Thirteen training camp practices are in the books for the Kansas City Chiefs with only one left before the team’s first preseason game and five left before they pack their bags and return to Kansas City.
This year’s training camp has been a mixture of old and new for Kansas City. The likes of Tyreek Hill and Alex Smith have impressed, as expected, while new faces Patrick Mahomes and Kareem Hunt have backed up their draft hype.
With week one of the regular season exactly a month away, the Chiefs’ 53-man roster and first team units are starting to take shape heading into their first preseason game on Friday.
For the two big names, Smith and Mahomes, it’s been a very impressive two weeks of camp. This means a lot more for the rookie, as the odds of Smith improving by much this late in his career are slim. But it does mean that Smith is not on a career decline entering the season at 33 years old.
Smith has had very productive camps in past years, showing off deep throws and spreading the ball to wide receivers, only to return to his career norm in the regular season. Whether or not this year’s camp deep balls will transition over to the regular season remains to be seen, but at least fans that know it’s a possibility, the weapons are there and the tools are still in his arsenal.
Mahomes has been the success story, impressing even more than fifth year quarterback Tyler Bray. Not expected to contribute much in 2017, success for the former Texas Tech Red Raider is judged on a different scale than Smith and Bray. But his ability to adequately run the offense, command the pocket, speed through multiple reads and still make all the difficult plays he displayed in college is a great sign for the team’s future.
This does not mean that Mahomes is ready to take over the starting gig, as he still turns in arguably five times more mistakes than Smith. This was the expectation transitioning from the spread to under center of a complex Andy Reid offense. The biggest test in the preseason to watch for will be how he deals with pressure, meaning the kind that can actually put the hit stick on number 15, unlike his teammates at camp.
Mahomes will likely stay in the third quarterback spot to start the season, unless he shows in the preseason that he can run the offense almost mistake free and take care of the ball. He’ll probably flash signs of greatness in the four games with highlight real spirals in between defenders, but whether or not he can consistently make accurate, correct reads in the offense will be the real decider of where he stands in 2017.
Bray has had a disappointing camp in some regards, as this is his first real season with a chance own the backup role and he’s not fully taken the bull by the horns. There’s still too many overthrows and miss-reads for someone entering his fifth year, but all that can still wash away with an impressive preseason under the lights of an NFL stadium.
After the departure of Jeremy Maclin, the wide receiver position was completely wide open from top to bottom entering camp. Hill is looking to build upon a breakout rookie campaign, with his role in the offense the biggest area to grow. A lot of his memorable moments came on special teams last year, but if he’s to take the next step forward and become a threat that this team needs, he’ll need to emerge as a route running threat in the passing game as well.
The good news is that Hill has absolutely looked primed for step forward after two weeks of practices, as he has consistently torched all the defensive backs and connected on deep passes from all three quarterbacks. His ball skills have slightly improved and his route running ability through traffic and off the line of scrimmage is much better from this time last year.
How he fares against physical corners in the regular season will be the real challenge, but if burning Marcus Peters is any sign, he has the ability to ace that test in flying colors. The other wide receivers on the roster have improved from last year, but Hill is the only one that’s garnered consistent attention and praise.
Chris Conley, Demarcus Robinson and Albert Wilson have had their chances and that will continue through the preseason and regular season, as the Chiefs’ don’t have any other option. De’Anthony Thomas, Jehu Chesson and Seantavius Jones have flashed at times, but it’s the first three earning the majority of first team reps and end zone targets.
This is a make or break year for Conley entering his third season, and Kansas City is counting on a significant increase from the third round draft pick, coming off two years with only one touchdown logged. The former Georgia Bulldog ran a staggering 4.35 40-time at the NFL combine with a 45 inch vertical jump, but even in year three he has yet to flash those tools. Conley’s role this year continues to be short slants across the middle and 10-15 yard out routes, rather than many deep routes or jump balls.
The team has Hill as a primary deep threat, but with Conley’s tools, adding one more as a weapon for Smith would really open up the offense for all parties involved. Wilson has been the same, consistent player entering his fourth year, while Robinson has a much bigger role entering year two. The fourth round pick out of Florida did not record a catch last year, but as of now he’s very much in play for the third overall wide receiver role.
Running back C.J. Spiller signed in Kansas City to little fanfare, but the 30-year old has more hop in his step than many saw coming. Impressing in the run game and receiving out of the backfield, the former Clemson Tiger has emerged as a real threat for the often injured Charcandrick West. Both are deserving of a roster spot, but keeping four running backs and a fullback is not common in the NFL.
Kareem Hunt has been one of the shining stars of training camp, earning a good portion of second team reps and showcasing his catching ability in traffic and down the field. The top job still goes to Spencer Ware, but at the end of the season Hunt may have more overall touches if this kind of play continues. Ware’s hands have improved so that he’s no longer a liability in the passing game, but Hunt’s elusiveness, route running and instincts give him a decided edge.
The overall takeaway from the offense is that the Chiefs’ are counting on increases in production from a number of players that have not proven their ability at the NFL level. With Hill and Travis Kelce garnering top attention from opposing defenses, it’s up to Conley, Robinson, Wilson and Hunt to emerge as dependable targets whether they’re ready or not. They’ve shown flashes at camp, but it’s still a big concern heading into the regular season.
The defensive side is always the toughest to gauge at training camp, as players can’t hit the quarterback and can only really tackle on a few select drills. The best thing fans can take away is from this side is that star players coming off injuries are back in solid form.
Derrick Johnson is not quite in Pro Bowl form yet, but the 34-year old’s legs are looking very spry for someone coming off an Achilles injury in December. He’ll have a limited role in the preseason, but he’ll still be ready for action week one. How the players directly next to him have performed has be one of the most interesting battles to watch.
The new addition of Kevin Pierre-Louis joins a stacked inside linebacker group of Ramik Wilson, Justin March-Lillard, Josh Mauga and rookie Ukeme Eligwe. Keeping five inside linebackers is unlikely, meaning every rep is crucial time in the defense and on special teams. The speedy Pierre-Louis was traded to KC for a reason, Wilson has been getting the bulk of first team reps and Mauga is a proven veteran, so it could come down to March-Lillard or Eligwe.
Justin Houston is the other notable returnee coming off an injury, and one look at the veteran hanging with running backs on passing drills shows that his knee is likely ready to go. However, he’s not getting paid 100 million dollars to guard the backs, his impact will have to be made getting to the quarterback. Unable to really do that at camp, showing that he still can consistently wreak havoc in the backfield is the final step on Houston’s career comeback.
The defensive backs have been a bit banged up throughout camp, with Terrance Mitchell, Steven Nelson and Phillip Gaines aiming to lock down the second cornerback spot opposite Peters. Mitchell took hold of the spot late last season, but Nelson has earned the most reps out of the three. Gaines had the spot before his injury, but with no one really emerging through the first two weeks, it all comes down to the four preseason games.
All 90 players on the Chiefs’ roster will get their first test against players not wearing the red and gold on Friday, as the Chiefs host the San Francisco 49ers. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. at Arrowhead Stadium.
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