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Dixon’s AP mailbag: what is Andy Reid cooking up this season?

What’s on the minds of our readers after the first preseason game?

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs-Minicamp Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Dixon’s Arrowhead Pride Mailbag, where I’ll do my best to answer your questions about the Kansas City Chiefs — and anything else that’s on your mind. If you have a question, you can hit my profile page to e-mail me, or ask me on Twitter.

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Watching the first defensive series against the Bengals was like deja vu — very reminiscent of so many painful-to-watch defensive series from last year. Did you see anything that can give us hope that we are going to see any real improvement on defense this year?

— Stan

Hey Stan! Thanks for asking.

Yes, I did.

I understand why many (like yourself) watched that opening series and came away feeling worried. The Bengals converted three third downs on the drive — all of them with passes, and not one shorter than five yards. The last one — a third-and-11 — was converted with a 26-yard pass to the Chiefs one-yard line in front of Charvarius Ward.

But by the time that play happened, there were only a handful of defensive starters on the field. Frank Clark and Alex Okafor — the Chiefs top two defensive ends — didn’t play at all. Tyrann Mathieu, Anthony Hitchens and Chris Jones were on the sidelines after just two snaps.

Perhaps more importantly, at no time on Saturday did the Chiefs run the kind of defense we expect to see from Steve Spagnuolo. We’re used to thinking about the creative Chiefs offense being pretty vanilla in the preseason. We now need to apply that same standard to the Chiefs defense under Spagnuolo. If Spagnuolo isn’t running his specialized stunts and blitzes, we’re not going to see much of a pass rush — especially if Clark, Okafor and Jones aren’t on the field. That probably had as much to do with what happened on the opening drive as anything.

So as usual... during a preseason game, there are some facets of the game where it is very difficult to make much of a judgment about what we saw. Teams aren’t running the plays and schemes they will in the regular season — and top-line players aren’t on the field.

But as Craig Stout noted in these pages on Monday, there is one thing we could evaluate on Saturday: the aggressiveness of the Chiefs defense. To me, the difference was night and day. The linebackers weren’t hesitating; even the vanilla version of Spagnuolo’s scheme was stout against the run. In that opening drive you’re worried about, the Bengals ran five rushing plays for a total of five yards. For the game, they gained just 21 yards on 12 attempts.

So I can’t blame you for being worried by that opening drive. But there were positive signs, too.

When will we see all the starters on the field together instead of peppered through the three rotation groups?

— Matt

That’s a good question, Matt. Thanks!

Here’s the short answer: not until the Chiefs travel to Jacksonville for the regular-season opener.

If previous experience under head coach Andy Reid is any guide, this Saturday we’ll see most of the starters for a drive or two. The week after that, we might see most of them through two quarters. But in the fourth preseason game, few (if any) starters are likely to play.

But even when the Chiefs starters are theoretically on the field, expect many substitutions. This would be true in any preseason, but this year, the Chiefs have a lot of depth at multiple positions — and a lot of hard decisions to make. They’re going to do everything they can to learn as much as possible about their backup players before the regular season arrives. That means a lot of them will be on the field — even during the times we expect starters to be playing.

Which cornerbacks do you think the Chiefs will keep and which do you think will they cut?

— Danen

Thanks for the question, Danen.

Last season, the Chiefs kept 10 defensive backs — five safeties and five cornerbacks. Among the safeties, I see Tyrann Mathieu, Juan Thornhill, Armani Watts and Daniel Sorensen as locks. I see cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland, Charvarius Ward, Kendall Fuller — and now Morris Claiborne — as locks. But as a suspended player, Claiborne won’t count against the 53-man roster for the first four weeks. That leaves room for one safety and two corners.

At safety, I still think Jordan Lucas has the edge to make the team. But with Watts healthy — and Thornhill in the mix — I don’t think he’ll see a lot of snaps. I think Sorensen will have a reduced role on defense — probably situational.

At corner, I see D’Montre Wade, Rashad Fenton and Mark Fields as the front-runners for the remaining spots. Two will make the team initially — probably Wade and Fenton — but somebody will have to give way when Claiborne becomes available. So going in to Week 5, I think Wade will be the cornerback left standing. Then it comes down to whether the Chiefs would rather have an another cornerback or another safety. I think they’ll lean safety and keep the Lucas Locomotive on the tracks. That said, I also think the team will want to figure out a way to somehow keep Fenton and/or Fields around.

I could always be surprised. (Whom am I kidding? I probably will be surprised!) Any projection of the 53 at this point is pure educated guesswork.

Andy Reid evolves every year. He now has a full season of tape to evaluate Patrick Mahomes. With seemingly limitless capability, how new do you think the offense will look this year?

PS: I know there will still be screens.

— R.B.

Thanks, R.B. Appreciate the question.

Yes... there will be screens.

But going as far back as OTAs — when installation of plays began — there have been hints that Reid has been cooking something up. We just don’t know exactly what it is — nor should we. Reid will be wise to keep it to himself (and his team) for a while longer.

But events of the last few days — coupled with a few other things we’ve seen this offseason — have had me wondering.

One data point is the acquisition of rookie tight end John Lovett — the former Princeton quarterback who also played as an H-back, fullback and receiver for the Tigers. Another is the presence of tight end Blake Bell. While backing up Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones, he became known as The Belldozer as part of the Sooners’ Jumbo package. We’ve been told that Anthony Sherman has been working with the tight end group. We already know, of course, that star tight end Travis Kelce is versatile enough to sometimes be used as an H-back in the Chiefs offense.

Lovett was injured during Saturday’s 38-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. At first, his injury was believed to be a shoulder separation. But on Monday night, the Chiefs signed tight end Manasseh Garner. That signing — and Lovett being observed with his arm in a sling during practice on Tuesday — suggests he could miss significant time.

On the surface, this seems normal: one tight is injured during preseason, so another one is signed. But there could be more to it than that.

Garner originally entered the NFL when he was signed by the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in 2015. Garner didn’t make the roster. Over the next four years, he bounced through the practice squads of the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills (twice), Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins. But Garner — who is listed as a tight end on the current roster — was originally signed to the Chiefs as a fullback. Like Lovett, he spent time in college playing as an H-back.

So even if Lovett ends up on injured reserve, there are still four players on the Chiefs roster who have experience as (or the physical attributes of) tight ends, fullbacks or H-backs.

Are the Chiefs simply trying to find tight ends who have Kelce’s versatility — if not his talent? Is Garner’s signing just a matter of finding another camp body who can line up as a tight end — and the Chiefs happen to have familiarity with him? Or has Andy Reid dreamed up some kind of exotic offensive package that requires these kinds of players?

I’m actually starting to wonder if Reid was toying with such an idea when the Chiefs signed Garner back in 2015, but couldn’t make it work. With the opportunity to acquire Lovett and Bell, perhaps Reid thought it was worth another try — and with Lovett injured, Garner’s signing might be a way to keep the idea alive.

Unlike many other NFL teams, a large percentage of the Chiefs’ training camp practices are open to the public. The final public practice is Thursday. Once closed practices begin, what will Andy Reid be cooking up? Will it be something involving these four players, or will it be something else entirely?

I can’t wait for Jacksonville — and everything that follows.

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