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3 on-the-bubble Chiefs making a strong case for the 53-man roster

Over a week into training camp, some lesser-known Kansas City players are showing what they could do for the team.

Green Bay Packers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jason Hanna/Getty Images

As the whirlwind of the Kansas City Chiefs’ training camp slowed down during Tuesday’s off day, I took a moment to reflect on what we’ve learned about the team during its time up at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri.

The obvious lessons have come on offense, where undrafted free agent wide receiver Justyn Ross has seamlessly meshed with the starters — and is now projected by Arrowhead Pride’s Pete Sweeney to make the 53-man roster. Running back Deneric Prince has also made a strong first impression with the first-team offense — and for a while, has been considered a strong candidate to make the team as a kickoff returner.

But let’s take a look at three players — all of whom have backgrounds with the team — who might not be on September’s opening roster, but have nonetheless been making strong cases for themselves.

1. Tight end Matt Bushman

Green Bay Packers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

“What OTAs he had,” Kansas City offensive coordinator Matt Nagy recently said of Bushman. “He did a really good job in OTAs. The guy doesn’t drop the football — and he is always in the right spot at the right time. We say, ‘He’s just slow enough to be in the spot.’”

Bushman is in his second training camp with the Chiefs, hoping to build on last year’s strong preseason. For Bushman, one of those exhibition games included three receptions and two touchdowns — one of them a 54-yard catch-and-run.

In this season’s training camp — just as Nagy noted — he has shown very reliable hands.

Unfortunately, he has fought through multiple injuries. He tore an Achilles right before his senior year in college. That led to going undrafted in the following NFL Draft — and signing a UDFA deal with the Las Vegas Raiders. Last season in Kansas City, he broke his clavicle in the same preseason game in which he scored twice. That sidelined him for all of last year.

Now the 27-year-old is getting an opportunity to be the complimentary receiving threat behind Travis Kelce and Noah Gray — a role that Jody Fortson has occupied for two seasons. Leading into his recent shoulder injury, however, Fortson was having inconsistent practices — and since then, Bushman has had plenty of work with the starters.

It may leave the door open for Bushman to sneak in ahead of the fan-favorite playmaker.

2. Defensive end Malik Herring

NFL: Washington Commanders at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

As I’ve observed the Chiefs’ defensive line in St. Joseph, I have come away believing that Herring simply looks like he belongs on the team — that he should be part of the rotation. in In his 53-man projection, Pete Sweeney said much the same thing.

That might be because he made the initial roster in 2022 — but was only active for seven games, collecting six tackles and a fumble recovery in 88 snaps. Coming into this season, it is probably easy to overlook his development in favor of fresh-faced draft picks — or a veteran on a one-year deal.

But in his third season with the Chiefs, one-time undrafted free agent may just now be coming into his own. At the Senior Bowl before the 2021 NFL Draft, Herring tore his ACL — severely impacting his draft stock. For the explosive defensive lineman out of Georgia, the injury wiped away his entire rookie campaign.

More than two years removed from the injury, Herring looks like more than just a roster filler. He has inside-outside versatility, long, leveraging arms and can provide solid snaps against both the run and the pass. For now, he may be seen as the fifth player in the EDGE rotation — but if another player does down, he looks capable of stepping up into a more prominent role.

3. Defensive tackle Danny Shelton

NFL: JUL 23 Kansas City Chiefs Training Camp Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the team signed this former first-round pick during the 2022 preseason, it felt like his hulking presence could help the team’s interior. But Shelton didn’t make the initial roster— and was elevated from the practice squad for just one game.

But in this camp, Shelton has stood out both to me and AP film analyst Caleb James — but not for the reason you might think. Shelton actually looks like he’s in better shape than he was last year — and that may lead to a better chance he could contribute.

Right now, he is running as the second-team nose tackle behind starter Derrick Nnadi. He’s been a handful for the second-team offensive line — especially against the run. Could Shelton unseat Nnadi? Last season’s poor run defense can be traced to lackluster play in the middle of the line, so I’ve never felt good about simply putting Nnadi back in there.

If a year with the team has helped Shelton become the player the Chiefs wanted in 2022, it’s possible. With rookie nose tackle Keondre Coburn waiting his turn, it doesn’t make sense to keep both veterans. There’s just one hang-up, though: Nnadi is owed a guaranteed salary of $1 million in 2023.

Still, we’ve seen Kansas City cut players with guaranteed money before — linebacker Jermaine Carter is an example from last season — but this may be different because Nnadi is one of the team’s longest-tenured players. That’s also, however, why he could find his way back to the practice squad without being subjected to waivers.

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