KANSAS CITY, Mo. —For all of their Pro Bowl skill players and all of the high-profile wide receiving acquisitions, it's a soft-spoken tight end who has the ability to energize the Chiefs passing game.
The Chiefs will try to get their dormant passing game going, along with tight end Tony Moeaki, as their preseason continues with tonight's game against St. Louis at Arrowhead Stadium.
The third exhibition game is when the starters traditionally play the most, so Moeaki could get a large number of snaps. He missed several days of practice at the start of training camp after having arthroscopic knee surgery during the off-season.
"I don't think he's where he was when the year ended last year," coach Todd Haley said. "He's essentially a week behind. But I think he's coming on here now. He's catching up physically to a lot of the guys because he was on the side working but not in the same manner that everybody else was. That will slow you down a little bit."
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Moeaki had a big rookie season last year, catching 47 passes, second on the team to Dwayne Bowe. His play might have been surprising from a third-round draft pick, at least to everyone but Moeaki.
"It was a lot of new stuff but at the end of the day, at least in my mind, football is still football," Moeaki said. "You just have to go out there and be smart and play fast. You just have to do it at a higher level."
Moeaki may not keep up with the receiving pace of Tony Gonzalez. He had just 33 catches as a rookie in 1997 but went on to become the NFL's all-time receptions leader for a tight end.
But Moeaki should be as much a factor in the passing game as Gonzalez was. Moeaki occasionally is used out of the backfield, as a wide receiver or as a slot receiver.
"He's another guy on what's becoming a better list of versatile guys that give you more versatility as an offense," Haley said. "You've seen us split him out, you've seen us put him in the slot, you've seen us put him in the backfield. Those are good things because now you have a chance to create (favorable) matchups either for him or for other players."
Moeaki did many of the same things in college at Iowa, where he began his habit of learning not only his own assignments on all the plays, but those of his teammates as well.
"Looking at the big picture helps me learn what I'm supposed to be," Moeaki said. "So I know what the other guys are doing and what the protection is. It helps you understand how you fit into the scheme."
The ability to do many things is one reason the Chiefs drafted Moeaki last year. Among the reasons he dropped to the third round: Many feared he was too brittle. He missed games because of injury in his final three seasons at Iowa.
"I was never worried about the passing game side of it with Tony as we evaluated him," Haley said. "It was clear he was a pretty good receiver, had good feel, good hands. The things with him were just staying healthy and how he would hold up in the run game. He's one of those guys that has a very good football feel, run and pass. When you possess that and then you have some skill and talent, then you have a chance."
Moeaki has been a better blocker than the Chiefs anticipated.
"Not that he wasn't a good blocker in college but, again, it's a different game here," Haley said. "He just has a feel for some of those combination blocks and how to use his hands and leverage. Everybody doesn't always have that. That's a good thing to have, especially for a tight end."
The Chiefs have an impressive collection of skill players. Jamaal Charles, Dwayne Bowe and Matt Cassel went to the Pro Bowl last season. The Chiefs added Steve Breaston and Jonathan Baldwin to a mix that also includes Thomas Jones and Dexter McCluster.
Moeaki helps pull it all together.
"Our offensive philosophy is based on run first," Haley said. "The tight end becomes an important, important player on your team. I've been places where when it was third down, you went to four wide receivers and a back. That's not the way I like to play. I like having a tight end on the field because that means you can run the ball at any time. If that tight end can be a receiver for you, that's really, really good."