Camp Notebook: Position Battle for Backup Tight End Starts on Day One for Chiefs

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — At times it might have seemed that the first day of Chiefs training camp was simply a tryout for tight ends. After all, one in seven players attending the camp play the position with backup roles behind All-Pro Travis Kelce on the line.

“We've got to come out with tight ends out of this, and they know they have opportunities,” head coach Andy Reid said after practice on Wednesday.

Six of the seven tight ends on the roster reported to camp early. That includes Kelce, who participated in his first practice since offseason ankle surgery. Veteran free agent Blake Bell also arrived early, joined by youngsters Deon Yelder, David Wells, John Lovett and Nick Keizer. Only fifth-year pro Neal Sterling, who signed with the club last month, doesn't arrive until Friday.

Undrafted rookie Jody Fortson, who played tight end at Valdosta State, cuirrently scrimmages with wide receivers.

It's a pitched battle already, and that's fine with Reid. While the roster leans on youth over experience, Reid said it's deepest the team has been at the position in recent camps.

“They've got to compete and support it out,” Reid said. “They've got somebody with Kelce that's been there and they can talk and see how it's done. And Kelce is good with sharing that stuff along obviously with Tom Melvin coaching.”

Kelce took on a role as a player-coach during the offseason as he rehabbed from ankle surgery, He sees talent in the young group challenging to fill the void left by Demetrius Harris, who left the club via free agency during the offseason.

“The best thing is that all these guys are willing to work and their willing to learn,” Kelce said. “D-Harris, we're going to miss him. He was a hell of a player. We're going to need some guys to step up, but at the same time we've got unbelievable players here.”

The first three days of camp typically serve as a refresher for rookies while allowing quarterback and veterans returning from injuries to shake off some rust, so it's less frenetic than a usual practice.

That's particularly true for the Chiefs this year, who have just three defensive linemen and two linebackers available for duty.

“My defense, they were about one-deep there,” Reid said. “We took breaks periodically there just to make sure that we didn't do anything too bad for them.”

Despite the shorthanded lineup, the Chiefs did execute a seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 periods that left the quarterbacks facing a lot of dime defensive looks for all intents and purposes. Rookie defensive back Herb Miller, filling in at linebacker, intercepted a Chad Henne pass bobbled by running back Marcus Marshall. Linebacker Raymond Davison jumped a Patrick Mahomes pass intended for tight Deon Yelder for an interception. Davison spent training camp with the Chiefs last season and signed with the club's practice squad midway through the season.

Mahomes, naturally, delivered the throw of the day, a red-zone lazer that zipped through the end zone on the back shoulder of Yelder for a touchdown. That came during a streak of three-straight red-zone touchdown throws for Mahomes, with the other two going to Cody Thompson and Jamal Custis.

Mahomes and wide receiver Davon Grayson also teamed up for a big play, a deep throw down the left side. Grayson showed strong tracking skills in hauling in the pass, then stopped and changed directions on a dime to avoid a defender.

Thornhill Settling in at Safety

Among Chiefs rookies, safety Juan Thornhill appears to most likely to seize a starting role out of the gate in his first season. General manager Brett Veach praised Thornhill for his versatility on draft night, and so far the team is testing him at multiple positions.

“I’ve been playing a bunch of safety spots right now,” Thornhill said. “But like I said, I will step in and play any position that they need me to play like if I need to play nickel, safety, corner, it really doesn’t matter. I’ll just step in and do what I have to do to help the team.”

Thornhill already sees an advantage in his favor “practicing against the MVP every single day,” in Mahomes.

“I've never seen guys throw a ball that's not even looking at his receivers, so it's going to make me a lot better when I can read the quarterback's eyes instead of trying to play against Pat when he's looking this way and throwing that way,” Thornhill said. “That's definitely going to help me out a lot.”

Fans attending training camp in St. Joseph might notice a few new wrinkles, particularly during defensive drills under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his staff. But according to Reid, none of the changes are due to the NFL's new prohibition on dangerous drills.

The league's owners voted in May to ban drills including the Oklahoma Drill and the Bull in the Ring along with two others based on safety recommendations. Reid said the Chiefs haven't been using any of the banned drills in recent seasons.

“We don't do any of that stuff that they talked about, so that was easy for us,” Reid said.

Only defensive end Tim Ward (knee) and linebacker Darius Harris (shoulder) did not practice.

Kelce (ankle) and Erving (shoulder) practiced for the first time after siting out offseason practices following surgery.

42: Number of players participating in the first practice of training camp designed for quarterbacks, rookies and players returning from injury. That includes all four quarterbacks, veteran tight ends Travis Kelce and Blake Bell and offensive lineman Cam Erving. A total of 35 rookies and other first-year players based on service time are in camp.

“It's hard to explain. You think you're going to make a play and the ball goes over there and you went this way. I'm just like, 'You got me again.' That's all I can say.”

– Safety Juan Thornhill on how it feels defending a no-look pass from Mahomes in practice

What's Next?

The Chiefs hold another closed practice for early reporting group starting at 8:40 a.m. Thursday morning. The workout expects to last about an hour and 40 minutes.

The remaining 49 players on the roster who haven't reported to camp are due to check in Friday. It remains to be seen if defensive lineman Chris Jones will be among that group.

The first practice open to the public takes place at 3:30 p.m., Saturday, July 27. Admission for the first practice is $5 for attendees over age 3. Missouri Western also charges $5 for parking. A team autograph session takes place after practice.