Kansas City Chiefs training camp is set to begin Friday, with quarterbacks and rookies reporting to Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri. The first practice open to season-ticket holders is July 28, and the first practice open to the general public is July 29 at 9:15 a.m. Arrowhead Time (full schedule here).
Keep in mind: this exercise — in a lot of ways — is like throwing darts. There is little to no chance this will be the final roster after the final cutdown on August 31 — and it is nearly impossible to account for players who are to be released from other rosters.
Also, before we begin, it’s worth noting again that 2021 comes with a new cutdown schedule, which goes as follows:
- 85 players on August 17
- 80 players on August 24
- 53 players on August 31
My projections are based upon things I’ve seen, heard and hypothesized. Here we go!
Quarterbacks (2): Patrick Mahomes, Chad Henne
Patrick Mahomes is the league’s best quarterback, and Chad Henne returns as his backup after his Divisional Round heroics against the Cleveland Browns. The other two quarterbacks on the roster — Shane Buechele and Anthony Gordon — will battle for a single practice squad position.
Running backs (3): Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Darrel Williams, Jerrick McKinnon
Clyde Edwards-Helaire enters Year 2 with significantly less hype than Year 1 — so much so that I think you can make a case he is slightly under-the-radar. Darrel Williams is locked in as his backup, and I believe seven-year veteran Jerrick McKinnon surprises folks in St. Joseph — so much so he eliminates any need for retaining Darwin Thompson, who lands in the back of a running back room elsewhere. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid sounded bullish on McKinnon back on July 17:
REID: “He’s experienced. He’s been doing this a while and he does it well. I mean, these were passing camps more than running camps, but he sure has a nice feel of the pass game and I look forward to giving him the whole package once we get up there and let’s see what he can do once we get playing real football.”
Fullbacks (1): Mike Burton
The Chiefs said goodbye to “The Sausage” this offseason — but not to the fullback position. The 29-year-old Mike Burton has pro experience on all four special-teams units, and he quietly took 208 snaps on offense (19%) in New Orleans last season. Edwards-Helaire’s new best friend? Perhaps on some early downs.
Wide receivers (6): Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Demarcus Robinson, Byron Pringle, Cornell Powell, Marcus Kemp
The roles of the top five wide receivers listed here are the more significant question than which of the players makes the roster. Barring camp injury, Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, Demarcus Robinson, Byron Pringle and the rookie in Cornell Powell are locked in. As you can see for yourself in the chart at the bottom of this article, the Chiefs have never kept more than six receivers on a roster in the Reid era, and I don’t see them doing so here. I chose Marcus Kemp in this initial look because of his value on special teams, but I think Antonio Callaway is a dark horse who can make things interesting as camp moves along.
(Author’s Note: That’s why you’ll have to come back for projection 2.0 in a week or two.)
Tight ends (3): Travis Kelce, Blake Bell, Noah Gray
Travis Kelce finally has a proper protege in rookie fifth-rounder Noah Gray, who drew comparisons to his All-Pro mentor on draft day. Blake Bell is back in the mix after a year with the Dallas Cowboys, providing the Chiefs the blocking tight end they need at No. 2 as Gray develops. That means the Chiefs say farewell to Nick Keizer, who did not make the most of his limited opportunities in 2020.
Offensive linemen (10): LT Orlando Brown Jr., LG Joe Thuney, C Creed Humphrey, RG Trey Smith, RT Mike Remmers, Austin Blythe, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Nick Allegretti, Lucas Niang, Prince Tega Wanogho
First, you may be wondering where I’ve put Kyle Long. In my opinion, Long will start the season on the reserve/PUP list, which will put him out of action for the first six weeks of the season. Initial reports said his leg injury would cost him all of training camp, and I don’t expect the Chiefs and Rick Burkholder to take any chances in rushing him back, especially given the team’s depth (!!!) along the interior of the line. That remains amazing to say, having watched (and re-watched) Super Bowl LV, which was only five months ago.
I went a little liberal with my starting right guard pick in rookie Trey Smith, but I think there has been enough buzz to merit it. Austin Blythe is your backup center, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Nick Allegretti make up the interior depth to start the season and Lucas Niang and the emerging Prince Tega Wanogho become swing tackles. These picks land more interior depth with Yasir Durant and third center Darryl Williams on the practice squad. The Chiefs’ 2018 Mack Lee Hill winner Andrew Wylie heads for the waiver wire.
Defensive tackles (4): Chris Jones, Jarran Reed, Derrick Nnadi, Tershawn Wharton
The four tackles listed on this list are locks, whereas I feel Khalen Saunders may be player number 53 or 54 on this roster. A third-rounder in 2019, Saunders will have to earn his spot on the Chiefs this year — especially with Jarran Reed added to the room and the continuing confirmation of how high the defensive staff is on formerly undrafted free agent “Turk” Wharton. Saunders caught a tough break in 2020 when he dislocated his elbow in Week 1 and never really could get his feet back under him. The Chiefs adding another defensive lineman in the draft in defensive end Joshua Kaindoh will make this a tough decision on Brett Veach.
Defensive ends (5): Frank Clark, Alex Okafor, Taco Charlton, Mike Danna, Joshua Kaindoh
I think there is too much unknown about Frank Clark when it comes to his off-the-field situation to try to guess on a potential suspension for this exercise, so I have him making the initial roster. The players behind him — Alex Okafor, Clark’s Michigan apprentice in Taco Charlton and Mike Danna — are all safe bets. Kaindoh — this year’s fourth-round pick — makes the club.
The Chiefs have kept 10 defensive linemen in each of the first two Steve Spagnuolo 4-3 seasons, but I only kept nine this year. The reason is twofold. First, offseason reports (and Chris Jones himself) stated that Jones would be playing a bit more on the edge this season. The second is that Tim Ward — as much as the Chiefs have liked his upside — did not have a special teams snap in 2020. Dorian O’Daniel had 219. More on that below.
Linebackers (6): Anthony Hitchens, Willie Gay, Nick Bolton, Ben Niemann, Darius Harris, Dorian O’ Daniel
The Chiefs kept six linebackers in 2019 and five in 2020, and I think that number goes back to six in 2021. My explanation below comes as the league continues to trend in the direction of more and more nickel looks (Also, let’s keep in mind that two safeties below — No. 32 and No. 49 — play everywhere).
Ideally, I think the Chiefs want to start Anthony Hitchens and Willie Gay, but that will depend on Gay’s readiness in Year 2. Gay has already been saying all the right things this offseason. Missouri rookie Nick Bolton will serve Hitchens as an understudy, and we know how much the team values Ben Niemann’s understanding of the Spagnuolo playbook. Darius Harris remains as the Chiefs continue to develop the small-school project in his third season out of Middle Tennessee.
I kept O’Daniel, the extra linebacker, over Tim Ward, the extra defensive end, because of the Uncle Dave Toub effect. We have reached a point in Kansas City where it seems like O’Daniel will make his pro career on his reliability and availability for special teams snaps, which is a critical part of the game. Even having played only 11 games, O’Daniel was seventh in special-teams snaps, and three players above him — Antonio Hamilton (Buccaneers), Anthony Sherman (retired) and Nick Keizer (projected cut) — are no longer on the team.
Cornerbacks (6): Charvarius Ward, L’Jarius Sneed, Mike Hughes, Rashad Fenton, Deandre Baker, BoPete Keyes
Like the counterpart position here at wide receiver (above), this was an easy room to fill out. The question will be more so the roles of those kept on the roster. The Chiefs know what they have in Charvarius Ward and L’Jarius Sneed, but how do former first-rounders Mike Hughes and Deandre Baker fit in the defense? Can Rashad Fenton do enough inside to allow the Chiefs to move Sneed permanently outside? How ready is BoPete Keyes, a second-year seventh-rounder, for legitimate playing time?
Safeties (4): Tyrann Mathieu, Juan Thornhill, Daniel Sorensen, Armani Watts
Tyrann Mathieu, Juan Thornhill and Daniel Sorensen will be taking the majority of snaps at safety this season. Armani Watts might be challenged by Will Parks and undrafted rookie dark horse Devon Key, but I think the Chiefs keep Watts for similar reasons to O’Daniel — while maybe stashing Key on the practice squad.
Placekicker Harrison Butker, punter Tommy Townsend and long snapper James Winchester
Last year’s band is back together again.
Under contract, not counted on active roster (2)
Reserve/PUP: OL Kyle Long
Reserve/Injured (out for season): DE Malik Herring
Chiefs position quantities at the 53-man cutdown since 2013
Here’s a look at Chiefs position quantities throughout the years since Andy Reid took over the Chiefs in 2013:
Offensive position quantities since 2013
Defensive position quantities since 2013
*Eric Berry had a roster exemption at the 53-man roster cutdown in 2016 and was included in most cutdown listings.
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