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Sophomore Growth A Mystery This Off-Season

Posted Jul 17, 2011

There's a general belief that players improve most between their first and second seasons; how will this year's off-season affect Kansas City's sophomore class?

Eric Berry headlined Kansas City’s rookie class a year ago. The first Chiefs rookie to earn Pro Bowl honors since Derrick Thomas, Berry enters his second NFL season loaded with plenty of preseason expectations.

There were other impact rookies as well. Javier Arenas, Kendrick Lewis (pictured), Dexter McCluster and Tony Moeaki all made immediate contributions and are expected to play similar, if not larger, roles in 2011.

The success of Kansas City’s rookie class played a large part in the Chiefs ability to orchestrate an unprecedented worst-to-first turnaround. Continued improvement hinges on the progression of a youth-filled roster.

There’s a league-wide belief that players improve the most from their first season to their second. For a team like the Chiefs – a team that saw such measurable success with its rookies and will lean heavily on second-year players this season - coming out of a work stoppage can be a bit scary.

There’s no denying the positive buzz surrounding the latest in labor talks. Soon, it seems that One Arrowhead’s parking lot will be a little more crowded. Lockers that have gone untouched for an entire off-season might just regain that bit of personality.

A return to football will no doubt bring excitement, but after that initial wave of hullabaloo comes reality. Part of that reality is the fact that Kansas City’s second-year players are going to be playing catch-up.

While rookies are certainly behind the eight ball, it’s the sophomores who have lost a window of their careers many deem vital. It’s generally overlooked that Berry and Co. has yet to go through an entire off-season as professional athletes. There’s generally just a seven-week period of workouts between April’s draft and the final break before training camp. Rookies only gain an elementary understanding of NFL workouts during that timeframe.

The reason that so many players see marked improvement between their first and second seasons is relatively easy to pinpoint. Simply put, they have a general understanding of what it takes to be a successful pro. They are then able to attack a full off-season with that mindset.

Being a successful pro is about more than staying in shape. It’s about eating right, one-on-one time with coaches, working out the right way, pinpointing physical goals and working towards those goals with the assistance and motivation of top-flight strength and conditioning coaches.

Weight expectations are clear, weaknesses are pinpointed and there’s finally the freedom of working out with complete knowledge of the playbook.

Players have now  been completely on their own for more than five months. For many of the seasoned veterans, the time off won’t matter. They’ve been in the game for years and know how to properly prepare for training camp. For others, the lack of a structured off-season program will be glaring.

Who’s overweight and who’s not will command headlines across all 32 NFL cities in the days that training camps open.

But for second-year players, a major part of the NFL learning curve has been lost. Preparing for Year Two is much different than preparing for Year One. The benefits of checking in with position coaches on a daily basis can’t be underestimated. When it comes to the off-season, Year Two players are still rookies in a lot of way.

How does McCluster know where to focus his positional work? Would the Chiefs have had him work more with the running backs more than the wide receivers this off-season?

What about Jon Asamoah? The Chiefs had him focus the majority of his practice repetitions at right guard last season. Should be working more on the left side this year? An even split? Stay on the right side?

As Berry looks to evolve into a defensive leader, each day alongside teammates is important. Every practice rep he receives playing next to Lewis is even more important.

It doesn’t take but one look at Kansas City’s roster to see that the Chiefs will only go as far as their second-year players will take them. They’re key to the success of the 2011 season.

How are they progressing? We don’t know that yet, but we may soon find out.

There are some things Kansas City’s sophomore class won’t be able to recoup. For everything else, here’s to hoping that last year’s draft strategy pays dividends during an unorthodox off-season as well.

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