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5 key Chiefs players to watch in Saturday’s preseason opener

The Chiefs will visit the 49ers on Saturday night — with kickoff coming at 7:30 p.m. Arrowhead Time.

NFL: Super Bowl LIV-San Francisco 49ers vs Kansas City Chiefs Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Live football is almost here... sort of.

On Saturday night, Kansas City Chiefs preseason football begins with the team’s first meeting with the San Francisco 49ers since Super Bowl LIV — a very fond memory for all Chiefs fans.

Preseason games — especially when starters are not expected to play much — are precious for evaluating depth and youth throughout the roster. So let’s examine some of the key players we’ll be watching — and what to look for as we watch them play.

NOTE: Since star players like Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyrann Mathieu are not expected to play for long during Saturday’s game, we’ll focus on other players.

LB Nick Bolton

Kansas City Chiefs Training Camp Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

The first selection of the Chiefs 2021 draft class warrants great attention during the preseason. Bolton will be playing in his first football game since he played for the Missouri Tigers.

First, I am looking to see if (or how many) reps he gets with the starters. Will those reps be in the base package, or does Willie Gay’s injury mean he gets nickel package snaps, too? And will he already be trusted to communicate calls to his fellow second-level defenders with the ‘green dot’ on his helmet?

Once the ball is snapped, we want to see Bolton playing fast. 49ers head coach and offensive play-caller Kyle Shanahan’s scheme will stress linebackers as much as just about any other NFL offense. Avoiding the temptation to become overaggressive against the run at the point of attack will be important to prevent wide-open play-action passing windows in intermediate zones near the middle of the field.

If we often see Bolton near the football as plays unfold — and he can consistently secure tackles — it will be an excellent start for his career.

The starting offensive line

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs Training Camp Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

All right... I know this is cheating a little bit. During this game, these players are not likely to see much time on the field.

But the reality is that we are all going to be closely monitoring how the new offensive line initially meshes together. We should not expect a great finished product on Saturday, but it will be very promising if the unit can display a strong sense of communication and physicality.

We expect to see Orlando Brown Jr. at left tackle, Joe Thuney at left guard, Creed Humphrey at center, Trey Smith at right guard and Lucas Niang at right tackle.

Yes... that is three rookies — albeit very talented players — and two new veteran acquisitions. There is a lot of hype around this group right now — especially 2021 sixth-round draft pick Trey Smith — and rightfully so.

Offensive line play has always been less about individual production than it is about how the players perform together. If Mahomes is kept clean during the one or two drives in which he is expected to appear, it will be a success.

WR Marcus Kemp

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs Training Camp Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Now entering his fifth season with the Chiefs, Kemp has mostly been known for his strong special-teams work. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub especially loves what Kemp can do as a ‘gunner’ with the punting unit.

But during training camp, one developing theme has been Kemp’s playmaking as a wide receiver.

After making a strong impression in camp, Kemp already appears to be a near-lock to make the 53-man roster. But preseason games will be prime opportunities for him to display the traits necessary to earn regular-season offensive snaps.

So we’ll be watching to see if Kemp gets any reps with Mahomes’ unit in the first quarter. Beyond that, will we see him find voids in zone coverage, create solid separation against opposing cornerbacks — and then finish plays by leveraging his 6-foot-4 frame to win at the catch point?

CB Mike Hughes

NFL: NOV 03 Vikings at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The fourth-year cornerback is entering his first season as a member of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s unit — and so far, he appears to be a starter in the three-cornerback personnel groupings.

Injuries are largely to blame for his exit from the Minnesota Vikings — but sometimes, a player simply needs a change of scenery to maximize their potential. Under a coaching staff that has consistently gotten the most out of their cornerbacks, the hope is that Hughes will show Chiefs fans why he was selected in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.

Seeing Hughes maintain a smooth, confident demeanor through Saturday’s game — while excelling with more press coverage techniques than he was directed to use in Minnesota — will be encouraging. How he fares in potential matchups against the 49ers’ strong, physical wide receivers like Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk will be intriguing.

TE Noah Gray

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs Training Camp Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

A fifth-round pick this season, Gray has made a name for himself in a hurry. Whenever ESPN analyst Louis Riddick speaks about a Chiefs player, it’s a good time to listen; since he was a scout and personnel executive with Andy Reid and Brett Veach when they were with the Philadelphia Eagles, his Chiefs information tends to be very credible.

Gray seems to possess a skill set that fits tremendously well with what the Chiefs want from a tight end in their offensive scheme. Early indications out of OTAs and training camp suggested that Gray shows the ability to get open in several ways — whether it be with his athletic ability or mental acuity to find space on the fly.

Come Saturday night, we will be watching for Gray to create separation from linebackers and safeties as a receiver — while also displaying great effort and toughness when leveraging his quick feet to be a competent blocker.

Others to watch

Defensive ends Chris Jones, Mike Danna and Taco Charlton, safeties Devon Key and Juan Thornhill, wide receivers Mecole Hardman and Cornell Powell, defensive tackles Tershawn Wharton and Khalen Saunders, cornerbacks Deandre Baker and BoPete Keyes.

The bottom line

It was tough to narrow this list down; the group of other players to watch (which could have been much larger) shows how challenging it was to select the must-watch group. But this also demonstrates that there is a great deal of young talent throughout the Chiefs roster.

Some players will reach or exceed that potential. Others will certainly fall short over the year(s) to come. So as we enter a promising year for the Chiefs, our first useful game evaluation should be exciting to watch!

Last — and most importantly — here’s to getting through the night without injuries.

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