Chiefs poised to surprise in 2013

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- The case for the Kansas City Chiefs as this year's most improved team is pretty easy.

Owner Clark Hunt hired the best available coach on the market, Andy Reid. The former Philadelphia Eagles coach inherits a defense that features four Pro Bowlers and two more -- cornerback Brandon Flowers and Dontari Poe -- who could be next in line. General manager John Dorsey brokered a trade to acquire quarterback Alex Smith, who joins an offense that features one of the league's best runners (Jamaal Charles) and one of its better receiving threats (Dwayne Bowe).

Plus, the Chiefs play one of the league's easiest schedules, including a road slate with opponents whose 2012 records were a combined .406 win percentage.

Some experts touted the Chiefs as a potential playoff team a year ago, but they ended up 2-14 and picking first in the draft. Seeing Reid install a blue-collar work ethic on a team more talented than two wins means the Chiefs could be one of the league's top candidates to surprise in 2013.

Here are the five things I learned at Chiefs camp.

1. Training camp position battles: The best battle is at tight end, where Anthony Fasano, Tony Moeaki and third-round pick Travis Kelce are fighting for playing time. Fasano is getting first-team reps, but Reid likes all three and will try to find ways to give them all playing time.

The only spot available on the offensive line is at left guard. Jeff Allen, a second-round pick last year, has a slight advantage over veteran Geoff Schwartz.

Bowe and Jon Baldwin are the starting wide receivers, but everything is open after that. Donnie Avery appears to be the No. 3, but Reid is intrigued by using Dexter McCluster out of the slot. Devon Wylie is also vying for time at the slot receiver spot.

Things are pretty set on defense, but a nice battle could emerge at inside linebacker between Akeem Jordan, also from the Eagles, and fourth-round choice Nico Johnson.

Although the Chiefs are solid at the starting spots, their roster isn't very deep. Injuries will be a problem if they happen, and the Chiefs could be looking for players on the waiver wire and possible trades as September approaches.

2. Alex Smith's great attitude: Few quarterbacks have endured more tough times than Smith. The first pick in the 2005 draft, Smith annually went through coordinator changes and losing seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. Once, his toughness was called out by former 49ers coach Mike Nolan, although Smith has always been tough. He's been benched but kept coming back for more, even offering to return to the 49ers at a reasonable price during contract talks.

Then came Jim Harbaugh.

Under Harbaugh, Smith played his best, helping the 49ers go to the 2011 NFC Championship Game. But an injury last year opened the door for Colin Kaepernick to replace him in what turned out to be a Super Bowl run.

Talking to Smith now that he's been traded to Kansas City, it's easy to see his competitiveness and his desire to prove the 49ers wrong in letting him go. Yes, he's on a mission. On the field, he's working nonstop with his offense and coaching up the young receivers. His presence will determine whether the Chiefs can be successful this year.

Harbaugh designed plays that work to Smith's strengths and hid his weaknesses. Smith doesn't have the strongest arm, so Harbaugh didn't ask him to throw much downfield. He surrounded him with a strong running attack and a conservative game plan. Reid will have him work on timing routes and running the West Coast offense. Before getting hurt last year, Smith was completing more than 70 percent of his passes. His numbers won't come close to that in Kansas City, but he should be efficient enough to throw in the low 60 percent rate and move the offense more consistently than it has moved the past four years.

3. Press coverage by the cornerbacks: The most pleasant surprise at Chiefs camp was seeing cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage pressing wide receivers in coverage. Reid mostly used a 4-3 scheme in his Philadelphia days, but the Chiefs are built with 3-4 personnel -- a defense that often calls for more zone coverage. Seeing cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and free-agent acquisition Sean Smith jam receivers at the line of scrimmage was a thrill.

By playing press-man coverage, the Chiefs can put together blitz packages to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Flowers is one of the top five corners in the AFC even though he's been a few votes shy of the Pro Bowl the past couple of years.

If you wonder whether Flowers is ready for this year, he ran two to three miles a night in the offseason before he went to sleep.

Smith is a pressing 6-foot-3 corner who matches up against tall receivers and can take them out of their routes. Dorsey signed former Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson to be the third corner, joining an impressive secondary that also features Eric Berry, a Pro Bowl-caliber safety.

4. The new Jamaal Charles: Adrian Peterson challenged Eric Dickerson's career rushing record in 2012 coming off a knee reconstruction; Charles' comeback from the same injury was understated by comparison. He rushed for 1,509 yards on 285 carries and averaged a remarkable 5.3 yards a carry.

Reid's West Coast offense will add even more to Charles' plate. When it comes to a choice between calling a run or a pass, Reid prefers to pass. He considers a screen or short pass to a running back a "running-type play." Charles has never caught more than 45 passes in a season, but you'll see a lot of plays that resemble what Reid did with Brian Westbrook and so many of his old Philly backs. He'll try to get the ball in Charles' hands and watch him run. Charles has great speed, particularly to the outside.

The passing elements might prevent him from being one of few 300-carry backs in the league, but combine his rushes and passes out of the backfield and he'll be one of the busiest.

5. Eric Fisher is the perfect type of lineman for Reid: As a Mike Holmgren student of the West Coast offense, Reid stresses protection and has always been aggressive in trying to build tough, talented offensive lines.

Fisher, the first pick in the draft, has already won him over, although Fisher occasionally struggles against experienced defenders in practice. He has athletic skills similar to Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns, but what pleases Reid is Fisher's toughness. In his first training camp practice, Fisher badly injured two fingers on his right hand. He stayed in practice and tried to go against defenders mostly left-handed. Within a few days, he did some damage to his left hand. Those injuries have caused him to be a little inconsistent blocking, but Reid isn't concerned. Fisher is smart, talented and dedicated. With Branden Albert doing well at left tackle, the offensive line is looking solid.