WE MADE IT!
After the longest, most chaotic offseason in modern NFL history, the 2020 regular season has arrived — after no in-person OTAs or minicamps, no preseason games and plenty of other obstacles due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet the NFL developed a plan for teams to safely get back on the field and play a season — something that seemed in doubt just a few months ago. The teams have daily testing procedures and they’re wearing masks in their facilities. So far... it’s working. As the season begins, there are only a handful of NFL players on the league’s Reserve/COVID-19 list.
There are still challenges ahead — including the Kansas City Chiefs’ plan to safely host up to 17,000 fans at Arrowhead Stadium for their first three home games. It will take effort from everyone involved for game day to go well — and to be continued in future weeks.
While you’re social distancing (and wearing your Chiefs mask), I’ve got five things to watch as the NFL season begins with Thursday night’s game between the Chiefs and the Houston Texans.
1. Tackling (or lack thereof)
Toward the end of the 2019 season, the Chiefs defense made impressive strides. Even with some players initially missing from the lineup in Week 1, the unit should be more comfortable within its scheme.
But the hectic offseason has put all NFL defenses in bad position positions. Without preseason games, the number of times each team has had live-tackling has been dramatically reduced. On Monday, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo admitted he’s worried about it.
“No question, my number one concern,” Spagnuolo declared. “We’ve tried to simulate it as much as possible. We didn’t have a lot of live periods, did a little bit of tackling that way... it’s a concern, and we won’t know until we get in the middle of a game and see how these guys react.”
Spagnuolo told reporters at the beginning of training camp that they weren’t seeing “a lot of run plays” and that the unit was “light-years away.” The team’s opening opponent won’t make it any easier. Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson can be as elusive as any quarterback. Wide receivers Will Fuller V, Brandin Cooks, and Randall Cobb could all turn one missed tackle into a huge play.
Of course... the Chiefs have a few guys like that, too.
If you see a few missed tackles early in the game, just be patient. It may take time to adjust to real-game speed — and each defense may be at an early disadvantage.
2. How the rookies make an impact
Another effect of the elimination of exhibition games is the lack of knowledge about the roles individual rookies will play; it’s hard to know exactly how each of the eight rookies on the Chiefs’ roster will be deployed.
We know that first-round selection Clyde Edwards-Helaire will be the starting running back — but how much will he be used? It will be Edwards-Helaire’s first action against an opposing NFL defense in any capacity. They have running backs Darrel Williams and Darwin Thompson behind him; we know the Chiefs can trust them with the ball. While Edwards-Helaire will be the starter, we could see the ball be spread around to other running backs, too.
Second-round pick Willie Gay Jr. is apparently not a starting linebacker in the base 4-3 formation. During the only live-streamed Chiefs training camp practice, the team only lined up in their base defense — so it was impossible to tell if Gay’s role in the nickel or dime is more prevalent than it is in the base. We already know he will be a key special-teams contributor, so look to see how much he is utilized on defense.
Fifth-round rookie defensive lineman Mike Danna not only made the team, but has a “real shot to be active” for Thursday’s season opener, according to Nate Taylor of the Athletic. He and undrafted rookie Tershawn Wharton also received praise from Spagnuolo for their professionalism. Expect both to be in the mix for Week 1.
3. The rotation at the second cornerback position
Outside of third-year cornerback Charvarius Ward, there is a worrisome lack of experience at the boundary cornerback position. Through the live-streamed practice and Spagnuolo’s words, rookie L’Jarius Sneed should be lined up across from Ward on the defense’s first snap — but Spagnuolo also said that they plan to “mix and match” for Week 1.
Other candidates to rotate in would be second-year cornerback Rashad Fenton, offseason free-agent signing Antonio Hamilton and seventh-round rookie BoPete Keyes.
Even the two with NFL experience don’t have much time at that particular position. Hamilton has had 169 outside cornerback snaps in his four-year career — but 98 of them were in two Week 17 games in which there was little on the line. Fenton has a similar resume: 35 of his 41 snaps at outside corner came in Week 17 last season.
It also looked like Fenton and Hamilton were being used in slot roles during the live-streamed practice; Hamilton may be used more as a safety than a true cornerback.
The coaching staff will quickly find out what they have in these players. Dangerous deep threats like Fuller, Cooks, and Kenny Stills will be a big test for everyone in the secondary.
4. The usage of reserve offensive skill players
But it’s worth watching how often the other offensive weapons will be utilized. Wide receiver Mecole Hardman had a big role on the team last year, but it’s hard to tell if that will immediately get any bigger. His speed makes him a threat to any defense — but without more offseason coverage, it’s hard to tell if he’s improved in other aspects of being an NFL wideout.
Wide receivers Demarcus Robinson and Byron Pringle have both shown great flashes in their careers, but there is little room for both of them to be offensive contributors. Robinson is the likely fourth receiver — but pay attention to how often Pringle plays compared to him.
5. How well first-year Chiefs play in their new roles
There are multiple long-time NFL veterans who will be wearing those red and gold uniforms for the first time.
Ninth-year starting left guard Kelechi Osemele has held onto that position since he was signed after right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif opted out of the NFL season. Osemele made good impressions in training camp.
#Chiefs OL coach Andy Heck has been "very impressed" with Kelechi Osemele so far— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 20, 2020
Eric Fisher talked about how there’s a “natural chemistry” with Mike Remmers and Kelechi Osemele coming in #Chiefs— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) August 26, 2020
The Chiefs will also begin the season with nine-year veteran lineman Mike Remmers, who will be the immediate backup to every position on the offensive line — besides center.
It was a surprise when tight end Ricky Seals-Jones made the initial 53-man roster, but it may have to do with the injury to fellow tight end Deon Yelder. If Seals-Jones is active, it will be interesting to see how often he is in — and if his role will be strictly as a pass-catcher.
On defense, former first-round pick Taco Charlton joined the team this offseason. He should be the first or second defensive end off the bench.
I already addressed Antonio Hamilton’s potential contributions on defense, but he may make his biggest impact as a special teams contributor. Watch for him in all four phases.
It will also be important to note how often fourth-year safety Tedric Thompson takes the field, which may depend on the health (and ability) of safety Juan Thornhill, who is coming off a season-ending ACL injury. He was a full participant in Tuesday’s practice, but his recovery may still limit his playing time.