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Dexter McCluster, KitchenAid Mixers And The Hope Of Realized Potential

After flirting with multiple positions, Todd Haley says the Chiefs are settling McCluster down in the backfield.

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SAINT JOSEPH, MO - JULY 31:  Dexter McCluster #22 carries the ball during Kansas City Chiefs Training Camp on July 31, 2011 in Saint Joseph, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
SAINT JOSEPH, MO - JULY 31: Dexter McCluster #22 carries the ball during Kansas City Chiefs Training Camp on July 31, 2011 in Saint Joseph, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Having the tools in house is one thing; knowing how to use them is another subject altogether. Consider Dexter McCluster the KitchenAid mixer on the Kansas City Chiefs roster. The product looks shiny, the buzz is wonderful and the options are plenty. Yet if you don't know how to use it properly, the potential becomes wasted.

Perhaps the analogy doesn't hold in any household other than my own, but just go with me here. The "sleeper" buzz of the 2010 NFL Draft started in the second round when the Kansas City Chiefs used one of their two choices that round to select Mississippi's Dexter McCluster. The Philadelphia Eagles were rumored to have been targeting him just a few selections later, and NFL draft analysts immediately praised the move. The reactions bolstered fan confidence that Pioli had found the next great offensive weapon for the Chiefs.

The positive feedback came from McCluster's incredible skills on display in college. He returned kicks, he returned punts. He rushed the ball with great success, and he was also one of the team's best receivers. He even went 1 for 1 in passing attempts his senior year for a touchdown. Simply put, there wasn't a single place on the field that McCluster couldn't make an impact.

Check out some of the specifics. His senior year, he ran 181 times for 1,169 yards -- a tremendous 6.5 average that bested the 6.0 of his junior season. He blew open an incredible 86 yard run that season and had 8 touchdowns -- mostly based on his ability to evade tacklers and make big plays from scrimmage. In addition, McCluster caught 44 passes in both his junior and senior seasons that showcased good hands in the open field.

The Chiefs had plenty of game tape on McCluster that probably had them strategizing just how to make certain they got their man. McCluster put on an offensive clinic in a game against the Arkansas Razorbacks halfway through his senior season. In that 30-17 win, McCluster ran 22 times for 123 yards and caught 7 passes for another 137 yards. One month later, he torched the Tennessee Volunteers for 282 yards on 25 carries and 4 touchdowns. But it was in a 21-7 Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma State that McCluster showed scouts he can operate under pressure as he put up 184 yards on 34 carries and 2 touchdowns.

As Haley brought McCluster into camp, it became clear the Chiefs didn't quite know how to use him, and that he was going to have to earn his time in the NFL. The Chiefs already had significant pieces of the offense in place, especially in the running game, and so McCluster sat largely unused for the first few games. He had 12 touches through the first four games of the 2011 season, and it seemed McCluster might bloom later. Then came the Jacksonville game.

The Chiefs season had a significant turning point in their 42-20 pounding of the Jacksonville Jaguars and McCluster seemed to come out at the same time. McCluster had 4 catches for 28 yards and 5 rushes for 41 yards that game, the most touches he'd received to date by far. It seemed that Haley and Charlie Weis were learning how to ingratiate McCluster into the offense and/or that he was learning the offensive schemes. They were learning to operate the mixer, so to speak.

But that game also brought a high ankle sprain, one that kept McCluster out for month of November and kept him cold through the end of the year. He failed to make any significant impact on any game after that, and the injury left McCluster with rookie numbers of 21 receptions for 209 yards and 18 rushes for 79 yards. The numbers were rather pedestrian in the end.

This offseason brought significant questions about McCluster's place on the roster. The Chiefs solidified the holes on the roster at receiver by bringing Jon Baldwin with their first round selection and signing Steve Breaston from Arizona as their big free agency grab. The Chiefs, however, were already strong in the backfield with Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, and they brought in Le'Ron McClain to further bolster that unit. Now a playoff team, the Chiefs have more mouths to feed than ever before on offense -- and that's without incorporating McCluster into the unit. The question, in short, moved from "How do we use him?" to "Will we be able use him?"

Recent comments from Todd Haley have shed new light on the situation, however, and that's good news for both the Chiefs and fans of McCluster's game. In a recent press conference, Haley said the lack of a proper offseason this year is keeping McCluster in the backfield where he's most comfortable until they have time to teach him the slot position properly. And even at that position, he'll find enough touches to be a force in every game.

"There is a clear-cut vision for him right now...I thought it was encouraging to see Dexter kind of step into and start to find a little role. I thought he made a number of plays [vs. Baltimore], seven touches or so in there that I thought were kind of exciting, good things for us as a team, good things for him."

As if the Chiefs running game didn't bring enough to the table against opponents, defensive coordinators will now have to prepare for the threat McCluster offers the Chiefs offense in the open field. It took McCluster some time to establish himself at Mississippi and the same will be true at the pro level. But that same offensive versatility and dynamism is there as before, and Chiefs fans should enjoy a stronger coaching vision for McCluster's talents in his second season.