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Chiefs training camp notebook: Steve Spagnuolo provides early clues on ‘21 changes

Kansas City’s defensive coordinator met with the media for the first time during training camp.

NFL: JAN 29 Super Bowl LIV - Chiefs Press Conference Photo by Rich Graessle/PPI/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After the team’s workout on Wednesday, Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo took the podium for the first time training camp began.

Like the offensive side of the football, the Chiefs have not gone through drastic changes on the defensive side, but the team is hoping the subtle changes they made tip the scale in the unit taking another step forward in 2021.

That starts with the often-talked-about move of Chris Jones from defensive tackle to hybrid lineman.

“Chris is going to have to play multiple spots,” said Spagnuolo. “That’s just the way it is. Turk (Tershawn Wharton) is going to have to do the same. Mike Danna is probably going to have to do the same thing. So, the more flexible we can be, especially with big guys, the better off we’ll be.”

Spagnuolo noted that includes swapping Jones and the other starting defensive end, Frank Clark, depending on the package and opposing look.

“Our defense has quite a bit of volume, so there’s a challenge in learning two spots — but I think Chris has handled it pretty well to this point.”

Behind the line, second-year linebacker Willie Gay and rookie Nick Bolton have managed a bit of playing time, as last year’s starters Anthony Hitchens and Ben Niemann have been banged up with hamstring injuries. On Wednesday, Hitchens continued to ease back in — while Niemann took the entire practice off.

“I’m excited about all the guys,” said Spagnuolo. “You know, I don’t like to point out two. I know their names come up a lot because they’re both young, Nick — we just got this year — but I will say this: those guys work as hard as anybody else on the defense. So I’m real pleased.”

As he did with Juan Thornhill two years ago, Spagnuolo acknowledged just how hard it might be for Bolton, a rookie, to crack the starting defensive lineup.

“Real difficult,” said Spagnuolo. “I think (linebackers coach) Matt House and (defensive quality control coach) Alex (Whittingham) and (outside linebackers) coach (Ken) Flajole’s here — I think those guys are doing a terrific job with him. He’s another guy, young guy, right? First year in the system. He’s playing multiple, multiple, multiple spots. But he’s doing a really good job.

“Sometimes when that happens. You get the brain cluttered [and] it ties up their feet a little bit. He doesn’t seem to do that. He doesn’t know everything mentally right now, but he’s still making a lot of plays. That part’s good.”

In the secondary, the Chiefs have decided to use second-year cornerback and steal-of-the-2020 NFL Draft L’Jarius Sneed as an outside cornerback in the base, kicking him inside in subpackages.

“That’s a challenging thing,” said Spagnuolo. “He’s doing to play inside most downs — and then all of the sudden when we change the package, he’s outside — but he’s handled it real well. If you guys remember, last year, he was outside at the beginning (due to Bashaud Breeland’s suspension), got hurt, and when we brought him back, we wanted to get the best 11. And that was hard learning nickel in the middle, but he’s doing an excellent job.”

In the nickel, with Charvarius Ward on the outside and Sneed inside, the Chiefs are still looking for their answer opposite Ward — and it appears to be between Mike Hughes, Deandre Baker and Rashad Fenton.

“It is a good competition right now,” said Spagnuolo. “Now, Deandre wasn’t out there [Wednesday], but all three of those guys are working hard. Rashad takes on the added responsibility of having to play some nickel, the other two guys stay out there the whole time, but I’m pleased right now with what those three guys are doing.”

Spagnuolo closed his outlook debrief with a critique for all Chiefs fans traveling to Missouri Western State.

“Here’s the only thing that strikes me intriguing here with the fans,” said Spagnuolo. “I hear loud roars when they complete a pass. They’re not quite as loud when we pick a ball off or we incomplete it. That’s just me.”

It’s that time of year; everybody can be better.

Observations

  • The weather in St. Joseph Wednesday morning was sunny to start practice. The temperature was in the low-70s when practice began at 9:15 a.m. and stayed cool enough throughout the workout.
  • Tuesday’s Chiefs practice brought the pads, but Wednesday’s saw the first tackle period of training camp.
  • There has always been chatter of quarterback Patrick Mahomes working through “trick” throws on the practice field before performing them in a game. That has never been more evident than in this video by News-Press Now’s Brandon Zenner.
  • Mahomes and the first team bested the second team in goal-line work, with Mecole Hardman, Darrel Williams and Travis Kelce seeing touchdowns. Kelce appeared to fire off an arrow after his score.
  • Wednesday’s workout saw many one-on-one drills, beginning with running backs and tight ends taking on linebackers in pass protection. Williams stood out more so than Clyde Edwards-Helaire on the offensive side, leading me to think Williams may be primed to garner more of those third-down looks — at least to start the season. Linebacker Willie Gay Jr. did well on the other side.
  • As expected, tight end Travis Kelce showed to be unstoppable when it was time for one-on-one pass-catching against the linebackers, with rookie tight end Noah Gray also having some nice reps. Gay had a pass breakup one-on-one against Edwards-Helaire.
  • Given the pass breakups, interceptions, ability to stay with opposing backs and receivers and pass-rushing prowess, Gay has been the most impressive defensive player at 2021’s camp. It is a shame he ended the day in concussion protocol.
  • Spagnuolo on Gay’s performance after the full offseason: “The OTAs and the offseason for Willie was huge. I’m hoping, going through this whole process, we can get back to normal football, normal offseason, he can even grow better. But love his energy. You guys see him and talk to him — he loves ball. That’s a good thing. Good place to start.”
  • It is important to remember that receiver-defensive back one-on-ones typically favor the receiver, but wide receivers Marcus Kemp and Demarcus Robinson put together solid drills. Covered by L’Jarius Sneed on one rep, Kemp put his hand in the air calling for the ball. On a 50-50 ball, Kemp high-pointed and plucked it out of the air before Sneed appeared to rip it out as they made their way to the ground. You make the call:

Cornerback Rashad Fenton also picked off a ball during one-on-ones.

  • Kemp has continued to have an excellent camp, with two touchdowns on Tuesday and a beautiful high-point among three defenders on a deep pass from Chad Henne during Wednesday’s nine-on-seven work. Wednesday also saw Kemp with about 10-15 yards after the catch during the tackle period. Kemp has become a reliable target for Mahomes — as has Hardman.
  • Hardman’s day included a Madden play with Mahomes rolling out to his right only to throw it back to the left side of the field where Hardman was there to beat cornerback Charvarius Ward in stride.
  • Kelce mentioned Hardman’s attention to detail this camp after practice: “As you get older, you can see guys focus on certain things, react quicker to certain things and that comes with a lot of film study, it comes with a lot of reps... Mecole’s running so dang-on fast out there, those little things [that] can help him get open even more are really going to help this football team.”
  • Kelce also had some noteworthy words on fellow tight end Jody Fortson, who has bounced positions from wide receiver to tight end: “I think now that he’s in the tight end room, he’s starting to find more of an understanding of the all-around game. At wideout, it was just making sure he knew the plays and his splits. I think now, being in his third year in this offense, he understands all those things just like the back of his hand, and now he can actually think and react to what the defense is doing knowing his job.”
  • Offensive and defensive line drills continued on Wednesday, with left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. having a better day than Tuesday. Here are the winners and losers: Winners (in order): Turk Wharton, Trey Smith, Chris Jones, Mike Danna, Lucas Niang, Khalen Saunders, Creed Humphrey; Losers (in order): Darryl Williams, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Nick Allegretti, Frank Clark.
  • Friend-of-the-site Harold Kuntz of FOX4 tweeted several videos of offensive line-defensive line drills to his feed, as did AP reader Eddie High.

Press conferences (Spotify)

If you can’t see the embed below, click here for Apple iTunes.



Injury report

  • Returned to practice: Running back Darwin Thompson
  • Did not practice/not in pads (due to injury): Tight end Evan Baylis (ankle), defensive end Malik Herring (ACL), tight end Nick Keizer (back spasms), right guard Kyle Long (tibia), offensive lineman Mike Remmers (back spasms), safety Juan Thornhill (groin), wide receiver Chad Williams (groin)
  • Did not participate in team drills (injury): linebacker Ben Niemann (hamstring), safety Armani Watts (foot)
  • Did not participate in team drills (undisclosed): cornerback Deandre Baker
  • Injured Wednesday: Linebacker Willie Gay (concussion protocol), defensive end Alex Okafor (hamstring)

Tweet of the day

Our John Dixon compiled all of Wednesday’s tweets here. Here is the tweet of the day:

Thompson returned to practice — and he took a hit during the final team period. It was a little unclear who dealt the blow from our media tent vantage point with so many players around, but the consensus thought was linebacker Dorian O’ Daniel.

Quote of the day

Tight end Travis Kelce on who has the best mustached as part of Mustache Monday: “I think coach (Andy) Reid takes it, man. He’s had that thing sitting there for about a good 40 years now? I don’t even know how long. I got to ask him when’s the last time he shaved that sucker. The only picture I can find is him at BYU without one, and he kind of looks like Chris Farley. R. I. P.”

What’s next?

The Chiefs resume camp with their eighth full-team practice Thursday at 9:15 a.m. Arrowhead Time. Afterward, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and several players will speak to the media.