KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs host the San Francisco 49ers at Arrowhead Stadium Friday night, and it’s the first opportunity for fans to watch this year’s rookie crop in live action as well as gauge the team’s strengths at various positions on the field.
Head coach said he expects each of his four quarterbacks to play about one quarter. The rotation starts with Alex Smith followed by Tyler Bray, Patrick Mahomes and Joel Stave.
Most eyes may fixate on the coming out party for Mahomes at quarterback but there are other preseason dramas to watch during the first preseason game.
Most of the preseason exists only for rookies and journeyman players fighting for a shot in the NFL, and that’s where most drama during games will be found. The names in the second half may not be as familiar and the football a little sloppy, but the competition is at its highest.
This is also the first opportunity to see the team’s draft picks in action, and that leaves plenty of reasons to watch the Chiefs this year. Mahomes likely makes his preseason debut late in the first half or opening the third quarter. Running back Kareem Hunt should see some first half action.
Linebacker Ukeme Eligwe, wide receiver Jehu Chesson and safety Leon McQuay should play in the second half. Defense lineman Tanoh Kpassagnon’s availability remains questionable. He sat out the team’s final practice with shin splints.
Other interesting rookies to watch in the second half include undrafted free agents such offensive lineman Damien Mama; cornerbacks Ashton Lampkin and J.R. Nelson; and wide receivers Marcus Kemp and Gehrig Dieter.
The only way to judge special teams comes in games, and that’s why coordinator Dave Toub will watch his squad intently. Don’t expect to see Tyreek Hill returning punts but do expect to see a lot of returns.
The Chiefs continuing searching for a full-time kick returner to spell Hill. Also be on the on watch for the gunner positions on the punt team in the first half. Key players on special teams have a leg up in position group battles for the final roster spots. Toub and Reid mine the wide receive group for special teams.
No position group on the roster stands more competitive than the inside linebacker group.
Derrick Johnson holds a guaranteed roster spot, assuming he’s healthy. Eligwe absolutely makes the team as well thanks to his long-term upside and special teams value. The Chiefs also recently acquired Kevin Pierre-Louis from Seattle in exchange for D.J. Alexander. The team is high on Pierre-Louis, and he likely makes the team as well.
The Chiefs carry four other inside linebackers, all of whom have played a role for the team the past two seasons.
Josh Mauga entered last year’s training camp as the incumbent starter alongside Johnson until a hip injury ended his season. Justin March-Lillard and Ramik Wilson waged a training camp battle for the starting role.
Wilson and Terrance Smith both hit the waiver wire prior to the season opener and returned to the club on the practice squad. Both players started during the season following a series of injuries.
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton continues using training camp to mix and match his linebackers, trying to find the best chemistry. Look for the pattern to continue Friday night. The order and rotation may not indicate much in week one of the preseason but should yield more clues in the next few games.
The Chiefs know Marcus Peters and Steven Nelson rank as their top two corners but after that the depth chart gets fuzzy.
Terrance Mitchell continues recovering from a hamstring injury. That leaves an opportunity for Phillip Gaines to show his value.
The club then has a group of young but unproven secondary defenders that need testing. D.J. White, Kenneth Acker and De’Vante Bausby face a challenge from even younger corners. J.R. Nelson, Ashton Lampkin and Trevon Hartfield have shined at moments. The Chiefs likely keep at most six corners, and might only keep five.
Almost every wide receiver looks fantastic in training camp when the hits don’t pack a punch. The Chiefs have a lot of pass catchers looking spectacular in rehearsals, now they must show they can shine with the lights on them.
Tyreek Hill and Chris Conley should not see much action, but Demarcus Robinson, Seantavius Jones and Jehu Chesson should see plenty of snaps and need to make the most of them.
How the team deploys De’Anthony Thomas and Albert Wilson also might tip where they fall on the depth chart. If the veterans don’t play much, that suggests their roster spots are firm. But if they lot a lot of time with the second and third teams, they may still have more to prove.
Kemp and Dieter have demonstrated an affinity with Mahomes and can make a case for the practice squad with strong preseason showings.