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5 Chiefs training camp questions that will matter this season

Training camp can often be fools’ gold. We all know this. It wasn’t too long ago that it seemed like every year we were hearing about how this player or that player was going to absolutely light up the NFL. It became so commonplace that a lot of names (Bobby Sippio, anyone? Or hey, remember when Jon Baldwin was going to be an All-Pro?) have become something of a meme around here to represent the phenomenon.

Of course, sometimes training camp means a great deal. Just to go back to last year, we began hearing a lot of whispers that Tyreek Hill’s speed was genuinely freakish and something the Chiefs’ defenders hadn’t seen before. Many of us brushed it off, but Hill proved worth the hype and then some. A few years back, I WANTED to believe that Travis Kelce’s performance in camp meant something... and turns out, it did. Even Parker Ehinger was starting to get hype as a guy who would take the starting LG spot last year, and he managed it (while playing better than I expected).

So training camp doesn’t mean something all the time, but it does mean something sometimes. We just don’t really know when those sometimes are. So that’s... comforting. Preseason games, while not telling us much about the team itself, tell us far more about individual players than training camp ever will. But there IS value there. And so, each year, there are a few players I’m particularly looking forward to hearing about. For me it won’t be just about getting hype, it’ll be about hearing a specific kind of hype. There are also some intriguing stories at a few position groups that have caught my eye. So let’s talk about some of the storylines I’m most looking forward to following this season during training camp.

(Hey, speaking of talking, check out the MNchiefsfan Podcast [name pending] here, because if you like what I write the chances of liking what I say are probably at least 45 percent. Rate, review, and subscribe if you like what you hear, because that’s what good people do)

1. How is Dee Ford looking from the right side ... and IS he on the right side?

This one is pretty simple. Ford looked solid rushing the passer from the left side last season. And I don’t just mean he gathered stats, when you watched him play you saw him doing stuff he hadn’t been previously doing (I wrote about this here), like getting a little bend around the edge (using technique to compensate for his lack of natural bend) and hand-fighting more effectively while pass rushing with a plan. Gone were the days of the pure speed rush and nothing else.

Ford, it’s easy to forget now, was right at the top of the NFL in sacks for a while. Then two things happened...

  1. Ford got a hamstring injury that sidelined him against Denver and limited his snaps against Atlanta.
  2. Justin Houston came back from injury and reclaimed his LOLB spot, sending Ford to ROLB.

You all know what happened. Ford wasn’t nearly as effective down the stretch as he’d been previously, and it came to a head against the Steelers in the playoffs, where he was unable to capitalize on one-on-one situations he was put in due to the Steelers paying special attention to Houston and Chris Jones on many snaps.

Was it the switch to ROLB? Or was it the fact that hamstring injuries often nag long after a player is “healthy” and Ford was robbed of his explosive first step? I’ve tried to figure it out to no avail.

Let’s say it was a combination of not being used to ROLB and the hamstring. If Ford makes a similar leap in pass rushing productivity from the right side he made from the left side last season (which absolutely should not be ruled out given what we saw last year), the ceiling of the defense gets cranked up a whole new notch.

2. Where are they lining up Tanoh Kpassagnon, and how does he look?

No one is more of an unknown than Kpassagnon. I love what he did at the Senior Bowl game, where he looked like one of the best players on the field against better competition than he ever faced in college. But the fact is his college film provides almost no insight to what he can do as a player because the level of competition was so, so very bad.

We’re all assuming he’ll need a year before he can contribute, but his physical attributes are off the charts and he DID raise his level of play to borderline dominate the best players he’d ever faced in Mobile. So... could he surprise? I doubt it, but maybe.

Also, where will they line him up? The quotes I’ve seen sure make it seem like they plan on using him at defensive end. But then you see him talking about learning to rush from a two point stance, and you see on film that virtually ALL of his best snaps were as an edge rusher, and you say “hmmmm.”

I personally don’t hate at all the idea of a gigantic edge player being trotted out there on certain downs. Kpassagnon’s freakishly long arms make him a great guy to set the edge, and he did demonstrate the ability to get after QB’s from there in college. We’ll see, but it’ll all depend on how he handles the massive uptick in competition.

3. Patrick Mahomes’s everything

I’ve gone on the record saying I think there’s a very slim chance Mahomes starts this season, but a chance nonetheless (we can argue all day about this, but I’d rather not. Maybe some other time. Here are some thoughts on why the criticisms of him are largely unfounded). I’d put it at around 10 to 15 percent. No, I’m not kidding. And seriously, let’s not fight about this right now!

The thing to watch for Mahomes won’t necessarily just be what he looks like on the practice field, but what the coaches and players have to say about his mental development in picking up the offense and learning to read professional defenses. Stuff like this.

Oh, and there’s also this.

(Breathes into a paper sack repeatedly)

OK... OK... OK... let’s not overreact, all right? All right. We’re OK. Breathing deeply.

Anyways, the primary issue with Mahomes starting immediately is that it will absolutely, in certain ways, limit the offense. There’s no way he’ll be as adroit at reading coverages pre-snap as Alex Smith out of the gate. Absolutely none. So that will take some options off the table with how to run the offense.

The key is how MUCH will need to come off the table? Can Mahomes effectively learn enough to handle, say, half as much as Alex with regards to that stuff? 60 percent? 70 percent?

Because if so, you then have to start thinking about the things that having Mahomes on the field opens up for the offense in terms of testing the field deep consistently (“square footage threatened” was a fantastic term AP user kswanson used recently). Mahomes also opens up post-snap reads significantly in that, if you go off what you saw in college, Mahomes is significantly better at moving in the pocket and keeping his eyes up to go through progressions.

I won’t delve too much into this now, but THOSE abilities (pocket presence and going through progressions post-snap) are what made me fall in love with Mahomes as a prospect, not his rocket arm.

Again, we can talk about this as it develops, but Mahomes demonstrated the ability to move well in the pocket (and out of it) to avoid pressure while scanning the field that was superior to all but a handful of professional quarterbacks, let alone college players. It was by far his most impressive trait (yes, more impressive than firing a pass 45 yards while on the run. It’s that rare a trait in quarterbacks, even decent ones).

Because of those unique strengths (pocket presence, progression reading and arm talent), Mahomes can naturally ADD to the playbook with his presence. The key is that he not take too much away while he learns pre-snap reads at the NFL level. If he can learn enough and develop far enough mentally to not take too much off the table in that area, what he adds could well become enticing enough to get him a shot.

I still think it’s HIGHLY unlikely and that Mahomes would have to play clearly better than Smith almost throughout camp and definitely throughout the preseason to get a shot. And I don’t think Smith will go down easy, because he’s a guy who has some real strengths. But it’ll be worth monitoring, especially if you start seeing Andy Reid saying stuff like, “he’s ahead of where we thought he’d be.” Oh, that it could be so.

4. Tyreek Hill’s usage and routes

The expectations for Hill are significantly higher this season. He’s the first guy in line to replace Jeremy Maclin in the “z” role, a pivotal spot in Andy Reid’s offense. How will he look after an offseason in which he was supposedly honing his route running to not be just some “fast guy out there?” When looking at his film in 2016, it appears he has the goods to become a very, very good full time receiver. But we won’t know until we know, and training camp is the start of that.

5. Bennie Logan’s influence

I’ve written in plenty of places that I believe Bennie Logan is a sizable upgrade over Dontari Poe against the run (at least, the Poe we saw in 2016 and 2015). He’s also a veteran presence among a group of youngsters (and Allen Bailey, who is back and as big as ever), and has already been quoted as wanting to help Chris Jones realize what a monster he could be.

I’m hoping to hear about him stepping up and leading the charge of the defensive line, as well as being impossible to move in the running game. Both would be huge for the Chiefs in 2017.

There about a million more things I’ll have my eye on during training camp (Kareem Hunt, Parker Ehinger, Demarcus Robinson, Chris Conley, Escobar and on and on it goes), but these are the stories that are going to have me sprinting to Twitter every 30 seconds for an update. Hopefully they all break the right way.