in the secondary. With the trade of Marcus Peters, and the injuries of Eric Berry, there just wasn’t anyone back there who made opposing quarterbacks think.

That changes with Mathieu and, if you’re willing to dream a bit, maybe Juan Thornhill at some point.

Even a small improvement there would be significant in the context of the offense and front seven.

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I really like Damien Williams. He’s got some versatility to him, some speed, some agility, and a lot of ceiling. There’s a reason the Chiefs gave him the contract extension and have been so clear that he’s the starter.

But if you forced me to make a list — a list! — I don’t think running back depth would make the top 10 concerns about the 2019 Chiefs.

Some of that is the general devaluation of running backs, but more of it is that playing running back for the Chiefs has to be one of the best situations in the league.

Think about it.

The (presumably still improving) MVP is the quarterback, throwing to a shameless collection of skill talent. The offensive line is better in pass protection than the run game, but they’ve been together an unusual length of time and have steadily if incrementally improved.

Again, Damien Williams is the best option, but that’s a hell of a situation for any back to be in. I don’t know this, but I’m assuming the Chiefs will look for potential upgrades or depth at running back, but it’s hard for me to imagine a reasonably competent back not being successful with this particular setup.

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I don’t like to go out of my way to be critical but a real MVP would’ve had an east-west line and Plaza extension on the Streetcar by last year’s bye week.

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I’m probably not the best person to ask since I’ve been disconnected the last few weeks, but is the story buried? Do people not know that KCTV was blatantly dishonest in describing what was edited?

I’ve written about it repeatedly, and others have written and talked about it too.

Your question is more about asking Hill or a representative from the Chiefs. I think it would’ve been an interesting question for Hill, and I’d be curious what he’d say, but I watched that press conference and can see how it wasn’t asked.

Eight minutes isn’t a lot. He was asked more than once if there was anything he’d like to say, and presumably that would include comment on the initial tape.

He was asked what he’d learned, asked to clarify the part of the tape that discussed punching his son, asked about the eight hour meeting with the league, asked about his time away from the team, asked about the conversation with Clark Hunt, asked what he’d say to people who might still be skeptical, and more.

I can say and believe that I wish Hill had been asked about the tape in general, but I also think there was a lot to cover in a limited amount of time. Also, calling Hill a victim is a stretch. The tape was made in secret, and with a purpose, but the full version wasn’t exactly vindication.

I’ve talked about the editing with some in and close to the Chiefs, and the general feeling is that it was dishonest and put a lot of people in tough positions, but also that they’d like to move on and focus on football as much as possible. I’m guessing Hill feels similarly, and is being encouraged (especially as extension talks resume) to say as little as possible about the tape.

I can assure you that if anyone from the team wants to talk about it I will have the space for it.

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Oddly enough, football season is when I have the most time to read — on flights, in the hotel the night before a road game, before games, etc. And that book is on my list. I’ve heard good things.

I haven’t asked about this specifically, but my sense is the Royals are generally more respected by scouts than stats but here’s something interesting.

Kyle Boddy, the president and founder of Driveline and (ummm) a person who isn’t afraid to criticize the way teams develop talent, has complimented the Royals.

I should pause for some context here. I called Boddy a few months back for a column that may still run but has been sidetracked. We talked about a lot of stuff, including Kyle Zimmer, but got into his perspective on which teams are doing it right and which are doing it wrong.

Now, Boddy has a very specific view here. He believes strongly in his methods, is defiant against those he thinks won’t listen, and is interested primarily in pitchers.

But, it’s worth noting that his experience with Zimmer changed how he sees the Royals. He found them to be open minded, trusting, and willing to go outside the box.

Boddy talks to a lot of young prospects, and has taken to dividing organizations into three categories: those to avoid, those to join, and the rest in the middle.

The Royals had long been one of the organizations he told young pitchers to avoid, but he now puts them in the middle. I’ll expand on this if and when I get back to the column I called him for, but it might be a small sign of some changing perception.

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It was absolutely intentional, and the balance is at least at the moment thrown out of whack by the struggles of Pratto and some of the other hitters the Royals have invested in.

When they looked back at the first rebuild, the primary area that club officials thought they could improve was starting pitching.

It’s been a lifetime ago by now, but Dayton Moore grew up as a baseball scout inside the Maddux-Smoltz-Glavine Braves. He spent much of his early years here talking about how starting pitching was the currency of baseball. He’s shifted on it some, but that philosophy is still in his DNA.

Also, Moore knows that (in part because of the success of the 2014 and 2015 Royals) the industry values relievers more now. You can’t prioritize everything, so here comes an opportunity for the Royals to again zig while others zag.

The philosophy is part logic and part desperation, because in a different world I believe the Royals would prefer to draft, sign and develop hitters while buying pitchers in free agency. That’s the model preferred by some bigger clubs, most notably the Cubs, but the Royals don’t have that luxury.

All of which is a long way of saying yes, absolutely, the Royals are putting a heavier emphasis on starting pitching now.

That chunk of the plan looks good right now, but won’t likely matter if the Royals don’t get enough position players. We can talk about Pratto and Melendez and the rest of the Wilmington core, but it’s also true that after a first few months that looked like stardom Adalberto Mondesi’s numbers have cooled and he’s been injured again.

There are no simple answers here.

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That was as encouraging a win as Sporting has had since, well, is it too dramatic to say March?

They controlled the match, Felipe Gutierrez was fabulous, Tim Melia cleaned up a mistake or two in the back, and they took three points on the road against a Western Conference playoff team. It was just Seattle’s second home loss of the season.

Erik Hurtado’s goal was fabulous, and encouraging in style — an individual effort with physicality and strength.

They looked like a team with confidence and resilience, two things that have been hard to find at times.

You’re asking about the future, and I’m still relatively pessimistic. They’re five points short of the playoff line with 11 to play, and I know things can change quickly, but I’d like to see more than one game before I start believing.

I also believe this about Sporting: no matter what happens the rest of this season they have some important and big questions to answer after the season.

The sustained success has centered on a core of players that’s approaching their mid-30s, and without an obvious core of younger stars behind them Peter Vermes will have difficult decisions.

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Slaps is great, but I’m answering this question mostly to push back against the notion that we have to have a Mt. Rushmore.

Because, come on, between Joe’s, Slaps, Jack Stack, Gates on a good day, Q39, Char Bar, and I’m assuming others I’m forgetting, who you kicking out? Whichever place you choose I will go there this afternoon and have a delicious and regret-free lunch*.

*Update: I just went online to look at places, and apparently Scott’s Kitchen is great? Why didn’t any of you monsters tell me about this? Have I been on vacation THAT long?

I’m at this weird place with barbecue, I guess. My preference is to make it myself, which is really stupid for someone who lives in Kansas City, but after that I find myself craving specific places for specific moments:

Joe’s for someone in from out of town, Jack Stack if you’re trying to go a bit nicer, Char Bar with the kids because that back patio is clutch, Slaps or Gates if I think someone is ready, LC’s if they’re REALLY ready, BB’s for music, Woodyard for a different experience, Danny Edwards for an easy lunch, and I could go on and on and I’m not kidding you guys I’m a little hurt nobody told me about Scott’s Kitchen.

Let’s must move on.

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First of all, thank you for noticing. Second of all, thank you for calling it a “beard.” I appreciate your confidence.

What’s currently on my face might best be described as the beard equivalent of a lawn that’s had too much heat and not enough water. It’s pretty decent in patches, bare in others, and kind of sad in most.

My facial hair game has always been weak at best, but I gave myself most of a week’s headstart and then didn’t shave on vacation. That’s usually my personal policy, and then I shave when I come back to reality. But my wife actually said the other day that she liked it.

My wife!

So, I may or may not be confident in it, and you jerks might make fun of me for it, but let’s be honest here: my wife’s opinion is the only one that matters here so I think I’ll try to trim the edges a bit and see how the next week or so goes.

I’m past the itchy part, which is further than I’ve ever gone.

Thank you for your continued thoughts and prayers through this time of personal transition.

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The streetcar is the most obvious change, and I don’t know where you are in life, but one thing we haven’t done with the kids that I’d like is to drive to Union Station, ride down to City Market, spend an hour or so there shopping, find lunch, then ride back and hit Science City before we go home.

I tend to lose track of years with these things, but Q39 might be new since you left? Rockhill Grille is an upgrade from the Cashew. Novel is great. You should also reacquaint (hopefully it’s reacquaint) yourself with some places like the Green Lady Lounge, Chez Charlie, Caddy Shack, and Hi Dive.

Go to Loose Park. The Nelson. Eat all the barbecue. The Plaza Art Fair is one of my favorite weekends. The deck at Kelly’s. Get tacos at Bichelmeyer on a Saturday, and basically anywhere in KCK or on the Boulevard any other day. Smoke one at the Cigar Box.

That should get you started.

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You gotta read the defense.

When I do this guys’ trip every summer, it’s basically the same few days in a different location. We make fun of each other, tell the same stories we’ve told for 20 years, golf, make fun of each other, have some beer, eat, make fun of each other and also usually find time to make fun of each other. There’s not a ton of plan-it-out going on here.

When it’s just the wife and me, we usually find a beach and do as little as possible: wake up around 9, have brunch, go the water, read, take a walk, maybe find something to do in town, get back to the water, do a late dinner and drinks and then start the whole thing over again.

When it’s the family, I do get a little Griswold-y. I don’t have a list of sites to hit or anything, but I’m a little OCD about having options and eliminating any potential problems. I like to challenge the GPS and see if I can knock off as many minutes driving as it takes to stop for gas and a bathroom. Naps are strongly encouraged, bedtimes completely ignored, and requests for ice cream always granted.

I should say, though: my Griswold resistance will be put to the ultimate test next summer. I think I’ve convinced my wife to do this annual trip to Michigan by car.

I want to stop in Chicago a few days on the way up or back or both to basically recreate every trip to my grandparents we took as kids: Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Science and Industry, Michigan Avenue, Oak Street Beach, Lake Shore Drive, Wrigley Field, Sears Tower (or whatever it’s called now), and all of the pizza.

I desperately wanted to do that trip with my mom, but I don’t think the kids have been old enough yet, and we’ll do her proud next year. Truly, though: I might embarrass myself and cause a familial split by trying to get to everything in a few days.

This week, I’m particularly grateful for friends and family I look forward to vacationing with and a job I look forward to doing when I get back. I am incredibly lucky, and understand that.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.