It may not be as glorious as it will be when September rolls around, but guess what, football is back! Chiefs fans will get their first taste of football tomorrow when their team takes on the San Francisco 49ers, at 8 pm on NFL Network.
While we won’t see too much of the veterans (Alex Smith will reportedly work the first quarter), this time of year is to gauge the rookies, younger players, and veterans fighting for roster spots. From highly touted rooks like Patrick Mahomes (more on him later) to veterans still trying to prove they have something to offer (C.J Spiller), there’s an assortment of players looking to make the team. Unlike the New York Jets, whose best player might be a backup defensive lineman, Kansas City has a ton of talent at every position. The coaching staff will have their hands full, and its these four games that will lead to the crafting of (hopefully) a playoff team. The Chiefs have made the playoffs four of the last five years thanks to incredible scouting and roster management. They’ve found quality starters through the process (notably one of my favorite Chiefs, starting kicker Cairo Santos) and even with new GM Brett Veach, I expect the quality work to continue under head coach Andy Reid.
Here are the five guys I’ll be watching:
RB Kareem Hunt
One of my favorite backs to watch during the pre-draft process, Hunt has the rushing prowess (particularly on inside runs) and the receiving skill set to start out the gate. Spencer Ware, who rushed for 921 yards last season, won’t be an easy beat. Charcandrick West, their 3rd down/scatback, will be though. He averaged 3.3 yards per carry last season, after sporting a 4.0 mark the year before. Hunt could be Reid’s KC version of Brian Westbrook in no time. Ware and West’s contracts runs out in 2019, but both have just $333,334 in dead cap in 2018.
WR Jehu Chesson/Albert Wilson
I combined these two because I think Chesson has a very good chance to win this battle. Tyreek Hill and Chris Conley’s spots are locked, but the slot is up for grabs. KC doesn’t have a front runner, and Chesson’s size (6’3, 196 lbs) could help him win out over the smaller, very inconsistent Wilson, who’s most significant play of 2016 was a fake-punt TD. This battle will probably come down to the last week, assuming one guy doesn’t make a ton of splash plays. Second-year man Demarcus Robinson is a serious sleeper, but after spending basically all of last year on special teams, he’s got a lot of catching up to do.
CB Kenneth Acker/Terrance Mitchell/D.J White
Marcus Peters is a stud. We all know that. The real question for the Chiefs is who starts opposite him, as well as in the slot? Philip Gaines was downright awful last season (surrendering over 200 yards of coverage in Week 12 on Sunday Night), and has played just 13 games over his first three seasons, thanks to losing battles against the injury bug. White was picked on, and Acker was decent at best. The real revelation was Mitchell, who shut down receiver after receiver matched against him, after being picked up off the street. Despite my excitement, I’m not fooled. We’ve been through this before. Remember Marcus Cooper? Yeah. I need to see extended quality play out of him before I join the sectors of the fanbase that have anointed him. A quality pre-season will go a long way in answering skeptics. The guy(s) who can win this battle is key, as they’ll be picked on a lot with Peters (14 INT in his first two seasons), on the other side.
LB Ukeme Eligwe
Except for Ramik Wilson, the Chiefs have monumentally failed in adding an inside linebacker that’s even close to quality level. Josh Mauga is below-average, Justin March has serious limitations, and along with Terrance Smith was brutalized in the Divisional Round loss to Pittsburgh. Enter Eligwe, who just might have what it takes to do what Kansas City seemingly cannot do: replace Derrick Johnson. Yes, “DJ” is a living legend and one of the most underrated backers of this decade, but he’s also 34 years old. If it was time to move on two years ago (it was, in my opinion), it certainly is now. Eligwe, the rookie, needs to have a good start if he’s to one day make plays for this defense. The Chiefs seem high on Kevin Pierre-Louis, who they traded for last week, and has been running with the 1’s next to DJ, so what Eligwe does, might not matter.
QB Alex Smith
This is the first time since 2012 that the veteran has faced “competition” for his job – even though his fellow competitor may wind up the N0. 3 – and after watching him continue to decline in 2015, I say about time. After throwing just 15 touchdowns last season (he threw 18 when no receiver caught a score), Smith is clearly on the downturn of his career. Now, with a cannon-armed youngblood (Mahomes) on his tail, it’ll be interesting to see if Smith ups his game even a little to stave off the inevitable. Some are predicting a career-year (wouldn’t that be nice?) as a result. But, what if the opposite happens?
Honorable mentions: How will Allen Bailey and Gaines look coming off injury will go a long way in determining the quality of the Chiefs defense in 2017. Bailey was sorely missed in run defense.
Who handles kick return duties? It was reported earlier that Hill would not be the main kick return, but will still return punts; so does De’Anthony Thomas reclaim his old role? Does someone else? (Hunt? Wilson? Spiller?)
Does Spiller have anything left? The man that used to be one of the league’s most explosive backs has bounced around the league the last few seasons, but looks like a man turning back the clock in camp. Can Reid coax a few more big plays out of him?
What kind of role will Gavin Escobar have? Underused in Dallas, he could easily surpass career highs given the presence of Hill and Kelce. His fight against the incumbent Demetrius Harris will be one of my favorites this pre-season. There’s also Ross Travis, who like Harris, is a big target and a former college basketball player.
And, for what it’s worth, my game prediction:
San Francisco 19, Chiefs 16: Mahomes makes a few turnovers, but nobody gets severely injured. A win (for me).
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