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5 focus points for Chiefs preseason opener against the 49ers

Game time! We get live Chiefs football on a Saturday night — amd plenty of storylines to consider.

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

As good as it's felt to watch live football in the form of training camp practices, it’s going to feel 100 times greater to watch four quarters of a game — even if it is just an exhibition.

The Kansas City Chiefs will be taking the field for the first time since their embarrassing loss in Super Bowl LV. On Saturday night, they’ll open up the 2021 preseason against the San Francisco 49ers.

Head coach Andy Reid confirmed that they’d treat the preseason just like they would the first three games of any prior preseason. That means we’ll see the starters the most in the third game — and the backups the most on Saturday.

With that in mind, I have five points to focus on in preseason Week 1:

1. Defensive line’s positional versatility

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

The obvious headline here is starting defensive end Chris Jones. After five seasons as one of the best pass-rushing defensive tackles in the league, Jones and the coaching staff have been focusing on his skills as a defensive end. He’s slimmed down to between 290 and 295 pounds — which is still massive for an edge defender. It’ll be good to see some game reps where he is coming off the edge.

In contrast, defensive end Mike Danna says he’s sometimes worked on the interior during practice — something he did during his college days at Michigan. Although he’s not the heaviest player, he makes it work because he’s stout with strong hands. Look to see if he gets any snaps at defensive tackle.

Check out how the defensive line aligns on any third-down play or passing situation. With the first-team unit, they may not want to put anything too creative on tape — but as we get deeper into the game, they will have a lot of versatility to explore.

2. Offensive running game strategy

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

The Chiefs will have five brand-new starters on their offensive line. As I’ve previously written, the size and strengths of these new players could lead to a heavier emphasis on gap-run schemes rather than zone runs.

If that will be a bigger part of the offense, they’ll want to get live, in-game repetitions of it with the players who will be running it throughout the season. There’s a simple way to which approach they’re using as you watch on television: if you see any linemen pull-block, it’s a run to a specific gap. On zone schemes, there are no pulling blockers. Just be careful not to mistake a tight end to sealing off a back-side edge defender as a pulling lineman.

We’ve already seen one specific gap run at camp: the guard-tackle counter, which creates a running lane with the guard kicking out the play-side end and the tackle leading the back through the hole and blocking the play-side linebacker.

See if you can identify when they run them — and how big a running lane is created.

3. The competition behind starting cornerbacks

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

Behind cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and L’Jarius Sneed, I believe there’s an open competition for the third, fourth and fifth spots.

At the moment, Mike Hughes appears to be the leading contender for the third spot — meaning that in nickel personnel, he plays on the outside while Sneed moves into the slot. He’s recently made some plays in practice.

Earlier in camp, Hughes battled with Deandre Baker for those opportunities. Baker was rested for a few days the last week as he recovers from his broken leg. One player who hasn’t had a legitimate run in that spot is Rashad Fenton; he’s only been working as Sneed’s backup in the slot. It’ll be important to see if they give Fenton looks on the outside; he played well on the outside against the New England Patriots in Week 4 last year.

BoPete Keyes will be in the mix for a potential sixth spot — but keep an eye on the undrafted rookie from Nebraska: DiCaprio Bootle (No. 2). He has a chance to sneak past Keyes in the pecking order.

4. Backup pass-catchers making an impact

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

We’ve now known the Chiefs’ main pass-catchers for multiple years — but there are a few newer players on the fringes of the roster who are fighting to make an impact.

On training camp throws from Patrick Mahomes and Chad Henne, tight end Jody Fortson has constantly made plays as a receiver. After two years working with the team as a wide receiver, Fortson put on 20 pounds of muscle this offseason — but hasn’t lost the playmaking ability that made him a hot name in prior preseasons. If he can show competent blocking in the exhibition games, he’ll give himself a good shoot to survive as the third or fourth tight end.

After training camp standout Marcus Kemp, it would be good to see rookie Cornell Powell take advantage of some receiving opportunities. He hasn’t had many chances with the first or second teams in practice. Wide receivers Darrius Shepherd and Maurice Ffrench are likely to be the playmakers in the second half.

5. The battle to be the third running back

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

From the beginning of training camp, veteran running back Jerick McKinnon has popped as the third back behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams. His teammates and coaching staff have raved about him as well.

He got the bulk of those opportunities because third-year back Darwin Thompson missed the first chunk of camp on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Since he’s returned, he’s consistently been the first player on the practice field — and is even getting in some extra conditioning.

I think it’s very likely that the Chiefs keep three backs. It feels like McKinnon is running away with that job right now — but Thompson will have something to say about that. Each run he makes in these preseason games will impact his case to win a role.