A few experienced Chiefs are being challenged for their spot on the 53-man roster by younger players.
We’re a few weeks into the Kansas City Chiefs training camp. The emergence of some players — and the quiet performance of others — has given us plenty to think about.
While we must be careful with the information we gather from early training camp practices, we can still learn some lessons. Whether those are from playing time with the first team, the number of plays they’re making — or even injuries — Chiefs players are strengthening (or weakening) their cases to make it to the Week 1 roster.
I picked out four experienced Chiefs players whose roster spots have been (and will continue to be) challenged over the next month.
In each of his two years as the primary linebacker in the Chiefs’ dime defense, Niemann has been on the field for over a third of the unit’s total snaps — including 44% in 2020’s regular season. Among linebackers in those years, he’s been third in snap counts behind Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson — and the linebacker with the fourth-most saw roughly 20% of the snaps each season.
This tells us that there are only three linebacker slots with a consistent role in the starting defense. And behind Hitchens, the Chiefs have two second-round draft picks who have had notable training camps: Willie Gay Jr. and Nick Bolton. Due to injuries to Hitchens and Niemann, both have had strong first-team runs in training camp.
Even if they aren’t fully prepared, Bolton and Gay’s upside as playmakers need to be utilized; being thrown into the fire can only help their development. Niemann can’t be blocking one of their paths to the field by continuing to play the number of snaps he has been receiving.
So Niemann will be battling with Dorian O’Daniel and Darius Harris for the final linebacker spots. When playing as the first-team MIKE linebacker during training camp, Harris has made plays. His ability to back up Hitchens could help him edge out Niemann.
The Chiefs kept five linebackers last season — but six in 2019.
You’d think the news of tight end Nick Keizer retiring would boost Bell’s chances to make the team — but it has nothing to do with Keizer. It has everything to do with two young tight ends who have made plays throughout camp.
Noah Gray has looked as good as Chiefs players and staff advertised he would be. His route-running is exceptional for his position — but he’s also had impressive moments as a blocker. If Gray can hold up as a traditional, inline tight end who can block in the running game, Bell’s blocking skills won’t be necessary.
Bell doesn’t have a high ceiling as a receiver. His value to the team is his blocking ability — but if Gray can shoulder that, the team could be looking for more playmaking from their third tight end. Former wide receiver Jody Fortson could fill that need. In camp, he’s made all sorts of receptions, ranging from contested catches to open-field catch-and-runs that show off his speed.
Hoping for some kind of receiving impact, the Chiefs kept Ricky Seals-Jones all of last year. If Fortson continues to make plays through the preseason, the team might prefer to give that opportunity to Fortson instead of Bell.
Behind solidified starters Charvarius Ward and L’Jarius Sneed, it appears that training camp’s outside cornerback opportunities have primarily been going to Mike Hughes and Deandre Baker. Third-year player Rashad Fenton hasn’t much gotten time outside; instead, he has backed up Sneed when the second-year player moves to the slot.
That development has been surprising to me; Fenton has played well when given a chance. Against the New England Patriots in last season’s Week 4, he stepped up to accumulate three pass breakups, an interception and a 49.2 opposing passer rating on 10 targets and four receptions. He did most of that while playing in an outside alignment.
Despite that, the Chiefs appear to have been trusting Hughes and Baker to man the outside when Sneed is moved into the slot. Hughes — and undrafted rookie DiCaprio Bootle — can also provide additional depth in the slot.
Along with BoPete Keyes, those two young players could make cases for a roster spot. If Fenton can’t be one of the top four cornerbacks, the Chiefs might use the fringe of the roster to try out an unknown — rather than keep a player with an already-defined ceiling.
During his three seasons with the Chiefs, Watts has failed to break through into becoming a defensive contributor. He’s been a core special teams player — including taking the team’s most snaps in that phase during 2020. But an offseason injury sidelined him through OTAs, minicamp and the beginning of training camp — and it may have led to the emergence of another backup safety.
Undrafted rookie Devon Key has been a hot name since the team first held practices in late May — and in the first few weeks of training camp, he has continued to get his name out there. He’s been the second team’s strong safety while also rotating into the first-team unit. Key and Juan Thornhill have been the only backup safeties to get legitimate runs with the starting defense.
So with Key looking like the fourth safety, there’s either room for one more — or none at all. In each of the last two years, the Chiefs have kept five safeties. But with how top-heavy their safety group has become, they may need the extra depth at another position.