Chiefs mailbag: Finding the impact players in 2016 draft class

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With the 2016 NFL Draft in the rearview mirror, the latest edition of the mailbag addresses questions on the Chiefs’ draft class and undrafted free agents as the team prepares for rookie minicamp, which runs May 7-9.

Good question when considering the Chiefs added nine players (five on defense, four on offense) through the draft.

The Chiefs’ foundation is relatively intact from the past season, and many of this year’s drafted players will compete for a coveted spot on the initial 53-man roster.

Oct. 24, 2015; Cincinnati; Cincinnati offensive lineman Parker Ehinger (78) during the second half against Connecticut at Nippert Stadium. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Oct. 24, 2015; Cincinnati; Cincinnati offensive lineman Parker Ehinger (78) during the second half against Connecticut at Nippert Stadium. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

A drafted player isn’t guaranteed a roster spot and wide receiver Da’Ron Brown is an example from 2015. The Chiefs used a seventh-round on Brown before waiving him on final roster cuts. He eventually signed to the practice squad.

Of this year’s draft class, perhaps the first four players selected – defensive lineman Chris Jones, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, offensive lineman Parker Ehinger and cornerback Eric Murray – have the best opportunity to crack the roster because the Chiefs have pressing needs for depth at those positions.

The Chiefs under general manager John Dorsey have a tendency to draft for the future and the selection of Jones follows the blueprint when considering Dontari Poe plays the 2016 season in a fifth-year option and could be an unrestricted free agent in 2017. Additionally, Jaye Howard signed a two-year contract in March to return to Kansas City.

The 6-6, 310-pound Jones should be given every opportunity to get plenty of work throughout the summer with a view to contribute as part of the defensive line rotation.

Russell and Murray should be in the mix early to compete for playing time, as Phillip Gaines, who returns from an ACL injury, may not return to the practice field until the start of training camp. And with Sean Smith now with the Oakland Raiders, the Chiefs also need to identify a starter alongside Marcus Peters.

Ehinger, a versatile offensive lineman capable of playing guard and tackle, could find himself in the middle of the competition for the open left guard position.

As for the remaining picks:

• Wide receiver Demarcus Robinson joins a crowded situation with the Chiefs currently having 11 wideouts on the roster;
• Quarterback Kevin Hogan has to overtake Aaron Murray and Tyler Bray because the Chiefs aren’t likely to carry four signal callers into the regular season;
Outside of the controversy surrounding his selection, running back Tyreek Hill will need to shine as a returner on special teams;
• Cornerback D.J. White must take full advantage of repetitions because the Chiefs used two earlier draft picks at cornerback;
• Outside linebacker Dadi Nicolas has a lot of competition for playing time in front of him and his role depends on overtaking the players in front of him and perhaps Justin Houston’s health.

The road for an undrafted free agent to survive roster cuts and make the 53-man roster is a tough one, but far from impossible, especially with the Chiefs.

A lot of players began their careers as undrafted free agents to become major contributors for the Chiefs, with notables from the 2015 season including safety Ron Parker, running back Charcandrick West, inside linebacker Josh Mauga, wide receiver Albert Wilson, safety Daniel Sorensen, kicker Cairo Santos and long snapper James Winchester, among others.

Still, wait for training camp before asking if any of this year’s undrafted free agents have a chance.

While it is easy to get caught up with players during organized team activities (OTAs), which begins May 24, remember that it can be deceiving because there is no contact and players go through practice without pads.

The true test arrives in training camp with players fighting for jobs are expected to perform when full-contact drills begin. Inside linebacker Justin March is a prime example of a player who quietly flew under the radar during OTAs, but emerged as a hitting machine in camp.

For now, Kevin Hogan gives the Chiefs a fourth quarterback ahead of training camp.

But the team’s fifth-round pick of the 2016 draft certainly comes with upside when considering his college career at Stanford, where he amassed a 36-10 record as a starter.

While Hogan has experience in a pro-style offense, the Chiefs’ offensive system is complex and he joins a group of signal callers already fully acclimated to the scheme.

Alex Smith, who turns 32 on May 7, has three years remaining on his contract and is firmly entrenched as the starter. The Chiefs have another fifth-round pick in Aaron Murray, who was selected in the 2014 draft, and are high on Tyler Bray, who signed a two-year extension last summer.

The Chiefs must identify Smith’s primary backup with Chase Daniel now in Philadelphia, but Hogan’s biggest obstacles to the final 53-man roster are Murray and Bray.

Hogan shouldn’t have a huge issue learning the system given his Stanford education, but he will need to show on the field during OTAs and training camp that he is a clear better option than Murray or Bray.

The Chiefs have an opening at left guard with Ben Grubbs and Paul Fanaika gone. And Matt Slauson, whom the Chicago Bears released on May 1, would provide a veteran presence.

That said, Slauson is 30 years old and the Chiefs have capable options to consider on the current roster with Jah Reid, Zach Fulton, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Jarrod Pughsley, among others.

Also keep in mind the Chiefs used the first of three fourth-round picks on offensive lineman Parker Ehinger, who can play tackle or guard.

The Chiefs also signed Jake Bernstein as an undrafted free agent. Bernstein started 35 games at left guard at Vanderbilt.

Wide receiver De’Anthony Thomas, who finished the 2015 season on the non-football illness list, has been with the team since the offseason workout program began.

The first chance the media will have to catch up with Thomas is the start of OTAs, but general manager John Dorsey provided an update on Thomas the week before the NFL Draft.

“He’s been in the building all week and he’s doing good,” Dorsey said on April 22.

The drafting of Tyreek Hill purely from a football perspective makes sense because the Chiefs are all about embracing competition. And there’s no guarantee running back Knile Davis, who has been the primary kickoff returner in past seasons, is in a Chiefs uniform when the regular season starts.

For his part, Davis, whose name has come up as being on the trade block, reported for the start of the voluntary offseason workout program and has continued to put in the work.

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Herbie Teope is the lead Chiefs beat writer for The Topeka Capital-Journal and ChiefsDigest.com. Use the contact page to reach him or find him on Twitter: @HerbieTeope.

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