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Checking in on the key roster battles in Chiefs training camp

After the first week of practice in St. Joseph, let’s see where the major roster battles now stand.

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

Training camp is all about competition. One-on-ones between offensive and defensive linemen, receivers and defensive backs — and live team periods — signify that real football is coming back. There are players competing just to make the roster, while others jockey for contributing (or starting) roles.

After the first week of training camp at Missouri Western State College in St. Joseph, let’s check in on the Kansas City Chiefs’ top five training camp battles. Have we learned anything yet?

The battlefield everyone is watching: offensive line

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

Trey Smith vs. the field — and Mike Remmers vs. Lucas Niang

All eyes are still on the right side of the line, where there’s some buzz around the young additions this year. There’s no way the Chiefs would start multiple rookies from day one — or is there?

Conventional wisdom would assume that Laurent Duvernay-Tardif would get the first crack at right guard — along with Mike Remmers at right tackle. That’s why it’s so noteworthy to see sixth-round rookie Trey Smith basically get handed the starting job in camp. But the early returns on Smith are so glowingly positive — he’s racking up daily pancakes — that it seems fairly unlikely that he’ll lose his hold on the position.

Lucas Niang — who opted out of his rookie season in 2020 — has been working at both left and right tackle. Until Remmers missed some time with back spasms on Saturday, most of Niang’s work has been with the second team. The plan could be for Niang to be the swing tackle that the team needs to insulate against injuries — or it could actually be a competition at right tackle, where Remmers gets the veteran courtesy of the first snaps. We’ll see if Niang can distinguish himself in his limited first-team opportunities, thereby forcing the team’s hand.

But there’s a wild card at both positions. Kyle Long was the first team right guard during OTAs and minicamp, but is now rehabbing an injury. The Chiefs have indicated that he should be ready right after camp. Could we see one of these competitions settled in camp — only to be upended before the season begins? Remember: Long has been a very good pro at both right guard and right tackle.

Prediction: LT-Brown, LG-Thuney, C-Humphrey, RG-Smith, RT-Remmers

The one we don’t know as much about: cornerback

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Mike Hughes vs Deandre Baker

We think that L’Jarius Sneed and Charvarius Ward are locked in as the starting outside corners in the base defense — but after that, there’s plenty of intrigue. Both Mike Hughes and Deandre Baker are getting substantial opportunities to play on the outside when Sneed moves to the inside in subpackages.

Interestingly, incumbent Rashad Fenton is only seeing action as the slot corner on the second team. With Fenton, the Chiefs has shown a level of comfort that led many of us to believe he’d have a more substantial role this season. Perhaps Fenton is viewed as more of a known quantity; the team is just getting a good look at the newcomers.

Prediction: Sneed and Ward will be on the outside. When Sneed slides inside for nickel sets, Baker is the next man up.

A youth movement at linebacker

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Nick Bolton vs. Ben Niemann

We’re watching the youth movement, with second-year player Willie Gay, Jr. coming into his own — and rookie Nick Bolton trying to find a role.

Gay has been one of the early stars of camp, showing off a deeper understanding of the scheme and making plays in coverage. His athletic ability can really take this defense to a different level — and it appears he’s on his way to a big season.

Assuming Gay is the WILL (weak side linebacker) and Anthony Hitchens retains his leadership role in the middle as the MIKE, the intrigue might only be at the strong side SAM position. In camp, last season’s dime linebacker Ben Niemann seems to be the first man up, taking significant first-team snaps.

As the preseason continues, watch Bolton for signs of growth. Unless he distinguishes himself, he may be brought along slowly. Our assumption is that he was drafted as Hitchens’ long-term replacement at MIKE. In the meantime, the question of the day is whether he can also be part of the answer at SAM.

Prediction: Gay at WILL, Hitchens at MIKE and Bolton eventually rotates in as the SAM — while Niemann retains his job as the dime linebacker.

Wide open at wide receiver

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Mecole Hardman vs. Demarcus Robinson vs. Byron Pringle vs. Cornell Powell vs. Antonio Callaway — and the rest of the field.

The Chiefs have Tyreek Hill — but to be able to keep defenses honest, they need some of the other receivers to step up and give him breathing room. Gone is Sammy Watkins, replaced on the roster by Cornell Powell and Antonio Callaway. Many are wondering who will fill the X wide receiver position that Watkins vacated; it’s generally a bigger player who can win in more-contested situations. But the Chiefs may have other ways to scheme around the talent they have for 2021.

After Hill, Mecole Hardman is the biggest name with the highest ceiling. All reports out of camp point to a player who is coming into his own and taking a big leap forward this season. Hardman isn’t going to be the X, but he should still be a dynamic threat — and the team’s second-most productive wide receiver.

After Hardman, it’s the usual suspects. Demarcus Robinson and Byron Pringle are likely to eat up a lot of snaps on both offense and special teams. Neither has been a hugely productive player, but each certainly has a role on the team. The question may be whether they can hold off newcomers like rookie Cornell Powell and veteran Antonio Callaway — both of whom appear to be having strong training camps.

Marcus Kemp and Gehrig Dieter have both built a career out of being on and off the Chiefs roster, so they can’t be counted out this year. Either could be a safe, familiar choice to make for the initial 53-man roster — or the practice squad.

There are plenty of other candidates competing to become Chiefs wideouts, but they’ll have to pass these two by convincing the coaches that they can be substantial contributors on special teams — and worthy of being an extra receiver on the roster.

Prediction: Six receivers — Hill, Hardman, Powell, Robinson, Pringle and Callaway — make the roster, with some competitive spots on the practice squad.

Everyone’s favorite mostly-irrelevant roster spot: backup tight ends

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

Noah Gray vs. Blake Bell vs. Jody Fortson

It’s a training camp tradition like no other. We watch tall, fast guys making catches all over the field — so we get our hopes up. But when the regular season comes around, there still isn’t a quality second tight end. There hasn’t been one since Demetrius Harris in 2018 — and even he was largely panned by Chiefs fans.

This season’s sensation is the fifth-round rookie out of Duke, who is now showing some of the movement skills and pass-catching ability we’ve come to appreciate in Travis Kelce. So far, Noah Gray has been phenomenal in camp, drawing local and national attention as a player the Chiefs rate very highly.

Blake Bell has returned. He appears to be the blocking tight end, pushing Nick Keizer onto the roster bubble. The expectation is that due to his inline blocking ability, Bell will take more of the snaps. Based on recent history, that appears to be a safe assumption — but it will be interesting to see if Gray’s unique abilities might tempt head coach Andy Reid to say, “Blocking be damned!” and put him on the field more often.

Meanwhile, the man carrying out the tradition of a big receiver wowing crowds in St Joseph is (once again) Jody (Joe) Fortson, who has converted back to tight end. He has been making catch after catch in camp, leading many to wonder if this is his season to make the roster. But unless the Chiefs carry a fourth tight end (like they did last year with Ricky Seals-Jones), the numbers may make it difficult for Fortson.

Prediction: The Chiefs carry three tight ends: Travis Kelce, Noah Gray and Blake Bell. Fortson gets another practice squad invite.

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