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Five things to watch as the Chiefs play the Bengals

Preseason football has arrived, and there are plenty of observations to be made.

NFL: OCT 21 Bengals at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We made it! The 202-day wait to watch a Kansas City Chiefs game is over!

Their first matchup of the 2019 preseason will be against the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday night at Arrowhead Stadium. For multiple players and coaches, it will be their Chiefs debut .

Here are five things to watch during the game:

1. The rookies

NFL: AUG 04 Chiefs Training Camp Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2019 draft class is already turning heads at training camp. Their performance in practice has been nice to watch, but a live game situation should be our best look yet at their abilities — and the role the team expects each of them to play.

So far, second-round wide receiver Mecole Hardman leads the hype train for the rookie class. He not only shows blazing speed we expected, but his route running is further along than most anticipated; he is continually progressing in his connection with quarterback Patrick Mahomes on deep targets. He should get plenty of offensive snaps, so watch for his playmaking ability. It will also be important to watch his returning skills; early on in camp, he struggled to field punts and kicks.

Rookie safety Juan Thornhill has also received some hype, and it sounds like he’s been improving steadily since the beginning of camp. Veteran safety Daniel Sorensen will probably start alongside veteran safety Tyrann Mathieu, but Thornhill and Sorensen have been splitting first-team reps during camp. The rookie will have to earn the full-time gig by showing he’s comfortable in his role and that he understands the system well enough he can utilize his natural instincts without thinking too much. He should see a lot of defensive reps.

Third-round pick Khalen Saunders will be out there with the second-team defensive line. Keep an eye on his pass-rushing snaps. Rookie cornerback Rashad Fenton needs to show some signs of usefulness with the second and third-stringers. Running back Darwin Thompson should have a ton of opportunities to prove his quick and slippery ball-carrying abilities. Seventh-round selection Nick Allegretti will see second-team time in the interior of the offensive line.

It’s always exciting to see the rookies wear the red and gold for the first time.

2. The wide receiver rotation

NFL: AUG 03 Chiefs Training Camp Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The offense has had minimal turnover in their starting personnel. One of the only competitions on that side of the ball is for the last few wide receiver spots. The Chiefs usually keep six or seven at that position — and there are 12 guys fighting for the chance.

We know about starting wide receivers Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Demarcus Robinson. Hardman is the next man. That leaves an absolute maximum of three slots open. Young pass-catchers Byron Pringle, Marcus Kemp, Cody Thompson, and Gehrig Dieter are all second-team or third-team receivers. They should be seeing targets from Chad Henne or rookie Kyle Shurmur. It’s important to see which of that group gets in the game first; it can be an indication of how the coaches see the pecking order right now.

The longshots are led by Rashard Davis — who has played well in camp. Davis, brother-from-another-mother Felton Davis, Davon Grayson, and Jamal Custis will all be seeing their opportunities while Shurmur or second-year quarterback Chase Litton are in the game.

Watch to see what each player does with their opportunities. It’s a good sign to see players being fed multiple targets. That can mean the quarterbacks are comfortable with their route timing, or that the coaches want to see them with the ball. If you can, try to see how well each of them does while blocking. In head coach Andy Reid’s offense, that’s an important skill for wide receivers.

3. Defensive changes

NFL: AUG 03 Chiefs Training Camp Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The massive overhaul on the defensive side of the football left us with plenty of questions yet to be answered. This game should give us a little more clarity with what the defense will look like — and where new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo wants certain players.

An underrated aspect of the scheme change is the EDGE pass-rusher position. They are now defensive ends rather than outside linebackers — and that does make a difference. They will have less coverage responsibility that they did in the 3-4 scheme, which will allow them to focus more on getting into the backfield.

The new defensive ends — Frank Clark, Alex Okafor and Emmanuel Ogbah — are more familiar with it than returning Chiefs edge rushers Tanoh Kpassagnon and Breeland Speaks. Kpassagnon has been a camp standout so far. Speaks has looked better from an interior position. Watch how Spagnuolo chooses to rotate these two guys in — and how early in the game he does it. Once they’re in, they need to show pass-rushing ability and strength while setting the edge on outside runs. If they do look more comfortable and successful, first-year Chiefs defensive line coach Brendan Daly deserves a lot of the credit.

The other change we’ve talked about this offseason is the linebackers’ run reads. Anthony Hitchens has been honest with the media about how much he likes the new scheme.

While the first-team defense is in the game, watch to see how fast the linebackers are reacting to running plays. Look to see how quickly they’re in a hole to fill it. It’s a new scheme, so they will naturally struggle at times, but it’ll still be intriguing to look for a difference in linebackers’ reactions in the running game.

4. Cornerback performance

NFL: AUG 05 Chiefs Training Camp Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you’ve been following one of the most exciting training camps in the team’s history, you know about the only position that is a buzzkill for fan optimism is cornerback.

The cornerbacks have not shown much in practice. They are obviously going against a very talented group of receivers — but nonetheless, there needs to be further improvement before the regular season.

The first-string corners will probably be Bashaud Breeland and Charvarius Ward on the outside with Kendall Fuller in the slot. D’Montre Wade has emerged as the next man up on the outside. They need to make some plays Saturday night. It will be a good challenge against Cincinnati receivers like Tyler Boyd on their first team. If the first group of corners can make a few plays, it will go a long way to build confidence among both players and fans. They are learning a new system, so we should expect some hiccups — but eventually, there has to be improvement.

5. Special teams roles

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs-Training Camp Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Special teams coordinator Dave Toub is a vital part of this team’s success — and his unit is a good indicator of which players may have an edge to steal a roster spot. The Chiefs focus on maximizing their roster spots, which means they need their non-starting players to contribute on special teams. Look to see which fringe players are on special teams early and often. Their performance in this aspect of the game could make the difference in beating out another player at an offensive or defensive position.

The backup tight ends Blake Bell and John Lovett have been noted by Toub as contributors — and based on that, could end up making the roster over Deon Yelder. Marcus Kemp has been an important piece to the special teams unit over the past few seasons and could get the nod over Dieter or others because of that role. One of the five current safeties may need to be cut before the season, so it will most likely come down to which one of them shows the least in their special teams contributions.

Watch the special teams plays. Look for strong blocks, good tackling or impressive return ability from the players lower on the depth chart.

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