It’s been 228 days since the Kansas City Chiefs took the field in a meaningful NFL game, but now just one week and one preseason game separates them from the New England Patriots and a primetime opening night tilt.
While head coach Andy Reid and starting quarterback Alex Smith may have already turned some of their attention toward week one, there are still many jobs on the line and critical performances to watch for in the team’s final preseason game.
Rookie Patrick Mahomes starts in place of Smith to allow the veteran ample time to prepare for opening night, but how Mahomes performs in the final game might have the biggest impact on his rookie narrative.
The Texas Tech alum impressed his first time out, dazzled week two and took a small step backward up in Seattle week three with a number of missed throws. If Mahomes shows off his top shelf arm, mobility and vision again in week four, it will only excite fans more for the future. If he fails to really stand out for a second straight week, the overall takeaway will still be very positive, but perhaps down a notch from where the hype train was after his first two games.
That’s how the fans would view things, but for Reid and Mahomes this game is all about reps and expanding the offense. This is Mahomes’ fourth time under the lights of an NFL stadium, the jitters are gone, he’s shown the ability to produce at a high level, the expectations are now higher than they were just three weeks ago.
Ball security has been arguably the most encouraging sign for Mahomes, as it was clear the arm was there in college, but learning under Reid and Smith has noticeably improved his awareness and decision making. Rookie seasons are often a roller coaster ride, but if Mahomes can go one more week without a crucial mistake that would be an early step forward that many didn’t think was possible.
How much fellow backup Tyler Bray will play has not been established, but his job is very much on the line heading into the final preseason game. Mahomes in his first year has passed Bray entering his fifth, and it’s time for Bray to show positive signs during a game to see whether or not he can perform as a solid backup option now or in the future.
Kareem Hunt has a firm grasp on the starting job, but the final game will be the final opportunity for C.J. Spiller and Charcandrick West to make a case for playing time. Hunt cannot carry an every down load like Spencer Ware, so whoever gets the second spot, whether it comes on various first downs or strictly on third down, will have an important role on the team.
Spiller has been a surprising standout in training camp and preseason, perhaps even passing West in the depth chart. The 2010 ninth overall draft pick enters his 30-year-old season on his fifth team in four years, but 1,200-yard rushing, 450-yard season by his name. Spiller’s catching ability fits well into Reid’s system, and another impressive all-around performance could solidify 2017 playing time with the absence of Ware.
West, the forgotten man of the bunch, looks to prove that 2016 was just an injury set back and return to 2015 form. The Abilene Christian alum totaled 848 all-purpose yards over just 9 starts in 2015, almost double his output in 2016. West flashed in the third preseason game, rushing for 113 yards on seven carries, and may need a similar stand out performance this time around to take regular season snaps from Spiller.
The final preseason game of 2017 marks the last opportunity for any Chiefs wide receiver to make a case for a larger role in the regular season, as no one has made a consistent impression over the first three games.
Tyreek Hill had multiple drops against the Seahawks as he tries to transition into the number one wide receiver role, with Chris Conley, Albert Wilson, Jehu Chesson and Demarcus Robinson all unable to log more than three catches in three games.
Any kind of production in the last game would count as improvement, and also signal fans hope that a third offensive weapon on offense will emerge. Hill and Travis Kelce are respected weapons, but adding a third to the mix takes the offense to another level. A breakout week four game could drastically improve the stock of anyone in the wide receiver group.
With a number of key players not playing against the Titans, the final preseason game will go more toward the back end of the defensive roster and special teams. While that may not sound as exciting, for players in this category it’s a matter of a job or free agency. The likes of Daniel Sorenson, Rakeem Nunez- Roches and Ron Parker were all under this flag earlier in their career, only to earn regular playing time later in the season.
Inside linebacker easily goes down as the most intriguing spot for the final game, with Ukeme Eligwe, Ramik Wilson, Justin March-Lillard, Kevin Pierre-Louis and newly acquired Reggie Ragland all vying for playing time next to Derrick Johnson. They’ll get plenty of reps against the Titans, and their performance may single handedly determine their fate on the roster.
Special teams is not to go overlooked, with Kevin Pierre-Louis having a leg up to make the team after his blocked kick earlier in the season. The same goes for secondary players like D.J. Whit and Leon McQuay III who hope to make the roster rounding out the defensive backfield. Rookie Tanoh Kpassagnon has quietly turned into more of an outside linebacker rather than a defensive end, and how he looks in an untested spot Thursday night will indicate how much of a contribution fans can expect from him in 2017.
The top priority remains health, as the Chiefs already witnessed first-hand that the preseason can turn sour fast after the injury of Ware in week three.
Tune into KCTV5 at 7:30 p.m. for kickoff from Arrowhead Stadium.
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