Kansas City Chiefs

How Ronald Jones II Can Fix the Chiefs’ Biggest Offensive Weakness

How Ronald Jones II Can Fix the Chiefs’ Biggest Offensive Weakness

The Chiefs were dead last in yards after contact in 2021-22. A specialist in physical running, will Ronald Jones II solve that glaring problem?

If you still owned the cleats from your high school football days and were free from work and family responsibilities on Sundays, you might’ve been good enough to suit up and move the chains behind the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive line last season. 

Only the Philadelphia Eagles were better at creating yards before contact than the 2021-22 Chiefs, though it’s arguable that the Chiefs’ running backs — to take a page out of Andy Reid’s book — left a ton of meat on that prime rib.

Doubly important, no team even came close to seeing light boxes and two-high safeties as often as Kansas City did, often a recipe that creates opportunities for running backs to eat. With a dead-last rank in both yards after contact (616) and yards after contact per rush (1.4), the need for a powerful runner to take advantage of that represented a gaping hole.

Enter Ronald Jones II, a player capable of running around, into and through said gaping holes.

On paper, Jones’s fit with the Chiefs looks to be hand-in-glove. The league’s worst team in generating yards post-contact just signed a player that ranked No. 1 in that stat in 2020 (3.0) and finished at the No. 14 spot in 2019. If there’s a noticeable trait in Jones’s film, it’s that he’s a powerful, gritty runner — unwilling to cede to defenders when there’s a spot he’s attempting to get to.

Of course, merely having a change-of-pace runner capable of bleeding the clock and making the Chiefs more physical won’t guarantee that his number will be called. As noted, back in January’s AFC Championship Game, the Chiefs owned an 18-point advantage and in the 14 plays with that lead, they ran nine passing plays and five rushing plays.

On the flip side, Jones was one of just 21 ball carriers to amass 30-plus first down runs in each of 2019 and 2020. This is something the Chiefs brass likely had in mind when they offered him the one-year, $1.5 million (plus incentives) deal. And, despite being supremely talented, it wasn’t too long ago that Pro Football Focus hit on how Clyde Edwards-Helaire hasn’t been able to strike gold on those favorable opportunities as frequently as he could or should. To illustrate those opportunities in further detail:

Ask Jones, and he’ll tell you that he envisions the Chiefs’ offense having a 1-2-3 punch, adding the returning Jerick McKinnon into the equation. The Chiefs are already one of the NFL’s premier early-down teams, so it should be intriguing to see how Jones fits in. This never applies more than it does particularly along the interior, where the Chiefs have the tenth-ranked run-blocking guard, the top run-blocking center and a fifth-round reinforcement in Darian Kinnard. The fit could be optimal.

Jones hasn’t historically offered a ton as a receiver and if there were ever a reason why he’d end up in Reid’s doghouse, it’d certainly be his struggle to keep the football in hand. Despite having Tom Brady as his signal-caller for each of the last three seasons, Buccaneers quarterbacks have never recorded a 90.0 quarterback passer rating or better when targeting Jones. 

There’s also work to be done for Jones picking up blitzes as a pass protector, something Seth Keysor noted a few months back in his Chief in the North Newsletter. Jones's drop rate and six fumbles lost (the fifth-most since 2019) speak to the negatives.

On the flip side, Jones did note in his June 15 presser that the Chiefs’ coaching staff had him lining up out wide. If there’s a coaching staff that can coax something out of him as a receiving back, this would certainly be the one. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Reid and Eric Bieniemy find ways to flare Jones out where he can use that feisty, gritty style out in space and where he’s evading corners and safeties at the third level as opposed to in the trenches.

Regardless of how the receiving role plays out, Jones has done enough to have his number called upon confidently by this coaching staff in a by-committee, hot-hand type of backfield. Even during the dog days as Tampa Bay’s No. 2 back where Leonard Fournette commanded the ship, Bruce Arians still declared that it would take “something extraordinary” to get rid of Jones.

Historically, that’s how things have gone in Kansas City. Dating back to Reid’s first year in 2013, the Chiefs have had 11 different backs reach 500-plus scrimmage yards — the fifth-best mark in the NFL. There’s a place for Jones to play a role in keeping that trend going, and it should showcase itself in the box score. With No. 2 on the field breaking tackles and making plays with extra effort, perhaps the Chiefs can bid farewell to second-and-7, and say hello to second-and-5.

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Recent Mock Trade Has Chiefs Acquiring Pro Bowl Pass Rusher

Recent Mock Trade Has Chiefs Acquiring Pro Bowl Pass Rusher

A late-offseason idea proposes the opportunity for the Chiefs to add some serious help on defense.

The Kansas City Chiefs' roster has filled out quite nicely over the course of the 2022 offseason, but there's still one flaw that has existed for a while now and still has yet to be entirely patched up: defensive end.

While defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's unit was able to generate pressure at a decent rate last season, it couldn't finish the job by way of sacks. The Chiefs' defense ranked 29th in the NFL in that department last season, and that glaring inability to bring down opposing quarterbacks became a front-and-center focal point for the world to watch get exposed in both the Divisional Round and AFC Championship playoff games at the end of the 2021 campaign. Heading into the offseason, general manager Brett Veach was tasked with rebuilding a unit that desperately needed an injection of talent.

Although Veach did hold up his end of the bargain, he only did so partially. The Chiefs lost defensive end Melvin Ingram to the free agent market and replaced his roster spot with first-round pick George Karlaftis from Purdue. Frank Clark was retained after the team restructured his contract, making it to where Kansas City invested minimally in him compared to what it would've cost to cut him outright. Still, even after bringing Clark back and adding Karlaftis into the fold, more work likely needs to be done in order to make the Chiefs' front four a formidable unit from a pass-rushing standpoint. 

In a recent article, Bleacher Report came up with a list of hypothetical trade ideas that would "transform the league" this season. Of the five packages, one of them featured the Chiefs shipping a 2023 second-round pick and a 2023 fourth-round pick to the Chicago Bears in exchange for defensive end/linebacker Robert Quinn. Here's a bit of what Kristopher Knox wrote as far as the reasoning is concerned:

If Quinn is eager to leave Chicago, the rebuilding Bears would be wise to get something valuable in return and make the move. They already dealt Khalil Mack this offseason, so it's not as if they're averse to moving top players.

The problem is that Quinn has a base salary of $12.8 million in 2022 and $12.7 million in dead money remaining on his contract. The Chiefs, who have $11 million in cap space, would have to clear some room to absorb Quinn's salary.This could be done by signing offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. to a contract extension before the July 15 franchise-tag deadline.

In this hypothetical deal, Kansas City would get another proven playmaker for its front seven, while Chicago would get future draft chips with which to aid its ongoing rebuild.

This is far from the first time that Quinn's name has been thrown around in trade-related discussions, and it surely won't be the last. He's a quality pass-rushing threat at a premier position and if he's even remotely close to being available for contending teams, it makes total sense for one (or more) to pursue him. After all, he did amass a whopping 18.5 sacks last year and also notched 11.5 in 2019. 2020 season aside, Quinn has been a legitimate weapon for defenses in recent years. He'd instantly improve the Chiefs' pass rush at a mostly reasonable cost and has cap hits under $20M in both 2023 and 2024 as well. 

On the other hand, Quinn is not an 18.5-sack player on a yearly basis. Prior to 2019, the last time he'd reached 10 or more was 2014. At age 32, it reasons to wonder how much the three-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro has left in the tank. Veach overhauled the Chiefs' roster in an effort to add a lot of youth into the fold, and trading draft capital for Quinn would be doing the opposite of that. The juice very well could be worth the squeeze, but it's something to consider nonetheless.

In regards to compensation, Kansas City has a near-surplus of projected picks to work with in the 2023 NFL Draft. Losing a pair of them — especially given that this scenario calls for one of them to be a Day Three selection — wouldn't be the end of the world if it secured a multi-year starter. With this being all but certainly Clark's final year as a Chief at his current price point, replacing him with a somewhat more affordable (compared to Clark's original contract) option could be an avenue for both short and long-term improvement. Will the Chiefs end up actually pulling the trigger on a Quinn trade with the Bears? Only time will tell.

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Expect Fireworks in Abundance From the Chiefs This Season

Expect Fireworks in Abundance From the Chiefs This Season

Despite a retooling of sorts, don't expect the Chiefs' explosiveness to go away all of a sudden.

A lot has been made of the Kansas City Chiefs' offseason. While so many teams in the AFC — and even the AFC West — have gotten better, Kansas City has undergone a transformational phase and could be due to experience some growing pains over the course of the 2022 season. 

Don't let that trick you into thinking that the Chiefs won't unleash a ton of Fourth of July-esque fireworks this year, though.

The bar is set high, making for huge shoes to fill for the 2022 Andy Reid offense to fill. As Rich Hribar and Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis noted, the NFL's top unit from a season ago also led the league in points per drive, touchdowns per drive, yards per drive and plays per drive. That level of sheer dominance came amidst what seemed to be a "down" year, as quarterback Patrick Mahomes and star receiving weapons Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill all experienced less-than-normal spurts of play during the season.

Gone is Hill, as well as depth pieces Demarcus Robinson and Byron Pringle. In their places are JuJu Smith-Schuster, Skyy Moore and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. The Chiefs' wideout room is deeper than it was a season ago, which should give Mahomes more options to work with when things break down in regards to the original structure of plays. 

Defenses stifled Kansas City at times with two-high safety coverages in 2021, either forcing Reid's hand to make the team run the ball or forcing Mahomes's hand to hit his check-downs on underneath passes. With more weapons at their disposal, the Chiefs may unlock the ability to do just about everything when they have the ball. Their consistency will need to be developed over time, although the sheer numbers game of having three or four players capable of getting open versus merely two projects to be a benefit in a vacuum.

Furthermore, the Chiefs' running back room very well could be an improved unit from what the team trotted out last year. Behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Jerick McKinnon and Derrick Gore return and will serve as tremendous competition throughout training camp (and possibly into the season, re: McKinnon). Elsewhere, free agent acquisition Ronald Jones and seventh-round draft pick Isiah Pacheco provide dynamic skill sets and athletic profiles alike. Whatever group Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy settle on will bring multiple elements to this year's offense.

The fireworks won't stop there. Steve Spagnuolo's defense has seen even more changes this offseason, losing longtime starters such as Tyrann Mathieu, Anthony Hitchens and Charvarius Ward. Not only did general manager Brett Veach opt for a youth movement at the second and third levels of the defense, but he opted for ferocity and athleticism as well. Players such as Leo Chenal and Bryan Cook were two of the hardest hitters in the 2022 NFL Draft and can also get going in a hurry. Up front, first-round pick George Karlaftis plays with an obvious mean streak and has room to get back to his old athletic form now that he's shed some weight.

From a splash-play standpoint, both sides of the Chiefs' attack (and, really, even special teams) figure to add several points to the board via explosive plays. Reid's high-flying offense could make a return to its deep-ball roots and with younger and more versatile athletes, Spagnuolo's group should be fun as well. Even if Kansas City takes a step back in the record department this season, there should be very little doubt about what's in store. Expect fireworks in abundance from the Chiefs in 2022. 

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Trey Smith Has Already Overachieved His Draft Slot, So What's Next?

Trey Smith Has Already Overachieved His Draft Slot, So What's Next?

The Chiefs got a sixth-round steal when they selected Trey Smith in the 2021 NFL Draft. In year two, can Smith ascend to another level?

In the spring of 2021, the Kansas City Chiefs were just coming off a Super Bowl appearance that saw quarterback Patrick Mahomes running for his life on nearly every passing play. General manager Brett Veach knew something needed to change, and he was prepared to use as many resources in the offseason as necessary to overhaul and upgrade the offensive line.

Part of the overhaul came with some tough cuts. The team parted ways with former No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher, who suffered an Achilles injury in the AFC Championship Game. Mitchell Schwartz, one of the best right tackles in the NFL, had been out most of the season with a back injury. He was released on the same day.

Center Austin Reiter was a free agent and looking for a larger contract than what the Chiefs wanted to offer. Mike Remmers was a nice veteran piece but not a long-term solution. Nick Allegretti and Andrew Wylie are good depth pieces, but the Chiefs needed more.

The Chiefs went out and grabbed New England Patriots free agent Joe Thuney, the best left guard available and one of the best in the league. They traded a first-round pick for Orlando Brown Jr. to be their left tackle. They drafted a new center, Creed Humphrey, in the second round. But the Chiefs' best value on the rebuilt 2021 offensive line came in the sixth round of the same draft when they selected Tennessee guard Trey Smith.

Jan 23, 2022; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs guard Trey Smith (65) celebrates while leaving the field after the win over the Buffalo Bills during an AFC Divisional playoff football game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Smith had a solid career at Tennessee. He started all 12 games his freshman year and earned second-team All-SEC honors. In the offseason, it was discovered that he had a blood clot issue in his lungs that threatened to end his career during his sophomore year. Eventually, with the help of doctors and blood-thinning medication, Smith sat out for a while to heal before working his way back to the field a year later.

He was able to play out his full junior season with no issues, starting every game at left guard. He was named first-team All-SEC for his efforts. He decided to pass on the NFL draft in 2020 and play his senior season at Tennessee. Smith ended up as a first-team All-SEC member again and showed he was ready for the next level.

Despite being projected as an early second-round pick in some circles, many NFL teams were cautious of the blood clot issues that appeared during Smith's sophomore year at Tennessee. Despite being cleared and playing two seasons without issue, he was told there is a chance the clots could come back. This scared many teams away.

The Chiefs were fortunate that he slid all the way to their sixth-round selection. He took the opportunity he was given and ran with it. He was asked to play right guard immediately and quickly became the starting right guard throughout camp and into the preseason. At that point, there was no doubt Smith would be the starter heading into the season.

Smith looked downright dominant at times. He is a physical freak and loves playing to the whistle. There were many times when Smith was caught driving players into the ground, legally, and making life miserable for opposing defensive linemen. He really stood out in the run game, blowing holes open for KC's rotation of running backs.

He was adequate in pass protection, but that is one part of the game where Smith can grow and turn himself into one of the elite right guards in the game. He has the physical features and the mental capacity to take his game to another level.

Overall, Smith had a very strong rookie season and helped fortify a new-look offensive line in Kansas City. The o-line featuring Smith, Humphrey, Thuney and Brown will likely be the core unit for the next several years. The competition for the right tackle spot will be an intriguing one, but whoever wins the job will have a good teammate blocking next to him.

I believe if Smith continues to be a mauler in the running game and improves his pass protection throughout the early part of the season, we could see a nice second-year jump from the Chiefs' right guard. While many teams didn’t want to take a chance on Smith, the Chiefs did, and it looks like it has paid off. 

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The Past, Present and Future of Juan Thornhill Will Collide This Season

The Past, Present and Future of Juan Thornhill Will Collide This Season

From looking like Brett Veach’s first great draft pick to losing his job to Daniel Sorensen, Juan Thornhill’s future with the Chiefs remains unknown.

Towards the end of his rookie season, Juan Thornhill looked like he was the first draft pick hit for Brett Veach as general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Then Thornhill tore his ACL.

It's regrettable timing for any player to sustain a serious injury late in their rookie year. The first few seasons for a player can truly make or break their career in the NFL, and significant injury early on can rob a player of much-needed valuable experience. Thornhill was no exception, as a player who had all the athleticism in the world but needed to work to become a more refined safety.

Nov 21, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill (22) on field against the Dallas Cowboys during the game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The timing of Thornhill’s injury was especially painful. Tearing it in Week 17 of the regular season ensured that the beginning of the following season would be in jeopardy and limit Thornhill’s work in offseason programs.

Thornhill did not miss the beginning of the 2020 campaign, however. This didn't mean that he looked the same as his rookie year, however, as it was apparent that the injury was still affecting him. After the first half of 2020, the Chiefs limited Thornhill’s snaps in the latter portion of the year for reasons unknown. He flashed once in the AFC Championship Game that season but other than that, his play seemed to regress compared to his rookie year.

This all led to the lowest point of Thornhill’s career as a Chief.

Heading into the 2021 season, Thornhill didn't even win the starting free safety job. Daniel Sorensen won the second safety job out of training camp to the dismay of many hoping that Thornhill would return to his rookie year form. While the decision to give the job to Sorensen quickly (and painfully) showed to be the incorrect decision, the fact it happened at all spurred questions about Thornhill and his future — a future that could've taken the shape of a budding Pro Bowler based on his rookie year.

There is an easy-to-buy explanation for Thornhill’s last few years of up-and-down play: Major injuries are tough to come back from in the NFL.

It's simple to apply the logic that if a player can play on the field after recovering from a major injury, that player should be the same as he was pre-injury. With that said, this level of recovery is not as common as many believe. The reason fans do not hear all of the cases of players looking different after a major injury is that if a player is playing worse, they get less media attention. The only players that get major media attention by playing worse are those who were great before said injury.

An example of this injury-recovery phenomenon was Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers last year. Akers tore his Achilles in July before the 2021 season and returned for the Rams in the playoffs. While he certainly was able to literally return, Akers was flat-out bad on the field. Again, significant injuries in the NFL are not always simple to return from.

When Thornhill says he is “all the way back” or expects to be an All-Pro this year, it's very possible that he hasn't felt healthy until this offseason. A healthy Thornhill was one of the best athletes at safety in the NFL and had a great first year. If he returns to that form, Veach will have an interesting decision to make.

Mar 1, 2018; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Kansa City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach speaks to the media during the 2018 NFL Combine at the Indianapolis Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs' premier free agent signing in the 2022 free agency period was safety Justin Reid. Reid was signed to fill the leadership role Tyrann Mathieu had in the locker room and is a young, athletic safety who can perform multiple roles on the defense. He also turned only 25 years old in February.

If Thornhill has a bounce-back year, will the Chiefs be willing to sign Thornhill with Reid already on the books? If the Chiefs are willing to sign him, how could Reid’s contract impact negotiations? Is Thornhill okay with being paid less than his teammate? Does it depend on how the two play this year? All of these questions need to be answered.

If Thornhill plays well, then a comparable player, contract and position to his situation is something similar to what Rayshawn Jenkins got from the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2021. Jenkins secured a four-year, $35 million deal in free agency as a solid, but not top-tier safety. The top of the market for safeties is pretty depressed, with Pro Bowl-level Marcus Williams getting just $14M per year on a free agent contract from the Baltimore Ravens this offseason. 

With the salary cap exploding soon, Thornhill’s prospective extension with the Chiefs projects to land right around what Reid got — just one year later. If Kansas City doesn't mind investing a substantial amount of money into that position group, then retaining Thornhill could really help out a defense that should be very young over the next few years. It's tenable to give Thornhill an extension if players like Nick Bolton, Trent McDuffie, and George Karlaftis play up to their respective talent levels. Those cheap contracts allowing the Chiefs re-sign a player like Thornhill is the benefit of drafting well.

The future of Thornhill will depend on him and his play in 2022. The range of outcomes this year is vast, and that eventual outcome will determine what a new contract for him will look like. If he's truly healthy now, it isn't hard to buy into a career year for a player who once looked like he was Veach’s first slam-dunk draft pick.

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The Chiefs' Biggest Question for 2022 Isn't What You'd Expect

The Chiefs' Biggest Question for 2022 Isn't What You'd Expect

Looking back on the Chiefs' offseason and ahead to training camp, how is KC set up for 2022? Their biggest remaining question isn't getting national headlines.

Now less than one month away from the beginning of training camp, the NFL offseason has slowed down and the dust has settled. For the Kansas City Chiefs, it was the most dramatic offseason in years, losing superstars like Tyreek Hill and Tyrann Mathieu before adding JuJu Smith-Schuster, Justin Reid and a host of others. Did things go according to plan for Kansas City?

Key Chiefs losses and additions

Key losses: Tyreek Hill, WR (trade); Tyrann Mathieu, S (FA); Melvin Ingram, EDGE (FA); Charvarius Ward, CB (FA); Anthony Hitchens, LB (release); Demarcus Robinson, WR (FA); Byron Pringle, WR (FA); Mike Hughes, CB (FA); Jarran Reed, DT (FA).

Key additions: Justin Reid, S (FA); JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR (FA); Marquez Valdes-Scantling, WR (FA); Ronald Jones, RB (FA); Trent McDuffie, CB (draft); George Karlaftis, EDGE (draft); Skyy Moore, WR (draft); Bryan Cook, S (draft).

Chiefs 2022 offseason grade

Offseason grade: B

It's extremely difficult to give the Chiefs a single letter grade for their offseason of massive overhauls, as their report card won't be fully complete for years to come. By moving on from Hill and Mathieu, the Chiefs disrupted their short-term stability. In return, they gained the assets needed to completely rebuild a younger, cheaper defense that should pay dividends down the line. Offensively, short-term free agents like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling were signed to keep the KC offense humming as the team steps into a new era without Hill as the Chiefs' top wide receiver. A "B" grade reflects both sides of that coin; the Chiefs could have a bumpier 2022 season while building to new heights in 2023 and beyond.

KC's biggest question still to be answered

How much and how quickly can KC's young defense grow?

The Chiefs have some obvious questions with their pass-catchers, but most of those can be answered by simply having Patrick Mahomes at quarterback. Even without in-game experience with any of his top wide receivers other than Mecole Hardman, Mahomes can be trusted to grow into a groove with this no-less-than-solid group. The other side of the ball is much more uncertain. (Plus, the Chiefs still have Travis Kelce.)

Defensively, rookies like first-round picks Trent McDuffie and George Karlaftis will be expected to start immediately at highly important positions where the Chiefs don't have much depth behind them. At the second level, the Chiefs moved on from veteran linebacker Anthony Hitchens and will now rely on linebackers Nick Bolton and Willie Gay Jr. in the middle of the defense, despite that duo entering their second and third seasons, respectively. With cornerback Charvarius Ward leaving in free agency, the Chiefs lost their most consistent corner. At EDGE, they're left relying on a last-chance year for Frank Clark and a rotation of role players across from Karlaftis. The Chiefs have built a young, cheap defensive foundation for years to come, but can they hold their own through the first half of the season, or will growing pains lose games?

For more coverage of the Kansas City Chiefs, follow @ArrowheadReport on Twitter and Chiefs Nation on Facebook.

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Projecting the Chiefs’ 53-Man Roster: Pre-Training Camp Edition

Projecting the Chiefs’ 53-Man Roster: Pre-Training Camp Edition

The Chiefs may have the most depth they have had in years, but which 53 will they take with them when they head to Arizona in Week 1?

Training camp for the Kansas City Chiefs begins on Wednesday, July 27th, in St. Joesph, MO. Every year before Week 1 of the season, NFL teams are forced to cut their rosters down from 90 players to 53. 

Thus, the Chiefs are tasked with deciding who will take the field for them when they head to Arizona to face the Cardinals to open the year. There are a bunch of new faces in Kansas City and plenty of players battling for roster spots. Brett Veach, Andy Reid and the rest of the Chiefs' staff will have to make tough calls as they push for another Super Bowl.

Here are my predictions for the Chiefs' initial 53-man roster before the start of training camp.

Offense (25)

Quarterbacks (2)

1. Patrick Mahomes
2. Chad Henne

The quarterback spots are probably the easiest to predict on the roster. As the best quarterback in the world, Mahomes is an obvious mainstay. 2022 will be Henne's fifth year in Kansas City. The Chiefs had the option to move on from him this offseason and insert Shane Buechele into the backup role, however, they brought Henne back. This signals that they were not ready to give the backup spot to Buechele just yet. The Chiefs put the practice squad protection on Buechele multiple times last year, but they cannot afford to carry three quarterbacks on the active roster.

Jan 8, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) attempts a pass in the second quarter against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Running Backs (3 + FB)

3. Clyde Edwards-Helaire
4. Ronald Jones
5. Isiah Pacheco
6. Michael Burton

Every year Reid has been in Kansas City, he has kept a fullback on the roster — making Burton's spot pretty safe. The Chiefs will likely give Edwards-Helaire every opportunity to become the player they'd hoped for when they drafted him in the first round back in 2020. Behind him is where things get dicey. 

The Chiefs have a bunch of guys who are capable rotational pieces. They recently re-signed Jerick McKinnon, who came on strong towards the end of last season, although I don't believe he will make the roster. The Chiefs prioritized signing Ronald Jones before that. Jones lacks pass-catching ability out of the backfield, which is where Pacheco comes in. Pacheco provides speed in the rushing and passing attack on top of being a core four special-teamer.

Dec 12, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (25) runs in for a touchdown against the Las Vegas Raiders during the first half at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Wide Receivers (6)

7. JuJu Smith-Schuster
8. Marquez Valdes-Scantling
9. Mecole Hardman
10. Skyy Moore
11. Justin Watson
12. Cornell Powell
IR. Justyn Ross

Compared to years past, this wide receiver room will look drastically different. The only major contributor from the recent past that is still in Kansas City is Mecole Hardman. He's in a contract year and is expected to have a more significant role with the departure of Tyreek Hill. The Chiefs added Smith-Schuster and Valdes-Scantling in free agency to provide a veteran presence. Skyy Moore is the last wide receiver one can comfortably say has a spot locked down. The Chiefs drafted Moore in the second round, likely hoping he would soon become the No. 1 guy. 

The fifth and sixth wide receivers are where the competition heats up. The Chiefs have a bunch of guys who can win those spots. If I wrote this two weeks ago, I would have said that Ross makes the roster. Since he was absent at minicamp, the Chiefs could stash him on injured reserve for the season. Watson has been getting a lot of hype from the local and national media, giving him the edge to make the roster. The Chiefs will probably want a guy who can play special teams for the final spot, and Powell can fill that role in his second season.

Jan 16, 2022; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman (17) and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (right) embrace following the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Tight Ends (4)

13. Travis Kelce
14. Blake Bell
15. Noah Gray
16. Jody Fortson 

There isn't any competition for the tight ends; it's just a matter of the Chiefs deciding whether to keep three or four. Last season was the second year in a row that the Chiefs kept four, and that trend continues here. Kelce's spot is a guarantee for the same reasons as Mahomes. This offseason, the Chiefs re-signed Bell to have a blocking tight end and someone who can run quarterback sneaks. Last offseason, the hype for Gray was high, and he showed flashes but wasn't consistent enough to play significant snaps. With another offseason under his belt, he can take a step forward. Fortson may be the most curious case, as he is coming off an Achilles tear. However, he's already back on the field and showed enough last year to make the team.

Jan 2, 2022; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) reacts after scoring a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first half at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Linemen (9)

17. Orlando Brown Jr.
18. Joe Thuney
19. Creed Humphrey
20. Trey Smith
21. Andrew Wylie
22. Geron Christian
23. Nick Allegretti
24. Austin Reiter
25. Darian Kinnard
PUP. Lucas Niang

The starting offensive line from last year (Brown, Thuney, Humphrey, Smith, Wylie) will be on the roster. Allegretti is in the final year of his contract and could be dangled in a preseason trade, but his versatility provides enough value as the sixth lineman to keep him around. Reiter started in two Super Bowls for the Chiefs but was let go before last season, then was brought back this offseason and will be kept as the backup center. Christian and Kinnard will have the chance to win the starting right tackle job and even if they don't win it, they should provide quality depth. Niang tore his patellar tendon late last season. The injury typically has a long recovery time, which should have Niang starting the season on the physically unable to perform list (PUP).

Oct 17, 2021; Landover, Maryland, USA; Kansas City Chiefs guard Joe Thuney (62) and Chiefs offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. (57) line up against the Washington Football Team at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Defense (25)

Defensive Linemen (10)

26. Chris Jones
27. Derrick Nnadi
28. Khalen Saunders
29. Taylor Stallworth
30. Tershawn Wharton
31. Frank Clark
32. Mike Danna
33. Joshua Kaindoh
34. Malik Herring
35. George Karlaftis

The defensive line is the weakest group on the roster. Outside of Jones, no one else can be relied on to be productive. After being drafted in the first round, Karlaftis should be the starting edge opposite Clark. Guys like Danna, Nnadi and Wharton have been solid rotational pieces for years, and Kaindoh could make a leap this year. He injured his ankle in the first few weeks of last season and should see more snaps moving forward. 

The Chiefs only signed one new defensive lineman this offseason: Stallworth, to provide depth from the interior. The two guys on the fringe of this group are Herring and Saunders. Saunders has been in Kansas City for a few years but hasn't seen the field that much. Herring was brought in after the 2021 draft but due to a torn ACL, he was placed on injured reserve immediately after being signed. If the Chiefs decide to add another piece, Herring or Saunders' spot may be in jeopardy, but they should make the roster for now.

Linebackers (5)

36. Willie Gay Jr.
37. Nick Bolton
38. Jermaine Carter Jr. 
39. Leo Chenal
40. Mike Rose

Currently, the Chiefs have a super young group of linebackers on the roster. Getting younger was their focus across the entire team, but it's primarily seen at the linebacker position. Only two contributors from last year return in Bolton and Gay. They should be the linebacker tandem for the foreseeable future. During free agency, the Chiefs brought in Carter, who should provide starting snaps as the rookies get their feet wet. 

As for those rookies, Chenal and Rose were added during the draft process. Chenal was selected in the third round and could be the starting SAM linebacker when Week 1 rolls around. Rose went undrafted, but he has enough talent for the Chiefs to keep him as a developmental backup and core four special-teamer.

Oct 10, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Willie Gay Jr. (50) celebrates with outside linebacker Nick Bolton (54) after a play against the Buffalo Bills during the game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Cornerbacks (6)

41. Rashad Fenton
42. L'Jarius Sneed
43. Trent McDuffie
44. Lonnie Johnson Jr.
45. Jaylen Watson
46. Joshua Williams

Similar to the linebackers, the cornerbacks are an extremely young group. Fenton and Sneed are the only familiar faces in this group. The Chiefs went cornerback-heavy in the draft by adding three. McDuffie is the obvious one to make the roster and as a first-round pick, he could be a starter from the jump. The other two, Williams and Watson, were taken on Day Three. There were a lot of positive reports about Williams coming out of minicamp and while Watson hasn't been talked about enough, his skill set and ability to play special teams should give him a spot. Lastly, after the draft, the Chiefs traded for Johnson. Though they didn't give much up to get him, he has experience, which is something this unit is lacking.

Safeties (4)

47. Juan Thornhill
48. Justin Reid
49. Bryan Cook
50. Nazeeh Johnson

The Chiefs have shown that they value the safety position. Since Steve Spagnuolo took over as defensive coordinator, Reid is their second significant free-agent investment at safety. Thornhill and Cook are second-round picks. Thornhill has spoken about having an All-Pro season, and the Chiefs have praised Cook's ability to understand defenses. The last safety spot is tricky because of the need to play special teams. With their final pick in this year's draft, the Chiefs took Johnson. He's a freak athlete who can contribute on that front. Having Dave Toub's vote of confidence should put Johnson over the top.

Special Teams (3)

51. Harrison Butker
52. Tommy Townsend
53. James Winchester

These three have been locked into their positions for a couple of years. Butker and Winchester are at the top of their positions across the league, so there is no reason to move on from them. Townsend has had an up and down first two years in Kansas City, but it seems that the Chiefs will give him another season to prove himself.

Aug 27, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker (7) celebrates with punter Tommy Townsend (5) after kicking the point after touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings during the first quarter at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

For more coverage of the Kansas City Chiefs, follow @ArrowheadReport on Twitter and Chiefs Nation on Facebook.

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Will the Chiefs’ Play-Callers Be Under More Pressure This Season?

Will the Chiefs’ Play-Callers Be Under More Pressure This Season?

With so many moving parts and new faces in the fold, should KC's play-callers be feeling the heat?

If you found yourself running a bit behind schedule, setting the television up to enjoy Kansas City Chiefs football last season, chances are that Patrick Mahomes and his crew had already put some points on the board by the time you sat down and got comfortable.

Like an aggressive boxer getting a leg-up on a scorecard, no team shook off the cobwebs and punished defenses on its first few series as forcibly as Kansas City. Over a team’s first three drives, the Chiefs ranked No. 1 in plays (7.7), net yards (48.4) and score percentage (59.3%) while finishing top-three in avoiding punts, time of possession and point differential. 

Nov 1, 2020; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy look on from the sideline during the first half against the New York Jets at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

It speaks volumes to the Chiefs’ offensive coaching staff and how dominant they’ve been during the “first 15,” the scripted, designed play calls to start a game — and even slightly beyond. Though, as we pivot from 2021-22 to 2022-23, it does offer up a juicy question.

Sloppiness and complacency crept their way into the Chiefs’ offense during those midway drives. It became a trend — almost like a microwaved Hot Pocket, as our own Joshua Brisco likened them to — to see the Chiefs kickstart games on a heatwave, cool throughout the middle, then regain their mojo towards the end. Given the seismic shift of this year’s receiving group (including the loss of a certain All-Pro receiver), as well as a potentially-different running back committee, one could wonder: Will there be added pressure and expectation on the play-callers to soften those blows this season?

A few months back, it felt interesting to at least briefly imagine how creative Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy could get with their play designs as they try to fill in Tyreek Hill’s impact and talent with more of a sum-of-parts approach in 2022-23. Hill played a considerable role in defenses shifting to more two-high coverage looks against Kansas City last season and while it’s unclear whether opponents will ease up on that defensive look without him in the lineup, the sheer idea of it and the creativity it would allow comes into play immediately.

At the very least, thinking big-picture, the margin for error feels thinner with the 2022-23 Chiefs. Many of their pass-catchers range somewhere between unproven and unspectacular outside of Travis Kelce. One of the ways that they could fix that: more drive-for-drive consistency.

So, what changes as the Chiefs hit that midpoint of the game? More often than not, they’ve opened up a lead, which perhaps explains both some complacency and a simple case of the defense needing to buckle down and get a stop with sharpened focus. Of the Chiefs' 27 turnovers, 14 of them came during that aforementioned middle-of-the-game stretch. It included ill-advised throws, untimely drops, and … more untimely drops.

The Chiefs were tracked for 33 drops last season, good for the ninth-most in the NFL. The players they’ve added this offseason — along with the offense being due for a regression — could be key in helping the Chiefs become a more healthy per-drive team.

It promises to be exciting seeing who steps in behind Kelce as the team’s go-to third-down target for Mahomes. JuJu Smith-Schuster would be the easy choice, but Mecole Hardman and Marquez Valdes-Scantling could be enticing threats. Valdes-Scantling quietly worked behind Davante Adams as one of the NFL’s third-down pass-catchers with the Green Bay Packers. Over the last two years, his 481 third-down yards rank No. 29 — reminder that there can only be 32 WR1s in the NFL — and out of 19 third-down catches, he turned 18 of them into first downs.

Hardman isn’t far behind, as he's one of 74 pass-catchers with at least 300 third-down yards over that same time span despite 73 of those receivers having more receptions than him (17). As he continues to expand in both his role and route tree, that development feels important in how Kansas City avoids slight steps back from last year’s offense to this year’s version. 

For what they lack in a star wideout, the Chiefs will compensate through diverse route-runners and the benefit of rostering the game’s premier quarterback. That's something that should make life easier for Reid and Bieniemy as they scheme and design these plays, as we see here:

Hardman, in particular, saw most of his touches — either through play design or through ability — on first and second downs, where his yards after the catch ability and shiftiness were key in helping avoid said third downs altogether. 

The moments he did turn his third-down catches into conversations tell quite a story though; take the 53-yarder against the Bengals for instance, where Mahomes eyes him from the jump, wholly knowing No. 17 will sneak to that unoccupied spot along the boundary for a catch. Or the third-and-3 snag against New York. There's no overthinking: Hill and Hardman run a slant-flat-type concept, where he settles into the Giants' soft zone, moving the chains. He should be equipped to elevate in that role in 2022-23.

All told, it’s important to remember that even with some of those hiccups in the middle of games, Kansas City was still No. 1 in points (2.81), plays per drive (7.17) and three-and-outs avoided (1.06%). As long as Mahomes is under center and Reid’s headset is functional, the Chiefs’ offense will always be a threat to be one of NFL history’s best.

With good regression on their unlucky drops, better execution in those middle-of-game drives and both the receivers and play-callers ramping their games to fill in that cheetah-sized void, the Chiefs would be positioned to be — surprisingly — what many experts aren’t projecting: the NFL’s best offense.

And if they accomplish that feat, you certainly might live to regret being late setting that television up and missing that opening touchdown drive.

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Chiefs’ JuJu Smith-Schuster Named One of ‘Best Bargains’ in NFL

Chiefs’ JuJu Smith-Schuster Named One of ‘Best Bargains’ in NFL

Smith-Schuster's solid contract is a testament to the creativity of the Chiefs' front office.

The Kansas City Chiefs' financial decisions over the past few years were beginning to catch up with them this offseason, so general manager Brett Veach devised a plan.

The first step of his plan, at least at the wide receiver position, was to bring in JuJu Smith-Schuster after striking out on him the year prior. Next up: trade Tyreek Hill. Following those two major moves, Veach added additional talent via free agency (Marquez Valdes-Scantling) and the NFL Draft (Skyy Moore) to insulate the Chiefs' Hill-less position room. 

According to some, the signing of Smith-Schuster will prove to be one of the best of any team's past several months. 

Jan 16, 2022; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman (17) and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (right) embrace following the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Cody Benjamin of CBS Sports recently published a list of the best "bargain" NFL players at premium positions for the upcoming 2022 season. In addition to star quarterbacks such as Tom Brady and Joe Burrow and even receivers like Justin Jefferson and DK Metcalf, Smith-Schuster's name was listed as well. Benjamin praised the raw base amount of the deal ($3.25 million), citing it as something that could prove quite valuable to Kansas City in due time: 

The former Steelers standout has been an afterthought in a frenetic WR market the last two years, and it's probably true he's more of a steady option than spectacular one. But man oh man could Kansas City get bang for its buck with the still-young target machine teaming up with Patrick Mahomes in Andy Reid's offense.

There's a lot more to Smith-Schuster's deal than appears on the surface, however. Back in March when the former Pittsburgh Steelers wideout signed with the Chiefs, Joshua Brisco of Arrowhead Report speculated that the contract's incentives could be of the "not likely to be earned" (NLTBE) variety. Those incentives are based on the prior season's production and — in Smith-Schuster's case — the numbers weren't pretty. 

As such, Veach and company included five "likely to be earned" per-game active roster bonus incentives while also incorporating non-cumulative incentives for catches, yards, playing time, deep playoff victories and even making this season's Pro Bowl. Many of the stat-related mechanisms will escalate in payout with increased performance on the field. Not only did the Chiefs secure a relatively young player at a major position of need, but they did so while maintaining financial flexibility in both the short term and long term. 

Smith-Schuster's 2022 cap hit is a measly $2.89M, a figure that he may prove to be worth just a quarter or a third of the way through the season. His incentive-laden contract allows him to control most of what he'll max out at in terms of compensation and if the team-oriented playoff bonuses kick in, the Chiefs will gladly fork over that additional $1M ($500,000 each for AFC Championship Game win and Super Bowl win). The nature of the deal at its most basic point is a great one, regardless of whether he hits those incentive triggers throughout the year. As-is, the Smith-Schuster contract is a testament to the creativity of Veach and the rest of the Chiefs' front office — and it makes for a worthy listing among the best bargains in the league.

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Travis Kelce Lands Outside Top 5 in Recent All-Time TE List

Travis Kelce Lands Outside Top 5 in Recent All-Time TE List

According to some, the Chiefs' superstar TE is partially benefitting from his surroundings.

The NFL offseason is still in full swing, as there are weeks remaining until teams begin reporting to training camp to gear up for the 2022 season. With that temporary void comes plenty of player ranking lists, and a recent one had a Kansas City Chiefs franchise legend slotted a bit lower than many would agree with. 

In an effort to commemorate the retirement of former New England Patriots and Tampa Buccaneers superstar Rob Gronkowski, Cody Benjamin and Jeff Kerr of CBS Sports put together a list of the top 10 tight ends of all time. Travis Kelce found himself among those in the group, but he didn't land in the top five. He checked in at No. 6, just ahead of the likes of Mike Ditka, Jason Witten, Ozzie Newsome and John Mackey. Here's what the duo had to say in regards to justifying their pick: 

Jan 2, 2022; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) reacts after scoring a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first half at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

He's had the benefit of playing in a pass-happy NFL, and not only that, but for one of the league's pass-happiest teams and coaches. But he's also delivered time and again as the most trusted outlet for MVP QB Patrick Mahomes. A model of both durability and production, he enters 2022 having topped 80 catches and 1,000 receiving yards in six straight seasons, and his career 70.8 catch percentage proves how reliable his hands have been for an annual Super Bowl contender.

Ranking ahead of Kelce were five players (in ascending order): Shannon Sharpe, Antonio Gates, Kellen Winslow, Gronkowski and Tony Gonzalez. It's hard to disagree with Gonzalez taking the top spot, as he currently holds the historic tight end records for receiving yards and receptions while trailing only Gates in touchdowns. Gates is a very strong candidate to rank in the top three, as is Gronkowski. Sharpe is fourth in both yards and receptions. Winslow's case can be made more on performance relative to era than on all-time stats. With that said, Kelce is no slouch.

Of every tight end to play in the NFL, Kelce is already sixth in receiving yards. Contrary to his counterparts, though, he's still an active player and has played in just 127 games (Gronkowski played in 143). If Kelce were to play in 16 of the Chiefs' 17 games this year and log another 1,000-yard campaign, he'd surpass Gronkowski and Sharpe on that list. From a per-game standpoint — yardage-wise — no one has been more productive than Kelce. He averages 70.9 yards per game, with the next player being Gronkowski down at 64.9. With 38 catches this season, Kelce can crack the top five ever in that regard. With six touchdowns, he'll be tied for sixth place with Vernon Davis. 

All of this is without considering the unicorn nature of Kelce, who has blossomed into a do-it-all offensive weapon over the years. Not only can he line up as a traditional tight end as needed, but his ability to block and be split out wide and still thrive just as much is unparalleled. Even in the modern NFL, Kelce is the best at what he does due to possessing elite athleticism, route-running prowess and football IQ. He's the first tight end to ever put up six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, and he's done it all while lining up wherever head coach Andy Reid wants him to be.

Keeping Kelce out of the top three right now is justified. His counting stats simply don't put him in favorable company compared to someone like Gonzalez, Gates or even a couple of others. On the other hand, the eye test shows a future Hall of Famer and a player who won't slow down much, even as his 33rd birthday arrives in October. Kelce has four seasons left on his current contract, providing him with plenty of time to continue doing damage and climbing up the historical leaderboards. Sixth isn't a terrible spot to be in now, but that won't be the case for much longer.

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How Noah Gray and Cornell Powell Can Break Through in Year Two

How Noah Gray and Cornell Powell Can Break Through in Year Two

Entering year two, Chiefs pass-catchers Noah Gray and Cornell Powell have a lot of ground to cover with plenty of room for growth.

A little more than a year ago, the Kansas City Chiefs added two pass-catchers in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. The Chiefs and general manager Brett Veach traded up to the 162nd spot in the fifth round to select Duke tight end Noah Gray, then the team used their second pick of the fifth round to take Clemson wide receiver Cornell Powell with the 181st overall pick.

The Chiefs weren’t in desperate need at either tight end or wide receiver when Gray and Powell were selected. This was more of a future-focused move than anything. This year, the pair of sophomores have a chance to help that investment pay off.

Heading into the 2022 season, the Chiefs still have a plethora of options at wide receiver, although there are a lot of new faces in the room. The tight end room, as currently constructed heading into training camp, looks to be about the same as it was heading into last season as well. How can these two players break into a more significant role and make a second-year jump?

Dec 12, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Noah Gray (83) greets fans while leaving the field after the win over the Las Vegas Raiders at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Gray didn’t produce much in his rookie season. He finished the year with seven catches for 36 yards and one touchdown. There weren’t a ton of targets for him, as the best tight end in the NFL, Travis Kelce, is still at the top of the depth chart. Blake Bell was the number two, so Gray was a bit lost in the mix during his rookie year, and it might be more of the same for Gray in 2022.

Kelce is still going as strong as ever, the Chiefs brought Bell back, and Jody Fortson, who was placed on IR early in the 2021 season, will be back for another year with Kansas City. In order for Gray to make that second-year jump, he will need to show out in training camp and preseason, when he will get the most playing time and full attention of the coaches. If he can move his way up to second on the depth chart, that would do wonders for his ability to increase production.

Coming into the league, many thought Gray could play a H-back role, but fullback Michael Burton is also projected to be back for another season, so there is potential that Gray could also fight for playing time in that role this season.

Aug 3, 2021; St. Joseph, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Cornell Powell (14) runs against cornerback BoPete Keyes (29) during training camp at Missouri Western State University. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Powell failed to make the 53-man roster and was relegated to the Chiefs practice squad after clearing waivers. Powell had a slow start to his college career before turning it on in his final season at Clemson. Maybe a slow growth with the Chiefs is needed as well. He will get a fair shot to make the 53-man roster this year, but there are a lot of new faces to the roster who will be getting a lot of attention as well. If Powell doesn’t stand out, he could be lost in the mix again in 2022.

The Chiefs' only returning starting wide receiver is Mecole Hardman, but the team brought in some key names like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and 2022 second-round selection on Skyy Moore. They are also bringing back Josh Gordon, who is apparently looking very good in summer practices. This doesn’t even list some of the other names that will be fighting for a roster spot alongside Powell. This will be an uphill battle for him, but that doesn’t mean he can’t win a spot if he shows improvement. He could at least give himself a chance.

Nov 14, 2021; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Noah Gray (83) scores a touchdown against the Las Vegas Raiders during the second half at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In order for Gray or Powell to make a big second-year jump, they’ll likely need to see an injury ahead of them. There is a logjam at both the tight end and wide receiver positions which will make it difficult for either guy to take a big step forward. It will be up to the players to step up if they want to see an increase in workload and guarantee a spot on KC's regular-season roster. 

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Under Pressure: It’s Make-or-Break Time for Khalen Saunders

Under Pressure: It’s Make-or-Break Time for Khalen Saunders

After three years, the next month-plus will help determine the future of Saunders.

The Khalen Saunders arc has experienced its fair share of ups and downs, and it got off to an inspiring start.

When the Chiefs used their 2019 third-round draft pick on Saunders, they were bringing in a local (St. Louis, MO) talent who possessed intriguing athletic talent and was coming off a productive career at Western Illinois. As a rookie in Steve Spagnuolo's defense, the 324-pounder amassed 22 tackles, a sack and a pass broken up in 12 games. He didn't jump off the page in terms of stats, but he did enough to offer some promise for the future. 

Aug 14, 2021; Santa Clara, California, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Khalen Saunders (99) stands on the sideline during the third quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Since then, however, he has yet to match even that introductory level of production from three years ago.

Injuries got in Saunders' way in 2020 and 2021, as elbow and knee ailments limited his playing time and led to him getting lost in the shuffle of Kansas City's depth chart. In the two seasons since his rookie campaign, Saunders has played in just 10 games overall and has a combined 11 tackles. He hasn't recorded a single sack over the course of that span, nor has he logged a quarterback hit. His last start came in 2020. 

The Chiefs' defensive line saw some changes this offseason, but not too many of them came along the interior. Chris Jones is back at his traditional three-technique spot, and Derrick Nnadi is projected to start alongside him yet again as Spagnuolo's nose tackle. Behind them, free agent acquisition Taylor Stallworth figures to bring some healthy competition to the position group. Tershawn Wharton has shown legitimate flashes as an undersized pass-rusher. All of those players should make the team. Where does that leave Saunders?

Under pressure.

As training camp and the preseason approach, it will be up to Saunders to produce at a high level and remind the Chiefs of the player they spent a Day Two draft pick on years ago. If he can't, it'll be either another year buried on the bench or a possibly a late-summer shift to the free agent market. Not only is Saunders tasked with proving the Chiefs right, but he's tasked with doing the same for himself as well. Additionally, the fact that his rookie contract expires following the 2022 campaign raises the stakes even higher.

Conner Christopherson of Arrowhead Report joined me on Thursday's Roughing the Kicker podcast to discuss our initial Chiefs 53-man roster projections. Of the two of us, only he had Saunders making the cut. I listed Saunders as a name on the bubble, as his job isn't nearly as secure as it has been in the recent past. He has the opportunity to stick, but he's also facing quite the challenge in getting back to his better form.

For more Kansas City Chiefs coverage and analysis, be sure to subscribe to the 'Roughing the Kicker' podcast. RTK is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you listen to your favorite programs.

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Lonnie Johnson Jr. Film Review: Week One Starter for Chiefs?

Lonnie Johnson Jr. Film Review: Week One Starter for Chiefs?

Projected by many to be battling for a roster spot, could Johnson actually end up starting for KC?

The Kansas City Chiefs aggressively retooled their cornerback room this offseason. It started when they let long-time starter Charvarius Ward walk in free agency, then continued when they traded up in the first round for Washington's Trent McDuffie before selecting two more cornerbacks on Day Three of the 2022 NFL Draft. The Chiefs weren't done there, though. A few days after the draft, Kansas City also traded for former Houston Texans cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr.

Johnson was picked in the second round back in 2019. He was drafted as a cornerback and mostly played there as a rookie. In his sophomore season, the Texans moved him to safety and carried that experiment into his third year. Towards the end of that season, however, Johnson was moved back to his natural position. His career has not gone as expected to this point. When the Chiefs traded for him, he was largely seen as depth or a fringe roster player. Can he turn out to be more than that?

Jan 12, 2020; Kansas City, MO, USA; Houston Texans cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr. (32) returns a blocked punt for a touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first quarter in a AFC Divisional Round playoff football game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In 2021, Johnson was graded as one of the worst defenders in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. Though it looks terrible on paper, he was playing out of position for most of the year. After he switched back to cornerback, he posted a grade over 65.0 in three of five games. According to PFF, Johnson's best game of the year came in Week 18 against the Tennesee Titans with a grade of 77.8. In that outing, Johnson made several plays that caught my eye.

The Texans are playing Cover-2 here, and Johnson is asked to cover the flat. He does a good job passing off the receiver to the safety while keeping his eyes on the quarterback and the ball. The Titans are running a bootleg, and Johnson recognizes it to limit the gain. Not only does he show his recognition ability, but also his willingness to tackle.

Physical cornerbacks are something that Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo covets. He asks them to be willing to tackle in open space and come down to help run support. We have seen Spagnuolo use L'Jarius Sneed, Rashad Fenton and others off the edge to assist in the run game. As a willing tackler, Johnson can do this in the Chiefs' system.

During the pre-draft process, Johnson ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash. That doesn't reflect someone who is a burner at the cornerback position but on film, Johnson's ability to carry receivers down the field pops. Additionally, Johnson did test exceptionally well in the vertical and broad jumps, showing off his elite explosiveness. Both of these attributes are put on display during this play.

Here, Houston is running Cover-3 with Johnson responsible for the deep third of the field. The Jacksonville Jaguars run four verticals with two receivers entering Johnson's zone. He does an excellent job of carrying both of them down the field while staying in between them so he can get to wherever the quarterback decides to throw the ball. The quarterback chooses to throw it to the outside receiver. Johnson has to recover and once it looks like the ball is over his head, he leaps and uses his length to break up the touchdown.

Perhaps the most interesting Johnson game was against the Seattle Seahawks. For this contest, the Seahawks had two good receivers and now-Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson. Johnson saw no action during the first half of the game, but that all changed after halftime. The Texans had him traveling with DK Metcalf in the second half. 

On third down, Johnson plays off-coverage against Metcalf. This allows him to have the underneath area of the field. Once Metcalf gets into his break, Johnson recognizes it and attacks the passing lane, forcing Wilson to throw an inaccurate ball which leads to an incompletion.

Johnson had a similar play on another third down later in the game. Metcalf looks like he is running a deep curl, but Wilson already broke the pocket when he got out of his break. Metcalf tries to work back to the sideline to give Wilson a throwing lane, but Johnson sticks with Metcalf throughout the scramble drill. He creates a tough throw with his presence and helps the Texans get off the field.

At times in this game, Metcalf was visibly upset and directed his anger toward Johnson. This isn't to say that Johnson played a perfect game, but he certainly made himself known against one of the top receivers in the league.

There are numerous things to be curious about regarding Johnson's fit with the Chiefs. First, the Texans primarily ran zone coverage. He will undoubtedly be asked to play more man coverage and cover receivers one-on-one now. Also, the Chiefs ask their cornerbacks to press receivers at the line of scrimmage. Johnson didn't do this with the Texans in 2021, though he very well may be capable of playing press coverage. He has natural size and is willing to be physical. With his 6'2" frame and 32.5-inch arms, it should make it easier for him to press receivers and prevent them from getting free releases.

Oct 13, 2019; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) throws a pass as Houston Texans cornerback Lonnie Johnson (32) defends during the first half at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs have four cornerbacks who are new to the team, with three of them being rookies and the other being Johnson. Having NFL experience should be an edge for Johnson during training camp and the early part of the season. The hope for Kansas City is that McDuffie can be on the field from the jump but if not, don't be surprised if Johnson is a starting boundary corner in Week One.

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Despite Re-Signing, Jerick McKinnon Isn’t Promised Anything in 2022

Despite Re-Signing, Jerick McKinnon Isn’t Promised Anything in 2022

While the Chiefs did bring McKinnon back, the 2022 season presents new challenges at the running back position.

No matter how you slice it, the Kansas City Chiefs' offense is going to look different this coming season. 

The odds are also fair that Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy's unit could take a small step back statistically. While the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Ronald Jones could serve as helpful newcomers, they will be replacing the losses of proven contributors such as Tyreek Hill and Darrel Williams. Could a more diverse assortment of weapons in the passing game and a more effective running game help Kansas City's offensive attack avoid collapses such as its second-half performance in last season's AFC Championship Game? Sure, but not without some growing pains.

These changes will come with new challenges for returning players, and running back Jerick McKinnon is no different. After experiencing free agency again for a few months, the veteran recently re-signed to Kansas City on a one-year deal. This comes after a late-season push that saw him "pop" as arguably the Chiefs' best running back. Joshua Brisco of Arrowhead Report highlighted McKinnon's success in his article covering Kansas City's transaction of re-signing the 30-year-old:

With issues ranging from injuries to usage, McKinnon got just 12 carries during the 2021 regular season and caught 13 passes, with five carries and three receptions coming in Week 18. Then, in three playoff games, McKinnon took 34 carries for 150 yards (4.41 yards per attempt) in addition to 14 catches for 165 yards and a touchdown. McKinnon's playoff usage and production outpaced his entire regular season. 

Aug 14, 2021; Santa Clara, California, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back Jerick McKinnon (1) smiles on the bench during the fourth quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

If this move was made back in March, no one would bat an eye. In a vacuum, it would have made perfect sense. McKinnon's production in the postseason was what prompted many to clamor for him to be retained for this season, after all. The Chiefs doing just that — bringing back a player who stepped up in a major way at a deficient position — was almost expected at the start of free agency. Instead, they loaded up by signing the aforementioned Jones, drafting rookie Isiah Pacheco and re-signing McKinnon.

Without that vacuum in place, however, it's easy to see why McKinnon won't be promised anything this time around. The position group is no longer deficient, and it wasn't even before he re-entered the mix. 

Had the Chiefs opted against carrying a fullback on their roster in recent seasons, the idea of McKinnon making the team would lean heavily on the side of likely. But with Clyde Edwards-Helaire facing a make-or-break season, Jones set to make a maximum of $5 million, the team spending a draft pick on Pacheco and Mike Burton still roaming around, carrying four traditional halfbacks seems rather unlikely. That's even without mentioning Derrick Gore, who was on the outside looking in as things stood pre-McKinnon re-signing.

Jones's contract is incentive-laden and it's possible that he is indeed the odd man out, but he could also be the best pure runner of the group. Betting on him to not make the team is a risky proposition. Don't let Reid's “you can’t have enough running backs" quote from earlier in June fool you; from a numbers and roster-building standpoint, McKinnon is far from a guarantee to make the final cut. 

McKinnon's track record must also be taken into account. Not only did it take him all season to stay healthy enough to make a major impact on the Chiefs' offense, but the sample size in which he did so wasn't all that impressive. He was terrific for a few games, but is that worth banking on now that he's 30? His age and lengthy injury history make for a bad combination in the modern NFL for any player, but especially at the running back position. 

None of this is to definitively project anything in regards to Kansas City's depth chart at running back. The only mortal lock of the group is Edwards-Helaire, so there's wiggle room for a fluid situation elsewhere. As training camp and the preseason approach, that picture will become clearer and clearer. With that said, don't write McKinnon's name down in pen or Sharpie marker simply because he returned on another one-year deal. There are equal or more reasons to doubt his job security compared to that of Jones, and the weight of the downsides may prove to be too heavy over time.

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Projecting the Chiefs’ Potential First-Time Pro Bowlers This Season

Projecting the Chiefs’ Potential First-Time Pro Bowlers This Season

The Chiefs have plenty of up-and-comers who could soon be recognized as some of the best players at their respective positions this season.

Much of the NFL world respects the Kansas City Chiefs’ coaching staff for its creative, one-of-a-kind play designs and subsequent execution. Under his leadership, Andy Reid’s coaching tree has also quietly become one of the NFL’s premier talent developers. 

In a league where even prospective hand-in-glove fits don’t always work out seamlessly, the Chiefs have overseen 11 different players make the Pro Bowl in either year one or year two within their system.

Following an offseason in which Kansas City boded farewell to an All-Pro safety in Tyrann Mathieu, an All-Pro wideout in Tyreek Hill and a top-shelf cornerback in Charvarius Ward — among many others — that ability to both develop talent and seamlessly scheme it in will be of the utmost importance.

To their credit, by way of both their draft and free agency acquisitions, the Chiefs will have multiple players poised to potentially be among the best at their respective positions and be recognized as first-time Pro Bowlers this upcoming season. Let's dive into a few who stand out.

Creed Humphrey

Jan 8, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Kansas City Chiefs center Creed Humphrey (52) at the line of scrimmage in the third quarter against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last five seasons, 23 different rookies have been able to earn a Pro Bowl honor. Few boasted a better case than first-year center Creed Humphrey in 2021-22. Pro Football Focus viewed him as the game’s premier center with a 91.8 overall grade (No. 2 was over six points back at 85.7), along with being the only center with a 90.0-plus run-blocking grade.

It wasn’t as though Humphrey was a slouch in the passing game, either; he was the only center to log at least 900 passing snaps, allowing a mere 12 pressures all season in the Chiefs’ air-heavy offense.

Consider that this very dynamic — the Chiefs’ offensive line getting a feel for Patrick Mahomes’s (sometimes) playground style of football — isn’t the easiest to pick up on right away. Even a player like Orlando Brown Jr., a three-time Pro Bowler, wasn’t able to easily do so immediately.

That Humphrey avoided a much-expected learning curve bodes well for his future trajectory. Kansas City added backfield reinforcements and should remain one of the league’s top pass-heavy teams moving forward. His attachment to, arguably, the game’s most feared quarterback will keep eyes on him.

Competition will be steep, even within the division as Corey Linsley will be opening holes for Austin Ekeler and protecting Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers. Ben Jones of the Tennessee Titans and David Andrews of the New England Patriots, among others, will likely garner consideration as well. 

Nonetheless, Humphrey would be the strongest of the potential first-time Pro Bowlers — and quite literally at that. As our own Mark Van Sickle noted last week, if Humphrey returns as even close to the same player as last year, it’s hard to envision him being snubbed again.

Nick Bolton

Jan 8, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Nick Bolton (54) after the game against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It didn’t take long for Nick Bolton to properly introduce himself to the Kansas City faithful; there were drives last season in which it felt like one could pick out No. 54 in the pile on every play. That effort was punctuated by Bolton being named Defensive Rookie of the Month in November, and he remained a noteworthy piece of the defense’s transition thereafter.

There were pass coverage issues last season, where Bolton could be caught out of position, but the statistics spoke for themselves. He was one of only five players to corral 100 tackles and 10 tackles for a loss, checking in alongside Demario Davis, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Roquan Smith and Jordyn Brooks. 

A few months back, Evan Winter of A to Z Sports hit on a few of Bolton’s other standout statistics, many of which put him on the trajectory to perhaps be one of the game’s best linebackers. Bucky Brooks went as far as to suggest he’d become a household name and perhaps, “the league’s next great linebacker.

Recent history hasn’t been the kindest to the Chiefs’ defense with year-to-year position changes but with a few starts under his belt already, Bolton already has the notoriety needed to bolster his second-year jump

When thinking of the NFL's premier linebackers, many of the ones that come to mind are in the NFC — Fred Warner, Bobby Wagner and the aforementioned Davis. In fact, in Pro Football Network’s ranking of the NFL’s ten best pure linebackers, nine of them are NFC-bound in 2022. The door is open for Bolton to become not only one of his conference’s most formidable defenders, but also one of the best in the entire league.

A few other Chiefs players on the radar

Juan Thornhill and Justin Reid

Nov 21, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill (22) on field against the Dallas Cowboys during the game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, when a player says that they’re intending on making an All-Pro jump, as Thornhill did last week, they at least command a note. That especially applies when they’ve got the talent suggesting that they can get there.

This year, Thornhill shouldn’t have to worry about inconsistent playing time out of the gate. The group anchored by free agent signing Justin Reid and second-round pick Bryan Cook could be more interchangeable and cohesive than last season’s group. If Thornhill is back to his pre-injury form — when he allowed just a 43.0 passer rating in 996 snaps in 2019 — one could be talked into it.

Reid’s case feels a bit more plausible, given that he has a more established body of work. He’s one of the game’s more all-around safeties and was paid as such this spring. Mathieu showed what safeties are expected to do in the Chiefs’ system and while it’s unfair to expect Reid to reach that level, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine him playing up to the deal that makes him the eighth-highest paid safety in the game.

Trey Smith

Aug 27, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs offensive guard Trey Smith (65) and center Creed Humphrey (52) block Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Armon Watts (96) during the game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Smith is listed for similar reasons to Humphrey. The list of elite guards in the AFC makes it a more difficult sell, but Smith was the 10th-ranked run-blocking guard in just year one while also logging the most offensive snaps of any guard. This offseason, the Chiefs’ potential front line only got nastier. That extra year of experience could lead to another jump for the 23-year-old Smith.

Harrison Butker

The Chiefs are only going to keep scoring. Unless the NFL changes the rules, Harrison Butker will continue to kick at an elite volume. Since entering the league in 2017, he’s No. 3 in field goals made, No. 4 in attempts and his 233 extra points pace the next-best kicker by 17 points, per StatMuse.

Butker hasn’t always had the chance to hit game-winning, monumental kicks due to the Chiefs’ offense being difficult to keep pace with. But from the standpoint of consistency and volume, he’s there near the top. As it stands, he’s been stopped mainly by two words: Justin Tucker. If elite AFC offenses stall, there could be an opening for Butker to make a Pro Bowl team.

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Opportunity Arrives for Joshua Kaindoh's Second-Year Jump

Opportunity Arrives for Joshua Kaindoh's Second-Year Jump

With uncertainty at the Chiefs' defensive end position, Joshua Kaindoh has a strong case for a second-year jump.

The Kansas City Chiefs seem to have nailed their first two picks in the 2021 NFL Draft. Both players, former Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton and former Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey, were taken in the second round just over a year ago. The Chiefs didn’t have a first-round or third-round selection, and they needed to hit with the picks they did have.

Enter the Chiefs' fourth-round pick, defensive end Joshua Kaindoh. A highly recruited five-star player out of high school, Kaindoh decided to go to Florida State to push his game toward an NFL future.

He was a role player in his first three seasons with the Seminoles. His freshman season peaked with a four-sack performance against Delaware State. He appeared in every game of his sophomore season in 2018, but only gained one start. His production total was about the same as his freshman season.

He appeared in three games, including one start, in 2019 before suffering a season-ending injury. He ended up red-shirting that season and looked to come back strong for the 2020 campaign.

Of course, the 2020 season was an abnormal one thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kaindoh started eight games for the Seminoles, but his production was meager, finishing the season with 13 tackles, three tackles for loss, one interception, and one pass breakup.

The athletic profile has always been there, but the collegiate production never matched the talent. Some blamed Florida State's coaching for Kaindoh’s inability to show growth on the field, some blamed the injury, while others blamed the pandemic. Whatever the excuses, it was a disappointing college career for the most part.

The Chiefs took a chance on Kaindoh in the 2021 draft. Typically, an edge rusher taken in the fourth round isn’t projected to have a great NFL career. Essentially, he’s a lottery ticket, and if the Chiefs can tap into his potential and help him play up to his athletic ability, they could have a surprise contributor along their defensive line.

Kaindoh essentially had a redshirt season his rookie year in Kansas City. He suffered an ankle injury during Week 4 of the season and was put on IR in early October to officially put an end to his first season as a pro. It ended before it truly began.

It almost feels like the Chiefs have high hopes going into his second season, potentially the first season where he will be fully healthy. The team did invest in the defensive line with a first-round pick in the 2022 draft with Purdue's George Karlaftis, but they didn’t make many other moves. They’ll need someone to step up, so why not Kaindoh?

Frank Clark and Karlaftis are the two many are projecting to start on each end of the defensive line. Then it will come down to Mike Danna, Austin Edwards, Malik Herring, and Kaindoh unless they add another veteran player closer to the season.

Some think Kaindoh has the highest upside of the “next up” guys. To get there, he has a lot to prove. If the coaches can get the most out of his skill set, and if he can stay healthy, there’s no reason to think he shouldn’t be able to become a role player during this upcoming season with a chance to expand his role in the future. 

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Chiefs Announce Official 2022 Training Camp Schedule

Chiefs Announce Official 2022 Training Camp Schedule

The Chiefs are back in St. Joseph for another year, with open practices beginning near the end of July.

The Kansas City Chiefs just wrapped up their Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and mandatory offseason minicamp, and the team is already looking ahead to gearing up for the preseason and another possible playoff run. 

On Friday, the Chiefs announced their official 2022 training camp schedule.

Aug 9, 2021; St. Joseph, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (25) signals to fans after catching a pass during training camp at Missouri Western State University. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs are back in St. Joseph, MO, at Missouri Western State University for their 2022 camp, presented by Mosaic Life Care. Per the club, all of their practices are taking place on the Mosaic Training Fields from beginning to end. Festivities begin on Wednesday, July 27 with a team session that's open to season ticket members only. Kansas City's final practice of training camp is on Wednesday, August 18, which is being recognized as Military Appreciation Day at MWSU.

For fans in attendance, autograph sessions will be making their triumphant return after a couple of years away due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chiefs will hold team-wide sessions on July 29, July 30 and August 7. Parking for training camp — outside of season ticket member-exclusive days — will be $5 on the MWSU campus. The Chiefs add that "weather and field conditions are evaluated daily," and fans in attendance can be notified of changes via the club's social media accounts if any subsequent changes are put into effect.

Here's a rundown of the Chiefs' training camp practice schedule. All times are CST. For more details on position-specific groupings and/or special notes, visit the Chiefs' official training camp site:

July 27-30: 9:15 a.m. practice

July 31: No practice

August 1-5: 9:15 a.m. practice

August 6: No practice

August 7-9: 9:15 a.m. practice

August 10: No practice

August 11: 9:15 a.m. practice

August 12: No practice

August 13: Chiefs preseason game No. 1 (12:00 p.m.), no practice

August 14: No practice

August 15-17: 9:15 a.m. practice

August 18: 8:15 a.m. practice

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Reid, Mahomes Share Thoughts on Orlando Brown Jr. Contract Talks

Reid, Mahomes Share Thoughts on Orlando Brown Jr. Contract Talks

Brown's possible extension looms large over the Chiefs, but it takes time to complete.

As the Kansas City Chiefs continue their offseason, Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and mandatory minicamp are in the books. Up next comes training camp in St. Joseph, MO, but not before more speculation about the contract extension talks between the team and left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. 

Brown, who recently hired an agent to assist him with these proceedings, is in line for a hefty payday in the very near future. He's making over $16.6 million on the franchise tag for this year, however, that doesn't come with any long-term stability. Brown wants to be a Chief long-term, and the franchise is motivated to get a deal done with him before the league's July 15 deadline. Head coach Andy Reid spoke at the Chiefs' end-of-minicamp presser on Thursday, and he gave a vote of confidence to general manager Brett Veach eventually finish the job. 

Feb 5, 2022; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tackle Orlando Brown reacts during AFC practice at the Las Vegas Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

"Yeah, so I’m not doing a whole lot of conversing with him [Brown], but Brett and his crew are," Reid said. "You know, these don’t ever happen overnight, that’s not how it works. But they’ll work through it and I know both sides with handle it the right way and come to a spot that’s good for both Orlando and the team.”

Reid didn't stop there. He also praised Brown for the work he did at left tackle last season, citing him as a player with "plenty of room to grow" who's "wired the right way" and should be "on the rise." Additionally, he noted that Brown is doing what he needs to do independently in order to be ready for training camp. The Chiefs' leader is clearly very fond of Brown, even amid the ongoing negotiations between him and the team. 

Brown didn't participate in on-field work during Kansas City's mandatory minicamp, which was expected given the nature of the situation. The Chiefs are already invested in him by way of the aforementioned franchise tag and a 2021 pre-draft trade, so there is some leverage on the 26-year-old's side. With that said, the leverage shouldn't be carried with a negative connotation. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes was also asked about Brown, and he spoke just as glowingly as Reid about both sides ironing out a contract extension at some point. 

Aug 27, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) and quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) and offensive tackle Orlando Brown (57) watch play on the sidelines against the Minnesota Vikings during the game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

“Yeah, I’m very confident just because I know Orlando," Mahomes said. "I was with him yesterday actually, so I hang out with him a lot. He loves football. He loves the Kansas City Chiefs. He loves being here in this organization. So now, the stuff that’s always stuff, the business side of this. All of us want to provide for our families in the long term, the next generation. I know he’s getting that handled. As far as loving the Chiefs and loving football, there’s not another person in this building that loves it as much as he does.”

Brown may not have been perfect for the Chiefs in year one, but he improved over the course of the season and Mahomes grew more and more comfortable with him over time. With his 30s being years away, it makes sense for the team to lock him up on a long-term deal if it believes that he's the man capable of protecting Mahomes's blind side moving forward. That appears to be the case, but for now, the business element that Mahomes and Reid alluded to is running its course. On the other side of it — according to two of the most prominent figures in the Chiefs organization — a pact should be reached. The Chiefs aren't worried in the slightest. 

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The Truth About the Impact of Chris Jones

The Truth About the Impact of Chris Jones

Conversations about Chris Jones have been diluted by misleading stats and oversimplification. So what's the truth about the Chiefs' star defender?

Chris Jones is the longest-tenured member of the Kansas City Chiefs defense, and now following the recent departure of safety Tyrann Mathieu, Jones has become the Chiefs' clear-cut best player on that side of the ball. For one reason or another, Chiefs fans don't always view Jones that way, so his importance to the defense often becomes questioned. It's true that Jones has not had the statistical output of an elite pass rusher since 2018. However, that is not due to a performance decline, but instead to unfavorable circumstances.

Dec 5, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones (95) celebrates after a play against the Denver Broncos during the first half at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Jones broke out in 2018 with 15.5 sacks. He recorded a sack in 11 straight games, an NFL record. Though the Chiefs' defense struggled as a unit, the pass rush led the league in sacks. While Jones was a massive part of that production, he also had help from edge rushers Dee Ford and Justin Houston. Things changed after the 2018 season when Ford and Houston were let go as a part of the reshaping of the Chiefs' defense. Frank Clark was brought in to be Jones' counterpart, but Clark hasn't fully lived up to expectations or to his contract.

No matter how great a pass rusher is, they need help around them. Without help, the opposing offense can throw every guy at the stud rusher on the line. Jones has been the only above-average pass-rusher on the Chiefs over the last three years, allowing defenses to key in on him and throw double teams his way.

These double teams often come in the most crucial moments. Watch the adjustment the Cinncinati Bengals made to stop Jones in the AFC Championship Game:

These are conductive third downs in the AFC Championship Game. On both plays, the Bengals have their center roaming free, waiting for Jones to make a step inside. On the first play, Jones is too quick up the arc, which forced an incompletion. On the second play, the right guard takes an uncomfortably large step to force Jones to the inside. The guard can afford to do this because he knows once he gets Jones to move inside, help is on the way. The Chiefs' defense fails to get off the field, and the drive ends in a Cinncinati touchdown.

This sequence of plays is a perfect example of how opposing teams key on Jones in the postseason. The most shocking statistic of Jones' career is that he has yet to record a playoff sack. He has played in 12 playoff games during his time with the Chiefs.

Fans use this against Jones to argue that he is not a clutch performer or shrinks in big moments. However, sacks aren't the only way a defensive lineman can affect the game. One of Jones's biggest strengths is his ability to bat passes down at the line of scrimmage. In the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV, Jones batted down multiple passes that changed the outcome of the game. Without those plays from Jones, the Chiefs are probably still searching for their first championship since Super Bowl IV.

Jones took over the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV, but he also has the ability to take over entire games. This ability is rare. Not many pass rushers can wreck an opposing offense's game plan, but that's exactly what Jones did against the Dallas Cowboys this past season.

After dealing with injuries and having a slow start to the year, Jones needed a game like this to get him on track. Jones was a one-man wrecking crew. The Chiefs lined him up all over the line of scrimmage. Whether it was in the B-gaps, over the tackles or outside the tackles, it didn't matter; Jones got to the quarterback.

The same way Patrick Mahomes makes life easier for his running backs, Jones does that for his fellow pass rushers. Due to the attention Jones draws, it takes attention away from others and frees up rushing lanes for his teammates.

Here, the Chiefs are bringing a blitz. Due to the threat of Jones in the middle, the Denver Broncos ask their right guard to chip Jones. Jones recognizes this and engages with the guard's hands to slow him from blocking Melvin Ingram off the edge. As a result, Ingram has a free path to the quarterback and records the sack.

Despite missing three games last season, Jones had the third-most pressures for a defensive tackle and 10th most of any defensive player. Even though opposing teams are designing game plans to stop Jones, he makes his presence felt and impacts the game. With the addition of George Karlaftis, a healthy Frank Clark and improvements from the younger pass rushers, Jones should be in for another double-digit sack season, showing why he's one of the best players in the NFL.

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Keys to Chiefs’ Defense Avoiding Early-Season Struggles Again

Keys to Chiefs’ Defense Avoiding Early-Season Struggles Again

This year's Chiefs defense figures to be more athletic. Can it help avoid last year's slow start?

It’s easy to forget now, given that they came within a few plays of a Super Bowl LVI appearance. For the first five weeks of the 2021-22 season, the Kansas City Chiefs were fielding — by some measures — the least-productive defense in professional football history.

Under the backdrop of a must-win Monday Night Football matchup to kickstart November, circumstances began to change. With the snap of a finger (or Chris Jones’ wrist, whichever you prefer), the finally-healthy Chiefs rode that demonstrative defensive effort into becoming the first team since the 'Legion of Boom' Seahawks in 2014 to hold opponents to single-digit scoring four times over a five-game span.

Dec 5, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones (95) celebrates after a play against the Denver Broncos during the first half at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Because the Chiefs’ defensive numbers were so turbulent throughout 2021-22, one must wonder if that was more of a flash in a pan or if Kansas City can capture that magic more consistently come September.

It certainly doesn't help that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is already anticipating growing pains to overcome. Realistically, that’s to be expected; the Chiefs are replacing a three-time All-Pro safety and a cornerback that earned $40.5 million on the open market. That goes without mentioning other losses and the club acquiring seven defensive players in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The hope is that some combination of those aforementioned seven and the free-agent acquisitions can abate those growing pains as quickly as possible. Excluding obvious factors such as health, here are three ways Spagnuolo's defense can avoid a slow start similar to the one that plagued everyone involved last season:

Make substitutions and adjustments more proactively

August 14, 2021; Santa Clara, California, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo before the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Hindsight remains the only undefeated across the NFL’s century-long history, and even it has to wonder how differently the Chiefs’ defensive start to last season could have been with a few lineup tweaks.

The two that immediately come to mind: Jones’ return to the three-technique alignment and allowing Juan Thornhill co-pilot at safety with Tyrann Mathieu as opposed to Daniel Sorensen. It’s difficult to pin everything on Sorensen, even with how uninspiring the numbers were. What isn’t difficult, though, is making a case that perhaps the moves to fix those numbers could have happened a bit earlier.

Around the time of Week 6 is where it gets interesting. Over those first five weeks, Thornhill’s snap counts went from 95% in Week 1, down to 14%, and then 29, 42 and 44 over a four-game, three-loss span. In Week 6, it returned to 100%, steadying above 80% for the season's remainder.

To Spagnuolo and the Chiefs’ credit, this was also around the time of Willie Gay Jr.’s return and Melvin Ingram’s arrival — moves that granted the Chiefs added sideline-to-sideline speed and aggressiveness. Hypothetically, this bodes well for the athleticism brought in this summer.

On the topic of Jones, it’s commendable that he had the Pro Bowl season he did after dropping 15-20 pounds to play along the edge, only to re-transition into one of the game’s most fearsome three-techs midway through. The snap-for-snap numbers spoke for themselves, however, highlighting a need for a mix between the two.

This isn’t to say you give up on an idea five or six weeks in. Given the six-game slate the Chiefs start this season with — six teams with winning records in 2021-22 — it’s wise to avoid repeating that guessing game as much as possible.

Don’t rely solely on third-down blitz brilliance

Admittedly, this one is no fun. Part of what makes this Chiefs’ defense and its coaching staff exciting comes from the ability to draw up third-down blitzes that keep opposing quarterbacks awake at night. This deceptive slot corner blitz that lets Ingram roam untouched against the Denver Broncos represents a good example. It’s a beautiful sight that deserves to be seen more often … just not as often as seeing them get those same stops on earlier downs.

Consider this from Sharp Football Stats’ success rates. The list of teams that allowed over a 50% success rate on both passes and runs on first and second downs: the Atlanta Falcons, Minnesota Vikings, Cincinnati Bengals, New York Giants and Kansas City. As evidenced by this year’s AFC Championship Game, it certainly couldn’t stand in the way of making the Super Bowl, but it’s how the Chiefs’ defense can, in some aspects, stay out of its own way.

Similar to almost everything else, the Chiefs’ defense had similar peaks and valleys. On third-and-short, it was one of the NFL’s stingiest over the second half of the season. Though, because of how troublesome the numbers were at the outset, Kansas City wasn't able to reap the benefits of its full picture. 

2021-22 and 2022-23 could show some similarities, with the Chiefs being similar to the likes of the Packers and Ravens: two elite, clock-eating offenses that don’t have as many opportunities to allow third-down situations. In a perfect world, that leads to more punts. To use that as a piggyback:

Turn more pressures into sacks

Dec 12, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark (55) rallies the crowd during the first quarter against the Las Vegas Raiders at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Put most simply, the Chiefs were the NFL's sixth-best in pressures (178) and fifth-best in pressure rate (26.4%) last season. In overall sacks? Fourth-worst with just 31.

In looking over raw numbers from Spagnuolo’s three-season Chiefs tenure, it’s fascinating to note that at the turn of the second half of the season, there's both. Like a boxer feeling his opponent out with jabs, those haymakers begin to come with more regularity in November and beyond.

The importance of pressures shouldn’t go understated. Converting, however, could be the difference between a second-and-8 becoming a third-and-8 or a second-and-8 becoming third-and-18. Unless the Chiefs are facing Ja’Marr Chase, you like those odds.

The Chiefs having more raw speed and ambition on the field could be the difference. Spagnuolo adding in a player of this caliber with 4.53 40-yard-dash time and the athleticism to finish plays will add to the occasion. Last year, Ben Niemann led the Chiefs in blitzes (per Pro Football Reference), with L’Jarius Sneed and Daniel Sorensen right behind at Nos. 2 and 3. 

Regardless of whomever the Chiefs decide to have replacing them among that top three, the message to opposing quarters — ideally from the start — would be inherently clear: look out below.

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