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The Chiefs could use 2022 practice squad rules to avoid a roster crunch

After losing two players to waivers after 2021’s camp, will the team be more strategic with young talent?

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, Arrowhead Pride editor-in-chief Pete Sweeney released his initial prediction for the Kansas City Chiefs’ 53-man roster. Pete sees the Chiefs going heavy on offensive weapons — which may force the team to sacrifice depth elsewhere.

In recent seasons, Kansas City’s front office has developed a strong reputation for finding talent — particularly late in the draft and in undrafted free agency. But the downside of such thorough work is losing talented players to the league’s waiver system at the end of training camp. At last season’s roster cutdown, the Chiefs lost cornerback Bopete Keyes — a 2020 seventh-round selection — to the Indianapolis Colts. Defensive end Tim Ward was claimed by the New York Jets.

When they make their final cuts on August 30, the Chiefs could lose more young talent — although every team will be facing a roster crunch and waivers claims are rarer than fans generally predict.

One way teams can protect their young assets may lie in updated practice squad rules created by the 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) — which have been further modified during the last three seasons as the league played through the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2022 (and perhaps beyond), teams can sign up to six practice-squad players who have more than four seasons of NFL experience — although these players would count towards an overall limit of 10 players who have appeared in nine or more career games. If needed as injury replacements, such players can be elevated from the practice squad to the active roster up to three times during the regular season — and an unlimited number of times during the playoffs. Remember, though: only two practice-squad players may be elevated to the roster for a given game.

Because players with four or more NFL seasons are not subject to waivers until the midseason trade deadline, a team can essentially cut a veteran backup with the understanding that he will join the practice squad — assuming there is no opportunity to join another active roster.

Using Pete’s roster prediction, let’s look at some ways the Chiefs could take advantage of these rules to keep younger talent on the 53-man roster — without sacrificing in-house depth.

Offensive line depth

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Many Chiefs fans — still reeling from the offensive line’s collapse in Super Bowl LV — are likely to have stopped reading the moment sacrificing offensive line depth was suggested.

It is important to remember, however, that while Pete’s roster projection listed nine offensive linemen on the 53-man roster, the Chiefs typically dress only eight offensive linemen on a 47-man game-day roster. (This was increased from 46 players in the 2020 CBA; a 48th player may dress if at least eight offensive linemen are active).

Two players Pete predicted to make the active roster — tackle Roderick Johnson and center Austin Reiter — could be candidates for veteran positions on the practice squad. (In fact, we have already seen the Chiefs use Reiter to creatively manipulate the roster rules this offseason. Kansas City released the center on May 6 — just before the start of rookie minicamp — and re-signed him four days later. This allowed the team to sign an additional rookie player for a minicamp look-see).

Kansas City could then have an experienced ninth (or even tenth) offensive lineman in the building, while still having just eight on 53-man roster. This flexibility with Reiter and Johnson could be helpful if a young offensive lineman like Prince Tega Wanogho impresses in preseason — or if the team simply decides to roster just eight offensive linemen because of numbers at other positions.

Offensive skill position depth

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

The Chiefs currently appear crowded at running back, wide receiver and tight end — although camp injuries and preseason performance sometimes prove that perception to be a mirage. Running backs Ronald Jones and Jerick McKinnon, wide receivers Josh Gordon and Justin Watson and tight end Blake Bell all appear to have sufficient service time to avoid waivers if cut at the end of camp.

Though these players appear to be firmly in the Chiefs’ 2022 plans, none would be likely to generate heavy interest if cut in August. Any could be considered cut candidates in order to create roster space for injured players at the end of camp — only to quickly be re-signed when those players go on injured reserve. (A player must be on the team’s opening 53-man roster in order to be placed on the in-season Reserve/Injured list).

It would also not be surprising if one or two of these players spend a few weeks on the practice squad if they fall significantly on the depth chart.

Defensive depth

NFL: Washington Football Team at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Veteran linebackers Jermaine Carter Jr. and Elijah Lee — and safety Deon Bush — will likely be looking over their shoulders from the moment they report to St. Joseph on Tuesday. In both the draft and free agency, the Chiefs invested heavily in their positions.

If rookie players like linebacker Mike Rose or safety Nazeeh Johnson play themselves onto the roster, their roster spot will come at the expense of a veteran. If released at the final cut-down, Carter, Lee and Bush would not be likely to find an immediate market for their services — although Kansas City would be wise to consider keeping such veterans in the building.

The Chiefs could also use the practice squad to address their worrisome lack of depth at EDGE. If no significant moves are made, it would not be surprising to see a player like former Kansas City defensive end Alex Okafor signed to the practice squad.

Backup quarterback

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

To be clear, this possibility is exceedingly unlikely. But the Chiefs need to be prepared to make a tough decision if quarterback Shane Buechele outplays longtime Chiefs backup Chad Henne in the preseason.

Late last season, Kansas City signed Buechele to the active roster to prevent the Arizona Cardinals from poaching him from the practice squad. On multiple occasions this offseason, he’s been seen working with starter Patrick Mahomes.

In a league that never has enough quarterback talent to go around, Buechele may be the Chief most likely to be claimed on waivers — or signed from the practice squad by another team. While Buechele making the roster would likely result in the team keeping three quarterbacks on the 53, Henne could conceivably agree to stay with the team’s practice squad — just as Matt Moore did in 2020. The Chiefs would eat more than $3 million by cutting Henne, but Buechele’s minimum salary would make the cap ramifications fairly small. If cut, the 37-year-old veteran would probably be more likely to retire — but as the saying goes, “Henne-thing is possible.”