St. Joseph, Mo. Tamba Hali jogged down the long, grassy hillside to the practice field at Missouri Western State University, the modest crowd on hand for the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice bursting into applause.
Yes, the veterans have finally arrived at training camp.
One day after agreeing to a five-year, $60 million contract, Hali joined the Chiefs in their first full-squad practice since arriving in St. Joseph. Veteran free agents had been unable to participate until Thursday, when the new collective bargaining agreement was ratified and the league year officially began.
Hali joined newcomers such as wide receiver Steve Breaston, defensive tackle Kelly Gregg and fullback Le’Ron McClain on the practice fields, donning shoulder pads and helmets on a warm, humid evening.
“It was different, just hanging out, not being here with the guys,” said Gregg, the former Baltimore Ravens lineman who arrived several days ago but has been forced to work out on his own while waiting for the go-ahead to participate in practice. “You want to get here and get acclimated.”
The Chiefs pushed back the start of Thursday’s practice by half an hour in anticipation of the new CBA being ratified. Typically punctual, players didn’t start filtering out of the locker room until about 15 minutes after practice was scheduled to begin — or about the same time word of ratification finally reached them.
Breaston, Gregg and the rest of the veterans wasted no time jumping into the fray.
The former Arizona Cardinals wide receiver lined up in the slot early in practice, and Gregg found himself working with a young group of defensive linemen throughout the nearly 21⁄2 -hour workout.
“It just felt good finally getting on the field and trying to get some camp legs, whittle them down and build them back up, so you’re ready for the season,” said Breaston, who caught 187 passes for 2,528 yards and seven touchdowns during his time with the Cardinals.
General manager Scott Pioli brought in Breaston to give quarterback Matt Cassel another option besides emerging star Dwayne Bowe and first-round draft pick Jonathan Baldwin, who did not participate in practice on Thursday because of an undisclosed injury.
“It was tough,” Breaston said of leaving the Cardinals, where he had spent his entire career since being drafted in the fifth round out of Michigan. “A lot of relationships out there — I’m not going to lie. It was a very tough decision. But the opportunity was presented to me, I talked to coach (Todd) Haley and he always talked about building something special and I want to be a part of something out here.”
Gregg also said the allure of playing for an up-and-coming franchise played a part in his decision.
“Being in that defensive line with all those young guys makes me feel young,” said the 34-year-old Gregg. “I’m going to have to keep up with these guys. They’re talented.”
The Chiefs hope that Gregg can help plug holes in the middle of the defensive line while also tutoring a cast of young players that includes sixth-round draft pick Jerrell Powe, a 320-pound project who could emerge as precisely the kind of run-stuffing tackle the team has been missing the past couple years.
“Kelly Gregg is one of those guys, I’ve talked about them, probably coming out the odds were stacked against him right out of the gate,” Haley said. “Not prototypical size and speed and those things, but much like Casey Wiegmann, he didn’t listen to it and he’s had a great career to this point.
“He’s going to be a positive influence for all those young guys, that entire room,” Haley added, “and for me that’s going to be a resource.”
Haley was also pleased to have McClain in camp after the former All-Pro fullback agreed to terms on a one-year deal. McClain had a couple of stellar seasons with the Ravens but was relegated to a blocking role for Ray Rice the past couple years, paving the way for one of the league’s dynamic young running backs.
Now he’ll be called upon to do the same for Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones.
“Really just coming in and doing anything I can do to help the team win. If I have to block, I’m going to do that. If I need to run, I’ll do that,” McClain said. “It’s not about me, it’s about the Chiefs.”
That sentiment is music to the ears of Haley and the coaching staff.
Any concerns about the veterans mixing in with the rest of the roster were likely nixed early in practice Thursday. Older players traded off with their younger counterparts during individual and group drills, and they wrapped up practice by throwing what could be their starting lineup for their preseason opener on the field.
“We’ve done a great job of getting some great players in here. Now it’s just a matter of playing catch up like everyone else in the league,” veteran safety Jon McGraw said. “Now it’s just a matter of the coaches getting us acclimated in the process with all these crazy things going on.”