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5 key players to watch as the Chiefs visit the Arizona Cardinals

Which players can answer questions about their role and roster status Friday night?

The Kansas City Chiefs will travel to the desert on Friday evening to face the Arizona Cardinals in their second preseason game. While head coach Andy Reid continues to insist otherwise, decisions on starters — including Lucas Niang starting at right tackle— appear to be all but official. Most of the Chiefs’ remaining decisions appear to be about depth players.

After the first game against the San Francisco 49ers, Chiefs Kingdom should have their eyes on how much action these five players see against the Cardinals — as well as when they enter and exit the game.

G Nick Allegretti

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Allegretti played a team-leading 84% of the offensive snaps against the 49ers on Saturday. As has been the case throughout training camp, Allegretti played part of the game at center during the game.

During the offseason — after investing in guard Joe Thuney in free agency and drafting center Creed Humphrey and guard Trey Smith — the Chiefs probably couldn’t have been more clear that they do not see Allegretti as a starter.

But the Chiefs may still like Allegretti as a reserve interior linemen better than center Austin Blythe. Although Allegretti played more of the game, Blythe was the second reserve player to line up at center on Saturday. With Thuney also having NFL experience at center, the Chiefs may decide not to keep both Allegretti and Blythe on the final roster.

If Allegretti sees more time at center, it could be a sign that the Chiefs like him as Humphrey’s backup. Or another high snap count could be an indicator the team sees him as expendable — content to let him take the late-game snaps while other players are protected on the sideline.

CB Deandre Baker

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

After suffering a gruesome-looking broken leg on January 3 during the meaningless Week 17 game against the Los Angeles Chargers, few would have expected Baker to play 41% of the defensive snaps in a preseason game on August 14. Baker also added six special teams snaps. Shockingly, he returned to the game after exiting with what appeared to be cramps.

The Chiefs clearly valued getting Baker a high quantity of snaps on Saturday night — unsurprising after a recent injury and missing most of the 2020 season with legal issues. During the second half, the former first-round pick appeared to be the best player on the field.

After his performance Saturday, we should pay attention to the quality of his snaps on Friday. The question will be if Baker showed enough to earn playing time against the Cardinals starters — or if he will again play a high number of second-half snaps against fringe NFL players.

TE Jody Fortson

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

After adding muscle to convert to tight end, Fortson has again been the talk of camp. Fortson also created some hype during 2020’s camp — and played well in 2019’s final preseason game. Given this history, it’s easy to dismiss his camp buzz — but this time feels different.

On Saturday, Fortson led all offensive skill position players with 35 offensive snaps. While his stat line was not particularly impressive — three catches on five targets for 32 yards — he was the only skill-position player to play more than half of the offensive snaps.

Fortson’s performance came largely against depth players — as have almost all of his reported feats in training camp. When the Chiefs returned to St. Joseph earlier this week, however, Fortson was sometimes working with the first-team offense.

Fortson still faces a crowded tight end group behind Travis Kelce. The team traded up in the fifth round to select Noah Gray. With his blocking ability, returning veteran Blake Bell will likely win a roster spot — especially if the team starts three rookies on the offensive line. So Fortson’s challenge is likely to be convincing the team to carry four tight ends on the 53-man roster. If he enters Friday’s game earlier — playing snaps against better competition — it could be a sign the Chiefs are considering just that.

S Juan Thornhill

NFL: AFC Championship Game-Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

It would be an understatement to say Thornhill’s situation is bizarre. After playing close to his outstanding rookie level during last season’s playoffs, Thornhill appears to have taken a step back in his recovery. As he approaches 20 months removed from tearing his ACL in the last game of the 2019 season, this is particularly concerning.

Against San Francisco, Thornhill suspiciously played late into the game — even after almost all the team’s established contributors were on the sideline. Upon returning to practice on Monday, the Chiefs continued with a starting safety tandem of Tyrann Mathieu and Dan Sorensen — and Thornhill was even reported sometimes to be working with the third team.

Thornhill’s Saturday performance was also very uneven — once falling down on a play that would have been a long touchdown if not for rookie safety Devon Key.

Thornhill’s level of play will factor heavily into the ceiling of the 2021 Chiefs defense. With little information on the specific concerns the Chiefs have about him, Friday may not provide an opportunity for definitive conclusions. When he is on the field, we should hope to see him playing with confidence. Exiting the game before halftime would also be a positive indicator for his status.

DE Tim Ward

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

No player left San Francisco having built more fan excitement than Tim Ward. Ward played 54% of the defensive snaps, racking up two sacks and five total tackles — and at times looking dominant against the 49ers’ reserves.

Despite the hype he created on Saturday, Ward may still have an uphill battle to a roster spot. He shares a room not only with four EDGE players who were on the Super Bowl LIV roster but also with two recent draft picks. Most Chiefs fans can recall falling in love with a preseason hero — only to see that player miss the final roster.

Given the current injuries among defensive linemen, Friday should give Ward a good opportunity to play against quality competition early in the game. If he can rise to the occasion for two weeks in a row, he could make Chiefs general manager Brett Veach’s decision very difficult.

With the roster already trimmed to 85 players — and five more cuts due on Tuesday — the second preseason game should give solid indicators of how these players fit into the Chiefs’ 2021 plans. Other players will be aiming for their chance to impress coaches enough to make it to the third (and final) preseason game — which will be in Kansas City on August 27.

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