The start to the Kansas City Chiefs’ training camp is right around the corner, quite literally.
Players begin reporting and taking to the practice field in less than one week from right now with the full practices beginning on July 28. The (Arrowhead) pride and joy of Kansas City will be one of the first players to take the field on July 24 as the quarterbacks and Patrick Mahomes get their first work in.
As excited as I am for Mahomes and what he means for the Chiefs this year and moving forward, my eyes will be focused on a slightly different part of the field, even on that first day. The Chiefs’ rookie class will also be arriving and practicing that first day, and while that day in itself won’t tell us a ton, the following weeks will.
Specifically for training camp, I want to lock in on this rookie class and its general usage in what is going to be a re-worked Bob Sutton defense.
Every year, young players show up and impress (or scare) fans with performances in training camp and receive newly-updated lofty expectations only to play like rookies in their first year. Watching how these young players perform and execute within the defense is something to keep an eye on for sure, but even more knowledge can be gained simply looking at how these players are being utilized.
What teams (first, second, practice squad) they are they playing with? Where are they are aligning on the defense? What kind of roles are they playing during the snap?
This is the kind of important information that can be gained at camp that can shed an accurate light on what’s to come this season.
Let’s take a peek at some rookies that are expected to contribute this year and their expectations:
Breeland Speaks: OLB/DE
Expectations: The current expectations among Chiefs fans are that Speaks will push for a starting outside linebacker job opposite of Justin Houston or at the very minimum start on early, running downs. During the rookie camp and minicamp, Speaks was getting first team reps as an OLB and saw a few reps as a down lineman. Another piece to the expectation puzzle of Speaks is seeing him take snaps as a true, down defensive ;inemen on some passing downs.
I want to see this Breeland Speaks (#9) show up every play. Clear plan, recognized the short set and countered with the inside slap, then transitions to the arm-over. It's a great snap for Speaks. pic.twitter.com/3e7kuzaAan— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) May 10, 2018
Prediction: Speaks sees a fair amount of reps with the first and second-team defenses but in a slightly different role than most think. Speaks gets mostly second-team reps as a standup EDGE player but gets some play next to Chris Jones as a DL in light nickel and dime packages. Used mostly as an edge setter and pass rusher, Speaks won’t be asked to drop into coverage too often or handle man coverage duties.
Derek Nnadi: DL
Expectations: Derek Nnadi appears to be a pretty easy player to predict as far as his impact and usage on the field. He’s an ideal nose tackle that can take on double teams, push solo blocks into run games and push the pocket on passing downs. The expectations around the fan world lean towards Nnadi being in a full time share with Xavier Williams for the starting nose tackle.
On this edition of why Nnadi (NT) destroys your running game: the game of leverage and the push/pull. It's a catch-22 blocking him; don't lean into his power & get pushed backwards. Lean into his body and end up eating grass while he pulls you off-balance. pic.twitter.com/OEJNG0qbSG— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) May 17, 2018
Prediction: I may be out on a limb a bit with this one, but I expect Derek Nnadi to get the majority of first team snaps at NT over Xavier Williams as camp progresses. He should lose out on snaps in passing situations that still utilize a NT but base packages and most run-down three down linemen sets should have Nnadi on the field. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Nnadi given a few snaps lined up opposite of Allen Bailey as a 5-Technique just to see what he can flash.
Dorian O’Daniel: LB
Expectations: It’s been hard to nail down expectations of O’Daniel, as it seems everywhere you look, there is a different opinion. Some draft analysts and fans don’t see the use for him at all in the Chiefs defense. Others think he’s a pure weak side linebacker to play in Dime packages for the Chiefs, and others think he’s going to take over the third safety role as the apex/overhang player. Then there was the rookie camp and minicamp, in which O’Daniel played a true 3-4 OLB role that most don’t see continuing.
Dorian O'Daniel has a nice feel while in coverage. Starts with a drop step to get depth but recognizes the RB coming into his flat. Starts to break to the flat but sees Jackson's eyes staying downfield and drifts back under the receiver. Shows good ball skills for a LB pic.twitter.com/l1WyfZt59V— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) March 6, 2018
Prediction: I’m sticking to my original assessment of Dorian O’Daniel (DOD) and anticipate him seeing plenty of snaps as that third/box safety that often lines up as an overhang defender. This should lead to snaps with the first-team defense on most passing downs as well as some mid-down and distance run downs. There will be a time split with other safeties on the roster but O’Daniel’s ability to play the run better than all of them (outside of Eric Berry) and still be a very capable defender in coverage, especially in zone, should give him the leg up as the go to guy in those scenarios.
Armani Watts: S
Expectations: I’m not sure there is a rookie with higher expectations than Armani Watts out of this rookie class, which is something for a day-three pick. Many expect him to see significant snaps, if not outright win the starting safety role opposite of Berry. As this starter or heavily-rotated player, some think he’s going to be one of the premier centerfield (CF) free safeties on this roster.
I really would like Armani Watts (near safety) in a deep halves heavy scheme. He has good eyes, good instincts, and comes downhill on the ball very well. Limited to half the field, Watts can showcase his playmaking abilities very well. pic.twitter.com/9Y1clcFeJY— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) April 28, 2018
Prediction: Watts may have some difficulty seeing consistent reps with the first team and potentially even the second-team defense, as the Chiefs have decent depth at safety. While the second starter and potential third safety, if not DOD, could be below average, the depth the team has at safety with players capable of playing roles is pretty good.
Watts is another name in that bucket as a safety who doesn’t have great range and athleticism to be the CF safety consistently, the man coverage ability to step into the slot or the size and tackling ability to be a major bonus in the box. As camp goes on, his instincts should pop, but he has to work his way through four or five other players.
I’m a bit of a draft nerd as is, so rookie performances and usage are always interesting to me, but this year, with some potential defensive changes on the horizon, training camp will be the first page as to what comes next.