by John Unrein
Kansas City Chiefs Training Camp on the campus of Missouri Western University is one month away. The first practice open to the public will be on Saturday, July 27th at 3:30 pm. Admission is $5 and will include a team autograph session. Much excitement abounds for the upcoming season and for good reason. The team boasts the National Football League MVP in Patrick Mahomes and has spent the offseason reconstructing a defense under the new leadership of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
The 90-man roster heading to St. Joseph is as solid as the team has had in its history. General Manager Brett Veach has been busy this offseason. He’s acquired Defensive End Frank Clark from the Seattle Seahawks. Veach also signed Safety Tyrann Mathieu, Linebacker Damien Wilson, and Defensive End Alex Okafor during free agency. Top draft picks included Wide Receiver Mecole Hardman, Safety Juan Thornhill, and Defensive Tackle Khalen Saunders.
There are still important questions surrounding the team as good as they may feel heading to St. Joseph. Thus is the nature of business for those in the NFL. Evaluating talent, coaching players, and developing leadership will be paramount for the brain trust of the organization between the beginning of training camp and the September 8th week one game of the regular season against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
As many answers as can be found to the following questions will move the organization closer to their goal of hoisting the Lamar Hunt American Football Conference trophy and playing in a Super Bowl. A drought that has lasted since 1970. January 11th of that year witnessed the Chiefs defeat the Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
Who will fill out the depth on the roster at Tight End?
Travis Kelce underwent offseason ankle surgery. He’s expected to be ready to go for the start of training camp. Demetrius Harris who served as the backup tight end last year reunited with John Dorsey in Cleveland this offseason as a free agent. This has left a hole on the roster behind Kelce. Most teams keep three tight ends on their 53-man regular season roster.
Head Coach Andy Reid has been on record as saying it will be important to see how potential candidates perform at the line of scrimmage with pads on. Yes, you still have to be able to run the football to win in the league. Points may come out of the passing game but having tight ends on your roster that can play on the line of scrimmage and block are a valuable commodity. They provide the potential for you to have a run/pass balance in your offense which makes you more difficult to defend and game plan around.
Leading candidates to battle for the remaining rosters spots at tight end for the chiefs include young veterans Deon Yelder, David Wells, Nick Keizer, and rookie John Lovett. Yelder has been tagged as the early favorite to back up Kelce. The Chiefs thought enough of him sign him to the active roster from their practice squad last October to ensure that not other team tried to do the same. Yelder is athletic and moves well in space.
Wells was a solid blocker at San Diego State. He excelled at coming off the ball low and getting his hands inside the defender and driving them with aggression. Keizer is entering his second year in the league after spending last year on the Baltimore Ravens Practice Squad. Lovett rounds out the group. He’s a rookie who played quarterback at Princeton and ran routes at his pro day due to an injured hand that prevented him from throwing and caught the eye of Chiefs scouts.
Can Reggie Ragland hold down the Middle Linebacker position?
Pro Football Focus gave Reggie Ragland a 55.9 rating for last year. That ranked him as the 73rd best linebacker in the league. Those are not awe-inspiring numbers to say the least. However, Ragland is transitioning to a 4-3 defense.
He will be covered up by four down lineman that will allow him the opportunity to flow and fill more easily then he what he faced last year. Ragland and fellow inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens had the monumental task of being outnumbered in the box or between the offensive tackles last season.
This was due to the alignment of former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s system. It’s hard to make stops consistently when the offense has an easy path to block you. All one must do is watch any of the Chiefs recent games against the New England Patriots to see what Ragland was up against and asked to do.
The Chiefs need Ragland to get back to the aggressive downhill run stopper he was at the University of Alabama. This led him to being drafted in the second round in 2016 by the Buffalo Bills prior to being traded to the Chiefs. A middle linebacker must own the interior gaps of a 4-3 defense if his team is going to be successful.
Who will emerge as the new leaders of the Chiefs Defense?
Recent years have seen names like Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, Eric Berry, and Justin Houston depart from the locker room. This leaves a serious void as all four of the players mentioned above held the respect of their teammates and fellow opponents around the league. To replace that many leaders in a short amount of time is not easy.
Players that view themselves as “alphas” and make consistent positive contributions on the field and meeting rooms are treasured in the National Football League. Make no mistake about it, team members police things as much as coaches do. To have the credibility to do so one must possess the respect of his teammates.
The Chiefs have turned the mantle of defensive leadership over to Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu. This is hard but not impossible to do as new players to a team. You must acclimate yourself to a new playbook, people, and surroundings all while leading by example and being vocal when necessary.
The team agreeing to terms on a long-term deal with Defensive Tackle Chris Jones prior to the start of training camp could help cement this situation. Jones has been a no show to offseason workouts. Likely to avoid injury that might hurt his negotiating leverage. Jones has the respect of his peers. He amassed 15.5 sacks last season. 11 of which occurred in consecutive games, making Jones the first player in NFL history to accomplish that task.
Jones is not shy about being vocal or physical. He seems to enjoy playing verbal volleyball. The soon to be fourth year defensive tackle is not shy about mixing it up either. Proof of this can be found with what Jones did to lauded Colts Rookie Guard Quentin Nelson during the opening series of the Chiefs Divisional Playoff win last season.
The emergence of Clark, Mathieu, and Jones as leaders on the defensive side of the football would point the team in the direction of Miami, Florida, the site of the 2020 Super Bowl.