Many moments signal football season’s arrival, and one of the best is the first late-July trip to Missouri Western State’s campus in St. Joseph, Missouri, where the Kansas City Chiefs hold training camp.
An incredible number of fans had the chance to experience that on Sunday, when the team held its first full-team practice of the preseason. As great of a feeling as it is, it’s important that we don’t get too excited — and take too much away from the first practice among nearly a month’s worth of work.
That’s why I’ll keep it simple here, sharing three things that stood out to me as I watched the two-hour practice.
Let’s start with one of the players I anticipated getting eyes on the most:
1. Richie James’ seamless fit in the offense
As the players warmed up for the official start of practice, starting wide receiver Kadarius Toney “tweaked his knee” while returning kicks, per head coach Andy Reid. He was not available to the starting offense for the entirety of the morning, which may have given way for free-agent signing Richie James to see more snaps.
With his opportunity, James looked comfortable operating from the slot and as the motion man for the Chiefs’ offense — playing in a similar spot as what Toney has done for the team. I noticed at least two completions where James was hit on the move, confidently catching the pass with outstretched hands and getting upfield. One was a bullet from quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who threaded the needle between defenders down the middle of the field.
Later in the live team period, he caught another completion on the run in the red zone; he made two defenders miss with sudden jukes before going down. Toney may be uniquely flexible and explosive, but James may not be far off as a dynamic playmaker after the catch.
It’s why he was signed and is considered a lock to make the roster by me. He was able to showcase that early in camp, but I’m curious to see what it can look like with Toney also available for the offense.
2. An initial opportunity for Justyn Ross
The wide receivers rotating in while Mahomes was taking snaps were mostly the usual suspects: Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Skyy Moore and Justin Watson saw plenty of time; rookie Rashee Rice got good run as well, along with James.
The only other receiver I saw work in with that starting group was last year’s undrafted free-agent darling: Justyn Ross. He enters camp healthy and apparently, with an opportunity. As far as my impressions of his play, he didn’t see many meaningful targets. He dropped a go route on air during the early portions of practice but rebounded to make multiple receptions throughout team drills; the ones I saw were simple curl routes, where he turned upfield with good quickness for his size.
At one point in the seven-on-seven period, Mahomes’ progression was covered, so he ended up testing Ross deep, late in the play — but Ross got tangled up with the cornerback and couldn’t catch up to the long ball down the sideline.
He is a unique receiver that the Chiefs will want to use on the perimeter and rarely as the typical slot player or “Z” receiver that goes in motion. That specific role on the outside can be occupied by Valdes-Scantling and the rookie Rice, but the strength of the team’s receiving corps isn’t beating press coverage consistently and winning down the field in physical coverage.
It’s the main reason Ross is getting this shot, but I believe second-year receiver Skyy Moore has the play strength and reliable hands to also develop into an asset in these scenarios. If Rice and Moore develop, it may negate the only value Ross brings to the offense — but that shouldn’t stop Ross from taking advantage of the opportunity he should get throughout the preseason.
3. Newcomers not getting rushed in on defense
The first time the starting defense assembled into a formation during practice, I noticed a theme: None of the first-team spots were occupied by a player acquired this offseason.
The closest thing to a newcomer was the player filling in for star defensive tackle Chris Jones as he holds out: Daniel Wise. The defensive lineman was signed to the team’s practice squad before the postseason started last year; he was waived by the Washington Commanders after playing in 11 games and earning only one tackle.
I believe this can change quickly, but it’s a sign that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo wants the guys who know the system best to work in first, and the first-year players will have to earn Spags’ trust before earning a spot among the starters.
Free-agent signings Drue Tranquill and Mike Edwards worked primarily with the second-team unit, while defensive end Charles Omenihu saw most of his snaps come with them as well. Rookie first-round selection Felix Anudike-Uzomah was only with the third team, paired with fifth-round pick B.J. Thompson at the other edge. Rookie defensive tackle Keondre Coburn also worked only with the third team.
All of these players could become much bigger pieces to the unit than these observations would suggest right now. You can chalk it up to Spagnuolo valuing familiarity in helping teach the defensive scheme as the 2023 journey begins.