It feels like we’ve already learned a ton about this year’s Kansas City Chiefs, but there’s nothing that compares to live action. That’s what we’ll get Saturday at Noon Arrowhead Time, when the Chiefs visit the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field to open their preseason schedule.
The first exhibition of the season shouldn’t feature much from the first-team units; last year, the starting offense only lasted one drive, and the defense got a couple of possessions. It is worth noting the starting offensive line lasted longer than quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
That said, the depth of the roster will get plenty of shine — and should teach us more about themselves than what training camp has revealed.
I have five things about the exhibition opener to watch:
1. The wide receiver room
Based on training camp, the Chiefs’ top three receivers — JuJu Smith-Schuster, Mecole Hardman, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling — will strictly run with the starting offense, likely not seeing any snaps after Mahomes leaves the game.
The rest of the group will see plenty of work with the backup quarterbacks, and that starts with rookie Skyy Moore — who may get snaps when Mahomes is on the field. It will be intriguing to watch how Moore is deployed either way; what routes he’s asked to run, whether he’s exclusively in the slot or not, and his play speed when catching or carrying the ball.
I’m also interested to see if Josh Gordon can make an impressive play or two. I believe the Chiefs’ sixth wide receiver spot is still up for grabs, and they want to give Gordon every opportunity to earn it after the time and effort put into developing him over the last year.
Second-year receiver Cornell Powell is in a similar boat, making both him and Gordon the receivers with the most to gain. Daurice Fountain is the player they need to surpass on the depth chart; he missed a few practices while nursing a groin injury.
2. The duo of hard-hitting rookies
Not everything about football is easy for the casual viewer to pick up on — but if a specific twosome of rookies lives up to their initial reputation, they should stand out to anyone watching.
Defensive end George Karlaftis and linebacker Leo Chenal will both be taking their first NFL snaps. I’ll be observing how notable their power is in their play — if it looks overwhelming for the opponent or if it’s handled pretty well.
For Karlaftis, it’ll be interesting to see how he’s deployed with the starting defense; Mike Danna has been taking the first snaps over Karlaftis in training camp, but Karlaftis should be worked in based on how that’s been handled in team periods at camp. Look to see if he’s aligned in a creative fashion or a part of the NASCAR pass-rush package when he’s in.
Chenal won’t have the same opportunity to contribute to the starting defense this game — veteran Elijah Lee has been working as the starting SAM linebacker over Chenal — but he should get plenty of playing time throughout the game. Watch for his impressive run-defense skills, but also to see if he gets any opportunities to blitz or rush the passer; he was impressive at getting after the quarterback at Wisconsin.
3. Isiah Pacheco
The only thing we know for certain about this running back room right now is that Clyde Edwards-Helaire is the lead man. It will be fascinating to see the group behind him battle it out for the two or three remaining roster spots.
Saturday will be our first look at rookie Isiah Pacheco. I’ll be focusing on his ability to run between the tackles, the ability to hit a seam with impressive downhill speed and maximize a run call. If he impresses in that area, it takes away from the importance of Ronald Jones’ role on this team.
It will also be interesting to watch his performance in pass protection, or just how he is utilized in the pass game generally. The Chiefs ask a lot of their backs on passing downs, so his readiness in that aspect will dictate how much playing time he gets right away in the regular season.
4. Depth pass rushers
The top end of the Chiefs’ defensive line is rounding into shape, especially with the addition of veteran defensive end Carlos Dunlap. However, there are still things to sort out behind the front line.
One of the most intriguing individual battles to follow will be between second-year defensive ends Joshua Kaindoh and Malik Herring. Herring has stood out to me in camp, but Kaindoh’s athleticism at 6 feet 6 and 260 pounds makes him intriguing to the coaching staff. Both are projected to make the team in Pete Sweeney’s latest 53-man roster prediction, but there’s still a battle to see which of them would see the field first.
There’s also a competition on the interior of the line: defensive tackles Khalen Saunders, Taylor Stallworth and recently-signed Danny Shelton all have something to prove before the final cutdown day. Saunders has flashed in a limited capacity at camp — as he seemingly has every offseason of his career — while Stallworth missed the past week with a knee contusion before returning on Thursday. It’s unlikely we see Shelton in this initial look on Saturday.
Watch for any of these guys to flash, specifically as pass rushers. That’s the most important skill for a rotational defensive lineman in today’s NFL.
5. Players low on the depth chart to watch
There are always going to be standouts in the preseason that have fans dreaming of their team getting the next Victor Cruz, the rare sleeper to emerge from preseason hype and become a legitimate NFL star.
For the Chiefs, I think many fans will be pushing for undrafted free agent Jerrion Ealy to make the team after seeing him in the preseason. He has been buried on the depth chart at both running back and wide receiver, but has made flash plays in camp at both positions.
Another name to watch is tight end Jordan Franks. Behind the top four tight ends that have been around for multiple years, Franks has impressed in limited repetitions with the lower-end units — catching passes and turning upfield with good athleticism.
Watch for these two to make an impact towards the end of the game, flashing on the third of fourth-string offenses.