In many ways, the season started exactly how we hoped it would. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes was flawless, the running backs were productive and the young defense was solid. But now, the schedule gets much tougher. On a short week — and facing a bevy of injuries — the Chiefs welcome the Los Angeles Chargers to GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium for Thursday Night Football.
Since it could easily be a high-scoring, back-and-forth affair, it’s going to take a full team effort to win this game. The Chargers have a top-three quarterback and a pair of star EDGE rushers with which to contend. In this matchup, we’ll learn a lot about this young Chiefs team.
Here are a few who could be trending in each direction.
George Karlaftis: I’m not ready to fully eat crow for my pre-draft analysis, but I’ll bite off a piece for putting “Furious George” on the Losers list after the Arizona game. When a defensive lineman doesn’t create a lot of splash plays, it can be challenging to see what impact he’s having. But upon further review, Karlaftis not only led all defenders in snaps, but he actually generated six quarterback pressures — even with a game plan that required him to contain a mobile quarterback. On Thursday, he’ll face a difficult test against Los Angeles quarterback Justin Herbert — who can get the ball out quickly — and a much better offensive line. Still... Karlaftis might just be the defensive lineman with the best chance to make an impact.
Juju Smith-Schuster: Mahomes was incredible against the Cardinals, spreading the ball around to 10 different receivers. But when the Chiefs needed to move the chains, there was one guy who seemed to be the go-to: the former Pittsburgh Steelers wideout. Smith-Schuster was targeted eight times (just one fewer than tight end Travis Kelce) and ended with six catches for 79 yards. Against the Chargers — with the lights and the pressure on — Smith-Schuster will have an opportunity to deliver in clutch situations against a division rival. It not only seems as if he’s up for the challenge, it also appears that his offseason work with Mahomes has built the kind of chemistry you’d expect from a No. 1 receiver.
Jaylen Watson: With rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie going on injured reserve, another will get a huge opportunity to step up. In the preseason, Watson distinguished himself as a guy who always seems to be in the right place — and has a nose for the football. After performing well against the Cardinals in Week 1, it appears Watson will get the call against a dynamic Chargers offense. With Rashad Fenton and Joshua Williams in the fold, Kansas City does have other options. But we’re still likely to see Watson plenty of times against the big, physical Los Angeles receivers — and Herbert, who can fit the ball into tight spots. All Watson has to do is avoid being the guy Herbert picks on. In Week 1, he showed that he belongs on the field. On Thursday, let’s see if he can take the next step forward.
Others trending in the right direction this week: safety Juan Thornhill, running backs Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Isiah Pacheco, defensive ends Chris Jones and Michael Danna, tight ends Jody Fortson and Travis Kelce, right guard Andrew Wylie and quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Justin Watson: Against Arizona, he was the only active Kansas City wide receiver without a catch — even though he was on the field just about as often as Skyy Moore. Then Watson suffered a chest injury that has limited him in practice during a short week. It’s hard to see him being the impact receiver that he often appeared to be in the preseason. There will come a time when he’s called upon — but that may not happen really soon.
Ronald Jones: After being a healthy scratch in his Chiefs debut, Jones had to watch all three of the other running backs excel against the Cardinals. With Clyde Edwards-Helaire looking more like the guy from LSU — and Pacheco helping to close out games — it’s hard to see a reason to put Johnson on the field against the Chargers. He’s a solid insurance policy in case of injury — but for the foreseeable future, it appears that Jones is going to be buried behind the team’s productive running back committee.
Leo Chenal: Hopefully, this will only be a short-term trend for a promising rookie linebacker — but on Sunday, Chenal only played on 10% of the defensive snaps. He will now face a Chargers team featuring a running back who is deadly in space — along with a couple of tight ends that can create matchup problems. Kansas City appears to be gearing up to face this challenge by activating linebackers Elijah Lee and Jack Cochrane — both of whom are probably better in coverage than Chenal is right now. Cochrane may end up being inactive, because he was reportedly called up to prevent another team from signing to its practice squad. But even if it’s just Lee on the field against Los Angeles, Chenal could take a back seat for now.
Others trending in the wrong direction: cornerback Joshua Williams, offensive lineman Darian Kinnard and defensive end Joshua Kaindoh.
Value (sleeper) pick: Skyy Moore
In his first NFL game, Moore played 20% of the offensive snaps and had just one catch. If that’s all we knew, it might lead us to believe that Moore wasn’t a big part of Kansas City’s plans. But if you saw that one catch — or his four punt returns against the Cardinals — you have to be encouraged by his potential. Moore’s ability to run after the catch and make plays in space could be very useful against the Chargers. In a game that could turn into a shootout, watch for Mahomes’ secondary targets to step up and make some plays. Moore might just find some big opportunities on Thursday night.