Training camp is always a hopeful and optimistic time of year for NFL teams and fans across the country.
It’s a new season, the slate is clean, every team is 0-0 and it officially marks the end of a six-month football drought.
The Kansas City Chiefs are no exception, looking to turn the page and put a tumultuous offseason in the rear view mirror.
Rookies and quarterbacks report to St. Joseph, MO and the campus of Missouri Western State University on Monday, with the rest of the team arriving on Friday, July 28.
While familiar faces like Andy Reid, Alex Smith and Travis Kelce will roam the practice fields, as usual, this year’s camp will have a slightly different feel, with the presence of rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes II and the absence of former General Manager John Dorsey.
Leaving camp with no major injuries is always the top priority, but there are still several key areas for Chiefs fans to watch that could have a big impact on the 2017-2018 campaign.
How Patrick Mahomes progresses
Putting aside Mahomes’ impact on the Chiefs’ long-term future, the backup quarterback position will be one of the more scrutinized position battles in all of camp.
The Chiefs have gone with veterans behind Smith the past four years, with Chase Daniel and Nick Foles. But so far this year, KC is staying with either the rookie Mahomes or career-long reserve Tyler Bray.
Training camp and the preseason serve as the first measuring stick as to what the rookie will be in 2017.
Smith has avoided any serious injury since arriving in Kansas City, but he has missed one game in three of his four years.
If this trend continues this year, will Chiefs fans feel comfortable with Mahomes or Bray under center for one game? This is Bray’s first true opportunity at the second spot, and it’s make-or-break time for the former Tennessee Volunteer, entering his fifth season with Kansas City.
If Mahomes impresses and shows his capacity for the offensive playbook and ability to handle the defense with minimal turnovers, Reid and company may feel Bray is expendable. If Mahomes struggles to adjust, which would not at all be uncommon, the Chiefs have to decide if Bray is a better backup option than what the free agent market holds.
With Mahomes’ mechanics specifically, Chiefs fans should be able to tell a difference from his style in college to what offensive coordinator Matt Nagy is sculpting at the pro level.
Keep an eye on footwork stability, both in and out of the pocket, consistency of throwing motions, the flow of progressions he takes through his reads and what kind of zip he has on traditional west coast routes.
On a basic level, fans should get a glimpse of at least the kind of pure arm talent the highly touted draft pick brings to the table. When he’s under center, fans should take notice. He’ll make a lot of mistakes, which is not a bad thing at this stage in the process, but he may also make some throws that no Chiefs quarterback has made in a very long time.
How the running backs split time
The rookie that has the potential to have the greatest impact in 2017 alone is running back Kareem Hunt. The agile back out of the University of Tulsa will rotate in with Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West, each entering their third year wearing the red and gold.
Ware and West were near equals in 2015, but as West battled injuries in 2016, Ware emerged as the lead back. Ware is a between the tackles bruiser, which is not the typical Andy Reid style running back that excels in catching passes out of the back field.
This is where Hunt can really contribute in 2017, as Ware’s receiving skills leave a lot to be desired. West has above average abilities in the passing game, but it’s still up in the air as to whether or not 2015 was just a fluke.
How Reid rotates these backs carries and touches during camp and preseason will be a good indication of where they are going into the season, and the progress they can make.
No Chiefs back is likely to command a work load of a league-average, every day back, which also means they can all stay fresh throughout the duration of the season.
If Hunt emerges as a quality option as for third-down situations, or maybe more, that would make for a more than respectable three-man rotation and perhaps keep Ware and West healthier than in 2016.
Keep an eye on how fumble prone Hunt is, what kind of vision he has behind blockers on a screen play, catch to drop ratios and how his open field skills translate to NFL defenders.
Which wide receivers step up
While Hunt serves as the logical replacement for the departed Jamaal Charles, the other controversial offseason move, the release of wide out Jeremy Maclin, leaves the wide receiving core looking thin.
Maclin’s down year in 2016 left many to wonder if he could still be a number one receiver, which is a completely fair question, but it’s no question that he was the Chiefs’ top traditional wide out with unproven options lining up behind him.
Tyreek Hill provides a unique receiving threat, but now that the book is out on what he can do, teams will start to key in on the 5-foot 10-inch speedster. Hill also does not provide much of a red zone presence, one of the team’s biggest weaknesses during the 2016 season.
That said, third-year wide out Chris Conley’s training camp and progression in 2017 will be crucial to the team’s success. The physical tools are there, if Conley fails to take more of a step forward, it may be time to put to rest any hope that he’ll become a top wide receiver.
Maclin also had arguably the best chemistry with Smith, so his departure leaves the door open for someone else to gain that rapport.
Hill and Conley are the clear top two options in the room, but whether or not the likes of Albert Wilson, Jehu Chesson, Demarcus Robinson or De'Anthony Thomas step up remain important to watch.
Wide receiver play is easier to track than most positions at camp, so keep an eye on who’s getting the most targets, who’s going above and beyond to make the tough catches, who’s putting in work on special teams and who fills in as the go-to option in the red zone or when Smith’s under pressure.
Who rounds out the defensive roster
When everyone’s healthy, the Chiefs’ defense lacks any major hole or weakness.
The only real starting position battle on the defensive side comes at middle linebacker opposite Derrick Johnson.
Phillip Gaines could overtake Terrance Mitchell at the second corner spot if healthy, but that’s unlikely to occur in camp.
However, the fight for the defensive backup roles is part of what makes training camp so great. Unheard of players like Daniel Sorenson will squeeze onto the 53-man roster, then make big time impacts, seemingly out of nowhere.
With injuries always a factor on defense, it’s crucial the Chiefs have quality depth so that they aren’t as hamstrung as in past years when the likes of Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson went down.
Defensive line spots behind Benny Logan, Allen Bailey and Chris Jones are wide open, the fourth and fifth cornerback spot is anyone’s spot and D.J. Alexander proved last year that if a player shows his worth on special teams, it could lead to playing time on defense.
Keep an eye out for who has an extra step against the other backup players, what defensive back has a knack for the ball, what linebacker is reading the quarterbacks eye, and who is getting top reps on special teams for Defensive Coordinator Dave Toub.
They may not be as flashy as some other areas, but when injury strikes, the player who stepped up at camp will play a big role in how successful the Chiefs’ defense is.
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