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Chiefs projected 53-man roster: Notable changes at RB, WR, CB and the O-line

Ah yes, the Chiefs enjoyed the early portion of their first preseason game Saturday, an eventual loss to the Chicago Bears. Beyond the final outcome, however, the performances from the players proved what was already known before kickoff: The vast majority of roster spots have already been secured.

The more fascinating part is that the game helped reveal the Chiefs’ true depth chart, the changes that have happened since coach Andy Reid welcomed the players to Missouri Western State’s campus in St. Joseph, Mo., for training camp.

The Chiefs still have four more practices this week before camp’s conclusion, but most of the position battles have been decided. Since our previous roster projection, which was more than a month ago and before the start of camp, just five different players have elevated themselves to be in position to earn a place on the Chiefs’ initial 53-man roster.

Some players still have a chance to raise their status if they finish camp better and perform well in the two upcoming preseason games. At this moment, the Chiefs look to be trending toward having a younger collection of players. With just two weeks prior to Aug. 30, the NFL’s mandatory cutdown day, here’s our latest roster projection.

Note: Per usual, starters are designated in italics. The opening-game roster after all the cuts will be 53 players.

Offense (25)

Quarterbacks (2): Patrick Mahomes, Chad Henne

As if some fans still needed it, Saturday’s game served as another reminder of how talented Mahomes is as he enters his sixth season. In just one drive, Mahomes didn’t make a mistake in guiding the Chiefs to an easy touchdown. He finished with 60 passing yards and only one incompletion for an impressive passer rating of 142. Mahomes also completed a pass to six different teammates. The next phase of Mahomes’ brilliance as a quarterback could be showing a more equal balance of his targets this season.

Henne, at least in camp, appears to have a safe distance from second-year quarterback Shane Buechele in maintaining the backup role. Against the Bears, Buechele was impressive at times, as he finished with 99 passing yards and orchestrated a successful two-minute drill before halftime, ending the drive with a touchdown pass to receiver Justin Watson. Buechele also threw an interception. At this point, Buechele seems headed toward starting the season on the Chiefs’ practice squad.

Running backs (3): Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Jerick McKinnon, Isiah Pacheco

Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy want to keep four running backs on the roster, but the circumstances from camp and Saturday’s game demand the team keep just three players at the position. When camp started, there was a slim chance that five-year veteran Ronald Jones could leap over Edwards-Helaire for the starting role. Instead, Jones has fallen on the depth chart with each passing week. He finished Saturday’s game with only 1 rushing yard on four attempts. He didn’t break a single tackle and didn’t display a burst with the ball in his hands.

The most surprising star of camp has been Pacheco, the rookie who was selected in the seventh round of the NFL Draft. Pacheco, in limited touches, was excellent in his first game action, finishing with 40 total yards on four touches. The Chiefs will likely give him more opportunities in the next preseason game against the Washington Commanders. Derrick Gore, a second-year player, was also on our previous projection as a potential contributor on special teams and in short-yardage situations. But Gore’s performance Saturday was worse than Jones’. Gore fumbled the ball, dropped two passes in the flat and lost 2 yards on two rushing attempts. Jones or Gore will need to be stellar in the final two preseason games to regain the potential last roster spot at the position.

Fullback (1): Michael Burton

Reid featured Burton early in Saturday’s game, and Burton recorded 15 all-purpose yards against the Bears. One could argue that he has won the role of being the team’s best runner in short-yardage situations. He will also be a willing contributor on special teams.

Wide receivers (6): JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Mecole Hardman, Skyy Moore, Justin Watson, Daurice Fountain

The best receiver in the offseason program was Valdes-Scantling, who offers a combination of speed and size that Mahomes has never had before. In camp, the best receiver has been Smith-Schuster, a smooth route runner who has been consistent.

The fun part for Reid, Bieniemy and Mahomes is how they are incorporating Moore, a rookie who was selected in the second round, into the offense. Moore can execute jet sweeps, be an option in the backfield and run sophisticated routes, whether it’s from the slot or the perimeter. Moore’s best snap Saturday was a 13-yard reception from Buechele that featured him keeping both of his feet inbounds during the two-minute drill. In the regular season, the Chiefs could use Moore and Hardman, the fastest player on the team, to create big plays through misdirection.

The player who has fallen on the depth chart is Josh Gordon, the six-year veteran who started camp in a strong position to earn a roster spot. But Gordon has had drops, and he didn’t record a reception in Saturday’s game despite being targeted three times. Gordon needs to be strong on offense since he doesn’t offer versatility through special teams.

Perhaps the biggest winners on offense from Saturday’s game were Watson and Fountain. With a game-high six targets, Watson produced a team-high 45 receiving yards and one touchdown reception. Fountain, who appears to have replaced Gordon, recorded three receptions on three targets for 24 yards. Both players are also capable special-teams participants.

Tight ends (4): Travis Kelce, Blake Bell, Noah Gray, Jody Fortson

No changes here just yet, which is a positive sign for the team. The most significant happening at the position is an injury to Bell, who left Saturday’s game on the back of a cart with a hip injury and didn’t return. It appeared to be a non-contact injury, as he planted his foot while running a route and fell immediately to the turf in pain. Reid is expected to provide an update on Bell’s status following Monday’s practice.

An underrated subplot of camp has been the improved performance from Gray, a second-year player. Fortson has missed most of camp with a strained quad, but he is expected to be a full participant this week ahead of the exhibition against the Commanders. Everyone knows Fortson is super talented, but it would be nice for the Chiefs to see him reestablish himself the next two preseason games with strong performances in limited snaps.

Linemen (9): Orlando Brown Jr., Joe Thuney, Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith, Andrew Wylie, Nick Allegretti, Austin Reiter, Geron Christian, Darian Kinnard

The Chiefs could have the league’s best O-line if the group continues to blossom. In Saturday’s game, the offense’s opening drive was efficient because the linemen didn’t make many mistakes. Humphrey is one of the best centers in the league, and Brown appears to be a better pass blocker than he was last season. Wylie, meanwhile, has earned the starting role at right tackle.

The one switch with this group from our previous projection is with Reiter, a seven-year veteran, replacing tackle Roderick Johnson, a five-year veteran. Reiter is the best backup option at center, which allows Allegretti to focus on being the Chiefs’ swing guard. Johnson started camp as the primary backup at left tackle, but that role has been given to Christian, a five-year veteran who was competent in Saturday’s game. Kinnard, who was taken in the fifth round in April, is on the roster for a “redshirt year” so he can develop his technique at both tackle and guard.

As we predicted in our last roster projection, right tackle Lucas Niang, the third-year veteran who is still recovering from the surgery he had to repair a torn patellar tendon in his left knee, is expected to start the regular season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Giving Niang another six weeks in the regular season to rebuild the strength in his knee, instead of returning sooner than necessary, is a wise decision.

Defense (25)

Linemen (9): Frank Clark, Chris Jones, Derrick Nnadi, Carlos Dunlap, George Karlaftis, Mike Danna, Tershawn Wharton, Taylor Stallworth, Khalen Saunders

Similar to the running back position, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo probably wants 10 players in the D-line rotation, but the most realistic number is nine. The newest member is Dunlap, who joined the team early in camp and has done fine so far in getting to know Spagnuolo’s system. From our last projection, this group has had the biggest increase on the roster in terms of expectations for the season. Clark, an eight-year veteran, has rededicated himself to his pass-rushing craft and appears to be regaining his 2016-19 form, when he was considered one of the league’s stars at this position. In his full-time return to his natural position, Jones has been dominant as an interior pass rusher, which he displayed Saturday with a sack of Bears quarterback Justin Fields.

Karlaftis, the rookie defensive end who was selected in the first round, produced a dazzling preseason debut, as he recorded two quarterback hits and a sack. The Chiefs have been impressed with Karlaftis’ rapid progress in camp. The arrival of Dunlap removes Joshua Kaindoh, the second-year defensive end, from this projection. Kaindoh hasn’t shown clear improvement from last year and he didn’t record a statistic Saturday despite playing 38 defensive snaps. Saturday’s game did include strong snaps from Stallworth, who recorded half of a sack, and Saunders, who had an impressive tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

With two preseason games left, the battle for the 10th D-line spot, if available, is between Kaindoh, Malik Herring and Azur Kamara. Herring recorded the other part of the sack with Stallworth, and Kamara generated impressive pressure in Saturday’s game.

Linebacker (6): Nick Bolton, Willie Gay, Elijah Lee, Leo Chenal, Jermaine Carter Jr., Darius Harris

The most improved player in this group is Gay, who has started to blend his freakish athleticism with proper instincts to be a sweeper in the intermediate area of the field. Bolton is now considered a full-fledged leader by everyone in the unit and he could lead the team in tackles for the second consecutive season. Based on experience and his skills, Lee is set to be the starting strongside linebacker in Spagnuolo’s base package. The benefit for Lee, Chenal, Carter and Harris is that they are all reliable players on special teams, which coordinator Dave Toub needs since he is replacing six four-phase members from last season.

Chenal also appears to be a tackling machine. He was impressive in Saturday’s game while generating a team-high seven stops, including two behind the line of scrimmage. Harris, a three-year veteran, was not on the previous projection, but he is a solid player on defense and special teams.

Cornerbacks (6): L’Jarius Sneed, Rashad Fenton, Trent McDuffie, Chris Lammons, Joshua Williams, Jaylen Watson

Well, this is quite the youth movement, right? Three rookie cornerbacks is a lot for Spagnuolo, who would rather develop young players slowly instead of relying on them in September and October. But all three players — McDuffie, Williams and Watson — have the goods when it comes to talent and the ability to apply new techniques in coverage. Another strong trait for the trio is that they are all good tacklers in the open field. Watson, who was selected in the seventh round, started emerging in the second half of camp, and he was an adequate defender against the Bears.

Including Watson means that Lonnie Johnson is in danger of losing his roster spot, especially since Lammons, a three-year veteran, is an exceptional player on special teams. In early May, the Chiefs executed a small trade with the Houston Texans to acquire Johnson, a four-year veteran, in exchange for a conditional seventh-round pick. But similar to his time in camp, Johnson played Saturday’s game with the third-team defense.

Safeties (4): Justin Reid, Juan Thornhill, Bryan Cook, Deon Bush

No changes here, which should satisfy Spagnuolo. Reid and Thornhill are the expected starters. The third safety role appears to belong to Cook, who has been impressive in camp. Cook, a rookie selected in the second round, and Bush, a six-year veteran, can be quality contributors on special teams. Both players should be valuable to Spagnuolo since they’re capable of being a better defender than Daniel Sorensen was last season.

Special teams (3*)

Kicker (1): Harrison Butker
Punter (1): Tommy Townsend
Long snapper (1): James Winchester
Emergency kicker (1*): Justin Reid

The entire kicking battery is back this season. Winchester is one of the longest-tenured Chiefs and is also one of the league’s steadiest long snappers. Butker, a six-year veteran, appears to be in position to earn his first Pro Bowl selection.

The newest member of the group is Reid, the Chiefs’ biggest acquisition in free agency for more than just one reason. Reid is one of the leaders of the defense, and he has earned the role of emergency kicker after he successfully made an extra-point kick in Saturday’s game. Often, the emergency kicker is the punter. But Reid has a strong enough right leg and foot to make a 50-yard field goal.

(Photo of Justin Watson after a catch: Jamie Sabau / USA Today)

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