With free agency, the NFL Draft, undrafted free agency and tryout periods over, we now have a decent handle on the Kansas City Chiefs’ 90-man roster. I recapped and reviewed everything that has happened since rookie minicamp on Monday.
Pending some kind of major transaction—involving the Valley of the Sun or otherwise—the roster is set.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at five Chiefs players who I think could push for starting jobs in 2019.
The players to watch
Safety Juan Thornhill (high chance)
Ever since the Chiefs selected Virginia’s Juan Thornhill with the 63rd pick in the second round of NFL Draft, it has been clear he will start for the Chiefs in 2019.
“Juan is very versatile,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said after night two of the draft. “He can do a lot of different things for you. We have some really good safeties, but these guys that we have, I think the knack that they have is kind of down low. The Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) kind of said in his press conference he feels like Superman the closer he is to the football. Armani Watts had a lot of those traits and Dan (Sorensen) is a guy that played down a lot. (Jordan) Lucas is a guy that has some range back there, but I think Juan gives you a true free safety, a center fielder and he has tremendous ball skills and range on the back end. I think this really gives you a free safety with playmaking skills back there that can take the football away, but he can also slide down and cover some in the slot.
“I think he’ll be a really good cover piece against some athletic tight ends that we’ll see throughout the course of our season.”
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid already took a liking to Thornhill during last weekend’s rookie minicamp.
“Every day he got his hands on the ball,” Reid said during his post-camp press conference. “Every day. He almost had one here in the red zone. It looks like he’s got a pretty good feel for things. He’s got a little bit of a knack there. Good worker, smart, but again, you have to have that feel back there and he seems to have that.”
Watts and Lucas will make the Chiefs’ 53-man roster, but the Chiefs could save $3.7 million against the cap by cutting Sorensen. Thornhill solidifying a starting position in training camp may make that move a no-brainer for Veach and the Chiefs.
Center Nick Allegretti (medium chance)
The way the Chiefs have already spoken about the seventh-round offensive lineman out of Illinois makes you think he was drafted to ensure competition for Austin Reiter at the center position.
“He had a chance to go to the East-West (Shrine) game and he actually played guard and center there,” Veach has said of Allegretti. “His center tape was really what kind of caught our eye. You guys know how we feel about guys who have versatility. This is a guy that played guard in the Big Ten, did a really good job. Goes to the East-West game, plays guard, plays a little center and then all of the sudden you watch the East-West game and watch him log game snaps at center, and he looked really good at doing that.”
Allegretti played guard at Illinois but took practice reps at center for all four years as the team’s backup. It is rare for a seventh-rounder to come in and start, but the truth is with Mitch Morse’s departure, the position is wide open.
Reiter started four games for the Chiefs at center last year, so I’d rate Allegretti as having a medium chance to win the job.
Wide receiver Mecole Hardman (low chance)
I wholeheartedly believe the Chiefs’ top pick in 2019, second-round wide receiver Mecole Hardman, will start as the team’s kick and punt returner. Where it gets more interesting is the wide receiver position. As I mentioned Monday, with each passing day, I think Tyreek Hill will be a member of the 2019 Chiefs more and more. But I don’t think Hill will start the season with the club due to a suspension from the league.
What that means is that Hardman will presumably be competing with Sammy Watkins, Demarcus Robinson and Gehrig Dieter/Marcus Kemp/Byron Pringle for one of the starting three (in today’s NFL) wide receiver positions. There are other intriguing names to watch as you dig deeper into the roster.
Despite that 4.33 40-yard dash speed, I don’t think it is likely Hardman finishes in the top three of that group.
Where the battle may get interesting is when it comes to the specific receiver position in head coach Andy Reid’s offense. If Hill is due to be back in four to six games, Reid may leave Watkins in his “X” receiver position (on the line of scrimmage) while replacing Hill’s “Z” receiver position (a yard off) temporarily.
There is a case to be made that Hardman’s skill set may fit that position better than his competition. The challenge will be learning the position quickly — and Reid said he was already off to a good start at rookie minicamp.
“Every day he got a little better,” Reid said. “These (routes) are all new. These routes are new to him. He did a nice job in the red zone which normally is the toughest place to work, but he did extremely well there. He had a good finish... You have to throw [the routes] at him. He’s extremely smart so he should be able to handle it.”
The wild cards
Defensive tackle Khalen Saunders
One thing to remember when evaluating “starters” in today’s NFL is that teams are in nickel and dime formations much more often than they are in Steve Spagnuolo’s 4-3 Under base for the Chiefs; I remember Spagnuolo’s Chiefs.com video when he said in jest that he plans to run the 5-6.
Because the Chiefs could be in a nickel and dime look more so than they will be in the base (where a run-stuffer like Derrick Nnadi thrives), Saunders could wind up getting the bulk of snaps.
Punter Jack Fox
Let’s be honest: nobody wants to see Dustin Colquitt—probably the greatest punter in the history of the league—cut by the Chiefs. When Colquitt was a free agent during the 2018 offseason, he took less money to stay in Kansas City, citing the idea that he wanted to finish what he started.
But even though it isn’t much—his contract is still something—and the Chiefs could save $2.5 million against the cap by cutting the 14-year punter.
Lance Zierlein of NFL.com weighed in on Rice’s Jack Fox, a former kickoff specialist, during the pre-draft process.
Scouts are more interested in his punting skills after his gross average improved over the past three seasons, going from 40.7 yards per punt in 2016 to a 45.5 last fall that ranked in the top 10 nationally. Fox has consistently placed the ball inside the 20-yard line (74 times vs. 23 touchbacks) while forcing a good number of fair catches (71) in his 212 career boots.
This to-be battle feels reminiscent of Ryan Succop vs. Cairo Santos in 2014. We’ll see if the rookie wins out this time.
Which Chiefs rookie mentioned stands to make the biggest impact in 2019?
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