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Way-too-early Chiefs 53-man roster prediction

With the Chiefs’ rookie camp underway, it’s time to imagine how they’ll cut down from 90 players to 53.

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

The Kansas City Chiefs have had a pretty busy week: they traded for cornerback Mike Hughes, signed all of their draft picks and finalized the undrafted free agent class. Now they host their rookie minicamp this weekend.

With the Chiefs officially at 90 players, it feels like a good time to predict the 53-man roster. For fans of Arrowhead Pride’s Out of Structure podcast, you heard me list a roster earlier this week. But I have already changed my mind on some things — and after overreacting to something said or done at rookie camp, I will likely do it again.

I did, however, put a lot of research and thought into this prediction. As I see it today, here’s the Chiefs’ 53-man roster:

Offense (25)

Quarterbacks (2): Patrick Mahomes, Chad Henne

Not much to say here. Henne has proven himself as the right man to back up Mahomes.

Running backs (3): Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Darrel Williams, Jerick McKinnon

Just as they did at the start of the 2020 season, I believe the Chiefs only need to keep three running backs on the active roster. Edwards-Helaire should see a larger percentage of the offense’s snaps — specifically on third down. Combined with Williams’ ability to carry the load when needed, I see the group needing only one more player.

I have McKinnon beating out Darwin Thompson for that spot. Before a torn ACL cost him both 2018 and 2019, McKinnon was impressive enough to earn a four-year, $30 million deal from the San Francisco 49ers. After returning from injury in 2020, he played in all 16 games, totaling 572 yards and a career-high six touchdowns.

As for Thompson, he hasn’t risen to the occasion when he has had his chances; the fumble in the third quarter against the Baltimore Ravens last year comes to mind. The coaching staff has always talked him up — but most of that was from former running backs coach Deland McCullough, who left this offseason.

In 2020, Thompson had the team’s 16th-highest percentage of special teams snaps. McKinnon — who has similar special teams experience — will be able to fill Thompson’s role in that phase.

Fullbacks (1): Michael Burton

Even with all the talk of rookie tight end Noah Gray being utilized as a fullback, I still believe that for the time being, the Chiefs will want a more traditional fullback with NFL experience.

Wide receivers (7): Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Demarcus Robinson, Byron Pringle, Cornell Powell, Antonio Callaway, Marcus Kemp

The first five are absolute locks for the Week 1 roster.

For the sixth spot, I believe Callaway will emerge from a tight competition. Among the fringe players, he has the most NFL experience as a legitimate receiving threat — and in his pre-draft press conference, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach singled him out as someone they are “excited about.” He could be a situational deep threat who could overwhelm a defense already trying to contain Hill and Hardman.

But in his career, Callaway has not been a special teams contributor — and on the Chiefs, that’s nearly a requirement for the sixth receiver. So I think the Chiefs will keep Kemp as an unprecedented seventh receiver. I don’t see another offensive position that needs to have an extra player — and it’s well-known how much influence special teams coordinator Dave Toub can have on these fringe roster decisions.

Tight ends (3): Travis Kelce, Blake Bell, Noah Gray

Behind Kelce, there should be no doubt that Gray makes the team in his first year. He should immediately be an all-around special-teams contributor.

There will, however, be a battle for the in-line blocking role in the Chiefs’ traditional two-tight end formations. Keizer owned that role last year, but it felt like a step down from how Bell performed in 2019. I believe we’ll see Bell re-claim the spot.

Offensive linemen (9): LT Orlando Brown Jr., LG Joe Thuney, C Creed Humphrey, RG Kyle Long, RT Mike Remmers, T Lucas Niang, C Austin Blythe, G Trey Smith, T Martinas Rankin

In my opinion, the first eight players listed are all in competition for starting positions. Brown and Thuney are the only ones who are locked in as starters.

First of all, you probably noticed one name missing: I believe Laurent Duvernay-Tardif will lose his starting job to Kyle Long — and I don’t think he’s returning as a reserve player. If he does lose the battle at right guard, I could see him working with the team to waive his no-trade clause and get him to a team that could use a veteran starter.

The Chiefs have initially kept nine offensive linemen each of the last four years. I think with this group, there’s even more reason to keep less than 10. The starters will be a strong group, while the backups possess the versatility to cover many different spots. Rankin’s experience as a starting guard in this system — while practicing and playing as a tackle last year — gets him on the team over Andrew Wylie and Nick Allegretti.

Defense (25)

Defensive tackles (4): Chris Jones, Derrick Nnadi, Jarran Reed, Tershawn Wharton

The Chiefs have kept four interior defensive linemen in both seasons since defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo joined the staff. Therefore, the addition of Jarran Reed will likely push one player off the roster.

Third-year lineman Khalen Saunders will be the victim. Since being selected in the third round, Saunders has failed to make much of an impact outside of a short stretch of games during his rookie year. In 2020, he was constantly a healthy scratch on game days — and was significantly outperformed by the undrafted Wharton.

Saunders would have to have an incredible training camp to force the Chiefs to keep five at this position; I don’t see any way he pushes any of the others off the roster.

Defensive ends (5): Frank Clark, Taco Charlton, Michael Danna, Joshua Kaindoh, Tim Ward

The only player of this group that might not make it to Week 1 is Ward — but I believe he will impress enough this offseason to earn a spot on the 53-man roster.

Ward spent the last half of the 2020 season on the active roster but usually became a game-day inactive. He finally played in Week 17 — and made the most of his first game, earning a sack, a tackle for loss, three quarterback pressures and three run stops.

Especially with his 6-foot-6 frame, the defensive coaching staff will look for any reason to keep him on the team.

Linebackers (6): Anthony Hitchens, Willie Gay Jr., Ben Niemann, Nick Bolton, Dorian O’Daniel, Kamalei Correa

There are four clear players here that will be making the roster — but how the Chiefs fill out the rest of the group will be interesting.

O’Daniel has yet to make much contribution during his three seasons as a Chiefs defender. We have been able to see the athleticism that Kansas City has needed at the second level, but it has yet to result in significant defensive reps for him. He’ll make the roster because of his special-teams contributions — and being a reserve player who at least has familiarity with the system.

Correa has shown the ability to be an off-ball linebacker and an edge defender — meaning the team could consider him a defensive end rather than a linebacker. That would line up with their history of keeping 10 defensive linemen rather than nine. Either way, I think he’s solid depth this season.

Cornerbacks (5): L’Jarius Sneed, Charvarius Ward, Mike Hughes, Rashad Fenton, DeAndre Baker

The addition of Hughes strengthens this cornerback room — and nearly solidifies it. As long as Baker is healthy, there’s a solid, experienced group of five players who make the team.

BoPete Keyes needs to give the staff a reason to choose him over a potential UDFA that shines — like former Nebraska cornerback DiCaprio Bootle or former Marshall cornerback Jaylon McClain-Sapp. He’s also disadvantaged by the Chiefs typically not keeping more than five at this position. He’ll be a priority practice squad candidate.

Safeties (5): Tyrann Mathieu, Juan Thornhill, Daniel Sorensen, Will Parks, Armani Watts

After an obvious group of three who all have huge roles in the defense, Parks makes sense to be the fourth guy; he has multiple years of experience at different positions in the secondary. He plays his best when he slides down into the slot or is a box safety.

I initially thought this might be it for Watts, but the Chiefs have historically kept five safeties — and it would be pretty foolish to cut the 2020 special teams snaps leader when they don’t have to. So they could let him finish out the last year of his rookie contract continuing to be a leader on special teams.

Specialists (3)

Placekicker Harrison Butker, punter Tommy Townsend and long snapper James Winchester

The usual suspects at kicker and long snapper — while Townsend enters his second season hoping to improve on some inconsistent punting down the stretch of his rookie year.

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