The Kansas City Chiefs have just one more game to their preseason schedule. They host the Minnesota Vikings on Friday night — and will then have 15 full days before their regular-season opener at home. The roster must be reduced from 80 players to 53 players by Tuesday.
Head coach Andy Reid said the starters would play for the first half but noted that the large amount of playing time in Arizona last week could impact that plan.
From the first team to the bubble players, there are plenty of storylines to follow in the preseason finale.
On Tuesday, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo made it clear that his players need to be tackling well by Week 1. Without preseason last year, the defense had 14 missed tackles in their season opener against the Houston Texans. Spagnuolo said that number was too high for a single game.
But he also pointed out that in the preseason, the team has improved game-to-game. According to PFF, the team missed eight tackles in Week 1 — then just four in Week 2. Only one player has had multiple missed tackles: undrafted rookie linebacker Riley Cole — who was waived following the first game. Another missed tackle that stood out happened to be on the defense’s first snap of the preseason, when safety Dan Sorensen whiffed on a receiver after he caught a pass in the flat.
Against Arizona, the defensive backs’ tackling stood out in a good way. Our Bryan Stewart broke that down in his film review article.
The Vikings run a similar style of offense as the Cleveland Browns — another thought that Spagnuolo shared in his press conference. Even if it’s against backups, the Chiefs’ front-seven players will get a good look at multiple-tight end formations and inside runs similar to what they’ll see in the season opener.
2. The final chance for wide receivers to impress
One of the most intriguing position battles left is the bottom of the wide receiver depth chart. Daurice Fountain’s preseason performance has been too impressive to ignore; he’s the team’s leading receiver, catching seven of his nine targets for 92 yards. He showed impressive separation downfield on a 41-yard bomb against Arizona — and also had a tough grab in traffic over the middle that didn’t look easy.
The reason the battle is so tough is that other fringe receivers have a case to make the team, too. Veteran Marcus Kemp has consistently made plays throughout training camp. He has three receptions in preseason action, with one going 36 yards on a catch-and-run. Fifth-round rookie Cornell Powell hasn’t had many opportunities, but it’s never easy for a front office to waive a draft pick before their first season.
The most likely projection is that the Chiefs keep six wide receivers. Outside of the four that have been here, there’s only room for two of the fringe players — unless there’s a surprise cut such as veteran like Demarcus Robinson, who didn’t exactly draw a compliment from assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Dave Toub during his Tuesday press conference.
If Fountain and Kemp continue to strengthen their case for the team, there could be an unexpected shakeup for this group.
3. Defensive end auditions
Speaking of unexpected shakeups, the first big surprise from the weekly cuts was defensive end Taco Charlton, who was waived on Monday to help shrink the roster to 80 players.
Personally, I had believed Charlton would be an important part of the team this season. In last season’s small sample size, he was a very effective pass rusher. I had penciled him in opposite Frank Clark — with Chris Jones and Jarran Reed inside — as the team’s best pass-rushing lineup.
Instead, another defensive end will need to step up when Jones moves to the interior. Mike Danna projects as the first option; he was a stout run defender last season — and has continued to display a high motor during training camp and preseason.
Veteran Alex Okafor also makes sense — although his injury history would tell us he can’t be counted upon to play all 17 games. So it’s young players like Joshua Kaindoh and Tim Ward who will have a big opportunity to earn meaningful snaps. Both will be using this last exhibition to prove they deserve regular-season play.
4. The running back rotation
Starting running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle) and his immediate backup Darrel Williams (concussion protocol) have been dealing with injuries. They did return to practice on Wednesday.
But there’s no reason to play them in the preseason finale — which gives Jerick McKinnon and Darwin Thompson the chance to get the vast majority of snaps. While McKinnon feels like a lock to make the team, Thompson could use another game to convince the staff to keep four running backs. Aside from the unnecessary hurdling, he’s had good runs — and still looks like an intriguing player to have around.
With the top of the position group already banged up, it might now make more sense to keep four backs rather than three. But if Derrick Gore — who Andy Reid lightheartedly compared to NFL legend Gale Sayers after the Cardinals game — continues to run well, he could give the team confidence that if he can be stashed on the practice squad, they could call him up in case of an injury. That could eliminate the need to keep four backs on the initial 53-man roster.
5. Linebackers’ run defense
As I mentioned in the first focus point, the Vikings’ offense is closer to a traditional rushing attack; they regularly use multiple running backs and tight ends. Unlike the spread attack of the Cardinals, the Vikings will give the Chiefs’ second-level defenders plenty of opportunities to read run plays, take on blockers in gaps and make in-the-box tackles.
It will be a great opportunity for rookie linebacker Nick Bolton to show off his instincts as a run defender. He excelled at reading a play in college, shooting through a gap and then tackling a ball carrier. A good performance could help him earn playing time against tough-nosed rushing teams — like the Browns in Week 1.