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5 focus points as the Chiefs play the Cardinals

The Friday night exhibition will provide another chance to learn about this year’s team.

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

With less than a month remaining until the Kansas City Chiefs’ regular-season opener, the team has wrapped up training camp, slimmed their roster down to 85 players and is on the road for their second of three preseason games.

Even though quarterback Patrick Mahomes was on the field for a grand total of just four plays against the San Francisco 49ers last Saturday, the first game gave us plenty of takeaways on the 2021 Chiefs. The second game — a road game against the Arizona Cardinals on Friday night — should give us even more; this week, head coach Andy Reid told us that the starters could play as far as halftime.

The extended look at the starters will give us plenty of things to talk about. I anticipate five specific points of emphasis to keep in mind:

First team passing game

Kansas City Chiefs v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

With Mahomes at quarterback in the opening exhibition, the Chiefs’ first-team offense only took four snaps: two runs and two passes. The first pass was a quick, easy completion to tight end Travis Kelce — while the second attempt to wide receiver Mecole Hardman fell incomplete on a contested, shallow crossing route.

In summary, Mahomes’ passing attack did (and showed) nothing. I’d like to see Mahomes get a few more opportunities to take a traditional dropback behind his new offensive line; he and the coaching staff have talked about the importance of getting comfortable with the new five-man unit — and the best way to do that is with repetition.

Key in on how many chances they give Mahomes to take a three or five-step drop, read the defense post-snap and make a throw. Those plays will test the line’s pass protection and the rookie blockers’ communication skills. We’ve observed that sometimes Mahomes doesn’t trust his pocket, so it’ll be intriguing to see how calmly he maneuvers behind five new players.

Linebacker rotation

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

In their first preseason game, the Chiefs’ three starting linebackers were veterans Anthony Hitchens and Ben Niemann — along with rookie second-round pick Nick Bolton. The starting group actually played well as a whole — but they were missing the linebacker who has likely had the best training camp.

Second-year linebacker Willie Gay Jr. was in concussion protocol during the first week of the preseason, but he came back to practice on Monday and is on track to play on Friday night.

Obviously, it’ll be interesting to see which of the three Week 1 starters will go to the bench in favor of Gay. All indications point to Gay being the team’s second linebacker beside Hitchens; it appears Niemann and Bolton are competing for the third spot in the base defense.

Also, look to see how they use Gay. Does he get snaps as the sole linebacker in dime personnel? Is he used as a blitzer? Which outside linebacker position does he play in base: SAM, WILL — or both? There could be a lot to learn about the young linebacker.

Performance of reserve tight ends

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

Kelce hauled in a catch against the 49ers, but neither of the two tight ends behind him produced.

Rookie Noah Gray saw two targets in Week 1: the first was a misplaced throw by backup quarterback Chad Henne that went behind him. It resulted in an interception after it bounced when he reached back to get it. Later, he was open on a seam route — but the pass was too far for him to reach. Veteran Blake Bell had multiple repetitions as a run blocker but didn’t see a receiving target.

Tight end Jody Fortson had the most shine from the group — but Gray was second behind him for the most offensive snaps among skill-position players. As a fifth-round pick the Chiefs moved up to get, we know Gray will make the squad — but we would still like to see live-game examples of his skills before the season begins.

I believe that with both the starters and the reserves, we’ll see the staff focus on giving Gray more chances to show what he can do. Pay attention to how he’s aligned and what kind of routes he’s asked to run.

The battle for the last spots at safety

Kansas City Chiefs v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

As easy as it was to freak out when it was reported that safety Juan Thornhill briefly ran with the third-team defense at practice on Monday, it’s safe to say he’s making the team — at minimum as the third safety behind veterans Dan Sorensen and Tyrann Mathieu.

In each of the two years with defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the team has kept five safeties. That leaves two roster spots. I believe there are three contenders for them: undrafted rookie Devon Key, special teams ace Armani Watts and versatile veteran Will Parks. Each of these players had impacts in Week 1 — although not all of them were good. Key’s first play in the game was an ugly rep in deep coverage in which he allowed a touchdown pass to be completed over his head. Watts had an interception — but it was thrown right to him. To me, it was Parks who stood out the most.

Parks’ speed to the ball was noticeable, flying downfield to close on ball carriers quickly. After not getting many looks during camp, I believe Parks needs to be more strongly considered for a roster spot. During his five-year career, he’s played all over the secondary. As such, he could be a reliable depth player for a defensive scheme that relies heavily on the performance of its safeties.

Special teams opportunities

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

It’s worth monitoring the consistency of kicker Harrison Butker. Although he made field goals of 46 and 52 yards on Saturday, he also missed an extra point. It was a problem during 2020, too: he missed six during the regular season. Pay attention to how he does on what is hopefully a lot of point-after attempts.

His counterpart at punter — second-year undrafted free agent Tommy Townsend — was booming the ball last week. He had five punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line — including an incredible kick that rolled out of bounds at the 1-yard line — and he also had a bomb that went more than 70 yards in the air. Watch to see if he can string together two such weeks.

Cornerback Mike Hughes had both a punt and kickoff return in Week 1. He made a great impression on me. The punt return showed his shiftiness, while the kick return showed his speed — and an ability to stay up through contact.

If Hughes can be a worthwhile returner, it could allow Hardman to be used more situationally in special teams, allowing him to save his energy — and focus — for the offense.