The “Run It Back” tour will not be a full go right off the bat.
Key defensive players for the Kansas City Chiefs — cornerback Bashaud Breeland and defensive tackle Mike Pennel — are suspended to start the year, leaving important roles for players to step into. A well-managed rotation with a deep, versatile defensive line will help in Pennel’s absence, but it’s not that simple at the boundary cornerback position.
Outside of third-year cornerback Charvarius Ward, there is a worrisome lack of NFL experience at that position. When the team live-streamed the last scrimmage of training camp, the starter opposite Ward was fourth-round rookie L’Jarius Sneed. He took the majority of reps while seventh-round rookie BoPete Keyes, offseason signing Antonio Hamilton, and 2019 sixth-round pick Rashad Fenton rotated in with minimal snaps.
While Sneed may take the field first, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo noted to reporters on Monday that it won’t be a static position.
“All we can go off of is what [Sneed]’s done in practice,” Spagnuolo began. “He’s had some really good snaps, and some snaps like a normal rookie out at that position, which is not an easy position to play early in your career. We’ll mix and match it over there.”
“We have confidence in [L’Jarius], he’s a hard worker. Even from the first day he got here, I thought he was one of the better competitors that was out there — and if you’re going to play that position, you have to compete. You have to be an elite competitor.”
Along with his competitiveness, Sneed brings the factor of speed to the position. His 4.37-second result in the 40-yard dash confirms him as the fastest player in the group. That will come in handy against a Houston Texans passing offense that boasts dangerous deep threats like Will Fuller V, Brandin Cooks, and Kenny Stills.
That group is missing All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who was traded away this offseason — but that does present a challenge within itself for Spagnuolo’s preparation.
“The biggest challenge is we don’t really know who the go-to guy is,” Spagnuolo recognized. “We knew last year, whether that was good or bad I don’t know cause he was pretty good, but it sounds and feels like they’re going to spread the ball around which means we’re going to have to deal with a bunch of them and they’ve got some speed over there. We know what [Will] Fuller’s like, [Brandin] Cooks they added into the mix, and I’ve always felt Randall Cobb was a good football player. Without any film, not really sure where they’re headed in terms of what they’re going to put out there but we’re going to have to figure it out quick.”
To reiterate the point Spagnuolo is making, Chiefs fans should prepare to have their patience tested on Thursday night. Defenses are naturally being put in a bad position with a shortened, chaotic offseason — and on top of that, a receiving corps made up of veterans and dangerous deep threats are matching up with a rookie or other inexperienced players.
“You have to let things roll off your back if it doesn’t go so well,” Spagnuolo emphasized. “Those are the things we may not know about some of our guys, how they react to adversity, we try to give them as adversity in practice but it’s nothing like the games. If it doesn’t go right, can we bounce back up and make a good play?”
The young defensive backs won’t be lacking veteran leadership in their room. All-Pro Safety Tyrann Mathieu understands that some of his teammates will be seeing these bright lights for the first time.
“The emotions are going to be high, but ultimately, it’s the same game we’ve been playing for a very long time,” Mathieu assured. “It’s football. It’s all about team, it’s all about chemistry with your teammates. That’s what I’m looking forward to, keeping my teammates level-headed, keeping us motivated, and then trying to maintain that throughout the entire night. I’m sure it’s going to be a lot of ups and downs, I’m sure Deshaun Watson and his team are going to make some big plays, and we can’t get down. We got to keep playing, keep rallying.”
Mathieu recognizes the size of the matchup. Watson is a great quarterback with a good receiving corps. There will inevitably be mistakes made and big plays surrendered — but no matter the result, it will be valuable experience for one of the first rookie classes in NFL history to not have preseason games.