With the Kansas City Chiefs only a few days away from the start of training camp, it's time to start looking at the key players who could make all the difference in 2012.
Each Tuesday, I'll be diving into an x-factor on the squad. The first player on the list is in all likelihood the most important, Matt Cassel.
Last year, Cassel was a disappointment in the nine games he played before sustaining a season-ending hand injury. After making the Pro Bowl in 2010 by throwing 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions, the USC product regressed. In 2011, Cassel threw nine interceptions in just over half of a campaign, looking indecisive more often than not.
Positive: Cassel has done it before. While he hasn't been a top-flight quarterback in years past, he's shown the ability to win football games. Twice he's had seasons of 10+ wins at the helm and has shown the capability to be effective. He'll never be the focal point of the offense, but he can be more than a simple game manager.
With Jamaal Charles returning and the potential maturation of Jonathan Baldwin, Cassel will have more weapons than ever before. Throw in Kevin Boss, Peyton Hillis, and a revamped offensive line, and Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli has surrounded him with one of the more complete offenses in the league.
Negative: Cassel has never been someone who can take over a game. When teams have choked off the Chiefs' running game, the 30-year-old appears to be lost. If Kansas City does make the playoffs like many expect, it could be another one-and-done with Cassel behind center if he can't make more plays on his own.
Against good teams, he needs to make the tight throw into coverage occasionally with positive results. Cassel also needs to go through his progressions much better. If he can't improve on these things, it might get ugly in Arrowhead.
My Take: Cassel will have a major bounce-back year.
My reasoning? The reinforced line in front of him and the return of a rushing attack. Granted, this prediction hinges on Charles being healthy and Hillis just being moderately effective, but I believe both of those things will happen. It's unrealistic to expect Charles to rush for 1,500 yards coming off of such a serious injury, but even at 75 percent he's one of the best backs in football.
The other and maybe underrated part of my thought process is the addition of Tony Moeaki. The ex-Hawkeye had a terrific rookie season before tearing his ACL in the preseason. If he can play even close to a full season and be the player we remember, he'll make a huge difference. A tight end is always a best friend to a quarterback like Cassel. Moeaki can make those critical third down conversions easier, while taking attention away from other receivers.
Overall, Kansas City is replacing Jackie Battle and Leonard Pope with Charles and Moeaki respectively. I don't expect to see Cassel in Honolulu, but with the upgrades on the offensive unit, I would be surprised if he doesn't put up legitimate stats.